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N.J. In The Minors

It all began in Hoboken

By Doug Wallack

In October of 1845—though historians will disagree on precisely when—the first game of baseball under the modern rules took place on the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey. The New York Base Ball Club (later known as the Knickerbockers) faced off against the Brooklyn Club, and beat them handily. It was there that the 90-foot distance between bases was established—a rule that was to be practically as fundamental to the sport as gravity itself. Today, those particular bases are long gone, as are the Elysian Fields themselves—swallowed up by the urban landscape, with only a bronze plaque to mark where they once were.

So now it may seem like the Garden State’s connection to America’s national pastime is fainter and more tenuous. And indeed, New Jersey residents so often find themselves pulled toward either the Mets or Yankees across the Hudson, or to the Phillies across the Delaware. It is a conflict as deep-seated as whether we root for the Eagles or the Jets or Giants, as regionally divisive as whether it’s called “Taylor Ham” or “Pork Roll.” Is our great state really a house so divided?

Well, at some level, yes—clearly and perhaps indelibly. But New Jersey baseball is very much alive and well. It thrives in the state’s minor league teams.

In fact, New Jersey minor league ball has a long and distinguished history. In his book Baseball in New Jersey: The Game of History, which accompanied a 1995 exhibit at the New Jersey State Museum, John T. Cunningham argues that the 1937 Newark Bears were among the greatest minor league teams ever assembled. He is far from alone in thinking this, and for good reason: the Bears, then minor league affiliates of the Yankees, rounded out the regular season with 109 wins and 43 losses—an incredible 25½ games ahead of the next best team. They went on to edge the Columbus Red Birds to claim the Little World title in a championship series that stretched to seven games after the Bears lost the first three. The team’s roster included luminaries such as Tommy Henrich, Spud Chandler, Joe Gordon, and Charlie “King Kong” Keller, and the overwhelming majority of that 1937 lineup would go on to play major league ball.

Viewed from a present that is so saturated with sports media (instantly updated online box scores, games streaming on smart phones, dozens of sports channels on television) it’s easy to forget how comparatively limited Bears fans’ access was to their team. Most fans followed the Bears’ season through radio broadcasts—which certainly remain an element of the current baseball universe—but those broadcasts were constrained in ways that are hard to imagine now. WNEW’s Earl Harper was the voice of the Bears in those days, but when the team was on the road, he stayed in his Newark studio, essentially spinning broadcasts from thin air as he dramatized the telegraph messages he received. As Cunningham writes, “There was usually one word, ‘ball’ or ‘strike,’ or perhaps a few words, ‘popup 2B’ or ‘fly, left.’ Harper filled in the blanks as he imagined the action that might be taking place on the distant field. ‘Ball,’ for example, became ‘inside, close to Rolfe’s chest. Red steps out, glowers at the pitcher, then steps back in,’ and so on until the next telegraphed word was received.” And according to an account in the WNEW archives, Harper would also enliven his broadcasts with sound effects, snapping a matchstick in front on his microphone to the crack of a wooden bat making contact with the ball. By all accounts, he was hugely popular with his audience.

Times have changed. Though a team of the same name later played in Newark from 1998 to 2013, The Bears left the state in 1950, the same year the New Jersey minor leagues played host to a 19-year-old Willie Mays for a brief one-season stint with the Trenton Giants on his rapid ascent to major league superstardom. There are now five minor league teams in New Jersey: The Trenton Thunder, established in 1980; the Somerset Patriots, established in 1997; the New Jersey Jackals in Upper Montclair, established in 1998; the Lakewood BlueClaws, established in 2001; and the newest addition, the Sussex County Miners in Augusta, established in 2015. The Thunder and the BlueClaws are so-called “farm teams,” meaning they have an affiliation with a major league team (the Yankees in the case of the Thunder, and the Phillies in the case of the BlueClaws) for which they develop new players rising up through the ranks. The other teams are unaffiliated.

For fans, part of the fun of a minor league game is the ever-present hope that they’ll get to discover a future star before he gets his big break in the majors. Sometimes, this hope is rewarded. Thunder fans could lay claim to infielder Nomar Garciaparra before he embarked on a wildly successful career between the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, LA Dodgers, and Oakland Athletics that saw him win All-Star accolades six times. Similarly, BlueClaws fans could follow pitcher Cole Hamels’s 2008 World Series win with the Phillies, his 2015 no-hitter against the Cubs, and look back fondly to his brief 2003 stint in Ocean County.

Farm teams will also sometimes host major leaguers as they rehab from injury. Former Yankees superstar Derek Jeter played two rehab assignments with the Thunder, in 2003 and later in 2011, and fans went wild. On the second night of his 2011 stint, a record crowd of 9,212 packed the Thunder’s riverside stadium—a venue that officially seats 6,150.

For young players, moving up to the majors is, of course, a huge marker of athletic success, but the way financial considerations key into all the striving can hardly be overstated. Top MLB players famously enjoy outrageous salaries. Hamels, for instance, is currently nearing the end of a six-year, $144 million contract. Not bad. But in addition to the pull of major league wages, there’s also the significant push of very modest salaries in the minor leagues. Most minor league players don’t belong to a union, and according to a CNN report, higher salaries ring in at $2150 per month—just over minimum wage. Understandably, most athletes don’t linger for very long in the minor leagues—maybe a few seasons and then it’s up or out.

While these teams don’t present great long-term career prospects for athletes, they are very accessible for the communities in which they operate and they offer a fun and affordable option for family outings. Their calendars are filled with weeknight promotions, post-game fireworks, and merchandise giveaways. Last year, for instance, the Miners held a pregame “Grand Slam Beer Fest” featuring beer and cider from local breweries. And in the same season, the Jackals played host to both the Japanese Shikoku Island All Stars and the Cuban National team.

So, as the weather warms, remember that all over the state, players will be returning from spring training, managers will be shuffling and tweaking their rosters, and maybe announcers will even be stocking up on matchsticks. Because soon enough it will be opening day, and then it’s time to play ball.

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