Wednesday, February 28, 2018

"Taken at the Flood"

If, as Shakespeare wrote, there are multiple paths to greatness, the same can also be said of the different ways base ball players get started on the road to the major leagues.  In the case of  Edward "The Only" Nolan, the first of the Olympic players to leave Paterson, it was the chance to pitch when the club's regular pitcher was absent.  Nolan took full advantage of the opportunity and after two productive years with the Olympics, eventually reached the majors with Indianapolis in 1878.  Kelly, Purcell and McCormick spent less time in an Olympic's uniform with William "Blondie" Purcell apparently having the least success in Paterson.  In the starting lineup early in the 1876 season, Purcell earned more newspaper ink for poor play than good.  He dropped out of the Olympic lineup, only to surface with the Port Jervis club for the 1877 season and arrived in the major leagues in 1879 with Syracuse.  Both Mike "King" Kelly and Jim McCormick, the two destined for the most major league success, did a brief stint with the Olympics at the end of the 1875 season and Kelly earned a place in the starting lineup for 1876, a position he would hold all season.  McCormick, however, spent most of the 1876 season laboring for the Star Club, one of Paterson's numerous lower level teams.

McCormick's efforts didn't go unnoticed, however, especially a August 13, 1876 performance against the Olympics which led the Paterson Daily Guardian to praise his "very effective" pitching and comment it would be no surprise "if he should at some day prove a second Nolan" - high praise indeed.  Less than a week later, McCormick, like Nolan, got his chance when O'Brien, the Olympics' regular pitcher was unavailable due to a sore arm.  The young pitcher took full advantage of the opportunity defeating the Alaska Club of New York, supposedly the "strongest nine in New York City," reinforcing the Guardian's belief that with "proper support, he may claim to be as effective as Nolan."  That performance along with O'Brien's ongoing arm problems allowed McCormick to continue as the club's starting pitcher.  With McCormick now joining Kelly on the Olympics, the stage was set for a three game visit by Nolan's new club, the Columbus Buckeyes in September.  Nolan himself, was reportedly very anxious that "his club should come" and the Olympics agreed to meet the Buckeye's demand for a financial guarantee. 

Jim McCormick - New York Clipper - May 20, 1882

On Saturday, September 16th, the Buckeye's arrived at the Paterson depot, met by a crowd of 2-300 people generating "almost as much excitement as a visit from the president of the United States."  Naturally, Nolan was the "observed of all observers" as the Columbus club settled into their rooms at the Franklin House.  After what must have seemed like an endless Sabbath, the Daily Guardian said that "Broadway, Market Street and every other thoroughfare" on the way to the field resembled "a sort of jubilee or picnic day" before Monday's game.  A thousand lucky fans crammed themselves into the grounds while an equal number took full advantage of "trees, knotholes, railroad cars and etc."  Although Columbus got off to an early 2-0 lead, the Olympics tied it in the sixth and took a 4-2 lead after seven only to see the Buckeyes tie it at 4-4 in the eighth.  When both teams failed to score in the ninth, the game ended in a 4-4 tie since Columbus had to leave for a game in Binghamton before returning to Paterson for the final two games of series.  McCormick allowed seven hits, but the Guardian said the majority were not clean hits. While the paper praised Nolan's performance, it also claimed McCormick was every much his equal so that "Paterson has furnished two of the best amateur pitchers in the country."  "Amateur" was clearly a relative term.

Paterson about 1870

After a hurried round trip to Binghamton the Buckeyes returned to Paterson on the morning of the 20th for the second game of the series that very afternoon, a contest, the Guardian praised as "the finest game ever played in this vicinity."  McCormick was even more impressive this time, shutting out Columbus for eight innings only to be undone by Olympic errors that allowed the visitors to tie the game at 4-4 at which point it was called for darkness.  Showing his competitiveness, the paper reported McCormick "weeps and refuses to be comforted," but his performance after Columbus tied the game demonstrated beyond any doubt that he was destined for bigger things.  The Buckeyes had the winning run on third with no one out, doubtless thinking they were going to pull of a dramatic come from behind win.  McCormick would have none of it, striking out the next two hitters before retiring the final batter on a harmless fly ball.  Even though both games had ended in a tie, anyone not impressed with McCormick wasn't paying attention.  Although McCormick justifiably got most of the attention, Kelly and Nolan were waging their own personal duel.  After Nolan held his former teammate hit less in the first game, "the irrepressible Kelly" broke through in the second game supposedly allowing him to stand "several feet higher than usual."

New York Clipper - September 30, 1876

With one game left in the series, the Olympics had everything, but a victory and McCormick made sure the club didn't waste their last opportunity.  After allowing a run in the first inning, the Paterson pitcher shut out the Buckeyes the rest of the way for a 3-1 Olympic win the Daily Guardian justly believed was "a victory to be proud of and one that will be long remembered."  Kelly also "built his resume" with one of the fair/foul hits which he was reportedly "famous." That night a large crowd saw the Columbus team off at the depot on the 8:00 express to Binghamton, giving the visitors three cheers.  The Buckeye's more than returned the compliment, saying that the Olympics were the best "semi-professional nine" they had played over the course of their 60 game schedule.  While McCormick remained in Paterson to finish out the season, the following spring, he joined Nolan to give Columbus an all Paterson pitching staff, the first step on the way to a long and successful major league career. Although his stay with the Olympics was briefer than his teammates, the club had given him the best possible stage to display his skills and the big right hander seized the opportunity.  It was, as Shakespeare put it, a tide "taken at the flood."

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Paterson - A Cradle for the Major Leagues

Although Paterson was New Jersey's third largest city, base ball took root more slowly there than in the state's other urban centers.  The first noteworthy team in Alexander Hamilton's model city was the Olympic Club which was formed in 1864 and competed primarily against mid-level New Jersey and New York clubs.  Perhaps the most interesting games played by the first incarnation of the Olympics were three 1866 contests against the Irvington Club, the same year that upstart club burst on to the national scene.  While it was no surprise the Irvington team won the first game, the 77-9 margin was more than a little extreme no matter how great the talent disparity.  When the return game was played in Paterson, however, surprise and egg was on the face of the Irvington team after the Olympic Club won 20-16, surely one of the largest turnarounds in base ball history.  In the end, however, talent prevailed when the Irvington Club won the third and deciding game, played as part of a tournament at the Sussex County Fair in Newton.

Alexander Hamilton - founder of Paterson

Perhaps trying to make up for lost time, base ball  exploded in Paterson the following year, and not just the New York game, but also a revival of an older bat and ball game.  So many teams took up this other form, they could have formed a vintage base ball league, 19th century style.  Regardless of the kind of game being played, however, things were apparently taken to an extreme, since in early 1869 the Paterson Press claimed too much base ball (the very idea) had hurt business in what was after all, the country's first planned industrial city.  Part of the fall out was the disbanding of the Olympic Club which seemed destined to be just one more club that "struts and frets its hour upon the stage and then is heard no more."  In this case, however, there was a very different outcome.  Early in the 1874 season after some Olympic Club players came together for a game against the Hewitt Club of Ringwood, it was announced the Paterson team was going to be reorganized.  While this was hardly the first time a club was resurrected, in this case the results would prove to be very much out of the ordinary.  At some point, in some form, I hope to devote more time to the second incarnation of the Olympic Club, but for the moment, I want to use this and the next post to look at two aspects of the story .

Mike "King" Kelly's Hall of Fame Plaque

What was so special about the second coming of the Olympic Club?  Readers of this blog will perhaps recall that in the early 1870's, the Paterson team helped develop four players who went on to play in the major leagues.  Most noteworthy was Mike "King" Kelly, reputedly the game's first matinee idol and a future member of the Hall of Fame.  Based on performance, second place goes to Jim McCormick who won 265 games over a ten year major league career and is considered by some as worthy of the Hall.  Far less successful on the field was Edward "The Only" Nolan, but who is remembered for both his colorful nickname and his more than a little erratic personality.  More successful on the field, but apparently less colorful off was William "Blondie" Purcell who has the dubious distinction of being one of the few major league players whose death date and final resting place is unknown. By 1880, they were all on major league rosters, so that four out of a total of just over 100 available major league positions were filled by players not only from one city, but one semi-pro team.  In this post, I'm going to explore some reasons for the Olympic Club' success in developing players and in the second examine in more detail how Jim McCormick got his start on the way to the majors.

Paterson in 1880 - most of the buildings in this picture were destroyed in the great fire in 1902

Considering how little information typically survives about 19th century players, it's little surprise we usually know even less about the "backers," the non-players who as the officers and directors of the club, were responsible for the off the field activities that contribute to on the field success.   In this case, however, we know enough to say that the Olympic Club was extremely fortunate to have competent leadership.  Especially noteworthy are two of the 1875 officers, club president Doctor John Quin and secretary, William St. Lawrence.  Quin was one of the city's leading physicians and had just begun almost 20 years of service as a city alderman.  Not only did Quin have leadership skills, more importantly, he had prior experience as an Olympic Club president so he understood the club's past problems.  St. Lawrence, who would go on to become a lawyer, was a recent graduate of Seton Hall College where he had been on the base ball team and was also familiar with the operations of a base ball club.  Under their leadership, the club made two important decisions at the outset.

William St. Lawrence in later life

Recognizing the players had to support themselves financially, the leadership decided the players would be paid by the club for time missed from work for games and/or practice.  To that end, a group of supporters made small investments in the club which were supplemented by gate receipts.  Equally important were the decisions they made about the club's schedule.  Although they wisely did not join the National Association or regularly play that league's top clubs, they chose to play a very competitive schedule.  During the three year period from 1874-1876, the Olympic Club played the top New Jersey teams, both home and away as well as the best amateur/semi pro clubs in New York and Brooklyn. In addition the team made trips to New York state both to relatively nearby Port Jervis and an extended visit to play their peers in Binghamton, Syracuse and Rochester.  Paterson's favorable location on the Erie Railroad line was helpful in this regard  In addition, as we shall see in the next post, the Olympics also invited some higher level clubs to Paterson so the Olympic players not only played against good competition, but also played in games where their performance would be noticed.  The club's schedule helped the players both to improve and to come under the watchful eye of those who could help them move up the baseball ladder.

Edward "The Only" Nolan (standing third from the left) as a member of the Indianapolis Club in 1877

Financial assistance as well as the opportunity to showcase their skills were important factors in the development of Paterson's future major league players, but the club also offered potential guidance from those with prior professional experience.  Another of the resurrected club's directors was Milton Sears who had played for professional clubs in Ohio in the late 1860's.  Another Olympic player with professional experience was the fascinating Jim Foran, someone definitely worthy of further study.  Reportedly from Paterson, Foran may have set a record for revolving (jumping from team to team) by playing for three teams in the space of two weeks in August of 1868. He played for the Olympics in 1875 and would eventually accompany Nolan on some of his journeys throughout the base ball world. Another director, Arthur Fitzgerald, was also an important adviser to the young players since Kelly and McCormick, especially at the beginning of their careers, supposedly wouldn't sign a contract without first consulting Fitzgerald. None of these factors helped the four men to hit or throw a curve ball, but certainly contributed to their success in reaching the major leagues.  In the next post, we'll look at how Jim McCormick took full advantage of a three-game audition in front of the home fans.