Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Off Season - What Off Season?

In the last post, I wrote that contrary to some well known expressions of regret about the end of the baseball season, I'm grateful for the off-season.  That's partially because for me, there's no shortage of baseball activity throughout the fall and winter.  If there were any doubts on that score, they were erased the day after the Neshanock's 2022 season ended.  Not 24 hours after the final games were rained out, two emails came in about next season.  First, was the expected invitation to participate in the 2023 Gettysburg Nineteenth Century Baseball Festival which was immediately accepted.  The other, however, came from left field (not sure why left is any more obscure than center or right).  It was an invitation to play a match in April of 2023 at the Fosterfields Living History Farm near Morristown, New Jersey which was also quickly accepted.  This was the first communication from Fosterfields since a 2020 match was wiped out by the pandemic so while welcome, the invitation was something of a surprise.   


Hamilton Club of Jersey City Scorecard - Courtesy Jersey City Public Library

The early 2023 invitations provided the motivation to get started on the rest of the schedule which has been one of my two major off-season activities.  This is my fourth go-round on schedule making and while it's going well, finding opponents has been a major challenge. It's hard to know the reason, but it's likely a combination of teams cutting back on both travel and the number of matches they play.  Certainly those factors have impacted planning the Neshanock schedule.  The reality is that the players are volunteers and where and how often they are willing to play has to be taken into account.  One thing that helps with the Neshanock schedule is the number of repeat events that have proven popular with players and spectators.  As a result, in 2023, Flemington will, among others, return to Ringwood Manor State Park, Howell Living History Farm, Princeton, New Bridge Landing and the Dey Farm. 


Gebhardt Field Clinton - Courtesy John Bohnel

Some new and relatively new venues are also on tap for next year.  In the latter category is historic Gebhardt Field in Clinton, NJ with its covered, wooden grandstand.  Last year's visit went so well the Neshanock will return for two dates to play the Atlantic Club of  Brooklyn and the Brandywine Club from Pennsylvania.  New on the schedule will be a three team event at Smithville Park in Burlington County and a visit to Lambertville, NJ.  How the Lambertville game will work is still being developed, but one possibility is recreating the day the local Logan Club took on the Athletic Club of Philadelphia, one of the country's best teams.  That option will require some creativity, but given the potential for promoting local baseball history, the possibility will receive full consideration.  While not yet finalized, the schedule is almost complete and should be released in early January - stay tuned.


Greenway Meadows Park Princeton - Photo by Kelly Prioli

The second major off-season project has been the scorebook.  Many years ago, Brad "Brooklyn" Shaw urged me to research and recreate a contemporary scorebook for the Neshanock.  The end product was a replica of Henry Chadwick's 1868 book which has served us well.  I've come to realize though that as a reporter, Chadwick needed far more information than a team does.  Since we need a new scorebook for 2023, I went back to the sources to look more closely at what the teams themselves used. There were a few possibilities, but in the end, the book or scoresheet used by the Hamilton Club of Jersey City (1857-1860) not  only meets our needs, but also provides some flexibility unavailable in Chadwick's version.  Special thanks to John Beekman and the Jersey City Public Library for sharing the original. Coincidentally, some other vintage clubs have expressed interest so the new version may be available to other teams as well.


Ringwood Manor State Park - Photo by Mark Granieri

So while there's been a break from fielding a team, planning batting orders and defensive rotations, not to mention traveling hither and yon almost every weekend, there's been no shortage of Neshanock related work.  Baseball history research also continues including a second look at early baseball in New Jersey that should produce some 2023 blog content.  As always there are far more interesting topics than there are days (and nights) to work on, but that's better than the alternative.  I'm not sure exactly when the first 2023 post will appear, but in the interim best wishes to everyone for the holidays and all of next year.  And above all, thank you for taking the time to read this blog.


Thursday, November 3, 2022

"To Everything There is a Season"

There is no shortage of memorable lamentations about the end of the baseball season.  Speaking for the players, Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, when asked how he spent the offseason, said "I stare out the window and wait for spring."  Equally melancholy was commissioner Bart Giamatti's claim that the season's end "breaks your heart."  Noble sentiments, but not ones I share, if for no other reason because of the concern that year-round baseball might lead us to take it for granted.  There is also something to be said for a time to reflect on and evaluate the past season, especially what was learned along the way.  And make no mistake, no matter how many years we do this, there's always something to be learned.   


The Neshanock's 2022 baseball journey

How do we evaluate a vintage baseball season?  Obviously the won-lost record matters, otherwise there's no reason to keep score. By that measure, the Neshanock's 15-9 record marked another successful season and was, interestingly enough, a repeat of the 2021 record.  This was the seventh straight season Flemington finished with a winning record, thanks in large part to another Neshanock trend, a strong second half of the season.  Over the past five seasons, the Neshanock's record after the Gettysburg event, the third weekend in July, is 35-14, a very impressive .714 winning percentage.  As was the case in the 1860s, the period the Neshanock recreate, there are no pennant races or championships, but playing well can be its own reward. 


A visit to Clinton's Historic Gebhardt Field was an early season highlight

As grateful as I am for another winning season that's not what I'll remember most about 2022.  What stands out are the highest participation levels in some time.  That's not to say there weren't some rough spots, particularly on overnight trips, but the important thing is to learn from those experiences when planning future schedules.  Far more important were the large turnouts for almost every other game to the point that at Delanco in mid-September, there were almost enough players to field two teams.  Ironically, given the problems with other overnight trips, the high point was Gettysburg where we had 15-16 players over the two day event.  That's especially noteworthy since the trip requires a commitment, not just of time, but money.


Dey Farm - one of the many picturesque venues to host Neshanock games - photo by Mark Granieri

Like all good things, high turnouts come with a challenge, in this case, arranging the batting order and fielding rotation.  Setting up the batting order isn't always easy, but it pales in comparison to figuring out how to divide nine innings in the field among 16 players. At Gettysburg, I was so wrapped up in the process, I didn't realize, until Brad "Brooklyn" Shaw pointed it out to me, how much everyone enjoyed the event. It was a reminder of what seemed to be a major theme of the 2022 season - the importance of having fun which may be easier to feel than define.  I think it's a combination of showing others how early baseball was played, playing well and, perhaps most importantly, doing so with those who share the same values.  Whatever the definition, it doesn't just happen so a similar experience in 2023 will once again require a team effort.  


Howell Living History Farm - photo by Mark Granieri

Reflecting on the 2022 season leads to not just the need, but the desire to thank all those who made it possible beginning with our opponents.  One realization that comes quickly when working on the schedule, is that finding opponents isn't as easy as it might seem.  So thanks to the teams who took the field with the Neshanock in 2022 especially the other four New Jersey vintage clubs - the Elizabeth Resolutes, the Hoboken Nine, Monmouth Furnance and the Liberty Club.  We hope to see you on the field again in 2023.  Baseball games also need umpires and we were once again fortunate to have Sam "It ain't nothing till I say" Bernstein work a number of our games.  Thanks also to the players who filled in when we had no alternative but to self-umpire.  It's not ideal, but sometimes necessary and fortunately no problems developed. 


Welcome to the newest Neshanock - Chelsea Lauren Nunn - born 10-18-22

In my mind, the Neshanock are as much a community as a team. Saying thank you to that community begins with our founder, Brad "Brooklyn" Shaw.  While he no longer lives locally, "Brooklyn" is always available with advice and sage counsel.  Even though it wasn't convenient, he came to a number of games and gave at least one presentation of "Casey at the Bat."  Once it again, it was a pleasure to work with field captain Chris "Lowball" Lowry and I hope we continue to do so for many years.  Originally I was tempted to thank all the players by name, but with almost 20 active Neshanock, a group thank you seems best.  I'm especially grateful for the high level of cooperation on the batting order, field positions and playing time.  One player who gets special mention is Mark "Gaslight" Granieri.  Not only he is one of the Neshanock's wily veterans, he is also the official blog photographer, fill-in blogger and, perhaps unfortunately, a one-time poet.

  


Always ready for action - photo by Mark Granieri

The Neshanock community also has plenty of members who make contributions off the field.  Of special note in 2022 were Kelly Prioli and Lauren Marchese Nunn.  At the first game, Kelly asked me if it was all right if she started a Neshanock Instagram page which I figured couldn't hurt.  Never did it occur to me that the page would attract 9500 followers and that some of Kelly's videos would generate millions of views.  Lauren once again provided depth at the photographer's position especially updated portraits of Neshanock players on our web site.  Special congratulations to Lauren and husband, Chris "Sideshow" Nunn on the arrival of Chelsea Lauren, the newest member of the Neshanock family.  Lastly thanks to all of the Neshanock spouses, girl friends, siblings, parents and significant others for your support.  Above all we deeply appreciate your willingness to allow us to spend time playing the game we love.  Let us hope we are all together again in 2023 for another fun-filled season.


 

  

Monday, October 3, 2022

Only a Game

Few lives are exempt from moments of defeat and disappointment.  All too frequently, those moments attract comments which, although well intended, usually make the situation worse. Just one example is telling someone dealing with romantic rejection that "It's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."  No matter how well meant, the sentiment gives little comfort or consolation.  The baseball equivalent is when after a heart-breaking loss, someone says "It's only a game."  Not only doesn't it help, there is the implication that games aren't important.  But that contradicts the very definition of a game as "a contest played to a definite result" - why play if the result doesn't matter?  There does, of course, have to be some perspective. The importance of games is relative - no vintage baseball game, for example, has any lasting significance, no matter how important it may have seemed at the time.  

 


Some games, however, are of great importance simply because of what's at stake.  Major league games that help decide pennants, playoffs and World Series are obviously at the top of the list.  When such games combine dramatic moments with record setting performances and controversy, they live on, not just in the memories of contemporary witnesses, but in baseball history.  Such games are rare, but there is even a more exclusive category within that already small group - games that have meaning beyond baseball itself.  One such game was played 75 years ago today at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn - the fourth game of the 1947 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers.

As baseball's biggest stage, the World Series is where the game's greatest stars are expected to shine the brightest.  One of the most interesting things about this 1947 game, however, is the stars were largely on the periphery while the supporting cast took centerstage. On that warm October afternoon, a player well past his prime, a pitcher with a losing record and a fill-in manager combined to give baseball one of its greatest games.  While all played their part, none of it would have happened without Bill Bevens, the Yankees starting pitcher.  John Drebinger of the New York Times, one of baseball's most respected writers, called Bevens "good without being lucky." Although the Yankee pitcher's had indeed suffered past misfortunes, such as eight, one run losses losses the prior season, this day would give new meaning to being unlucky.


Floyd "Bill" Bevens

Bevens had a losing record in 1947, but in this game, the Dodgers were helpless against his dominating repertoire of pitches, all working at maximum effectiveness.  Bevens' fastball and slider were "hopping like electrified atoms," while his curve was "breaking as if someone was snapping it off."  Jackie Robinson even claimed Bevens was throwing a pitch he (Robinson) had never seen before.  But in a bizarre twist of fate, worthy of Greek mythology, the gift of unhittable pitches came with the curse of being unable to control where they were going.  The result was equally bizarre.  Over the first eight innings Bevens held Brooklyn hitless, but walked eight, one of whom came around to score.


Hal Gregg

Had the Dodgers pitchers been as ineffective as they were in the first three games of the series, the only question, as the game headed to the ninth, would have been whether or not Bevens would pitch the first World Series no-hitter.  But an unlikely supporting player made sure much more was at stake.  At a loss for a starter for game four, Dodger manager Burt Shotton gambled on the injured Harry Taylor.  It proved to be a bad wager, since Taylor lasted only four batters, leaving the bases loaded with none out and one Yankee run across the plate.  With few options left, Shotton called on Hal Gregg and his 5.87 ERA.  Amazingly Gregg was more than equal to the task.  Not only did he escape the first inning without any additional damage, Gregg allowed only one additional run and after eight innings, the Yankees held a slim 2-1 lead.


One of the Dodgers "gilt-edged double plays" ends the Yankees first inning threat - St. Louis Post-Dispatch - October 4, 1947

After Gregg departed for a pinch hitter, his replacement, Hank Behrman got into trouble in the ninth when the Yankees loaded the bases with only one out.  With the ever dangerous Tommy Henrich coming up, Shotton brought in Hugh Casey, his top reliever.  The matchup was a repeat of the fourth game of the 1941 World Series, probably the worst Dodger moment at Ebbets Field.  On that day, Casey struck out Henrich for what should have been the final out in a Dodger victory.  But, as no Brooklyn fan will ever forget, Dodger catcher Mickey Owen couldn't come up with the ball and the Yankees rallied to win.  Certainly neither Casey or Henrich had forgotten even though they showed no emotion as they took their places.  Casey threw a low curve that he later described as "a perfect pitch."  "Old Reliable" hit it right back to Casey for an inning ending double play and just like that, on one pitch, the Yankee threat was over.


Dodger ace reliever Hugh Casey never put out a bigger fire than the one in the top of the ninth of game 4 of the 1947 World Series

If Bevens was going to make baseball history, not to mention help his team take command of the series, he had to make the 2-1 lead standup.  The Yankee hurler walked to the mound "full of sweat and hope."  Both were understandable, especially the former, since Bevens had already thrown over 120 pitches.  As he completed his warmup pitches, radio broadcaster, Red Barber felt an "almost breathless hush" throughout Ebbets Field.  If so, it didn't last long.  As Bruce Edwards stepped to the plate, "a might roar swept over the entire stands" and then "echoed over Bedford Avenue as if to the tell the world that a great event was taking place."

Although Edwards had struck out three straight times, the Dodger catcher hit a line drive that appeared "certain to hit the [left field] fence."  The blow brought a "mighty cheer" from the Dodger faithful, but Johnny Lindell made a "stretching grab" for the first out.  Next up was center fielder Carl Furillo, in the game only because Pete Reiser was injured.  Furillo took a strike, but Bevens again lost the plate throwing four straight balls for a record tying ninth walk.  Still needing two outs, Bevens faced Spider Jorgenson.  The Dodger third baseman swung at a 1-1 pitch and "fouled meekly" to first baseman George McQuinn.  The blow may have appeared "meek" to the writers in the press box, but it didn't lessen the pressure on the field.  According to Dick Young of the Daily News, McQuinn "was as white as a sheet as he made the catch."


Dodger manager Burt Shotton who regularly wore a warmup jacket over a suit in the Dodgers dugout

It was now "the 59th minute of the 11th hour" for the Dodgers.  Brooklyn manager Burt Shotton had few options, but he wasn't about to give up.  That Shotton was even in this position would have been hard to believe during spring training.  Just as the Dodgers were about to make Jackie Robinson a Brooklyn Dodger and take on baseball's long history of racism, manager Leo Durocher was suspended for the entire season for unrelated matters.  Shotton, whose prior managerial record was below .500, had only two things going for him - he was available and Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey trusted him.  The trust was rewarded with a National League pennant with Robinson playing a key role.  Shotton had a reputation of not being "afraid to make decisions" which was good because the situation called for aggressive measures.  Somehow a team that didn't have a hit all day, had to move the tying run from first to home.  


"Satchel Boy"

Trying to improve his team's chances, Shotton made two substitutions, first sending Al Gionfriddo to run for Furillo.  If there was ever a bit player on the Ebbets Field stage that day it was Gionfriddo.  He came from Pittsburgh in June as a throw-in in a trade that sent Kirby Higbee and four other Dodgers to the Pirates for $100,000. Writers cynically labeled Gionfriddo "satchel boy" because supposedly his only role in the trade was to carry the money from Pittsburgh to Brooklyn.  Although some writers predicted he would be quickly sent to the minors, Shotton "valued" Gionfriddo, especially for his speed, and kept him for "special assignments."  If there was ever a "special" moment this was it, but the move was still surprising since it was only the second time all season Gionfriddo had been called on to pinch run.

If Shotton's first substitution was surprising, his second move, sending Pete Reiser to pinch hit for Casey, suggested the Dodger manager was in denial.  Although Reiser hit .309 in 1947, the star-crossed Dodger had what was thought to be a badly sprained right ankle.  In fact, he had broken a bone in the ankle.  Reiser couldn't even stand on the foot during batting practice so he retreated to the locker room to soak it.  After returning to sit on the bench for the first three innings, he went back to the locker room, took off his uniform and soaked the ankle again. At this point Doc Wendler, the Dodger trainer, told him not to bother putting his uniform back on since he clearly couldn't play.  Unwilling to surrender to the pain, Reiser dressed and was back on the bench even though his ankle was reportedly the size of "a cantaloupe."

Exactly what Shotton said to Reiser isn't clear, but Shotton knew his star player always responded to a challenge and he somehow goaded  Reiser into volunteering to pinch hit.  As the injured Brooklyn slugger went up to the plate, the noise was so loud, it was impossible to hear him announced as a pinch hitter.  After taking ball one, Reiser fouled off Bevens' second offering with a "terrific lunge [that] brought him down to his knees." The effort was so painful "you could read the torture on [Reiser's] face."  Unable to take advantage, Bevens threw ball two.


Pete Reiser

With Reiser ahead 2-1 in the count, Shotton decided it was time to risk everything on one throw of the dice or rather on Gionfriddo's legs.  The Brooklyn manager gave the steal sign - the first of two of the most controversial managerial decisions in World Series history, both in the same inning.  Whatever the Brooklyn manager was thinking, his decision wasn't based on past performance since Gionfriddo had been thrown out on three of his five steal attempts during the season.  Standing near first, Gionfriddo was more than a little surprised.  Years later, he claimed "I couldn't believe my eyes.  If I get thrown out the game's over" which would give Bevens his no-hitter and Yankees command of the series.

Equally surprised, the crowd let out "a feverous screech" as Gionfriddo took off.  To make this "special assignment" even more difficult, Gionfriddo "slipped on the first step" and was sure he "was a dead duck" destined for World Series infamy.  Shotton, however, was counting/hoping that Yankee catcher Yogi Berra would continue his poor throwing and sure enough, the future Hall of Famer's throw was high. Shortstop Phil Rizzuto grabbed the ball and tagged Gionfriddo who slid head first trying to compensate for the bad start.  "For the briefest moment, all mouths snapped shut and all eyes stared at umpire Babe Pinelli.  Down went the umpire's palms" and Gionfriddo, not to mention the Dodgers, were still alive.  Rizzuto who was jumping "around like he had an electric shock," clearly disagreed.  No one was more relieved than Gionfriddo who claimed "any kind of throw would have had me."  Shotton, when asked later why he made a move which, if it failed, would have earned him a special place in Brooklyn baseball hell, simply said "I wanted him on second."


Yankee manager - Bucky Harris - "an eternal second guess target"

Reiser now had a hitter's 3-1 count, leaving Yankee manger Bucky Harris with three choices.  He could walk Reiser, knowing the Dodgers had no more left handed batters and that Eddie Stanky, the next hitter, had little power.  The second option was to replace Bevens with Joe Page, the Yankees star reliever who had warmed up earlier in the game.  With Bevens flirting with baseball history however, it was unthinkable to make that move.  Finally Harris could have had Bevens pitch to the obviously limited Reiser.  But that meant throwing the ball over the plate since anything out of the strike zone would walk Reiser anyway.  While the Brooklyn slugger was hampered by his right ankle, the other foot which he hit off was sound and ready to take advantage should Bevens groove one.  Harris never hesitated.  He ordered Bevens to put Reiser on first for the inning's second controversial decision.  In doing so, Harris violated baseball's unwritten rule of never putting the winning run on base and, as Dick Young observed, made himself "an eternal second guess target."  The walk was Bevens 10th setting a World Series record of dubious distinction.

Somehow Shotton had parlayed a seldom used bench warmer and a crippled slugger into managerial moves that put the tying and winning runs on base.  No sooner had Reiser limped to first than he was replaced by pinch runner Eddie Miksis.  By walking Reiser, Harris probably thought he was choosing to pitch to leadoff batter Eddie Stanky since Shotton had only pinch hit for Stanky once all year.  Although Stanky was no power hitter, he also wasn't an automatic out and had already broken up one no-hitter that season.  If Harris was surprised when Stanky was called back to the dugout, he wasn't the only one. Upon hearing Shotton call his name, Cookie Lavagetto thought he was running for Reiser and had to be told twice he was pinch hitting for Stanky.


Cookie Lavagetto

If it had been up to Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey, Lavagetto wouldn't even have been in the Brooklyn dugout.  Although he was a four time all-star, Rickey didn't believe Lavagetto, at 35, had much left to offer as a player.  Before the season, Rickey tried to convince Lavagetto to retire and become a manager in the Dodger farm system, but the veteran player believed he could still contribute.  The results were mixed, "the last of the [Dodger] old guard" hit just .261 in 69 at bats and was only slightly better as a pinch hitter.  The "swarthy complexioned veteran" did have a key pinch hit in a September game against the Cardinals, but was 0-10 since then including an unsuccessful pinch hit attempt in the first game of the series. 

Lavagetto entered a scene that was "beyond the final reach of any imagination."  "Women fans nervously patted their hair" while their male counterparts "clasped and unclasped their hands."  In the press box, even "the blasé sportswriters . . . sat on the edge of their chairs waiting to see something they [nor anyone else] had ever seen before."  The noise was so loud the crowd mike in the radio booth was turned off and Red Barber was told to get as close as possible to the microphone.  Keeping with the Yankees scouting report that Lavagetto had trouble with "hard stuff away," Bevens' first pitch was "slightly high and towards the outside."  Making the scouting report look good, Cookie "swung lustily" and "missed . . . by a full foot."  Lavagetto would later claim his problem was with inside pitches, not outside ones.

Now only two strikes away from baseball immortality, Bevens threw the second pitch in the same place, "harder if possible."  Lavagetto swung and drove the ball "on a low whistling line" toward the right field corner.  Since Lavagetto was more of a pull hitter, Yankee right fielder Tommy Henrich was positioned towards center field.  Before the game, "Old Reliable" had practiced for just such a moment, fielding balls hit off the fabled right field wall for 15 minutes.  As he watched the play develop from the dugout, Dodger veteran right fielder Dixie Walker thought Henrich had two choices.  He could gamble on jumping for the ball or he could play it off the wall.  If Henrich gambled and missed, not only the no-hitter, but the game was lost.  Playing it off the wall meant losing the no-hitter and conceding the tying run, but gave the Yankees a chance to win the game.


The most magical moment in Ebbets Field history

Considering the Yankee outfield had already saved Bevens and the Yankees with three difficult catches, long-suffering Dodger fans could have been excused for expecting another heart-breaking late inning near miss.  As "reliable" as Henrich was, however, he couldn't catch a ball that hit the wall six to ten feet over his head.  While the Yankee right fielder tried to pick it up, Gionfriddo rounded third and scored the tying run.  It took Henrich two tries to come up with the ball and throw it to McQuinn at the edge of the outfield.  The Yankees first baseman "whirled desperately and heaved home," but as he threw, Miksis was sliding, unnecessarily, across home plate with the winning run.


Boston Globe - October 4, 1947

Suddenly, at 3:51, "God's little acre became bedlam."  "For a moment everyone on the field seemed stunned," then the "whole Dodger bench was out on the field, capering madly, and hugged Gionfriddo and Miksis and all but tore Lavagetto's uniform off."  Lavagetto, baseball's newest legend, "fought his way down the dugout steps - laughing and crying at the same time in the first stages of joyous hysteria."  At the other end of the emotional spectrum, the "Yankees walked off the field unnoticed."  "The least noticed of all was Bevens, who for a few moments before, had been a step away from everlasting baseball fame," but "was now just another good guy who failed to win."  Remembering Bevens history of bad luck, Arthur Daley of the New York Times thought fate had played the "shabbiest trick of all" on the unfortunate pitcher.


Bill Bevens takes one of the longest walks in World Series history followed by Joe DiMaggio

Silence reigned in the press box.  "Not a telegraph instrument ticked, not a typewriter sounded.  For once the press was speechless."  After a few moments, the scribes began struggling for words to describe what almost defied description.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle tried superlatives such as "hectic, amazing, record-setting, [and] magnificent," before leaving it to readers "to supply the rest of the adjectives."  Recognizing the game would live in history, Stan Baumgartner of the Philadelphia Inquirer predicted that "the grim minutes leading up to the finale in which Brooklyn suddenly turned apparent defeat into an incredible victory will never be forgotten by the fans who experienced them."  Some still couldn't quite believe it, Arthur Daley wrote that the "more you think about it, the more you wonder if it was just an optical illusion."  Capturing the extreme emotional swing generated by just one pitch, Martin J. Haley of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat called the ending "the most spectacularly dramatic finish that ever gladdened the hearts of  one baseball side and broke those of the other contingent."


Better known for his iconic drawings of major league ball parks, Gene Mack was just one artist who used images to describe a game that was almost impossible to depict in words
Boston Globe - October 4, 1947

Needless to say there was no shortage of post-game commentary.  Grantland Rice, one of the leading sportswriters of the day, pointed out Shotton's "indefinable, second, third, or fourth sense" in sending Lavagetto up to pinch hit.  Chester Smith in the Pittsburgh Press called the move "one of the most successful stabs in the dark any manager ever made."  Queried about the move, the Brooklyn manager matched his terse explanation of the decision to send Gionfriddo by asking rhetorically who would have been a better choice.  Over in the Yankee locker room, Bevens manfully took full responsibility.  He said the pitch was exactly where he wanted it, the loss was due to his lack of control and losing the game was more disappointing than missing out on the no-hitter.

Fortunately for Bevens, he got another chance and redeemed himself by pitching two and two-thirds innings of scoreless relief in the Yankees seventh game victory. Also far from finished were Gionfriddo and Lavagetto.  In the sixth game, "satchel boy's" dramatic catch robbed DiMaggio of an extra base hit and helped insure there was a seventh game.  The day after his ninth inning heroics, Lavagetto, in almost exactly the same situation, had another chance, but this time, he struck out.  However, the following day, in game six, he drove in the tying run to help the Dodgers tie the series.


Boston Herald - October 4, 1947

One of the most remarkable things about this game, and especially the dramatic ninth inning, is that Lavagetto, Bevens and Gionfriddo were far from being the best players on their teams.  In fact, after the 1947 World Series, none of them ever played in the major leagues again.  All told five future Hall of Fame members played that day - Berra, Rizzuto and DiMaggio for the Yankees plus Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese for the Dodgers.  But with the exception of a catch by DiMaggio early in the game, none of them played a major part in one of the greatest games in baseball history which is one of the reasons this game is so important.  It proves beyond any reasonable doubt that in crucial moments, ordinary players can do extraordinary things.  More importantly, however, the performances of these supporting players gave this game meaning beyond baseball.  Stan Baumgartner of the Inquirer sensed this when he wrote:

"It was only a game.  But was it?  It was America - and all that America means wrapped up and expressed in one single pitch, one single hit."

We'll never understand what Baumgartner meant by America, but we do know what he witnessed that historic day at Ebbets Field.  To begin with, two Dodger pitchers, Hal Gregg and Hugh Casey overcame past failures to help their team.  Gregg had been ineffective all season, but when his team needed him most, he stepped up and kept the Dodgers in the game.  Inserted into a very tight spot at a crucial moment, Casey used his 1941 failure as motivation to turn back the Yankee threat and, at the same time, earn redemption.  Even more impressive is Burt Shotton, who had little, if any, experience in managing in big games.  Yet he refused to give up, even when all he had left to work with was two border line players and a crippled star.  Instead of bemoaning what they didn't have, Shotton focused on what the three had in abundance - speed, courage and experience.  Al Gionfriddo, Pete Reiser and Cookie Lavagetto not only rewarded their manager's faith, they used those qualities to win not just any game, but one on baseball's biggest stage.

Credit is also due to Bill Bevens, even though he wasn't successful.  Throwing 138 pitches over the course of that long afternoon, the Yankee righthander struggled with what may be the most difficult challenge any pitcher ever faced - pitch winning World Series baseball with great stuff that he couldn't control.  For almost nine innings Bevens did just that and when, in the end, he failed, he not only took responsibility, but was more concerned about the team losing than his own personal disappointment.  And at the time, he had no idea he would get a chance to redeem himself.  On that long ago day in Brooklyn, these seven men exemplified some of the best human qualities imaginable - overcoming past failures, rising to the occasion, never giving up, doing what they could to help their team and, when necessary, losing with honor.  Those virtues aren't exclusively American, but they characterize our country at its best.  There are few better examples than this memorable day in Brooklyn, seventy-five years ago today, in what was unquestionably not "only a game."




Sunday, September 25, 2022

Autumn

Ever since the first time teams cared about the final score, baseball has been governed by rules. Initially these may have been informal "ground rules," made up for that day alone.  It didn't take long, however, before the early clubs and then the National Association of Base Ball Players began formalizing rules in writing, establishing thereby the laws of baseball.  Perhaps one of the best thing about such laws is that when necessary there is a mechanism for change.  The same thing is true of the laws that govern our society, but there are also laws that are fixed and unchangeable.  A case in point are the equinoxes which take place twice a year on a day when there is an equal amount of light and darkness.  Like it or not, the autumnal equinox took place this past Thursday.  For the Flemington Neshanock, the equinox and the arrival of fall usually means there's a game at the Dey Farm in Monroe Township.


Even the backstop at Dey Farm took on an autumnal air - all photos by Mark Granieri

Saturday was no exception as the Neshanock and the Hoboken Club met at this historic Central Jersey site for two seven inning games played by 1864 rules.  While the weather has usually been nice for the annual game, this time we enjoyed ideal (read splendiferous) weather which I'm told brought out a record crowd of 175 fans.  Having won the coin toss, Hoboken elected to strike first and promptly put two runs across the plate.  Flemington matched that in the bottom of the inning before good pitching and defense on both sides kept both teams off the scoreboard for the next two innings.  In the bottom of the fourth, however, the Neshanock broke the deadlock with two tallies, one of which Hoboken matched in the top of the fifth.  


The stage is set

It looked like the game might come down to the last at bat, but Flemington scored five times in the fifth to take a 9-3 lead.  The Neshanock added two more tallies and blanked Hoboken the rest of the way for an 11-3 win that was closer than the score indicated.  Flemington's offense was led by Tom "Hawk" Prioli and Mark "Gaslight" Granieri with three hits apiece.  "Hawk" and "Gaslight" both earned clear scores in the process.  "Hawk's" best hit was a triple while Gaslight had a memorable "shot" that didn't travel quite so far.  The Neshanock catcher hit a pop fly that literally landed a few feet in front of home plate.  Fortunately, the wily veteran put so much backspin on the ball that he was able to reach first safely even after stopping to offer a comment not suitable for a family blog.  Also hitting a triple was Nick Prioli who had three hits for the game.  Bobby "Melky" Ritter and Bob Smith handled the pitching duties in their usually efficient style.


Chris "Lowball" Lowry at the striker's line

Between the games a number of fans stepped to the striker's line to take a few swings. One of them enjoyed herself so much she joined Hoboken for the second game and acquitted herself admirably.  Flemington struck first and well in the second game, jumping out to an early lead which ballooned to a 24-1 victory.  Needless to say a number of Neshanock had productive games with the bat.  "Hawk" outdid his first game performance with five hits, a total matched by Dan "Sledge" Hammer.  Bob Smith had four hits to go along with another strong pitching performance.  Joining the hit parade were Joe "Mick" Murray, Nick Prioli, Jim "Jersey" Nunn and Chris "Lowball" Lowry with three hits apiece. All told Nick Prioli reached base five times without making an out for a clear score.  His brother J.P. Prioli added two hits to the Flemington attack.


Joe "Mick" Murray at bat before some of the large crowd

While the Neshanock's offensive totals were impressive, equally noteworthy was an almost flawless defensive effort with just one muff on the day.  In the first inning of the second contest "Sledge" went deep into foul territory, dodging among the hay bales to catch a pop foul.  In the following inning, Bob Smith caught a ball on one bound and then nailed a Hoboken runner off second, ultimately throwing to "Mick" to complete a double play.  Not satisfied with one twin-killing "Mick" started what today would be known as a 6-4-3 double play, throwing to "Lowball" who threw to "Sledge" at first.  In the Neshanock scorebook, however, it was recorded as 1-10-2 since we use Henry Chadwick's 1866 system where the player's defense number is his position in the batting order.  Also contributing sound defense was "Gaslight" who recorded four foul bound outs in the first contest and five in the second, plucking one out of mid air with almost cat-like quickness. 


Leading the line for Hoboken is Matt "Range" Petersen whose play at shortstop was more than worthy of his nickname.  This was Matt's last game with Hoboken and the Neshanock wish him well in his future endeavors

It was a good (read splendiferous) day for the Neshanock and we are grateful to Monroe Township for hosting the event, the enthusiastic fans for attending and our opponents from Hoboken for making the games possible.  Having once again enjoyed this early autumnal tradition, the Neshanock move on to another tradition almost as inevitable as the equinoxes - season's end. Next Saturday, October 1, the Neshanock will ring down the curtain on 2022 with two matches against the Atlantic Base Ball Club of Brooklyn at Goffle Brook Park in Hawthorne, N.J.

 






Monday, September 19, 2022

The Gift of the Bambino

This past Saturday the Flemington Neshanock traveled to Delanco, New Jersey to help honor an historic baseball moment that took place in the south Jersey community almost a century ago.  On July 1, 1924, the immortal Babe Ruth, the greatest baseball player of all time, not only played in game at the local ball field, he hit a home run.  This was the third time the Neshanock participated in this event.  On both prior occasions, the weather gods didn't cooperate.  The first visit to Delanco was marred by rain that wiped out the second game of a doubleheader while the second visit took place in extreme heat and humidity.  The organizers could have been forgiven if they expected a plague of locusts this time. However, switching the event to September seemed to work as it was a great, not to mention splendiferous, day for baseball.


The Bambino

The Liberty Club of New Brunswick were Flemington's guests for what was team founder Lawrence Major's final game as team captain.  The central Jersey club was shorthanded, but Chris Tonstad of the Elizabeth Resolutes filled in as did Ken "Tumbles" Mandel and Tom "Hawk" Prioli of the Neshanock.  "Hawk" brought with him three of what seem to be innumerable siblings so the Liberty had a full roster.  The Neshanock won the toss and elected to take the field. The Liberty went to the striker's line where they tallied twice, but  Flemington answered with five in the first and six in the second to take an early 11-2 lead.  


All color pictures courtesy of Mark Granieri

Surprisingly there wasn't much scoring after that and Flemington prevailed 15-4 in a game played in only one hour and eight minutes.  The Neshanock offense was led by Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner and Mike Schroller with three hits apiece.  Mike earned a clear score in his very first vintage game and we would, of course, love to have him back.  Danny "Lefty" Gallagher also had a clear score.  Fortunately for him, he got a hit his last time up, otherwise it would have been a muff based or "unearned" clear score. Dan "Sledge" Hammer and Tony Panera each had two hits while seven other Neshanock including "Lefty" had one hit.  After a break, the two teams decided to divide up into two "picked nine" teams and played a seven inning game won by by Lawrence Major's team.


Ernie "Shredder" Albanesius shows good form at the striker's line

As noted Saturday's event commemorated a home run hit by Babe Ruth at what was then called Delanco Field. New Jersey home runs by the Sultan of Swat were, to use classic doubletalk, rare, but not uncommon.  According to one source, the Babe hit a home run (sometimes more than one) at a dozen different locations throughout the Garden State.  Interestingly three were hit while he was playing in exhibition games for each of his three major league clubs.  Readers can be forgiven if they need a moment to remember what team Ruth played for besides the Red Sox and Yankees. In the last of his 22 major league seasons, the Bambino played briefly for the Boston Braves and hit an exhibition game home run at Newark's Ruppert Stadium. 


No one had to be asked twice to partake of the free lunch provided by our hosts

Although it probably wasn't by design, the Babe's visits to New Jersey, tended to follow a standard script beginning with the anticipation of the Sultan of Swat's visit.  That was certainly the case in Delanco where a Camden County Courier headline proclaimed that "All Burlington County is getting ready to greet Babe Ruth at Delanco." On the big day,  a carnival like atmosphere took over with the streets of Delanco full of farmers, "pretty girls," "aspiring baseball stars," and "fathers with large families in tow." As in the other 11 venues, the Babe attracted a record setting crowd, in this case over 5,000 fans. Naturally this included "droves" of kids who "crowded around the Bambino" just "for the opportunity to shake hands."  As was often the case, Ruth played for the local Delanco team against a team of Burlington County all-stars.  


One of the largest Neshanock turnouts of the season watches Joe "Mick" Murray at the line

In his first two at bats, the Babe hit a double that appeared "tied on the tail of a comet" and then blasted one "like a rifle shot" that went straight to an outfielder for a hard earned out.  Impressive, but not what the fans came for.  In the top of the fifth, Ruth was at bat with a runner on third and a full count.  The 3-2 pitch was a little high, but the Babe swung and hit the ball so far over the fence in deep right center, it "almost ruined an apple orchard."  The blast drove in what proved to be the winning runs for Delanco.  Even though the crowd doubtless wanted the home team to win, in the top of the ninth, some seemed to be rooting for the all-stars to tie the game so Ruth could bat once more.


Never doubt the efficacy of prayer

While the Delanco game more or less followed the standard script for such contests, there were some important differences.   Ruth was typically paid a healthy fee for these appearances, sometimes $1,000 per game.  Yet according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, on this occasion, "he received nary a cent," although it's certainly possible money changed hands behind the scenes. Even more unique, however, is the timing of the Babe's visit.  Not only was it during the regular season, the Delanco game took place in the early evening after Ruth played for the Yankees in Philadelphia that same afternoon.  And the following day, he was back in the City of Brotherly Love for a doubleheader.  


Philadelphia Inquirer - July 2, 1924

Exactly how the Delanco visit came about isn't clear, but regardless of whether or not Ruth was paid, his time, in the middle of the season, was a gift to the people of Delanco. Predictably the Courier said the game "will never be forgotten by those who were there."  But Babe Ruth's visit to Delanco continues to be remembered even after all the eyewitnesses have passed on. Remembered in a way that is the major difference from similar games in the Garden State. Unlike the other 11 New Jersey venues, the field in Delanco is named in the Babe's honor - a gift to the Bambino, a thank you for his gift made almost a century ago.

Monday, September 12, 2022

The Monumental Beginnings of Base Ball

 All pictures, captions and text courtesy of Mark "Gaslight" Granieri

Matt Albertson of the Philadelphia Athletics gets assistance from Chris "Lowball" Lowry with the unveiling of the monument

On Saturday, the Flemington Neshanock were hosted  by the Athletic Club of Philadelphia and the Camden County Historical Society.  Before the match, the 1871 National Association champion Athletic club was honored with the dedication of a monument.  The front and back inscriptions of the monument are show at the end of this post.

Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner has the winning hand

After the dedication, one match was played by 1864 rules.  The Neshanock chose to strike last after winning the bat toss.  The Neshanock also won the day by a final score of 24-3.  Several Neshanock including Joe "Mick" Murray, Ken "Tumbles" Mandel and Sam "Ewing" Ricco aided the short-handed Athletics.

Dan "Sledge" Hammer puts bat to ball

The Athletics took a brief lead by tallying twice in the top of the first, but the Neshanock answered with four in the bottom of the frame and didn't look back.  The Flemington offense was led by "Sledge," who besides batting for the cycle, earned a clear score with his six hits and six runs.  "Thumbs" added his own five hits with Mark "Gaslight" Granieri, Rene "Mango" Marrero, Jim "Jersey" Nunn and Jeff "Duke" Schneider contributing four hits apiece.  Players with three hits included Chris "Sideshow" Nunn, "Lowball" and Bob Smith.  Bob Smith also admirably pitched all nine innings for the Neshanock.

Dani Dondero waiting on the Athletics pitcher

Neshanock notes:  Bob Smith along with Dani Dondero each continue their inaugural seasons with both still in search of a suitable nickname.  A post game dining invitation was graciously offered by the Neshanock's own "Mango."  However at blog time, it was not known whether actual mangoes were included on the menu.  Next Saturday, the Neshanock are in Delanco, NJ to commemorate the time Babe Ruth played there on a field that bears his name.










Sunday, August 28, 2022

Parting

Back in 2019 I was the guest curator for an exhibit on early New Jersey baseball at the Morven Museum in Princeton.  Some visitors to the exhibit asked why the Flemington Neshanock weren't mentioned. The answer, unfortunately, was that unlike Saturday's opponent, the New Brunswick Liberty, the original Neshanock weren't an historically significant team.  The first Flemington club existed only briefly and their record was well below average. I was reminded of the Liberty's far more important role in early New Jersey baseball earlier this season by my friend Craig Brown (see his website on nineteenth century uniforms).  Craig told me about a July 14, 1866 article in the New York Clipper that is the earliest contemporary account of a baseball team wearing knickers and the team in question was the Liberty Club. There was other interesting information about the Liberty Club in the same article which will be part of a blog post later this year.  For the moment, suffice it to say that as the first team from outside of greater New York City to join the National Association of Base Ball Players, the Liberty played a part in baseball's early expansion. 


Liberty captain, Lawrence Major manfully acknowledges post game cheers 

Saturday's matchup consisted of two games, a nine inning contest by 1864 rules, followed by a seven inning match played by 1858 rules. Having lost the coin toss, the Neshanock went to the striker's line first and quickly put four tallies across the plate.  Although the Liberty got two in the second, Flemington got three more in third and one in the fourth for a 8-4 lead as the game went to the fifth inning.  While the Neshanock didn't have any more big innings, Flemington tallied three more times and led 11-5 going to the bottom of the eighth.  The Liberty were not done, however, scoring twice, to cut the margin to four.  Fortunately, the Neshanock added an insurance run and then blanked the home team in their last at bat for a 12-7 win.  Flemington's offense was led by Dan "Sledge" Hammer and Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner with three hits each, followed by Joe "Mick" Murray, Mark "Gaslight" Granieri, Tom "Hawk" Prioli and Bobby "Melky" Ritter with two apiece.  "Melky" along with Dave "Illinois" Harris handled the pitching duties with their usual aplomb.  


Official blog photographer Mark Granieri captures Joe "Mick" Murray just about to hit the ball


Before anyone knows it, Chris "Sideshow" Nunn will be on third


Since nineteenth century games are supposed to be played with one baseball, looking for the lost "sheep" is a regular practice

As usual, the two teams took a break before starting the second game.  This time, however, the respite was used for more than rest and recuperation.  As a community, the Flemington Neshanock have no shortage of creative talents, in this case, Kelly ("Lady Hawk" to some) Prioli who voluntarily created an Instagram page for the Neshanock.  One of her first contributions was a short video explaining the warning both strikers and pitchers receive before a strike or a ball is called.  Today Kelly informed us that the video has had one million views, slightly more than the average for posts on this blog.  Given those numbers, we've decided to experiment with other videos to help explain the finer points of vintage baseball.  Today we worked on a video on the fair/foul play that will be posted in the near future.  Many thanks to Kelly and also today's volunteers "Mick," "Melky" and Jeff "Duke" Schneider.


The scoreboard tells the tale

Flemington began the seven inning second game with another quick start and led 5-0 after four.  To that point, the Liberty didn't have a base hit, but the home team rebounded, scoring four times over the next two innings.  However, Flemington was equal to the challenge and held on for a 7-4 win.  "Sledge," "Mick," "Hawk" and Ernie "Shredder" Albanesius each had two hits.  It was a good day of vintage baseball and special thanks are due to "Duke" plus his son and brother for manfully playing for the shorthanded Liberty in the first game.  Bob Smith played a similar role in the second contest.  The only sour note on the day was learning that Lawrence Major, the founder and captain of the Liberty, has decided to withdraw from the club at season's end in order to concentrate on his music career.  Running a vintage baseball club is difficult enough, founding one is even more challenging and Lawrence did a great job of getting the Liberty started.  The Neshanock wish him all of the best with his future endeavors and are glad we will share the field with him one more time before he steps down.