The Musings of A Simple Country Man
By Hobie Morris
…We took turns at the plate using a flat stone for home plate and the barn door for the catcher…there were generally enough farm boys to make up a team….
(Brookfield, NY -March 2013) Colorful nicknames were once plentiful in turn of the 20th Century America. Baseball in particular, included the likes of Noodles, Dummy, Piano Legs, Bones, Ginger, Jiggs, Klondike, Cozy, Snags, Daff, Cupid, Topsy, Brickyard, Wild Bill, Nixey, Zaza, Socks, Farmer, Boileryard, Crazy and countless Doc’s, Kid’s and Pop’s.
And then there were two widely known Central New Yorkers known as “Hooks” and “Snake.” They were local farm boy siblings from Pecksport on the outskirts of Hamilton.
As America left the 19th Century, baseball was unquestionably America’s most popular pastime. Town teams provided exciting summertime entertainment. Games were hotly contested—the quality of play of the highest order and the rivalry between teams and communities was fierce and highly competitive.
Brookfield’s Town team began competitive playing soon after the Civil War and fielded teams well into the 20th Century. From time to time box scores were recorded in the widely read Brookfield Courier. Games were played on a diamond up at the Brookfield/Madison County Fairgrounds. Occasionally balls hit into the outfield were lost in the tall grass as the runner(s) circled the bases. Local teams were mostly composed of local men, but it was common to “recruit” from time to time ballplayers from other teams. Usually these players were a cut above the others in talent and experience and no doubt were paid a modest amount for their services.
In the summer of 1897 the Brookfield Courier contained detailed coverage and box scores of games played by the Town team. Their uniforms were gray flannel purchased from Schoverling, Daley and Gales of New York City. In scanning the box score this simple country man noticed similar last names of two Brookfield players. Names not familiar in this area at that time.
Then I remembered a brief conversation I had with a stranger some years ago in a local diner. This elderly man once lived in Leonardsville but then moved away. In his reminiscing about the “good old days” he mentioned in passing that he recalled two of Brookfield’s early baseball players went on to play in the Major Leagues. He mentioned a name but it was unfamiliar.
When I later read the 1897 box scores I recognized the name the man had mentioned.
His full given name was George LeRoy Wiltse, aka “Hooks.” His older brother by 8 years was Lewis DeWitt “Snake” Wiltse.
When they played for the Brookfield “nine” in 1897 “Hooks” was a strapping 17 year old who pitched left handed and batted right.
“Hooks” was all of 14 or so when his older brother took him to Utica to play baseball. He was paid $5 and expenses to pitch for the Utica Actives, a YMCA indoor team. As Hooks later recalled “that was a big event in my life, taking the train alone to the city!”
Four years after playing for Brookfield “Snake” was a 30 year old “rookie” left hand pitcher with the National League Pittsburg Pirates. Relieved in mid-season he was signed by the Philadelphia Athletes where he compiled a commendable 13-5 record and batted (for a pitcher) a remarkable .326. (On August 20 Snake made baseball history hitting two doubles and two triples for 10 total bases).
In 1902 he again pitched for the Athletics and then was sold to the Baltimore Orioles, a franchise transferred to New York for the following season. He pitched his final major league game on May 28, 2903 later playing 7 more years in the minor league. His combined pitching record was nearly 100 victories.
Snake’s younger brother Hooks described his early baseball initiation.
I was the seventh son born on September 7, 1880. Four of the boys were right handed and would not even pay to see a ball game. The three left handers played baseball every chance they could get. My brother, Lewis, eight years older than I…taught me how to pitch and bat….We never had more than one ball and we played until that was lost, even missing dinner and playing well into the long summer evenings.
With thanks to local Hamilton, NY baseball scholar Dr. Richard Cohen and considerable archival information at the Baseball Hall of Fame, the outstanding career of Hooks Wiltse has been thoroughly researched and documented.
We know that Hooks’ nickname didn’t come from an unhittable curve ball, or his hook nose, but from his fielding prowess.
Seven years after playing in Brookfield Hooks was a 25 year old rookie left hand pitcher with John McGraw’s New York Giants. In 1904 he won his first 12 games (a tied but still unbroken record). In his 1904 rookies season he won 13 games and lost 3.
The next season as the 5th starter on McGraw’s staff Hooks made the record book again by striking out 7 batters in 2 innings! (The catcher’s dropped 3rd strike allowed the batter to safely reach first base).
In 1908 Hooks became the Giants’ second pitcher behind the legendary Christy Mathewson. That year Hooks won 23 games with a very impressive 2.24 ERA. On July 4 Hooks pitched one of the greatest games in baseball history. A 10 inning no hitter. The only left handed one in history (he missed a perfect game when he allegedly nicked the sleeve of Phillie’s pitcher George McQuilllan).
In 1909 Wiltse went 20 and 11 with a 2.00 ERA.
Hooks would play for the Giants for 10 years winning 139 games with nearly 1,000 strike-outs. Hooks combined with Mathewson for 435 victories making them the best left hand duo in history.
Madison County can be rightfully proud of the Wiltse brothers who went from town teams like Brookfield to the cheering crowds of thousands in many big league cities including the “Big Apple.” This simple country man can clearly imagine these young men playing up at the Fairgrounds. Their baseball dreams soon to become a reality.
Hobie Morris is a Brookfield resident and simple country man.
The Madison County Courier would like to acknowledge that the village of Hamilton honored “Hooks” Wiltse by naming a recreational field after him.