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.

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