Story by Chris Rotolo | Photos courtesy George Mazzeo| P
LITTLE SILVER – The crack of the bat and familiar snap of a high-velocity leather ball meeting the cushion of a mitt were noticeably absent from Sickles Field Saturday afternoon, when baseball fans were transported back in time to 1864.
More than 100 local baseball enthusiasts attended a matchup between the Monmouth Furnace Base Ball Club and the Hoboken Nine. The franchises are members of the Mid-Atlantic Vintage Base Ball League, an organization that pays homage to organized baseball in its earliest format.
These vintage games are governed by the same rules adopted by the National Association of Base Ball Players in December 1863, before the use of gloves and mitts when players instead utilized their callused bare hands to catch and throw a spongier “lemon peel ball,” which earned its nickname from the four distinct lines of stitching holding its leather shell and wrapped twine insides together.
Donning Civil War-era caps, flannel shirts with sleeves rolled up to the elbow and long wool pants tucked into socks that rose to just below the knee, these time-traveling ball players took the field in support of the nearby Parker Homestead, a pre-Colonial America household that predates the teams’ style of play by more than 140 years.
“The common link between the Parker family and their home and our team is baseball. A member or possibly members of this family were fans of the game, which we know based upon what has been discovered in their personal belongings,” said Russ McIver, the manager of Monmouth Furnace and a local historian who sits on the board of the Parker Homestead.
What was uncovered in June 2015 was a collection of baseball cards circa 1909 from the Philadelphia Caramel Company. The cards were uncovered by homestead archivist Liz Hanson, who located the partial set in a bent and dented cookie tin, one which she almost tossed out with the trash before opening the lid and discovering a century-old treasure trove.
The collection of cards, which includes Baseball Hall of Famers like Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson, has not yet been appraised; despite not being a complete set it is still estimated to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Hanson found 27 cards in total, with some doubles. The complete set consists of 25 cards, including 10 Hall of Fame inductees and the infamous Ed Cicotte who in 1919 would be implicated in the Black Sox Scandal.
“The child of the family, Stan Parker, who was 12 years old in 1909, had collected these cards,” Hanson said Saturday, after setting up the collection in a display case within the historical home. “We’ve also found a baseball glove that’s not quite as old as the cards, but looks to be from the 20s or 30s.”
“It’s pretty easy to assume that with five 20th-century boys growing up in this home, the thread between baseball, which was America’s game and the entertainment of the time, is easy to establish,” Hanson added.
Local baseball fan Janet Wiley said her “jaw dropped” when she laid eyes on the collection.
“It’s an incredible piece of history. I had heard about the cards of that era and have only ever seen photos on the internet but never actually up close and personal. It was a thrill,” the Tinton Falls resident said. “It’s historic sites like this and events like this game that remind me why I live in this area. We embrace our history. And it’s a lot of fun.”
Though it may be fun for spectators of the vintage game to be caught up in the time warp, for the modern player adhering to historically accurate rules, the game itself takes some getting used to. From the underhand pitching to fly balls caught on one hop still registering as an out, the regulations can be challenging.
“It’s definitely a little bit of an adjustment. Catching the ball on a hop and trying to catch the ball at all without it bouncing off your hands, it can be a little frustrating at times,” Monmouth Furnace outfielder Rich Stepnosky said with a grin. “But it’s about preserving and honoring the history of the game and sharing it with the fans who come out. We try to be as accurate as possible with our play, our uniforms, the way we speak, even our mannerisms. We really take over the time period.”
Monmouth Furnace is back at it July 14 in New Brunswick.
This article was first published in the July 12-19, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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