Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Email - 1867 Style

In about three weeks, Brad "Brooklyn" Shaw, esteemed president of the Flemington Neshanock, will reach for his trusty iPad and prepare a message informing the Neshanock players of the date, time and location of the club's first 2018 match along other sundry information.  Then with just a touch of his finger, the message will effortlessly take flight traveling over at least two states to every team member who will equally effortlessly retrieve it and, hopefully, not quite as effortlessly, read it.  Brad will repeat this action probably 25 times over the course of the season as will other vintage club leaders ranging from Maine to Florida and New Jersey to California .  Since the Neshanock were founded in 2002, my guess is that Brad has always been able to take advantage of this sophisticated, but highly user friendly means of communication.  Any vintage clubs that existed before email had to rely on such old fashioned communication tools as the telephone, still convenient, but not without effort.  Trust me, I know, since as a college basketball manager, I once had to phone an entire basketball team reminding them of the first practice of the new semester.

Probably like everyone who is reading this, I had never given a thought to how 19th century clubs communicated with their members, but one day last fall I unexpectedly received very tangible evidence of how it worked.  The information came to me by means of an email (again with the email) from Jean Walton, the secretary of the New Jersey Postal History Society, asking for help with an article for their quarterly journal about some items Don Bowe, one of their members, had purchased.  Included was the above postal cover (envelope) addressed to J. Winner, Jr., at 150 West Street in New York City.  Inside the cover were three identical slips of paper like the one below announcing that the Bergen Base Ball Club would have its opening game on May 27, 1867 at 3:00 with the first nine playing the field (whoever else shows up).  On the reverse side of one of the slips was a note asking John (obviously J. Winner Jr.) to deliver the enclosed notices.  Like the three game announcements, the note was signed by JHW, corresponding secretary.  Jean was looking for help explaining what this was all about and I was fortunately well positioned to provide some assistance.

At the time, Bergen was an independent Hudson County municipality which was incorporated into Jersey City in 1870.   Winner, it turned out was a Jersey City resident, apparently working at 150 West Street in New York, probably as an accountant, his occupation on the 1870 census.  The other two copies were intended for S. Mills and James Hill, but searches for the two men proved fruitless probably because of the very common last names.  JHW, however, was a far simpler proposition because contemporary newspaper articles identified one J. H. Westervelt as the corresponding secretary of the Bergen Club.  J.H. Westervelt is most likely, John H. Westervelt, a retail cash merchant who a year later would be elected treasurer of the State Base Ball Association.  Box scores for three Bergen Club games in 1867 list both Westervelt and Mills in lineup, but it looks like Hill either didn't make the first nine or dropped out for some other reason. 

Again, I had never considered how club leaders communicated with their players in that technologically limited age.  Perhaps its symbolic of how little thought is given to the behind the scenes work that was involved in operating these 19th century base ball clubs.  Not only did the corresponding secretary have to communicate with players and others, a recording secretary had to keep minutes and presumably club membership records while the treasurer had to do all the financial work regardless of the relatively small amounts of money.  Someone also had to handle potentially complicated issues such as finding a place for practice and matches, ordering uniforms and other equipment, not to mention arranging transportation for away games.  Having spent most of the past 40 years working with not-for-profits as both a volunteer and staff, I know full well the work involved and how the inability to find volunteers willing and able to take on these jobs can put the whole organization at risk.  That may help explain why some clubs were short lived and demonstrate the importance of the unknown and unsung figures who helped keep these early club alive so base ball could grow into the national pastime.

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