Thursday, May 25, 2006

When Baseball Was Big in Kingston

From "Wake the Echoes," Kingston Times, May 25, 2006:
It’s been a long while since Kingston has hosted a minor-league baseball team—July 16, 1950, to be precise, the day the Class “C” Colonial League collapsed, taking the city’s Dodger farm club with it. Though Kingston and its environs have continued to send high school graduates into the professional ranks, and some of these have left their marks in the major-league record books, few have known glory. Kingston’s pride has instead been its long history in the game, especially in the semi-pro ranks.

Many of our hometown heroes have enjoyed only a cup-of-coffee stay in the big leagues, but that is nothing to sneeze at: the best high-school player any of us locals can recall, Tim Cole of Saugerties, never made it to The Show despite being a first draft pick of the Atlanta Braves, and the greatest player on any given local team is not likely even to be offered a pro contract. So give them their due—a life in baseball is an almost impossibly hard dream to follow.

In days of yore, young men played baseball nearly to the exclusion of anything else - football and basketball didn’t beckon as careers in the years before mass media. Back then, boosters in small cities like Kingston, Newburgh, Middletown and Poughkeepsie could be counted on to chip in whenever a promoter got it into his brain to start a new league. Even a village like Saugerties or Catskill might win a minor-league franchise, as they did in the Hudson River League of 1903-07. A “country team” like the Hudson Rivers of Newburgh could compete against the best the big city could throw against them, as it did as early as 1859. A remote Kingston could host a silver-ball tournament drawing champion clubs from New York and Albany, as it did barely six months after the end of the Civil War.

In recent years the New York-Penn League, a short-season circuit of minor-league baseball clubs, has brought joy to residents of burgs to the north and south of us. In Ulster County, however, except for our kids we are in permanent baseball winter, with only distant memories to keep us warm.

There were the visits of Hall of Fame players—Babe Ruth, Satchel Paige, Joe DiMaggio, Christy Mathewson, Rube Foster, Pie Traynor—to play exhibitions against our tough Colonials (founded in 1921) and Recs (1941). Jim Bouton pitched one summer of his long farewell tour for the Dutchmen of Saugerties. Hall of Fame players were born within what today would be an hour’s drive of us - Dan Brouthers, Johnny Evers, Eddie Collins, Frank Grant, Jack Chesbro, George Davis, King Kelly. And to call the roll of our local lads who made it to the majors is pretty impressive.

Maybe the most colorful character was Mickey McDermott, a left-handed pitcher from Poughkeepsie who pitched 12 years in the big leagues, won a game for the Yankees in the 1956 World Series against the Dodgers, drank himself out of baseball, and then won the Arizona State Lottery to collect a cool $7 million. But the best of these players not in the Hall of Fame may well have been Kingston’s Dick Johnston, nonpareil centerfielder for the powerful Boston team of the National League. Born in Kingston on April 6, 1863, he grew up in the printing trade, working for the Freeman while his baseball talents developed. It was, however, the city’s other major newspaper, the Leader, that in 1879 sponsored a ball club. Joining this squad in 1882, he starred at shortstop and at the bat while leading the team to an unbeaten record in 12 games that included defeats of the Brooklyn Atlantics and a couple of prominent Albany clubs.

The team’s pitcher, Myron Allen, went up to the New York club briefly the following year but the Leaders continued to pile up victories behind the pitching of Ed Dugan, whose brother Bill was his battery mate. The two had come to Kingston from Brooklyn, but Ed left his heart in Kingston, where he is buried. Playing at the now long-lost Donovan Field in Kingston, the 1883 Leaders succumbed in hard-fought games to the major-league Mets, Gothams, and Dodgers, but they defeated all other clubs except the powerful Newark nine.

Kingston officials grew so heady with the prospects for their Leaders that on October 20, 1883, at an organizational meeting of a newly brewing rival major league named the Union Association, they applied for a franchise along with New York City, Lancaster, Pa., and Richmond, Va. Ultimately none of the four cities fielded a Union team. With the Leaders in disarray, Johnston and the Dugans joined the Richmond club. Starting the season in the Eastern League, the Virginias, as they were known, leapt up in class to the American Association, a major circuit, in midyear. There he, along with Richmond third baseman Billy Nash, was scouted by Boston. Both moved to Beantown for the 1885 campaign. As reserves they waited their turn but showed enough promise to take over starting positions the following year. In 1888, as Kingston fielded a shaky team in a Hudson River League that disbanded at year end, Johnston led the National League with 18 triples, finishing second in total bases and seventh in batting average.

In 1910, sixteen years after he had hung up his spikes with a final season at shortstop for the Kingston entry in the New York State League, the Boston Globe observed: “Those of the old-timers who can recall the outfielding of Dicky Johnston will see in Tris Speaker the same qualities of judging a ball from the bat until it is hooked in out of the wet.” The style he perfected was a revolution in its day: rather than drift back under a ball hit over his head, he would turn on a hard hit ball with his back to the infield and then turn just in time to make the catch. This is the way all outfielders have been taught to go after such balls for a century now.

On July 12, 1889 Boston defeated Pittsburgh 13-1 and Johnston hit two homers and a single, perhaps his biggest day as a batsman. But it was his sensational fielding that made him a standout. The Globe reported, “Some of his running catches were miraculous, a memorable one being the capture of a terrific drive from the big bat of Dan Brouthers. Radbourne was pitching for Boston in that game, and he sent up a slow one waist high. Brouthers, the heaviest slugger in the league, landed squarely with his tick and the ball sailed so high and far that the crowd expected to see it clear the center field fence.

“The moment the ball met the bat Johnston turned his back and dug for the fence. When he was within a few feet of the boards he turned and leaped into the air. At the same time he threw up his left hand in the nick of time, for the ball lodged in his glove just as he crashed into the fence. That catch made Dickey Johnston, and he was quickly called the league’s star center fielder, but he soon fell by the wayside because of his habits.”

Dick Johnston was released in 1890 despite having played a vital role in the previous year’s pennant race. Sportswriter Tim Murnane reported that many fans speculated that because manager King Kelly was an Elk he had a preference for playing his fraternal brother Tom Brown in center. But Murnane knew, as everyone in the game did, that Johnston’s drinking had descended so far out of control that even Kelly, hardly an abstemious sort himself, could no longer put him in the lineup. By 1892, only 29 years of age, Dick Johnston was through. After being cut in the spring by the Cincinnati Reds he tried hooking on again with Richmond, hoping to launch a climb back into the limelight, but his skills were gone. He returned to his Kingston home at 105 Abeel Street and, after a final fling in 1894, resumed the printing trade.

--John Thorn


Blogger Tom Clohessy said...

Very interesting article...i thought i knew my 19th century baseball but Johnston eluded meteoric as Sockalexis, this guy. Where was the AA and intervention of friends in those days? (friends; probably a wasted effort there)
So glad to have discovered your blog; i'll read it religiously!

1:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dicky Johnston played 16 games for Kingston in 1894 before the NY State League folded after the 4th of July Doubleheaders. He played shortstop and had a .342 average.

He wasn't the only ballplayer in the NY State League with a drinking problem.

"Several members of the team will be given their walking papers...drunken ball players will not be tolerated much longer."
- "Amsterdam Daily Democrat"

"Our citizens have supported a lot of worthless bums."
- "Johnstown Democrat"

Tony K

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