The Elysian Fields
The panorama at left has been labeled in the mount “Panorama of New York and Vicinity.” The Baseball Hall of Fame has a print which has been labeled “Baseball in Jersey City in 1868.” Not exactly. What we see in the foreground is baseball at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, a pleasure grounds for New Yorkers ever since the dawn of the century, when bear-baiting and bare-knuckle prizefighting competed for attention with buffalo hunts and cricket matches. Most visitors to the site came for the cool breezes, soothing libations, and relief from the strains of city life. Ferries departed every fifteen minutes from the Barclay Street docks in Manhattan. The steamers were controlled by the John C. Stevens family, which also owned the resort grounds–a model of commerce that would mark baseball’s development through the age of trolley cars, short-line rail, and subways: that is, create a remote attraction, and control the access to it. The Stevens Castle is the large house to the right of the ball grounds.
The Elysian Fields became not only a place of rest but also recreation as the prospect of employment lured young bachelors from the farm to the city, only to leave them pining for rural bliss. Cricket was played at the Hoboken grounds before baseball, but by 1845 the New York Knickerbockers had taken heed of the northward push of industry in Manhattan and had taken their new game of “base ball” to Hoboken.
The lithograph, printed and published in Philadelphia in 1866, offers a bird’s-eye view of extraordinarily intricate if untrustworthy detail. The artist is John Bachmann, famous for such views of northeastern cities. Depicted are two quite different games of “base ball” being played within a few yards of each other, separated by the Colonnade, a refreshment pavilion (i.e., tavern) and hotel. At the left two teams are playing the Massachusetts Game, in which the batter stood between fourth base and first–a variant nearly dead in New England and never played in the New York area, but perhaps still alive at the time in Philadelphia, where the Olympic Club had organized in 1833 to play town ball, from which the Massachusetts Game derived. To the right, two other teams appear to be playing according to the rules of the New York Game, which has come down to us as the game we would recognize today. The codification of rules for the New York Game is attributed to William R. Wheaton and William H. Tucker–not Alexander Cartwright–of the famed Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York.
Among the critical innovations of the Knickerbockers was the concept of a boundaried playing field (cricket, town ball, and the Massachusetts Game had no prescribed bounds). The Knicks were constrained by their playing site (look at how close their field, the one at the right of this picture, was to the Hudson River). Accordingly, not only was a foul ball declared a non-event, but, as stated in Rule 20, the last of their original rules of 1845, “But one base allowed when a ball bounds out of the field when struck.” Doc Adams made the leather-strapped balls himself, an exceedingly tedious task, and he wasn’t going to stand for some young Hercules sending his handiwork into the drink. (All the same, Doc recalled in later years, “I was a left-handed batter, and sometimes used to get the ball into the river.”)
The Elysian Fields, known as Turtle Grove in the 1780s, was gone by the end of the 1880s, overtaken by rail and industry. But I used to visit the Knickerbocker playing fields site by asking the friendly watchman at the abandoned Maxwell House Coffee plant to let me into the courtyard. (This option is no longer available.) You might even detect the site of the Sybil’s Cave, a lovers’ destination in the 1840s, now walled up within the rock abutment along the river road, once described as “romantic and beautiful … a narrow, circuitous path, overarched with oak branches.” Today it is an industrial service road called Frank Sinatra Drive, after Hoboken’s favorite son.
Every picture tells a story, but some offer a peephole to the past, in which the closer you get to the opening, the more you see. Such is the case with Bachmann’s “Panorama of New York and Vicinity.”