SLINGERLANDS — It is a picture that has been passed through the years, where the names of men like Clarence Houck and John Oliver are remembered outside sports, but their team has long since been forgotten.
In time, the team would become known as the Village Wonders, possibly the best semi-professional baseball team you’ve never heard of. In the first three decades of the 20th century, they dominated teams of the Capital District. Accounts of their games headlined Albany newspapers — even once above Yale, the kings of collegiate football. Stories of their exploits were shared between generations of area residents. Their names appeared in sports columns of Albany dailies well into the 1950s, decades after they hung up their cleats.
“There are so many little snippets of what the Village Wonders were doing,” said Bethlehem Town Historian Susan Leath, who is also the author of “Bethlehem.” She included the picture in the book, published last November.
“It was really a great picture of Slingerlands people, baseball and a cute kid in the middle. Where can you go wrong with that?” she said. “Everybody loves baseball.”
A different time on the diamond
There was a time communities that supported amateur or semi-professional baseball peppered the landscape as abundantly as apple orchards and cornfields in the Hudson and Mohawk valleys. Delmar, Elsmere, South Bethlehem, Delanson, Central Bridge — if a small village or hamlet had a patch of grass and enough able bodies to fill a lineup, they had themselves a baseball team. Around the turn of the century the game as it’s known today was just catching its stride.
The first team to organize in Slingerlands was reported in the May 16, 1891 edition of The Altamont Enterprise. Going by the name the Echo, the team played independent from any league. There are few reminders of their games. At the time, local newspapers rarely reported game results. Similar to today, papers were dependent upon teams to report on their own games. Ultimately, the team disbanded, making room for a new one in 1903. It wasn’t until 1907 that local games earnestly appeared in newspapers.
William Whitman was named manager of the Slingerlands team that year. His profession was that of an agent for American Express, which was known then as a courier company with an exclusive relationship with D&H Railroad. (What the airways are to express mail today, the railways were in the early 20th century.)
But Whitman’s passion was in baseball. He provided newspapers with complete box scores on each game. His enthusiasm fueled him to be the team’s best promoter. His persistence may have also earned him the nickname “Bug.”
Bug’s connections with the railroad provided the team opportunities other clubs lacked. For instance, the train occasionally provided transportation for players and fans to games as far as Cobleskill. The pomp and circumstance that followed a win would rival that of professional ball clubs, complete with pyrotechnics and a large congregation at the train station.
“To think, in the early 1900s, there was no TV,” said Leath. “Bethlehem was a farming community, with scattered farms and not a whole lot of excitement. I think people would really follow a team like that.”
The season it started
The 1908 season started with much promise. Whitman arranged to have Troy native and future baseball Hall of Famer Johnny Evers to officiate the team’s home opener. Evers’ Chicago Cubs had swept Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers in the World Series the previous October. The news of Evers coming to Slingerlands caused quite a buzz, and plenty of print in Everett Hevenor’s back page column of The Enterprise. Though Evers never did come, Whitman achieved what he set out to accomplish: He got everyone’s attention.
Hevenor started calling Slingerlands’ nine players the “Village Wonders” for the first time. He now headlined his Slingerlands column with stories about each game:
“We Whitewashed Maple Ridge” (June 26, 1908); “Defeated the Pennant Winners (Adams of Rensselaer Amateur League)” (July 17, 1908); “Slingerlands Trimmed the Curtains (of the South End League)” (Aug. 8, 1908); “Cobleskill Whitewashed” (Aug. 11, 1908).
Hevenor’s reporting on the Wonders was generating more copy than that of Altamont’s own team. Something Altamont’s manager, Raymond Carr, had taken notice of. Over the years, a friendly rivalry ensued between Altamont and Slingerlands. Whereas Slingerlands filled the majority of its team with local men, Altamont reportedly fielded a team with the best talent money could buy.
Carr reportedly loaded his team with ballplayers with collegiate and professional experience. Jack Wirth caught for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Artie Stein pitched for Syracuse University and the Oneonta Professionals. Yet, more played as high as B-Level ball, and all of them were hitting in the meat of Altamont’s lineup.
However, the core of the Wonders always consisted of Slingerlands boys. It wasn’t so much of a conscious effort to retain some form of integrity. The talent was already there. Oliver, the captain of the team, was a fine hitter and played both corners of the infield. George Dickson maintained shortstop for several years. Howard Sager was a fleet-footed center fielder, and once his playing days were done he’d be remembered for a 42-game hitting streak. Second baseman Clarence Earl was the brawn of the Slingerlands lineup.
Carr had made things interesting just prior to the start of the 1908 season. He lured longtime Slingerlands captain Ira Pier to his ball club. Pier had developed into one of the best pitchers in the area and was already moonlighting for other clubs. With Pier gone, the Slingerlands’ nine had to find an ace pitcher elsewhere.
Whitman acquired a pitcher named Eddie Burke from Albany. Burke had a curveball that had already caught the attention of the National League’s New York Giants. That curveball shut out Cobleskill 6-0, a team Altamont lost by 8-7. Burke also yielded only two runs in a 14-2 victory over Adams, the previous year’s winners of the Rensselaer Amateur League. Where Pier wasn’t known to be a very good hitter, Burke was a contender. As far as talent went, Whitman obtained a better player than the one he replaced.
By the time the two teams met on Aug. 29, 1908, Slingerlands was 11-4. Both Pier and Burke were to face off against one another.
The rivals face off
The scene would have appeared much like something from Robert Redford’s “The Natural.” Carr, with his baseball team and accompanying fans, would have descended from the Slingerlands train station and walked to the ball field where Union and Kenwood avenues intersect today. There, they would have met Whitman, his team, and a throng of 500 fans.
“To have 500 people to come out to watch a game, that’s a huge amount of people for 1900, 1910. It would be quite an event,” Leath said.
Undoubtedly, Adam Mattice and his young son John were in attendance. The elder Mattice would have appreciated Burke’s curveball most of all. Before he had established a family in Slingerlands, he was known for being the first curveball pitcher in upstate New York. He led Central Bridge, of Schoharie County, to an undefeated season in 1882, and once struck out 19 batters against Cobleskill. John Mattice would later follow his father by catching Slingerlands through three banner years in 1918, 1919 and 1920.
Altamont jumped out to a quick lead in the afternoon game. Leadoff hitter (and future Altamont Town Supervisor) Ed Fowler reached on an error. He advanced to third on a base hit from Stein, and later scored on a fielder’s choice before the end of their half-inning.
Pier stepped atop the Slingerlands mound for the first time as a visitor. He was said to have a compact and powerful windup. He made quick work of his former teammates, sitting them down in order over the first two innings. But, his fate changed in the third.
Still down 1-0, Slingerlands’ Frank Boutelle squeezed out a single. After Burt Sager’s strikeout, Albany native Jimmie Kennedy stepped up to the plate. Kennedy was a midseason acquisition, after the Wonders’ regular catcher, Artie Callan, injured his ankle. Kennedy punched a single, moving Boutelle into scoring position.
Slingerlands tied the game on a line drive single by George Dickson, scoring Boutelle and putting Kennedy on third. Dickson immediately stole second to eliminate the double play threat. However, Pier remained composed and quickly struck out Oliver.
What would happen next would solidify the Village Wonders’ reputation.
With two outs, and two men on, Clarence Earl walked up to the plate. As he did, Hevenor could not help but notice the smile across the young hitter’s face.
Earl was 15 years old when he was named to the Slingerlands’ nine as a substitute player on the 1903 club. In a few short years, he developed into the team’s best overall player. On the field, the second baseman was once nearly credited with an unassisted triple play. At the plate, he hit .435 in 1907 and would finish the 1908 season with a .413 batting average, and a Ruthian .793 slugging percentage.
Pier quickly blew two pitches by Earl for strikes. But, with first base open, Pier had the chance to walk a dangerous hitter to force an out to any base and potentially end the inning. Instead, he challenged his opponent. His next pitch was tagged for a double, scoring two runs, which gave Slingerlands a lead they would not relinquish. Pier was soon replaced, and the game ultimately ended with Slingerlands winning 10-5.
“The attitude of most pitchers is to challenge hitters rather than to pitch around them,” said Jesse Braverman, who as a longtime coach in the Bethlehem area is no stranger to the game. He coached the Mickey Mantle team for 18 years and Bethlehem Central’s varsity team for several more before moving on to LaSalle, where he has been the last 10 years.
“I have always felt that BC has had a changing baseball reputation over the years,” said Braverman, “which would be true for most teams. After all, as the old saying goes, ‘you are only as good as your last game.’”
A brisk rise, and a name to remember
Slingerlands began league play when the Susquehana League organized six years later in 1914. In 12 years of league play, Slingerlands won seven league championships – Susquehana League champs of 1916 and 1918, Albany County League champs in 1919 and 1920, and later, Knickerbocker Press Suburban League champions in 1929, 1930 and 1931.
Slingerlands baseball ended once the Suburban League folded in 1933. By that time, the Albany Twilight League had formed. Being centrally located in the city of Albany, the league drew larger crowds and more attention from the press. Slingerlands had played exhibition games against Twilight League teams and in 1934, officially entered the league with a team called the Seminoles. But, by name, there would no longer be a Slingerlands team.
The emergence of new technologies, coupled with the Great Depression, caused community support for semi-professional baseball to dry up. The Twilight League survived until recent years, though. The country ultimately pulled through the financial doldrums of the 1930s, but innovative luxuries such as radio, and later, television, pulled fans away from local baseball. But, the legacy of Slingerlands baseball carried on through a man who would later become the Twilight League’s most revered player: Henry Haack, who began his career with Slingerlands in 1928.
“He was a foundation to the (Albany Twilight) League,” said Dick Barrett, Albany Twilight League Historian.
Barrett was one of several committee members who voted Haack into the league’s inaugural hall of fame class in 1981. He recalled how, in 1935, 10,000 readers of the Knickerbocker Press voted Haack into the league’s All-Star lineup to face off against a similar league in Troy.
“Henry Haack was as well known in the city of Albany as Derek Jeter is today. Back then, local baseball was in newspapers like the Tri-City Valley Cats and New York Yankees, with box scores, pictures and write-ups all the time,” Barrett said.
Before Haack retired from baseball in 1951, he earned four Most Valuable Player awards, and later coached his teams to four Twilight League championships. For a quarter century, he embodied the excellence of his Slingerlands predecessors. Said Barrett, “He was a premier figure to the league.”
Time can be especially cruel for an athlete. On the field of play, time defines the beginning and the end. But, outside the lines, the end of one’s playing days are not so clear. It is in that silent, inert moment that naturally follows the end of play and passes the threshold under which the contemporary transforms into the historical. Perhaps that’s why the word “legacy” has infested today’s sports vernacular, often misused to describe a career on the wane. Because, in a memory, an athlete is forever young; as long as he’s remembered.
In March of 1956, an 84-year-old Whitman wrote to the Knickerbocker Press to remember his ballplayers, and he listed them all by name.
“We played the best teams in the Albany district,” he wrote, “and never lost a series.”