May 1992

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Baseball Stories

From Right Around Here


Robert G. Koch

The local history tradition that recalled the Honeoye Falls-Lima railroad brings us tales of small town baseball. Take 'Em into Camp! by Paul and Stephen Worboys of Honeoye Falls is an epic of baseball wars in the pastures of the upper Genesee Valley. This is baseball played for fun (usually), for pride (rabidly local), and for producing hometown legends (perhaps its greatest success).

Lima and Honeoye Falls were also baseball rivals. In the 1870s the Lima "Buckwheats" won widely throughout the area and the "Husky Farmers," as the Honeoye Falls team became known for the H and F emblazoned on their uniforms, failed for a while to cut down the "Buckwheats." Eventually the rivalry resulted in 23 victories apiece, but in 1888 the Honeoye Falls newspaper complained that a "game [at Lima] was played on the 'side of a precipice, and in the presence of a howling mob'…" But generally, the "Husky Farmers" lived up to their name. Conservative citizens felt however that baseball did not add a cubit to the cultural stature of Honeoye Falls. The Worboys' tome claims that "'Base Ball' in the early days was considered by many to be anti-social…The rough and ready ballplayers were rarely teetotalers and wagering among fans and players was common." And in 1885, The Times of Geneseo anticipated a game between Lima and its own "Hunkidories": "Avon," wrote The Times, "is the chosen arena for this remarkable contest, and as each nine is endowed with large kicking propensities preparations are being made to strengthen the fence around the grounds. A dummy umpire will act to prevent the murdering of the regular umpire. Policemen will be stationed at short distances in the grounds."

For several decades, as well, the long work week promoted Sunday baseball, to the scandal of Sabbatarians. Western New York teams frequently encountered Sunday laws, so often a justice of the peace was more the common enemy than even an umpire. Since a Sunday baseball ban lingered in Honeoye Falls until 1933, wrote Arch Merrill, "…the home diamond…was in North Bloomfield where the three counties of Monroe, Ontario, and Livingston join. The diamond was in Livingston but a long hit to right field would land in Ontario County…The Monroe County line was about an eighth of a mile to the north of home plate but nobody ever fouled one that far." An 1897 newspaper story reported on Rochester players also caught in the Sabbatarian net in the form of grand jury indictments and bench warrants issued for their arrest, under the urging of the Law and Order Society.

The 1880s and 1890s featured strong rivalries among teams from Victor, Pittsford, Livonia, Geneseo, Mumford, Mendon, Rush, Ionia and others. At Pittsford in 1894, Honeoye Falls scored 7 runs in the first inning. "[T]he Pittsford players and fans…raised such a heckling of kazoos and shouting and insulting that five Honeoye Falls players left the game, refusing to continue," according to a Rochester newspaper. The Honeoye Falls manager and four others filled in for the demurring players and held on to win 10-9. The manager's father told the paper that "…Pittsford manners were most shocking."

Honeoye Falls baseball fortunes sometimes hung on the strong arm of a pitcher who was readily seduced into alcoholic excess the night before crucial games or who skipped to other area teams for a few bucks, but not always happily. As the Geneseo Democrat reported, "He tried to be sociable, but the team [which included college boys] made fun of him as country hick and intentionally blew plays and layed down in the field to make him look bad." Against Lyons he contributed a homerun but lost when his snobbish teammates played so badly that Congressman Wadsworth, the primary backer, after praising the victimized pitcher, disbanded the team.

"Baseball players were considered a rowdy bunch," confessed one veteran of the baseball wars of the turn of the century. "We were not admitted to…first class hotels. We were just second-class citizens, even worse." Yet in 1901 the Husky Farmers played a famous touring women's team bearing a Western New York name, The Bloomer Girls. The "second class citizens" of Honeoye Falls won 11 to 9, but the local paper observed: "The girls made good their title to the claim [of] 'lady' and also to that of 'crack ballplayers' and the large crowd present were very well pleased." An all-black touring team, the Cuban Jiants (sic), won another exhibition game early in the century.

Another veteran player complained of a spitball pitcher. "I think that ball disintegrated on the way to the plate and the catcher put it back together again. I swear,…it was just that spit that went by." Of course pitchers sometimes weaken. As the great Lefty Gomez once said, "I'm throwing as hard as I ever did, they just aren't getting there as fast."

Some players left these small town ball fields of Western New York for stardom in the major leagues—Ken O'Dea, Howie Krist, Bob Keegan, even Rochester's Johnny Antonelli pitched briefly in the town circuit while still in Jefferson High School. The earliest was Ross Barnes of Mt. Morris who played for Cincinnati in the 1870s. And consider the record of Al Mattern of West Rush who pitched for the Boston Braves from 1908-1912. "Playing on the second worst teams in the history of big league baseball (the Mets of the early 1960s were worse), Al set a record by winning over one-third of his team's games. [In 1909 the Braves won 45, lost 108]. Pitching against the likes of Christy Mattewson, Rube Marquard, and Honus Wagner, Mattern virtually carried his team that year."

Let's close with another local, the legendary umpire, Bill Klem, the "Old Arbiter," a Rochester native, who claimed, "I never missed one in my heart" while umpiring from 1905-1941. What he said late in life holds as well for the small-town players recalled here:

"It seems, as the years go on and the light grows dimmer, that the faces and the deeds of great men I have known grow clearer. I relive a half-century of laughter and battle, victory and defeat, and wonderful friendships."
© 1992, Robert G. Koch
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