Posts Tagged ‘Folkert Boerum’

The Urban Gentleman

April 15, 2014
Newspaper drawing of one of the 1858 Brooklyn vs New York all-star games

Newspaper drawing of one of the 1858 Brooklyn vs New York all-star games

Folkert Rapelje Boerum was born in Brooklyn 26 October 1829. He was the eldest son of one of the most prominent old families of Brooklyn. The Rapelje’s went back to when New York was New Netherland. One of his ancestors was a member of the governing counsel of the Dutch colony. The Boerum’s came only slightly later, one family member serving the First Continental Congress of 1775. Their home was a big house set on a big lot. They were originally farmers, but by Folkert Boerum’s time the family was established as a “leading family” of Brooklyn. He is described in A History of Long Island From its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time (the “Present Time” being 1905) as “one of the best and most highly regarded citizens” of the borough. The work also uses words like “public-spirited” and “trusted” to describe him. He helped maintain the Bushwick and East Brooklyn Dispensary, The Good Samaritan Society, and the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, among other charitable work. He died 13 November 1903 and is buried in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery. He is, unquestionably, the very definition of a mid-to late 19th Century American urban gentleman. I guess it’s fair to say he did have one vice. He was also a ballplayer.

When we first run across Boerum in connection with baseball, he’s the catcher and three hitter for the Harmony, one of the older Brooklyn teams. They weren’t all that good, but they did have a handful of quality players. Boerum was one of them. William Babcock, the man who ran the Atlantic, Brooklyn’s premier team, lured Boerum away from the Harmony where he became the team’s starting catcher. He remained there into 1858. He appears as the catcher in one of the 1858 “all-star” games held between Brooklyn’s best and New York City’s best (Brooklyn was an independent city in 1858). By 1859 he’d moved to third base where he was considered one of the finest third sackers of his day. He remained at third until 1861 when he retired from the game. I’m not sure why. I can find no evidence that he joined the Union Army after Fort Sumter. During 1858-1860 he served as club vice president.

Boerum is an extremely good example of an early baseball player. It was a world of amateurism and only men with a certain amount of leisure time could afford to take off time to play ball. Working stiffs simply couldn’t afford to lose the pay. Most of the early players were wealthy farmers or insurance men or doctors or some sort of other professional who received (for the time) a good paycheck and had free time to pursue the game in “gentlemen” clubs. That defines Boerum and most of his teammates and opponents. With the arrival of professionals like Jim Creighton (who played for the Excelsiors against Boerum) the game changed and we lost the Boerum’s of the game.

 

The First Big Man

August 26, 2013
Members of the Excelsior about 1869

Members of the Excelsior about 1860

The above picture shows three early members of the Excelsior, one of the first great teams in baseball history. The man on the left is third baseman John Whiting. In the center (holding the ball) is Jim Creighton, the era’s superstar. Back on 12 January 2011, I did a post on Creighton titled The First Professional.The man on the right is Henry Delmas Polhemus.

Polhemus was an outfielder who, according to who you believe, stood around six feet and weighed around 200 pounds, depending on what he’d eaten for breakfast. He was, for the era, an absolutely huge man. As with most players of the age, he set up shop in most of the fielding positions, but his primary role was as an outfielder. He was fast and noted for an excellent arm. In an age when the ball was much lighter than it is today, the shortstop played a position much like the shortfielder in modern slow-pitch softball. One of his primary jobs was to act as cutoff man because outfielders couldn’t get the ball into the infield because it was so light. Polhemus was noted for not needing a cutoff man. At bat he was the team power hitter. When fields had no fences or they were 500 or more feet from home, Polhemus was noted for driving the ball into the gap for many inside-the-park home runs. Teaming with Creighton on the mound, Polhemus helped propel the Excelsior to the top of Brooklyn’s (and thus baseball’s) sporting pyramid in the period just prior to the Civil War.

Polhemus was the son of one of the more prominent Brooklyn families. An ancestor had formed the first Dutch Reform Church in the town. His father was a wealthy farmer who moved into the mercantile business. They were very wealthy and Henry Polhemus worked in the mercantile business and dabbled in baseball on the side. With the coming of the Civil War, he left baseball (after the 1862 season) and became a managing partner in two businesses: Fox and Polhemus, and Brinkerhoff and Polhemus. The companies received government contracts to make “duck cloth”, a type of canvas used in making military tents. Apparently they did a good job as there were few complaints about their product. Already wealthy, Polhemus became a multi-millionaire and never went back to baseball. He became director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, served on the board of various banks, railroads, and hospitals, and became a confidant of New York Governor (and later President) Grover Cleveland. He died in 1895 and is buried in Brooklyn. On his death, his wife donated a half-million dollars to establish a new wing to a Brooklyn hospital.

The above info is specific to Henry Polhemus, but in general terms is typical for many the baseball players of the pre-Civil War era (professionals like Creighton excepted). They were men of some wealth and baseball was a leisure time activity, not a vocation. Some, like Duncan Curry and Daniel Adams (both of the Knickerbockers) were professional men; Curry in insurance and Adams in medicine. Others like Atlantic stalwarts Folkert Boerum and Jack Remsen (although Remsen was a bit younger than the rest of these) were gentlemen farmers. Still others like Polhemus were entrepreneurs. Many knew each other professionally or were related (Boerum and Remsen were related by marriage). For them baseball was a method of exercise, of companionship, of good fun, and social advancement. It was not a “game” it was serious, but it was fun and it certainly wasn’t a way to make a living. Men like these are typical in the early story of baseball and are the true fathers of the sport.