Sunday, November 11, 2007

Important Early Baseball Find

One month ago, in the classified advertisement section of the New York Herald of November 2, 1843, I spotted a notice for a heretofore unknown New York ball club that played at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken. The ad provided clues to a much larger story—with some truly fascinating characters, including Walt Whitman, Mike Walsh, and George Wilkes—that I am writing up now for publication. However, I thought I would first share the basics of the find with my colleagues in the research community.

The ad read in full:

NEW YORK MAGNOLIA BALL CLUB – Vive la Knickerbocker. – A meeting of the members of the above club will take place this (Thursday) afternoon, 2nd instant, at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken. It is earnestly requested that every member will be present, willing and eager to do his duty. Play will commence precisely at one o’clock. Chowder at 4 o’clock.
JOHN McKIBBIN, Jr., President.
n2 1t*m

The coding at the bottom signaled that the ad was to appear one time only (1t) and on November 2 (n2). Of the named officers, research revealed that the president was a waiter, the vice president an eating-house proprietor (the Magnolia Lunch, offering “the best of Wines, Liquors, Segars, and every other requisite”), and the secretary a billiard-room proprietor. All had working-class and political associations of the sort that we presume to have emerged only with Brooklyn clubs of the following decade, notably the Atlantics.

Indeed, the Magnolia is precisely the sort of club that the formation of the Knickerbocker was designed to checkmate. As key Knick founder William R. Wheaton told an interviewer in 1887, “The new game quickly became very popular ... beyond the fastidious notions of some of us, and we decided to withdraw [from the original Gotham club] and found a new organization, which we called the Knickerbocker.” As to why the Magnolia ad would contain the phrase “Vive la Knickerbocker,” well, that’s a story in itself, and must be left for a fuller treatment.

But I get ahead of myself: as soon as I saw the ad in the Herald I recalled that some months ago David Block had pointed me to a curious image that he thought might be suitable to illustrate a forthcoming article on town ball by Richard Hershberger, which has now been published in the fall issue of the journal Base Ball. David pointed me to this link to a curious undated, unidentified card offered as Lot 1600 in a Lelands auction of December 2002:

The auctioneer described the item as asigned copper plate engraving of the quality of paper money. The card itself is a heavy stock with a silver mirror finish. This invitation to the ‘1st Annual Ball of the Magnolia Ball Club’ measures 5x3.25”. The image is magnificent. It shows the plantation like Magnolia Club with its main building and a yacht flying the ‘M’ flag. Half the image is a richly detailed state-of-the-art baseball game in progress. The players are wearing long pants, there are wickets instead of bases, the catcher stands steps behind the batter with no equipment (pre-mask and shin guards) and catches the ball on one bounce. The engraving is signed ‘Eng. By W. Fairthorne.’ Fairthorne worked in New York City starting in 1839 until the time of his death in 1853, thereby, dating the piece from that 1839-53 time period. Finally, Magnolia is an area in southern New Jersey and the site of many stately plantations not unlike the one graphically illustrated we see pictured here.”

In a Eureka moment, I realized that I certainly KNEW what that plantation-like building was. It was the Colonnade, later known as the Colonnade Hotel or McCarty’s Hotel, whose proprietor provided the Knickerbockers and other clubs with many a lavish dinner. Built in the early 1830s, it survived into the 1890s. Magnolia is indeed a borough in New Jersey’s Camden County, but it was not the site for this image.

As to William Fairthorne, the auction description is correct as far as it goes, but does not touch upon the fellow’s brushes with the law for counterfeiting or his management of an oyster saloon. Additionally, the Magnolia card is not an invitation, as the auction-house copy had it, but a ticket, costing a dollar (see below) and, given its enamel-coated card stock and its original, commissioned imagery, intended to be saved as a memento.

The baseball scene on the Magnolia card reveals three bases with stakes (not “wickets”), eight men in the field, and a top-hatted waiter bearing a tray of refreshments from the Colonnade. The “in” side are arrayed behind as well as seated upon on a long table. The pitcher tosses underhand. A base runner heads from first to second base. This is the original Knickerbocker game, and that of the New York Base Ball Club; both were inherited from the Gothams of the 1830s, for whom Wheaton codified the rules. (Shortstop as a ninth man did not kick in till 1847-48 and when, on occasion, a ninth man was thrown into the mix, he became a fourth outfielder.)

I offer here none of the context of New York baseball before 1846, nor the relevant associations with politics, engine companies, gangs, ethnicity, race, and class. These will all figure in my later remarks.

Another advertisement in the Herald that eluded me on my first pass came to light weeks after my original find. It describes the actual event for which the Magnolia card provided admission. The ad ran in both the Herald and the Sun, and perhaps in other papers unavailable to me, on February 6-8 of 1844. It read:

THE FIRST ANNUAL BALL of the New York Magnolia Ball Club will take place at National Hall, Canal st. on Friday evening, Feb. 9th, inst. The Club pledge themselves that no expense or exertions shall be spared to render this (their first) Ball worthy the patronage of their friends. The Ball Room will be splendidly decorated with the insignia of the Club. Brown’s celebrated Band is engaged for the occasion. Tickets $1, to be had of the undersigned, and at the bar of National Hall.
PETER H. GRAHAM, Secretary
f6 4t*cc

Although the ad was intended to run four times, presumably February 6-9, I was unable to find it in issues of Friday the 9th, the day of that evening’s ball.

Allow me to sum up what I see as the significance of the Magnolia card. It is:

* the first depiction of men playing baseball, discounting the 1744 image of boys playing “base-ball” (without a bat) in Little Pretty Pocket-Book, or that of boys playing on Boston Common, shown in Robin Carver’s Book of Sports from 1834;

* the earliest artifact to have survived related to the New York Game [only the 1837 Philadelphia Olympic Constitution (town ball) is earlier];

* the only artifact, apart from the newspaper ads, related to this newly unveiled pre-Knickerbocker club that played in Hoboken but whose membership was based in New York;

* arguably, and depending upon one’s taxonomic views, the first baseball card.

The greater significance of the find is not the properties of the card but the new understanding that its underlying story affords of how baseball really began in New York. And of that, as I have said in this already overlong “brief,” more later.

--John Thorn


Blogger Randall Brown said...

This is certainly an important find, especially given the lack of good visuals. Having recently completed a documentary of William Wheaton and the Gothams or New Yorks, I believe this adds a missing piece to the puzzle of early baseball around New York. It would be interesting to compare Magnolia's membership with that of the N.Y. Cricket Club (from Spirit of the Times) and, those members of the N. Y. Baseball club known from the box scores. Any sign of James Lee or his sons?
My latest info is on my new website,

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