Base ball, in one form or another, has long been a part of the fabric of Little Falls. As early as 1827, the village Board of Trustees enacted an ordinance that no person shall “play Ball” on any village street or on the towing path of the Erie Canal. Unfortunately, no record has yet been found of the earliest Little Falls base ball teams.
Little Falls Alerts 1885
Soon after the Civil War, “town teams” were formed in most Mohawk Valley villages. Among the earliest Little Falls teams were the Rough & Readys, the Pastimes and the Excelsiors. These teams were essentially rostered by the same core of players but, for whatever reason, changed their team name every few years. In 1867 the Rough & Readys bested the Phoenix of Middleville and were awarded the silver-banded, rosewood bat symbolic of the championship of Herkimer County. As the Pastimes, the Little Falls nine repeated this fete in 1868 and 1869 beating back challenges from the Armory club of Ilion. In 1868 Armory backers unsuccessfully attempted to bribe three Little Falls players with money and employment at Remington Arms, and in 1869 Armory brought in three “ringers” from the famed Stars ballclub of Brooklyn. One of the “ringers” was Candy Cummings, whom many believed to be the best pitcher in the United States. (Candy Cummings is credited with inventing the curveball and was a 1939 inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.) Cummings did not fare very well against the Pastime batsmen, surrendering 24 runs and losing the game. In 1874, now dubbed the Excelsiors, the Little Falls team won two out of three games from the New York State amateur champions, Chelsea of Brooklyn, and for a time held the bragging rights as the Empire State’s best team.
In the 1880’s, the most notable Little Falls teams were the Alerts and the Rocktons.
An article in the Saturday Globe said of the Alerts, “The northern portion of Eastern Park was their stamping ground and there admirers of the national pastime would gather in great numbers to see them swing the hickory and make the angles.” The Rockton team played up on “Skinner’s Flats” and was often composed entirely of African American ball players from Little Falls and the surrounding area. On one such occasion, the Rocktons took on the “Heavy Hitters” of Canajoharie and trounced them 33 to 5 in a game shortened to six innings. Afterwards, both teams retired to the Nellis House in Canajoharie for a wine supper.
To accommodate these teams, base ball fields sprung up on the Petrie farm on the Eatonville Road (present day Route 169), on Casler’s Flats (present day Southern Avenue), up on the hill behind Furnace Street (the aforementioned Skinner’s Flats) and on the “upper side” of Eastern Park.
Besides the regular teams in the 1880’s, it seemed that everyone in Little Falls was on a team and playing base ball. Each hose company had a team, as did the policemen. The mechanics of Reddy’s Foundry played against the “molders” of that mill, the north side of Main Street took on the south side of the street, and a team composed of doctors went up against a team of lawyers. The printers “lathered and shampooed” the barbers 34 to 23 and won a year of free shaves, and the Little Falls Elks regularly vied with other area Elks lodges. With such an interest in base ball, many Little Falls residents believed that their growing and progressive community should have a professional base ball team. Three men stepped up to bat to achieve that goal.
In the spring of 1886 Frank Burgor, Horace Tozer and Stuart Devendorf formed the Little Falls Base Ball Association (LFBBA), a stock holding company which aimed at bringing professional base ball to this village.
Burgor and Tozer owned stores on Main Street in Little Falls, and were ball players themselves, and Devendorf was the proprietor of the Girvan House. Many prominent village residents quickly bought stock in the association, providing the capital for the venture. The new team, simply referred to as Little Falls, was invited into the Central New York League along with professional teams from Norwich, Oneida and Canastota. All the LFBBA still needed was a suitable field to play on and pro ball players.
There was no adequate base ball field in Little Falls for a professional team so the LFBBA had to build one. Six acres of land were leased on Carden’s Flats (in the vicinity of present day Industrial Park). The lot, which was bounded on the south by the Mohawk River, and by the railroad and the Herkimer Road on the north, was perfect for easy access by spectators. The area was graded, an infield was laid out, a grand stand – complete with an awning – was erected and 1700 feet of board fencing was placed around the perimeter of the field. The facility was named Riverside Park.
Frank Burgor and Horace Tozer travelled throughout upstate New York, down into New York City and Long Island and into Pennsylvania seeking to fill out a roster for the new team. In 1886, there were two major leagues and over twenty minor leagues so there were plenty of potential ball players available. “Raiding” other teams for their players was a common practice in the 1880’s. In a short time, the LFBBA had signed eleven professional players to contracts (teams normally had seven “field” players, two pitchers and two catchers on their rosters.) Amongst the players signed were two former major leaguers, pitcher Bill Sweeney and outfielder Tom Mansell, and two future major leaguers, infielder Bob Blakiston and first basemen sixteen year old Phil “The Chicken” Routcliffe. Of note, Sweeney led the major league Union Association in wins in 1884, with 40 and Mansell led the major league American Association with a .402 batting average in 1883. Sporting their new uniforms composed of gray flannel shirts, white-striped gray flannel trousers, red caps, red belts and red stockings, the Little Falls team was ready to play ball.
The base ball rules of 1886 were similar to today’s game.
Each team fielded nine players, games were nine innings long with three outs per side per inning, bases were ninety feet apart, and three strikes and you’re out. The differences were; six balls for a walk, foul balls were not counted as strikes, the pitcher’s “box” was ten feet closer than today and a batter could ask for a low or high pitch. If a batter was hit by a pitch, he didn’t trot on down to first base, he was told to rub dirt on it and “take it like a man.” The major differences were in equipment, or the lack thereof. Bats were wooden and bottle-shaped, while the ball was not as tightly wound and was a bit softer than today’s baseballs. Catchers wore thin chest protectors, rudimentary wire masks and stiff mitts. The men in the field either played bare-handed or wore skimpy leather gloves, which led to bruised fingers and plenty of errors. But no matter the differences the game was still base ball.
On Saturday, July 3, 1886 Riverside Park opened with a game between Little Falls and Canastota. Over seven hundred fans, or “cranks” in the lingo of 1880’s base ball, arrived at the park by horse drawn omnibuses, by train and via horse and carriage. Admittance was 25 cents; ladies free. The Little Falls nine lost their inaugural game – unfortunately the details of this game have not been found. Little Falls lost its first five league games, yet crowds of five hundred to one thousand spectators continued to visit Riverside Park. In one ignominious game, the Little Falls players failed to show for some unknown reason and the game was forfeited to Canastota. So as to please the crowd, the Canastota players invited men from the stands to play an exhibition game with them. As expected, the Canastota professionals won the game 17 to 0. All the while that Little Falls was losing, team owners Frank Burgor and Horace Tozer were beating the bushes for a few new players to improve the team. Roster changes were made and Little Falls began to win, taking the next six out seven league games, including winning games at Oneida, Norwich and Canastota. Little Falls now had a team that could compete with any other nine in the Central New York League.
Throughout August, Little Falls continued to play good base ball for the most part, winning five league games and losing five. Fan interest in the home team was so high that special trains were being run so that spectators could attend Little Falls “away” games. As in any sport, there were lowlights and highlights. On August 10, 1886 Little Falls committed fifteen errors and lost at home to Canastota 12 to 1, but two days later they routed Oneida 14 to 3. And again on the plus side, on August 31st Little Falls trailed Oneida by six runs before scoring seven in their last at bat to win the game 9 to 8.
Interspersed between their league games, the Little Falls ball club also played “exhibition” games against area nines.
There were contests with amateur teams from Herkimer, Frankfort, Constableville, Clinton, Bouckville and Lowville. The majority of these games were one-sided affairs with Little Falls winning by such scores as 16 to 4, 15 to 3 and 16 to 0. The fans at an exhibition game at Sylvan Beach were entertained by a large dog, a Newfoundland, who swam out into Oneida Lake to retrieve errant foul balls.
In late August, Little Falls played the powerful pro team from Utica. The Uticans, who were pennant winners of the International League, sported a roster that included ten former or future major leaguers. Among their number was Utica native George “Juice” Latham, who was known nationally as one of the early stars of professional base ball. In front of a standing room only crowd at Riverside Park, the Little Falls team played well, but the visitors banged out eighteen hits and won the game 12 to 3.
During the first two weeks of September, Little Falls played indifferent base ball losing four of their final six games. The low point of the season came on September 7, when Little Falls lost to Oneida 20 to 11. The Oneida batsmen pounded out 22 hits and the Little Falls fielders committed ten errors. Although the league schedule extended into October the Central New York League season ended abruptly in September when all four teams disbanded. Financial problems were cited as the reason. On September 14, the Little Falls players were released from their contracts. The Little Falls team finished its season with a league record of twelve wins and fifteen losses. Professional base ball in Little Falls had come to a sudden end and would not return for nearly one hundred years until 1977 when a minor league team of the New York Mets, the Little Falls Mets, came to town.
Financially, the Little Falls Base Ball Association had been a bad idea. As stated in a Little Falls Evening Times article, “ There are not many men in this immediate vicinity who are greatly pleased with base ball as an investment, and those stockholders who are depending on dividends to keep them through the hard winter are likely to find hard sledding.” Player salaries, uniforms, equipment, construction of Riverside Park and team transportation costs could not be offset by ticket receipts. Attendance at base ball games in the 1880’s was hampered by an inability to schedule games that coincided with the free time of potential customers as games could only be played during the daylight hours of workdays and on Saturdays. Due to the “Blue Laws” base ball games were forbidden on Sundays. Riverside Park remained open throughout the 1890’s and hosted many amateur base ball games. Although all of the old ball fields disappeared, the passion for base ball flourished in Little Falls as the years went by and more and more amateur teams and leagues were formed. The sport made its way into scholastic circles and it seemed that every clambake or large picnic featured a game of base ball. Professional base ball may have withered in Little Falls, but the sport blossomed. Where at one time the village of Little Falls fathers discouraged the playing of “Ball,” today baseball fields are built and maintained to encourage the game. The “National Game” has come a long way and is alive and well in Little Falls.
Note: A newly formed Little Falls vintage base ball club, the Little Falls Alerts, are scheduled to play two Catskill area vintage base ball clubs during Canal Days.