Let’s Play Ball … I Hope
By Hobie Morris
“Dreams… So many such local nuggets of baseball history and lore are waiting to be mined and polished. Central New York can rightly be proud of its long and distinguished association with the great game of baseball. Will this tradition continue? Does that dream burn as hotly as it did in years past? If you never have dreams, they never come true. Just maybe that slick fielding little leaguer has a dream! How about the farm boy whacking the baseball hard against the side of the barn? … Dreams” – Author
“Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.” – Yogi
“Good pitching will beat good hitting any time and vice versa.” – Bob Veale
“Why does everybody stand up and sing ‘Take me out to the ball game’ when they’re already there?” – Louie Anderson
My favorite baseball observation was written by the great sports writer Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times. “Baseball is a game where a curve is an optical illusion, a screwball can be a pitch or a person, stealing is legal, and you can spit anywhere except in the umpire’s eye or on the ball.”
Spring in Central New York. The endless winter is finally over. It is time to put away the snowshoes. For young boys it begins an exciting season because it’s time to begin searching for those dusty old baseball bats, battered balls, and an odd assortment of lost past their prime gloves. Each of these necessities is bound together in some way with black tire tape. The sacred neighborhood ritual of baseball is about to begin.
A vacant lot is our field of dreams. Home plate is marked and the three bases paced off as is the pitcher’s mound – that is flat of course.
Batting and pitching practice is generally very brief – as the selected teams are “raring” to begin playing. (This lack of “warm up” will produce a variety of pulled and strained muscles).
A multipurpose “umpire” is selected. His decisions, or “call”, will be hotly debated during the game. Another season is beginning in the “Sand Lot” league of my youth. Baseball in those seemingly “ancient times” is unquestionably America’s Greatest National Pastime. I still have a souvenir of my unsuccessful baseball career: a 2” scar inside my mouth where a misjudged fly ball lost in the sun missed my glove but not my mouth!
We Central New Yorkers are richly blessed in having over in neighboring, historic, and beautiful Cooperstown the “Mother Lode” of baseball history – the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum – and its tremendously valuable research library.
In early December, 1998 a temporary exhibit opened in the Hall of Fame’s Library atrium. It was entitled “Legends of Leatherstocking Country: Major League Players From Central New York.” The exhibit highlighted 16, of more than 60, major league players who “honed their skills” here in Central New York.
American baseball has been a permanent fixture since after the Civil War. Countless thousands have played in the Major Leagues during parts now of three centuries, their “dream” often beginning in the “sand lot” games. Today many baseball greats in their day have been largely forgotten.
This simple country man had a famous great uncle who, around the turn of the 20th Century, was a popular and successful pitcher in Boston. College educated, Edward Morgan Lewis’ nickname was “Parson”.
Baseball was then a rough, tough, no holds barred, often profane sport (and drinking too). And these were the fans! The players often were as bad or worse! Fights, umpire “baiting”, flying bottles, and fires made watching a Major League game an unforgettable adventure.
Baseball players’ colorful nicknames, in both Major Leagues in 1901, were sometimes brutally literal. Consider this sampling: Noodles, Dummy, Piano Legs, Bones, Ginger, Jiggs, Klondike, Cozy, Daff, Cupid, Topsy, Brickyard, Wild Bill, Nixey, Zaza, Socks, Farmer, Boileryard, Crazy, Docs, Kids, Pops, and Parson.
Then there were “Hooks” and “Snake” who were brothers. Both men played on Brookfield’s Town Team and went on to play in the “Big Leagues”. They were farm boys from Pecksport on the outskirts of Hamilton. George “Snake” Wilse had an 11 year career with the New York Giants. George would win 147 games and hold several baseball records. His brother’s career was much shorter, although he would continue to play minor league baseball until he was 39 or 40. These men were two very colorful baseball players from our area. Both brothers were “lefties” too.
Utica’s George Detore played for the Cleveland Indians in the early 1930s. Later he played or managed for another 15 years and was a successful scout for the Pittsburg Pirates. It is here that Detore became part of baseball history!
The date was May 13, 1952, at an Appalachian League game at Bristol, Va. The 19 year old pitcher was Ron Necciai, the son of a coal miner. That night the 19 year old lanky right hand pitcher did something that had never been done in well over 2,000,000 games from the minors to the majors going back to 1871.
Necciai had almost been released by the Pirates the year before. Detone had asked for more time to make a final assessment. Necciai was making $150 a month and Detone got him an extra $90 if he would drive the team bus. The young man had “tons of natural ability” and as a former major leaguer said: “one of the liveliest fastballs he had ever seen”.
May 12, 1952. Necciai was in pain from recurring ulcers. Detone sent out a bat boy with a glass of milk and a banthine pill. He didn’t know if he could continue pitching. He did.
When the game was over, he had struck out 27 batters and made history by doing so. (The next game he “wiffed” 24 batters – giving up 2 hits).
The struggling Pirates called this Class D pitcher up. He was a kid and didn’t do well. His career on the wane – arm trouble. The Real World beckoned.
Utican Detore was part of baseball history in a very unusual way.
Ever hear of Jim Fairbanks from Deansboro? A Major Leaguer
Karl Spooner from Oriskany Falls? He’s in the Major League’s Record Book.
So many from Central New York.
Here is a story of a young man who lived in Central New York for a few years. It is 1927. The “Babe” (Ruth) is closing in on an unimaginable 60 home runs. First he had to hit 59!
Yankee Stadium. A huge crowd seeing history – and a home run total nobody thought possible. Fifty-eight was already Babe Ruth’s record. The game was against the Washington Senators and an unexpected pitcher who just graduated from Colgate University and had never played in the Major League before. His debut was against Babe Ruth with the bases loaded. Pitching carefully the collegian Hopkins worked the count to 3 and 2. Hopkins threw a very slow curve ball. It was so slow that Ruth started to swing, hesitated, hitched on it and brought the bat back. Then Ruth swung – putting everything behind it. As a 94 year old man, Hopkins could still see Ruth’s swing and hear the crack of the bat. It was Ruth’s 59th home run.
The ball floated over the head of the Washington Senator’s 37 year old right fielder, Sam Rice, a future Baseball Hall of Famer.
After Ruth’s homer, Hopkins struck out Lou Gehrig to end the inning. Hopkins appearance was one of just 11 he would make in the Major Leagues. He retired after the 1929 season with no wins and one loss. Hopkins returned to his home in Connecticut, became a successful banker, and lived to be ninty-nine!
In countless ways baseball is changing. Some examples: baseball is global now; most players are millionaires; there are more teams, longer seasons, few daytime games; minor leagues are now colleges and universities. Organized spying and juiced players have questioned records – in short baseball is in turmoil. The games are too long and the lists of concerns and problems are endless. The simple game of my youth has now assumed many of society’s problems. Team and player loyalty is to the dollar. Fans get thoroughly “soaked” when buying ticket or refreshments. Baseball’s popularity has been challenged by other popular sports. All this will be forgotten – for a while – when “play ball” is bellowed out by a black suited umpire standing behind home plate with his mask off. The thrill will be there and hopefully the dreams that will rekindle in the memory of those long past their prime. Dreams never age. As Yogi reminds us “It isn’t over until it’s over.”