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Tuesday, September 13, 2022

There is Nothing Like Baseball


A CALL FOR SPECTATORS. In the early 20th century, baseball teams from area high schools competed against each other as well as against men’s town teams. Community enthusiasm brought out large crowds of spectators.  (Bradford Historical Society)  

NORTHERN VALLEY LEAGUE CHAMPS. In 1948, the Orford town team won over East Corinth to seal league honors.  These men came from Orford, Fairlee, Strafford and West Fairlee. Their manager was George Bedell. (Bradford Public Library) “The annual Labor Day celebration will be held at East Corinth again this year…the highlight of which will be the baseball game between the married and single men. Teams gathered from across the countryside will cross bats and the keen rivalry will arouse plenty of fun and excitement for the baseball fans.” The United Opinion, Aug 24, 1934

In June, this column’s article examined how baseball became a national pastime and its rise to prominence in the local area between the 1840s and 1900.  That column, which describes 19th century town, league and professional players, can be found at “Rise of Baseball” larrycoffin.blogspot.com.

This column surveys the sport during the first 60 years of the 20th century. It is only a partial story of this popular pastime with bits and pieces included. Stories of games does not mean that other exciting matches were not being played in neighboring towns.     

Civil War veterans organized town baseball teams soon after their return.  All local towns had at least one team during the latter part of the 19th century. If a town’s team folded, another soon replaced it with renewed vigor and support.

Matches between town teams were spirited with large crowds of spectators. That spirit was enhanced by the need for revenge from earlier contests.

That vigor continued well into the new century, and town teams continued to draw crowds. In many towns, townball generated a sense of community pride and enthusiasm.

Bradford’s town team met other towns’ teams on the fairground before large crowds. The local United Opinion correspondent for Pike reflected that village’s enthusiasm. One June, that column described how the Pike Tigers “masticated the Newbury team” in an 8-0 game.    

 In other towns, there was less enthusiasm. In 1902, one Vermont newspaper reported, “For several years past there has been little doing in the summer in the way of athletics, and, in the minds of many, that was a deplorable fact.”

High schools in the area fielded teams. Haverhill Academy’s Athletic Association team met Bradford Academy, Groton, and Woodsville.  These high school teams sometimes played local men’s teams as well. 

Local summer youth camps such as Moosilauke and Pemigewassett also took on  local teams.  In 1911, a village team from Thetford Hill played a camp team on the common to a large crowd. In 1916, local teams played the Dartmouth Seconds.

Bradford’s United Opinion and the Groton Times carried news of professional teams, college contests and the results of games in larger communities. Some of those urban teams were part of leagues such as the Sunset League.  

The young men from the area that joined the military during World War I took their love of baseball with them.  Several hundred military teams were formed as a means of boosting morale.

Returning veterans were anxious to get home to see a town baseball game.  In Wells River, a new ball field was created, and “there was considerable talk of a town baseball team of similar caliber to the teams of olden times.”

Babe Ruth’s legendary play during the 1920s renewed enthusiasm for the game at all levels.  In 1921, Woodsville’s team play included the Groton Mfg. Co. team, but in 1923 it did not field players.  After a “dead summer,” the team was revived. 

The Groton Times reflected, “baseball puts a lot of life into a town.” Corinth, Ryegate, Newbury, and Topsham reportedly had “good teams of local players.”    

In 1922, a Twilight baseball league was established, playing “baseball for the sake of recreation.” It drew crowds of up to 200 spectators.

State laws prohibited the playing of baseball on Sunday. In 1907, Bradford officials stopped local boys from pickup games on a remote field on Sundays.  In 1924 there was a serious debate on the subject in Woodsville.

 One person wrote “Baseball is being played in several places not many miles away on Sunday.  I know a number of people who would like to see games in Woodsville on Sunday afternoons.” Despite the prohibition, Sunday baseball was played in several area communities, including East Corinth.

 In 1939, Vermont finally allowed local communities to set aside these restrictions. The following year, Bradford voters approved Sunday baseball by 148 to 37,

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, townball was a regular event throughout the area. Virtually every town or village had a men’s team. Businesses that had enough workers often had a team.

 Examples included Neapolitan Co. of Fairlee, the Bobbin mill in East Corinth, a Purina team from St. Johnsbury, and a Wax Paper Co. team from Rockingham.  The Wildwood CCC Camp League was formed in 1935 by area camps. 

Newspaper accounts rarely estimated the number of spectators at regular games. Smaller crowds led to editorial comments such as “It is a whole generation since the baseball team was the small town’s greatest pride and joy” or “Towns use to take its baseball seriously, almost religiously.” One reason for the dwindling number of spectators? The rise of radio and motion pictures provided competition.

 However, in 1932, the new Woodsville Athletic Association was able to raise $1,500 so that locals could “enjoy baseball of indeed high caliber.” 

As in the past, town teams often disbanded only to reorganize. In Bradford a new team was formed in 1929. It was reorganized in 1934 to join a league from the two states.  Local businessmen provided money for uniforms and equipment. 

There were teams that had outstanding seasons during the period. In 1923, 1925, and 1926, Woodsville High won the north country championship and at least one state championship in the 1950s. With Dan Murphy as pitcher, Bradford Academy won the state championship in 1932. In 1938, Groton High won 12 out of 14 games against neighboring schools. In 1960, Haverhill Academy won the state championship.    

In 1941, the Bradford team played a team from Greenwich, CT.  The visitors stayed at a local farm, enjoyed a baked bean supper, and slept in the hayloft.

During World War II, servicemen were supplied with equipment to play baseball where they were stationed. One United Opinion column mentioned, “There is no question of the influence of baseball at the front. The yen of every American soldier is to strike Hitler out, nab Mussolini off first and get Tojo trying to steal home with bases full.”

At home, many minor league teams were disbanded due to lack of players. There were fewer newspaper references to local baseball. Even local high school teams played a reduced schedule due to war-born necessities.  

 In 1948, a resurrected Bradford team, including recruits from Piermont and other nearby towns, began to play on the newly-built Memorial Field. In earlier years, teams had rejected players from other towns.

Later that year, the Bradford team played Woodsville in a double header. The United Opinion predicted, “a rousing, fast, good-natured tooth-and-toenail game.”

That same year, under manager George Bedell, the Orford town team, won over East Corinth to became the champions of the Northern Valley League. This team had players from Orford, Strafford, West Fairlee, and Fairlee. Men on that team that I knew as a youngster included Cope Corpieri, George Smith, Bill Thurber, and Roy Guptill.   

 Throughout the entire period, pickup sandlot games were still popular among kids.  There was no need for umpires, coaches or spectators, and arguments were quickly settled. 

All a kid wanted for Christmas or his birthday was a baseball glove or Louisville Slugger bat. When a new mitt was not forthcoming, one that was broken in by an older sibling met the need.  

In 1925, the American Legion veterans’ organization formed a baseball program for teenage boys. Its focus was to have an organized program to foster the growth of young men into active citizens.

Within a year, the program had expanded into 25 states, including New Hampshire and Vermont. The program featured post-season tournaments that led to a national championship. Early local teams were organized in Lebanon and Hartford.

In 1938, Carl Stotz of Williamsport. PA, responding to the lack of organized baseball for younger boys, organized the first Little League team.  By 1950, it had spread to 28 states with over 900 teams. 

That year the first Little League teams began to form in New Hampshire and Vermont, with teams in Concord and Portsmouth and St. Albans and Burlington.

Within two years, there were teams in Bradford, East Corinth, Fairlee, North Haverhill, and other local towns. Community organizations and local businesses sponsored teams, raising money for equipment, uniforms, and other expenses.  

In March 1952, Bradford’s United Opinion encouraged attendance at Little League games. The editor wrote that Little League replaces “uncoached and unsupervised scrub games with needless injuries and the loss of a lot of real talent that went unnoticed.” 

That same year, a junior league was formed for those boys who were too old for Little League. The teams included the Bradford Indians, East Corinth Red Sox, Fairlee-Orford Tigers and Newbury Dodgers.

Dr. Robert Munson, whose father, Dr. Philip Munson,  was instrumental in promoting youth baseball in Bradford, played all these levels of organized youth baseball. This did not, he said, prevent him from calling up the neighborhood boys for an impromptu game.   

Despite the Legion’s assurance that the program’s goal was not to produce great baseball players, many professional players gained experience as Legion players.  

Those listed below were not the first professionals from the area.  Libe Washburn was born in Lyme in 1874 and was a star pitcher for Brown University before going professional. He played for the NY Giants and Philadelphia Phillies in 1902-1903.  He was described as a “Hard-hitting left-handed twirler.”

William “Doc” Hazelton was born in Strafford in 1876 and, after attending Tufts, played for the St. Louis Cardinals during the 1902 season.  He was a “fast first baseman [who] bats like a fiend.”  He went on to coach at Dartmouth and UVM.

If there were a local field for baseball dreams, it would be centered in Woodsville in the 20th century.  Two lifelong friends played for Woodsville High, and, after graduating in 1948, went on to professional careers. Both young men played Legion ball.

Bob Smith signed with Boston after graduation from Woodsville, but the Korean War interrupted his professional debut.  He first played professionally on April 29, 1955. During a career that lasted until 1959, this left-handed pitcher played for the Cardinals, Pirates and Tigers organizations.  

His friend John Bagonzi had an outstanding athletic career at UNH and, in 1953, signed a contract with the Red Sox and was assigned to their San Francisco Triple A affiliate. After a stint in the military, he played for both Boston and Chicago Cub affiliates. An arm injury ended his professional career, but not his influence in local baseball.

He returned to teach and coach at Woodsville High and local town teams. He became one of New Hampshire’s most successful coaches.  His influence was significant in the careers of other players who became professionals. 

One professional  coached by Bagonzi was Steve Blood, an 1971 Woodsville High graduate. A recent article in The Bridge Weekly described Blood’s career. An East Ryegate native, Blood played all levels of youth baseball, from Little League and Babe Ruth to Legion Ball. He was a member of the Babe Ruth All-Star team that won in VT State championship. Under Coach Bagonzi, Blood pitched for the WHS state championship teams in 1969, 1970, and 1971.

After graduation, Blood was drafted by the Minnesota Twins and pitched off and on for their minor leagues through 1975.  He had outstanding seasons for the Fort Lauderdale and Lynchburg teams.

At Bagonzi’s funeral, Steve told the assembled crowd, “In five years of professional ball, I never had a pitching coach who knew as much as Mr. B.”   

Another local athlete who was coached by Bagonai was George Huntington of Bradford. Huntington was a catcher for Bradford Academy, graduating in 1958.  He played on Legion teams and was a member of the Newbury town team that went to the semi-pro World Series in 1959 and again with the “newly christened” Woodsville team in 1960.

 From1960 to 1962, Huntington played for the Milwaukee Braves organization.  From 1963-1967 he played and managed for the Coaticook Canadiens team.  Until his death in 2009, Huntington continued to coach in both Vermont and New Hampshire.

Baseball was a boy-man’s event.  Several women’s colleges established women’s baseball teams in the 1860s.  Determined to excluded women, men suggested that baseball was too difficult for women and would “disrupt feminine sensibilities.” Despite the opposition, these college teams lasted until the late 1800s.

In July 1930, the New York Bloomer Girls team played against the Fairlee men’s team.  The Bloomer Girls of New York City had been undefeated since 1911. Fairlee won 5-2.

 During the 1930s, girls at Orford High, Bradford Academy and Newbury High had baseball teams. 

During World War II, Philip Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs, sponsored a league of women’s barnstorming teams. 

Girls were prohibited from Little League play until sex discrimination lawsuits forced officials to open the teams in 1974. In at least one Vermont community the issue was “community splitting.”     

So, to quote Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.” In the next 60 years, baseball would continue throughout the area. Town teams would come and go. Teams at local high schools would excel.

Youth baseball would continue to attract youngsters to the game. Some of the best players would be tempted into professional career. Girls played a stronger role. Many continued to  agree, “there is nothing like baseball.”

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