Although fans and scholars continue to debate the true origins of baseball in America, there’s no denying that Hoboken holds a special place in the development of the modern game. On June 19, 1846, a competitive game between two organized teams, the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club and the New York Base Ball Club, took place on Hoboken’s Elysian Fields, and was reported in the New York City papers. (The New York Club whipped the Knickerbockers, 23-1.)
The teams had played intramural games in Hoboken before this date, but this one is widely regarded as the first game played by a set of rules, recorded in 1845 by Knickerbocker Alexander Cartwright, which laid the foundation for the modern game.
Why Hoboken? In the early to mid-1800s, Central Park had not yet been opened to the public, and, to prevent broken windows, ball games of all types were largely banned from New York City’s public spaces. The New York and even the Brooklyn teams had a hard time finding a suitable place to practice and play.
Seizing an opportunity to capitalize on the land around his family estate, Col. John Stevens developed Hoboken as the premier recreation space for his neighbors across the Hudson to escape from the increasingly dirty and crowded streets of New York.
The Stevens family developed a river walk along the Hudson, which passed by Sybil’s Cave at the foot of Castle Point bluff and ended at a large, flat field at the northern end of the city, where the land flattened out around 11th Street. With a view of the river, and a colonnaded pavilion for refreshments, the Elysian Fields attracted organized teams of cricketers and the emerging game of baseball. The Stevens family operated a ferry that brought thousands each week to Hoboken’s pastoral setting for ball games, boating, dining, and other pursuits.
Historian John Thorn, author of Baseball in the Garden of Eden, says that before the mid-1800s, there were many variants of bat-and-ball games played in the New World, most with roots in traditional English games of rounder and cricket. From the number of players and bases to the number of innings, the regional variations were legion, and versions in Massachusetts, Philadelphia, and New York emerged as the most popular forms.
The New York version grew so rapidly that by 1858, some 60 organized clubs in the area were playing by a version of Cartwright’s rules, according to a historical pamphlet written by Nicholas Acocella and published by the Hoboken Historical Museum in 1996, in conjunction with “Play Ball!” an exhibit celebrating the 150th anniversary of the game.
For the past three years, the museum has organized commemorative games to mark the anniversary of the famous game played on Elysian Fields, inviting teams from the Vintage Base Ball Association, including the Flemington Neshanock and the Elisabeth Resolutes, to play in Hoboken. Stevens Institute of Technology hosts the games for free on its Dobbelaar field. In 2012, a team sponsored by the museum and dubbed “The Hoboken Nine,” began playing regularly and has joined the Vintage Base Ball Association, whose members play by 19th century rules and wear period uniforms.
Museum member and volunteer Lara Hanson and her friend Frank Stingone joined forces to recruit and coordinate the Hoboken Nine, who are mostly drawn from Stingone’s Hoboken Coed Softball League. The team includes Frank Stingone, Jason Kulak, Chris Lutkin, Derek Hass, Andrew Sageser, Jeff Radlin, Joel Branosky, Mark Gasper, Eric Feldmann, Ken Zinchiak, Mike DiMasi, Dave DaCosta, Morgan Miller, and Bobby Romano. The museum supplies vintage-style uniforms, with a classic shield crest featuring “H9” on button-front shirts. Players wear suspenders and wool flat caps to complete the vintage look.
Last season, the Hoboken Nine played 11 games against other members of the league, including the Jersey City Skeeters, New York Gothams, Flemington Neshanock, and Elizabeth Resolutes.
The contributions of Cartwright and Hoboken to the modern game are acknowledged in the mission statement of the Vintage Base Ball Association:
“The mission and purpose of the Vintage Base Ball Association shall be to preserve, perpetuate, and promote the game of base ball as it was played during its formative years in the nineteenth century and other historic eras … In order to achieve its goals and sustain the traditions and values which it seeks to honor and emulate, the Association and all of its members will conduct all matches, meetings, and other activities—both on and off the field—according to the highest standards of sportsmanship, gentlemanly behavior, courtesy, and respect for others which characterized the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, established, September 23, 1845.”
Don’t be fooled by the underhand pitching or bare-handed fielding—these teams are playing competitive games, not exhibitions. As the game evolved through the end of the 1800s, vintage teams had to agree before each game to a specific set of rules. Bare-handed fielding prevailed until the mid-1880s, but as early as the late 1860s catchers began to wear gloves. Many vintage teams prefer to play by late-1860s rules favoring the “fly game,” and others will play by 1886 rules, when overhand pitching was allowed.
Come out and root, root, root for the home team!—07030
Visit hobokennine.vbba.org, or http://www.facebook.com/HobokenHistoricalMuseum to see photos, check scores, and get info about upcoming games.