A Catskill Catalog: April 30, 2008
Often, when I would run into the late Kenny Miller, I‚Äôd ask him for the Satchel Paige story. Kenny was the longtime proprietor of Bussy‚Äôs Store, on the main corner in Margaretville, who served several terms as mayor of that village. He was also a baseball player. As a young man, right after the war, Kenny was a minor league catcher in the Brooklyn Dodger organization. Called up to the big club during spring training one year, Kenny played in an exhibition game against the Cleveland Indians. Fireballer Satchel Paige was pitching.
Satchel Paige was the seemingly ageless pitching wonder who broke into the big leagues in 1948, two days after his 42nd birthday. Satch had been, for years, the hardest throwing pitcher in the old Negro Leagues, and was well beyond his best by the time he got a chance to play in the majors. Like Yogi Berra, Satchel Paige was famous not only for his skill on the diamond, but also for his witticisms, like his classic advice on staying youthful that I can‚Äôt keep myself from quoting below.
‚ÄúHow To Keep Young by Satchel Paige: #1. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts. #2. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move. #3. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain‚Äôt restful. #4. Avoid running at all times, and #5. Don‚Äôt look back. Something might be gaining on you.‚Äù
When I would run into Kenny, I‚Äôd ask him to look back on that long ago spring day he faced Satchel Paige. ‚ÄúI got up to the plate and I heard three pitches,‚Äù Kenny would say. ‚ÄúThen I sat down.‚Äù
Kenny Miller was just one of the remarkable baseball players who populated the mountains a generation or two ago. Baseball truly was the national pastime and nearly every Catskill Mountain village had its own town team. The National Semi-Pro Baseball Congress was founded in 1935 to bring some degree of organization to the myriad industrial, service, and town teams and leagues playing on sand lots around the country. Each year it published a directory.
The 1939 Semi-Pro Congress Directory lists a number of Catskill Mountain teams. The Naponach Chevvies represented Ellenville. Hunter had a village-sponsored team called the Indians. The Phoenicia town team was listed, as were two teams from Rosendale, seven from Kingston, and the Woodstock AC.
Catskill Mountain locals like Bob Reed, Chan DeSilva, Bill Lutz and Dutch Merritt built substantial regional reputations as ballplayers. Min Pultz, a standout pitcher for both Margaretville and Fleischmanns town teams, went on to play second base in Triple A minor league ball down in Pennsylvania.
Roxbury, Downsville, Delhi, and Andes all had teams, and clubs from Kingston and Oneonta would compete with the mountain boys both home and away. Each village had a ball field, in a park or out behind the village somewhere. The wonderful little baseball diamond just behind the Village of Hamden on Route 10 between Walton and Delhi is a lasting reminder of those days, when baseball belonged to the whole town together.
The town team tradition got a renewed shot in the arm in the late 1940s when scores of veterans returned from Europe and the Pacific eager to start families and have a little fun. Sunday baseball thrived. It continued through the 50s and 60s. In 1972, I watched the Downsville town team play at the Firemen‚Äôs Park diamond in that village, but town team baseball was dying by then. Perhaps, regular TV broadcasts of major league games made local baseball seem quaint, or perhaps the rise in popularity of other sports ‚Äì football, basketball, soccer, golf ‚Äì hastened the demise.
An interesting theory is posed by Tim Wiles, librarian at the A. Bartlett Giamatti Baseball Research Center and Library at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Tim thinks insurance killed town team baseball. Municipalities worried about the liability costs of playing hardball on public lands. Softball seemed a solution.
Softball leagues grew, baseball faded. The present vintage baseball revival brings back a slower, less dangerous game.
But there‚Äôs something nostalgic and romantic about the days when each of our little mountain towns fielded a team, and a good ballplayer could forge a degree of regional fame on the diamond. Most of the old-timers from this side of the mountains agreed that the best player in these parts was New Kingston‚Äôs Ruthvan ‚ÄúRobbie‚Äù Robertson. Born in the 1890s, Robbie made his living driving a truck and manufacturing cauliflower crates, but he made his name playing baseball. He was a pitcher, and those who saw him play say he could have been a major leaguer.
I knew Robbie. He was a quiet man, but if you sat with him awhile and didn‚Äôt ask questions, just sat on the post office porch at noontime and waited, he‚Äôd give you a story. In his grand gravelly voice, he‚Äôd tell you about a ball game in the past, or share his views on the game itself. Robbie always said Henry Aaron was the best hitter he ever saw, long before Hammerin‚Äô Hank broke the career home run record. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs all in his wrists,‚Äù he‚Äôd tell me.
Robbie stopped playing ball at age 54. He hung up his glove, despite the pleading of the manager of the local town team, begging him to play one more year. Like Satchel Paige, Robbie was ageless.