Baseball’s Deep Roots in New Jersey, Easily Overlooked

Millville’s Mike Trout is the state’s most notable presence in Major League Baseball today, but the Garden State’s connections to the national pastime run deep

Credit: Currier & Ives/Museum of the City of New York
The American National Game of Baseball: Grand match for the championship at Elysian Fields, Hoboken, 1866
No Major League Baseball team calls New Jersey home, but the Garden State is dotted with sites that reflect its longstanding connections to the national pastime, even if many are now evident only in crumbling bricks and mortar.

Open fields in Hoboken, long ago paved over, played a starring role in baseball’s early development. And just a few miles away near Newark Bay in Jersey City, spectators packed a 24,000-seat stadium to capacity and watched Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson break professional baseball’s modern-day color barrier.

(Robinson is referred to as breaking the “modern day” color barrier because in the 1880s a black player played for one season in what was then considered the major leagues. That player, Moses Fleetwood Walker, is often given credit for being the first to break the color barrier.)

While those places long ago succumbed to development, other noteworthy baseball sites in New Jersey are still standing. Among them are Pop Lloyd Stadium in Atlantic City, which for decades has honored the contributions of its Hall of Fame namesake, John Henry “Pop” Lloyd.

Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Also staving off the wrecking ball — for now — is Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, where some of the nation’s top black baseball players achieved glory, including Paterson’s own Larry Doby. The stadium, which was built in the 1930s, is now in rough shape and has been the focus of ongoing redevelopment discussions.

Perhaps no place in New Jersey is more closely connected to the history of baseball as Hoboken’s former Elysian Fields. The once expansive site along the Hudson River played host in the 1840s to what at the time were called “base ball” games, organized by players from New York who couldn’t find suitable space for their activities on their own side of the river. The players used what were called “Knickerbocker” rules that share similarities to those used in baseball today, said John Zinn, an author and historian who wrote “A Cradle of the National Pastime: New Jersey Baseball 1855-1880.”

Vital part in early baseball

“New Jersey really did play a vital part in the spread of early baseball,” Zinn said in a recent interview.

Zinn served as the guest curator for a special exhibition that opened earlier this year at the Morven Museum in Princeton. It details New Jersey’s important role in the development of baseball, while also debunking some common myths. They include the popular notion that the game was invented in Cooperstown, New York, or that the first game was played in Hoboken.

“The simple truth is no one invented baseball, rather the game evolved from bat and ball games dating back centuries in Europe and perhaps even earlier in other parts of the world,” Zinn wrote in his book.

Still, New Jersey can lay claim to several important baseball milestones, including the first recorded written reference to a game of “baste ball,” which was noted by a Princeton University student in the 1780s. (Back then the university was called the College of New Jersey.)

The earliest known game featuring two all-black baseball teams also took place in New Jersey, in 1855 at a field in Newark, according to Zinn. The Morven exhibit — which is open through October 27 — also highlights the earliest documented evidence of women playing “ball,” which occurred at the Eagleswood School near Perth Amboy in 1859.

Historic Edison film

What’s believed to be the first recorded moving images of a baseball game were captured by Thomas Edison’s Edison Motion Pictures. The Library of Congress has preserved a short clip of its recording of a game between the Newark Colts and the Reading Coal Heavers.

Photographed from one camera position behind home plate, according to the Library of Congress, “The Reading pitcher has just let a Newark batter walk to first. He gets up on his toes, ready to head for second base. The next batter up cracks first ball pitched for a two bagger, and races for the base with a burst of speed. The first baseman just misses a put-out. A man on the coaching line yells, the umpire runs up to make a decision, and a small boy runs behind the catcher, close to the stands, where there is a great commotion.”

Jackie Robinson in Jersey City

Nearly a century after the game between the two all-black teams in Newark, Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City would play host to another noteworthy event when Jackie Robinson, then a player with the minor league Montreal Royals, suited up for a game against the host Jersey City Giants. (At the time, the Royals were the Brooklyn Dodgers’ top farm team.)

Credit: Pixabay
Jackie Robinson
Robinson’s appearance in that game on April 18, 1946 marked the breaking of professional baseball’s modern-day color barrier, and newspaper accounts from the time indicated he rose to the occasion, belting four hits, including a home run, in a 14-1 win for the visiting team. Before that game, black players had generally been prohibited for decades from playing in professional baseball games because of systemic racism.

“Robinson completely stole the fancy of the sellout crowd estimated at 25,000,” the Associated Press reported the following day. (About a year later, Robinson would break the modern-day Major League color barrier in Brooklyn as a member of that city’s Dodgers.)

The same year, Ruppert Stadium, which once stood on Wilson Avenue in Newark, played host to a national championship clinched by the Newark Eagles, an all-black team that played in what was known as the Negro League. Several players from the Newark Eagles, including Doby, are now in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

“The 1946 Negro League champion Eagles were a team for the ages, and to state that they are still of interest to baseball fans all over the globe is no exaggeration,” according to “The Newark Eagles Take Fight: The Story of the 1946 Negro League Champions,” a book written by 30 members of the Society for American Baseball Research. As well as Doby, the Eagles lineup included notable players Leon Day, Monte Irvin, and Max Manning.

Larry Doby broke American League color barrier

Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
Larry Doby, right, pictured with Monte Irvin
A star infielder, Doby would eventually go on to play in the major leagues, where he would break the American League’s color barrier in 1947 as a member of the Cleveland Indians. But he got his start playing for Paterson’s Eastside High School, and had his tryout for the Newark Eagles at Paterson’s Hinchliffe Stadium, according to a biography written by Joseph Thomas Moore.

Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the stadium at Maple and Liberty streets near the Paterson Falls served as the home field for the New York Black Yankees at times during both the 1930s and 1940s, according to the Baseball Reference website. Hinchliffe Stadium also hosted baseball’s “Colored Championship of the Nation” in 1933, according to the National Park Service.

In more recent years, local officials have begun to discuss ways to preserve the stadium as part of a broader redevelopment effort, which could also involve the building of new housing and restaurants. But it remains a subject of ongoing debate among members of the city council.

Pop Lloyd Stadium

Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
Pop Lloyd
More than 100 miles to the south stands Pop Lloyd Stadium in Atlantic City. Lloyd spent 27 years playing as a shortstop in the Negro League on teams based in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, but he finished his baseball career in Atlantic City, and even played on a semipro team assembled by notorious political boss Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, according to records maintained for the John Henry “Pop” Lloyd Committee by Stockton University’s Richard E. Bjork Library.

Pop Lloyd Stadium opened in 1947, three decades before Lloyd was inducted posthumously into the baseball Hall of Fame. An episode of PBS’s “History Detectives” series that aired in 2003 noted the stadium’s leading role in the community.

“This was the place to come on Sunday afternoon to watch a game in which the stands would be packed, the players on the field were right there,” said co-host Gwen Wright during the episode.

Doc Cramer Boulevard

Just up the coast, in Manahawkin, are Doc Cramer Boulevard and the Doc Cramer Sports Complex, which are named after Beach Haven native and World Series winner Roger “Doc” Cramer. During a career that began in 1929 and spanned nearly 20 years, Cramer played for four major league teams, the Philadelphia Athletics, Boston Red Sox, Washington Senators and Detroit Tigers, collecting more than 2,700 hits.

A year before he retired from baseball with the Tigers, in 1948, Cramer, then 42, was predominantly a bench player, according to a story in The Washington Post. But the three-time All-Star seemed to relish the role of cheering on teammates, and chipping in the occasional pinch hit when called upon.

“You can’t quit when you’re getting as big a kick out of the game as you ever did,” Cramer told the Post.

This year, another New Jersey-born player, Millville’s Mike Trout, added to the state’s baseball legacy when the Los Angeles Angels signed him to the richest contract extension in the sport’s history. Under the deal, Trout will make $426.5 million over the next 12 years.

State lawmakers have already proposed a way to honor Trout’s baseball achievements; legislation introduced earlier this year would officially label the intersections of state highways 47 and 55 as the Mike Trout Interchange.”

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