Monday, May 09, 2005

Remember the Old Hudson River League?

From "Play's theThing," the Woodstock Times, May 5, 2005:
In 1902 African American pitcher Andrew Foster won 51 games for the Cuban X-Giants of Philadelphia. In one of these games he defeated the squirrelly lefthanded ace of the Philadelphia Athletics, Rube Waddell, thus acquiring his nickname.

In early September of 1903, Rube Foster and the X-Giants defeated the Philadelphia Giants in the first black World Series (although it was not until 1924 that the champions of two distinct Negro Leagues squared off in a postseason contest). Then the X-Giants took to the road, playing white minor-league and semipro teams and making good money. On September 21, 1903, Rube Foster and his champions came to Kingston to play at the Driving Park, a new baseball grounds opposite the West Shore depot.

Their opponents, the Kingston Colonials, were only four days away from clinching the pennant of the Hudson River League, a minor circuit in its first year of operation. The Saugerties Colts had broken from the gate well, winning their opener at home against Newburgh, 5-2, on May 21, then taking their next three games as well; but by September the Colts had slid back into the pack as Kingston's Colonials and Hudson's Marines emerged as the obvious class of the league. The Poughkeepsie Giants finished far behind Saugerties, as did the Newburgh Taylor-Mades and the Catskill squad, which had relocated from Ossining in August. Peekskill, which had declined to join the HRL at the beginning of the season, changed its mind on August 10 and fared well enough in its truncated season to finish third as measured by won-lost percentage.

The star player of the Saugerties nine into September had been Art DeGroff, a product of Hyde Park, where he had played with the Robin Hoods. (Other Robin Hoods who went on to play in the HRL were Artie Rice of Kingston, later sheriff of Ulster County and city treasurer of Kingston; Bill "Pony" Farley, who played 2B for Saugerties and later moved to New York City; and Eugene Ressigiue, who played outfield and pitched for Kingston in 1905.) DeGroff, a pitcher and hard-hitting center fielder who reached the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1905-06, played professionally through 1917. Yet when interviewed at the age of 69 he recalled: "I had the most wonderful time of my life that year in Saugerties. They treated the players like sons and brothers. They invited you to their homes. When you had a good day, why they were tickled to death.... As you go up in baseball you lose all that...."

Art DeGroff was Saugerties' lone selection to play in the Hudson River League's midseason All-Star Game, the first ever played in professional ball (it was another thirty years before the major leagues got around to the idea). That momentous contest was played in Poughkeepsie on August 17. On September 11, with Saugerties out of the race and Kingston struggling to hold off the late charge of Hudson, DeGroff was traded downriver in a fishy deal, with Kingston giving in return a nondescript outfielder, W. Peoples, and a sore-armed pitcher, G. Van Riper.

And now we come full circle. Ten days after joining Kingston, DeGroff took the mound against the Cuban X-Giants. Not only did the black champions have Foster as their hurler, they also had Home Run Johnson at shortstop, Danny McClellan in center, Pete Hill at third, and the remarkable Charley Grant at second. The light-skinned Grant was so highly prized that in spring training two years before, John McGraw, then manager of the Baltimore Orioles, had tried to smuggle him into the American League as a full-blooded Cherokee, "Chief Tokohama," who was said to have barnstormed with Guy Green's noted Nebraska Indians, a team that on several occasions played in Ulster County. The ruse worked through several exhibition games as the Orioles headed north ... until they reached a locale where Grant's fans came out to the park and hailed him as "Charley." On March 31, 1901 the Washington Post reported: "There is a report in circulation that Manager McGraw's Indian player is not a Cherokee at all, but is the old-time colored player, Grant."

Rube Foster, who would go on to create the Negro National League in 1920 and in 1981 earn a plaque in Cooperstown, defeated the Kingston Colonials, but barely. Coming up on the short side of the 3-2 score, Art DeGroff pitched brilliantly. It may be coincidence, but by the time he reached Rochester for the 1904 campaign, and forevermore thereafter, he too was known as "Rube."

On September 20, the day before the once and future Rubes were to duel in Kingston, Hudson and Poughkeepsie played an unbelievable quadruple-header. In what is the longest day any professional team has endured in the twentieth century, Poughkeepsie lost all four games.

Nary a man alive can recall this Hudson River League of 1903-07, nor obviously its predecessor of 1886, in which Cy Young's future catcher, Chief Zimmer of Poughkeepsie, would win the batting title with a mark of .409, nipping Kingston's Myron Allen, a future big leaguer with the New York Giants, by only six points. To digress further for a moment, the Kingston Leaders of the 1880s were so formidable a semipro nine success that at an organizing meeting of the upcoming third major league, the Union Association, on October 20, 1883, they applied to become a big-league team along with aspirants from Lancaster and Richmond. They failed to win entry, but one of their star players, Dick Johnston, went on to play for Richmond in the Union Association in 1884 and for many years thereafter was a celebrated center fielder with Boston.

The HRL of 1903-07 is notable for several oddities and firsts. Its teams and fans traveled together to distant games by riverboat, boarding the celebrated Mary Powell for the trip south to New York City to play the Paterson (New Jersey) Intruders, who entered the league in 1904. The Kingston and Saugerties teams defeated two of the most famous barnstorming outfits of the day, the All-Cubans (the genuine article, not African-American "impostors" like the Cuban X-Giants) and the Sioux Indians (whose pedigree as Sioux, or even Indians, was open to question). The contest between these Sioux Indians and the Kingston Colonials the previous year had been played at night, incredible as that may seem, under arc lights at the Driving Park. The major leagues' first night game did not take place until 1935.

Many big leaguers passed through the old HRL, either on the way up or on the way down. Most of these names are known only as trivia questions, obscure bit players in the major-league pageant. Elmer Steele, Joe Lake, Ernie Lindeman, Pete Cregan, Al Burch, George Gibson, Heinie Beckendorf, Phil Cooney, Con Daily, Pete Lamar - and three genuine stars: Jimmy Dygert of the 1903 Poughkeepsie team who as a spitballer with the Phladelphia A's in 1907 would post a record of 21-7 that included three shutout wins in four days; George McQuillan of the 1905 Patersons, a ten-year major leaguer who with the Phillies in 1910 would lead the league with an ERA of 1.60; and the inimitable Dan Brouthers.

A Hall of Famer who was undoubtedly the most feared slugger of the nineteenth century, Brouthers played first base for Poughkeepsie in 1903-05 as well as for Newburgh in 1906. Big Dan's splendid career in the bigs had appeared to end with the Phillies in 1896, despite his batting .344 at the age of 37, two points above his lifetime average. In 1897 he marked his exile to Springfield by leading the Eastern League in batting (.415, with 208 hits) but as the new century turned he returned home to Wappingers Falls. When a new league opened its doors for business right around the corner from his horse farm, however, he got back in harness. On June 1, 1904, in a game at the Driving Park in Saugerties (at the site of the present Cantine Field, but with its home plate facing the other way) Brouthers went 6-for-6 with a grand slam and a three-run homer. Saugertiesian Merce Farrell, whom I interviewed back in 1981 when he was 83, recalled sneaking into that game; he declared that the old man's two home runs were the longest balls anyone in the town had ever seen or ever would see. At year's end the 46-year-old Brouthers wound up leading the league in batting with a mark of .373 and as a reward was even called up to the New York Giants at season's end to play in two games.

Oh, we had stories and stars back then, right in our backyard. This column can barely contain the baseball tales coming out of the Hudson River League, so we'll get to the little-known world of pre-NBA hoops, and the years when Kingston of the Hudson River League was a national champion in basketball, next time around.

--John Thorn


Anonymous JIM SHUBERT said...


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Anonymous JIM SHUBERT said...


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