Thursday, April 23, 2015

It Happened in Hoboken...

Long before the seventh inning stretch and the glory of the grand slam, the original boys of summer took a road trip.  They left New York and crossed the Hudson River into New Jersey following their fearless leader, Alexander Joy Cartwright, a member of the New York Knickerbockers Fire Fighting Brigade, who also happened to organize baseball in his spare time. 

Cartwright and his pals regularly played ‘town ball’, an early version of baseball, on a vacant lot in Manhattan.  Forced off their makeshift playground, the loosely formed group had to get creative so in 1845, they traveled to Elysian Fields in Hoboken—a picturesque park in what was then the New Jersey countryside.  It was also conveniently located near several well-known watering holes where, after a spirited game, the men could gather to commiserate or celebrate, whichever the case may be.  For an annual fee of $75, they rented the place.  Cartwright formally organized the team he called ‘The Knickerbockers’ so he could charge dues and cover the cost.   

The official boys of summer now needed official rules to play by.  Cartwright, and his committee of four, came up with twenty.  Among them, members had to be punctual; bases were to be 42 paces apart; balls knocked outside of first and third base were considered foul and out of play; umpires made the final decisions—no appeals allowed.  He also thought that the game should be played until one team earned 21 aces, or runs, with both sides always having an equal number of batters.  These new rules also put a stop to ‘soaking’—making an out by hitting a runner with the ball.  Ouch! 

Not all of the Knickerbockers were happy campers, however.  Some of them didn’t like the idea of traveling all the way to New Jersey for practice so these homebodies stayed behind and called themselves ‘The New York Club’ or ‘The New York Nine’.  It was just as well because you need two official teams to play an official game of baseball anyway.   

The first formal baseball game played at Elysian Fields was scheduled for June 19, 1846.  The Knickerbockers even wore uniforms—white flannel shirts, blue woolen pants and straw hats.  Players that day included Wall Street clerk Henry Anthony and commercial merchant Daniel Tryon, but Cartwright himself didn’t play.  He took on the role of umpire instead.  With Cartwright calling the shots, the New York Nine soundly trounced his Knickerbockers, 23-1, in just four innings.  In all fairness, the Knickerbockers kept their best hitters on the bench. They thought it would better balance the game.   

The afternoon wasn’t without incident, however.  Cartwright fined one player, six cents for swearing.  Luckily, no one argued with the ump (25 cent fine) or disobeyed the team captain (50 cent fine).  There were obviously no hard feelings because afterward both sides shared a gala dinner and the New York Nine all eventually returned to the Knickerbockers team.   

Over the next ten years, as other cities formed their own baseball teams and competition increased, the Knickerbockers ruled the roost.  By the 1870s, however, when the National League took shape, those first boys of summer had since faded into baseball history.