Funny thing about baseball. Every generation’s fans consider its players and its version of the game to be the real deal.
And yet, fundamentally, the game and all that swirls around it have never really changed. The major players are immense celebrities, three strikes is still an out, and crowds still gather to tell stories and tall tales about how when they were kids, that was the real way to play.
People felt that way in 1873, too. They looked upon the old days with the requisite halcyon glow and scoffed at men overrunning first base, rather than sliding into it like real players used to do when the game was pure.
Brad Shaw, nickname: Brooklyn, wouldn’t have it any other way. The founder and (these days) spokesman of the Flemington Neshanock Baseball Club loves little more than baseball and history, and he loves to show the game as it was during and following the Civil War. He and the Neshanock will show it again on Saturday, June 30, when the Neshanock take on the Diamond State Club of Delaware in a historical doubleheader at Princeton Regional Schools Field, 25 Valley Road, beginning at 11 a.m. The games are free to attend. Visit www.neshanock.org.
The doubleheader is actually a set of games played according to the rules of different years: one played by the rules of 1864 and the other by the rules of 1873. Shaw says playing the two games serves a few purposes. First, it’s only considerate, since the Neshanock’s rivals for the Princeton game are coming all the way up from Delaware. “It wouldn’t be right to make them drive an hour-and-a-half, play an hour-and-a-half game, then drive an hour-and-a-half back,” he says.
Second, playing two games by two sets of rules shows the progression of the game and how its little tweaks and quirks evolved. “The rules changed from year to year,” Shaw says. “But that’s because they were perfecting the game.”
Third, and most important to Shaw and the great Ernie Banks alike, playing two games is just fun. No one playing 19th-century baseball these days makes any money doing it. They play, Shaw says, because they love the game and, to a degree, love that they are living curios to the game as it was and continues to be.
The Flemington Neshanock are not historical re-enactors, they are re-creators, Shaw says. He often compares his club and the unofficial 19th-century (a.k.a. vintage) baseball leagues that dot the country to Civil War re-enactors. The difference is that the Neshanock et al do it for real. “If Civil War re-enactors were like us, they’d use real bullets,” Shaw says.
There’s another important distinction for Shaw: Despite that Ty Cobb once labeled baseball as “something like a war,” baseball is not combat. And for Shaw, whose two most sacred places are Yankee Stadium and Colonial Williamsburg, history is about far more than bullets, bombs, and carnage. “I’m not a war guy,” he says. “I study culture. That’s why I love Williamsburg so much. It’s a more-or-less intact Colonial city.”
The differences between the game of 1864 and that of 1873 are subtle. In 1864 players were not allowed to overrun first base. The ball in 1864 was stitched together in a way that made it look like a lemon. And in 1864 the umpire, donning his top hat, was free to not call a pitch if he didn’t want to. He also warned either the batter (or striker) or the pitcher that he would call a ball or a strike on the next pitch.
Shaw, who hardly plays Neshanock games anymore (“I’m 57, I’m getting old”), loves wading through the crowds of spectators to address the inevitable questions: Why is the pitcher throwing underhand? Why was it a fair ball when it went into foul territory before it got past third base? Why is the batter out even though the fielder caught the ball after it already had bounced once? And why isn’t anyone wearing a glove?
The answers, for the record, are: because pitchers were not allowed to throw above their waists in the 1860s; because in 1873, the ball was judged fair or foul depending on where it first touched down; because one bounce in 1864 was considered the same as a fly ball today; and because players didn’t wear gloves until the 1880s, when catchers first put them on to protect against the new, far faster overhand pitching.
Born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Shaw was raised in blue-collar Brooklyn (hence the nickname) by “a huge Yankee fan” of a father, who worked as a shipping manager in New York’s textiles industry. Shaw practically grew up in pinstripes with an equal love of baseball and history. He met his wife while attending Brooklyn College, where he earned his bachelor’s in history and education. They got married in 1983, moved to New Jersey, and had a boy and a girl.
For more than 30 years Shaw has been with JPMorgan Chase in Jersey City, where in his non-baseball time he is a software development manager. In 2000 he stumbled across an article in Smithsonian magazine that featured a photo of “a guy in an old-time baseball uniform.” The photo immediately flipped Shaw’s dual baseball/history switch. Though today there are roughly 250 19th-century baseball clubs (not “teams”) around the country, few had heard of such a thing in 2000.
Shaw researched all he could and found that there was a vintage baseball club in Old Bethpage, Long Island, and that it was hosting a tournament. “It was like an epiphany,” Shaw says of the game.
Now aching to play the vintage game, Shaw looked harder to find a more local club, and he found it in the Elizabeth Resolutes. Shaw joined that club in the middle of its 40-game 2000 schedule and was enamored enough to start his own club in Flemington, where he and his family live. He recruited among his family, friends, and co-workers to get things going for the next season.
Shaw, in the meantime, had found the perfect name for his club. Around 1867 there was a baseball club called the Flemington Neshanock, named for the original spelling of the Neshanic River. The original Neshanock were indicative of their age — a team comprising the town’s prominent citizens, such as lawyers and farmers.
This was during an age when every town in America had its own team, an outgrowth, Shaw says, of life in the wake of the Civil War, when Americans wanted to get past the fighting. Baseball at the time was the only team sport. “Football was just about to begin, and there was no basketball,” Shaw says. “There was cricket, but that never took off here” despite being one of baseball’s most influential ancestors.
Too bad the original Neshanock were horrible. It was not uncommon for the club to lose by 30, 40, 50 runs, often at the hands of their chief rivals, the Lambertville Logan. Records of the original Neshanock don’t appear after 1867, Shaw says. And there are no known photos of the original team — something the historian in him always hopes will be rectified some day, when someone out of nowhere says “Oh, I have a photo of that.”
Despite the Neshanock’s wretched record, Shaw loved the name, which some say means “goose neck” in Lenape Indian, or maybe “convergence of rivers.”
Whether it’s accurate or not, Shaw prefers “goose neck,” and that indifference to actualities is something that goes hand in hand with the story of baseball. Shaw says that though he has played on his club over these past 12 years, these days he is better as a spokesman for the club and the game. He enjoys milling through the crowd telling anecdotes of the era, such as the story of a game during the Civil War when the Confederacy marched through the field. The two biggest laments of the men who lived through it, Shaw says, are “not only did the South capture our outfielder, they took the only ball we had.”
Shaw also likes the story (almost certainly false) that Abraham Lincoln, a known baseball fan, answered “Hold on, it’s my turn at bat” when someone told him he had won the Republican party nomination for president. Is it true? Who cares, Shaw says. It’s part of the tapestry of baseball history.
Wanting to recapture and maintain such history helped Shaw recruit enough players to have a team by 2001. And the new Neshanock got off to an auspicious start. Shaw knew someone connected to the Somerset Patriots, an unaffiliated minor league team near Flemington. The Patriots were looking for something new and interesting for their Fan Fest event, and Shaw brought them the Neshanock. “Our first game was at a minor league stadium,” he says “It was a great recruiting tool.”
The Neshanock still play at Patriots Park every year. And every year, Shaw tries to talk the Patriots’ manager, none other than Sparky Lyle, to play. And every year, Sparky answers Shaw with “I’m not playing without a glove!”
Shaw admits the no-glove thing hurts a little, but that’s only if you try to catch as if you’re wearing a glove. “You have to catch it like an egg,” he says.
Since their first pitch at Patriots Park, the Neshanock have grown popular enough for historical societies to seek them out to play. Shaw says he usually has 60 percent of his schedule done before he even sets out to make it. And he has also managed to carve out a new rivalry.
One of the things about the traveling history show that is Neshanock baseball is that many times, neither the Neshanock nor their opponent are playing on home turf, so spectators are not invested in who wins or loses. But a few years ago Shaw managed to intrigue the township of Newtown, Pennsylvania, so much that Newtown developed its own 19th-century team (the Strakes) just so it could play the Neshanock during the town’s Memorial Day festivities.
The games were an immediate hit, and the annual Memorial Day game in Newtown has become Shaw’s favorite. “The whole town comes out,” he says. “We get hundreds of people, they encircle the field. And everyone stays for the whole game. It’s just great — we’re the bad guy.”
By the way, the Neshanock won this year, but overall, the record is about 50/50.
And winning matters. Though it’s not a competitive league, Shaw says the players (all of whom get along, no matter where they come from) are on the field to win because respect for the game demands that you play your hardest. “People think baseball in the 19th century was gentlemanly,” Shaw says. “There was nothing gentlemanly about it.”
To play for the Neshanock, you do not need to live in Flemington, Shaw says. You just need to be at least 18, to be able to buy your own historic uniform (which will run you about $180, and you’ll need to buy a new one every few years), and show that you can protect yourself on the field. The ball might be a little softer than a modern hardball, Shaw says, but it’s not so soft that it won’t hurt you if you don’t know how to protect yourself.
The exception to the “must be at least 18” rule is for family members of existing players (a.k.a., “ballists”). The most noted exception is Shaw’s son, Danny (a.k.a., Batman), now 19, who joined the game when he was about 13. At first, Danny was more of a mascot and a batboy, but Shaw developed him in the game and says his son now knows more about the rules and the history than anyone else on the club.
And in the end, this could be Shaw’s greatest contribution to the history of the game. Much like his own father passed on a love for the game to him, Shaw passes on a love for the game’s roots to his own son. And that makes him a proud player, spokesman, fan, and father all in one.
Flemington Neshanock vs. Elkton Eclipse, Historical Society of Princeton, Princeton High School, 25 Valley Road, Princeton, 609-921-6748. www.princetonhistory.org. Free. 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.