A Catskill Catalog: April 23, 2008

Jackie Robinson Day is an every April 15th celebration of the man who broke the color barrier in baseball. This year marks the 60th anniversary of that first season in Brooklyn, when Jackie stoically took the curses, slurs and verbal brick-bats hurled at him by opposing players and fans alike. The story of Kentucky-bred shortstop Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Jackie's shoulder in full view of a howling stadium, signifying to all "hey, this is my teammate," has always struck me as inspirational.

Baseball adopted Jim Crow segregation in the late 19th century. As a response, African-Americans established baseball teams and leagues that became institutions in the black community and vitally important to the development of baseball. The history of black baseball is well documented, and justly honored, at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in nearby Cooperstown.

The first black ball club was organized by Frank P. Thompson, headwaiter at the Argyle Hotel in Babylon, Long Island. The Cuban Giants -- race prejudice was such that Mr. Thompson figured calling his players "Cuban" would make them more acceptable to the hotel -- wealthy clientele - quickly became a baseball power, playing and beating teams of any and all colors. They pioneered winter baseball, playing in Florida during the cold months, based at a hotel in St. Augustine. The Cuban Giants were so good, an entire display case is devoted to them at the Hall of Fame.

Fleischmanns memories

I mention them because I’ve held in my hand, at the Fleischmanns Museum of Memories, a scorecard that records a game played at the turn of the century between these Cuban Giants and the local Mountain Athletic Club. The Mountain Athletic Club beat them! That's how good the local team was.

The Mountain Athletic Club was established by Julius and Max Fleischmann, playboy sons of multi-millionaire Ohio yeast magnate Charles Fleischmann who, in 1883, founded, for his family and friends, the summer resort that today bears his name. The elder Fleischmann, one of the richest men in America, was kind of the Bill Gates of his day -- yeast was the everybody-needs-it software in a culture of daily bread baking.

In the summer of 1877, wealthy New York banker Joseph Seligman had been turned away from the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga, a hotel he and his family had stayed at for many summers before, as an ugly wave of anti-Semitism swept through society. Mr. Fleischmann would establish a pleasure ground where such insults would be unthinkable. His sons would bring in the baseball.

By 1900, 29-year-old Julius was the boy Mayor of Cincinnati, and he and his ball-playing older brother, Max, owned what the Cincinnati Enquirer called, on September 12, 1900, "The strongest independent team in America." The Mountain Athletic Club played in front of large crowds of summer vacationers at the grandstand-enclosed diamond the Fleischmann brothers built on the flat below the family home. They also toured, playing New York State League teams in Albany and elsewhere, traveling to Ohio for a much anticipated match-up with the National League Reds.  

That game never came off, but one of the largest crowds ever to watch a game in Cincinnati’s League Park watched the “Mountain Tourists” play the Shamrocks, a Cincinnati group that may have been the Reds playing under assumed names. 

The Catskill Mountain team won, twice.

As well they might.  Julius Fleischmann’s Mountain Athletic Club had a future Hall of Famer, the five-foot-six-inch fireplug Miller Huggins, at second base.  A law school graduate, Huggins went on to manage the Yankees of the 1920s Babe Ruth dynasty.  

Scrappy Charley “Red” Dooin was the catcher.  He went on to play for and manage the Philadelphia Phillies. Dooin still holds the Phillie franchise record for games caught.

Third baseman George “Whitey” Rohe broke into the fledgling American League the following year, playing for the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox.  Pitcher Fred Mitchell began, in 1901, a 12-year major league career with Boston and New York in the American League and Philadelphia and Brooklyn in the National. Fellow right-hander Barney McFadden, fresh from college ball at Villanova, later pitched for the Reds.  

The Mountain Athletic Club’s best pitcher was a left-hander named Harris – which may have been a pseudonym for a college pitcher from Georgetown named Harry White, who went on to pitch for the Phillies and White Sox.  

Max Fleischmann played right field.

In 1902, the owner of the Cincinnati Reds was threatening to move his team, so city political boss George B. Cox put together a group to buy the team and keep it in Cincinnati. The Fleischmann brothers provided the money, and Julius and Max became major league owners. With a big league team back home, their interest in Catskill Mountain baseball faded.  Baseball, however, continued to be an important part of mountain culture, with teams popping up in nearly every town.