By Bob Mayer, from the Summer 2020 issue (Volume 96, Number 2) of The Westchester Historian.
I was born at Mount Vernon Hospital in Mount Vernon, NY on November 13, 1945. I lived there with my parents until I married in 1968. Growing up, I learned to love baseball, and played in the city’s Little League for five years from age 8 through 12. One of my fondest memories was going to Memorial Field to see The King and His Court, a four-man team softball team led by pitcher Eddie Feigner that traveled the world playing entertaining exhibition games similar to the Harlem Globetrotters. I played competitive Slo-pitch and Fast Pitch softball until I was 65.
As most kids did in the 1950’s, I collected baseball cards. A Yankee fan, I held onto all my Yankees, and many of my other favorite player cards into adulthood. I started collecting baseball memorabilia in the mid 1990’s and still purchase interesting items. However, it wasn’t until 2004 when I began researching some of my amateur and semi-pro team photographs from the 19th century that I learned more about the roots of baseball, and the early history of the game along the Hudson River.
Albert Goodwill Spalding led us to believe that baseball began in Cooperstown, New York in 1839 when Abner Doubleday mapped out the first field for the first game. This is the same Abner Doubleday who graduated West Point, fired the first shot at the Confederates at Fort Sumter, and ultimately became a major general in the Union Army.
Spalding had commissioned a group to find out how baseball started, however, he had a pre-disposition that the game was purely American, and could not have been an outgrowth of any games from Europe. The commission he established under the leadership of Abraham Mills relied upon a letter received from Abner Graves attesting to having seen Doubleday play this game when he (Graves) was a child. This same Graves was convicted of murdering his wife, and spent the rest of his life in a mental institution.
Although there was much rebuttal when the Spalding Commission released its report in 1905, the falsehoods remained as fact for many years, even through the formation of baseball’s Hall of Fame at Cooperstown in 1939. In recent years, many researchers have helped present the real origins of baseball to the public. The consensus is that Alexander Cartwright of the Knickerbockers, a social club in New York City, laid out a diamond shaped field and put down the first set of rules that are similar to today’s game of baseball. More recently, this second “myth” has been debunked, and credit has now shifted to William Wheaton of the Gothams in New York City as the scribe of the first rules, and Lucius “Doc” Adams of the Knickerbockers as a key contributor. As research continues through the Origins Committee of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), new findings will ultimately emerge. So instead of starting baseball, Abner Doubleday is more apt to have started the Civil War.
Roots in Mount Vernon
Baseball moved north from New York City in the 1850s. The Unions of Morrisania were formed in 1855. Morrisania was part of lower Westchester until it was annexed into the Bronx in 1874. The first reported team in Mount Vernon was called the Una Club, which was formed on April 1, 1865. The Una team defeated the Actives 8-1 in early October 1865. Several members of a prominent family were on the team: the names of William Hathaway Van Cott (9/26/1821 – 6/31/1908), a local judge, D. Van Cott (probably Daniel Van Cott), and T.S. Van Cott (probably Theodore S. Van Cott) appear on the team roster in 1866.
The National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) had been formed in 1857 to establish a common set of rules, facilitate the process of arranging games between teams, and form a governing organization. William Van Cott had previously played with the Gotham Club, one of the earliest clubs playing baseball in New York City, and became the first president of the NABBP in 1858. The Una Club joined the NABBP in 1866, and won 3 games while losing 6 in contests with other teams. Included among the defeats was a loss to the Unions of Morrisania on May 19. In 1867 the Una Club won 6 and lost 4 games. Another early club, the Mt. Vernon Stars, defeated the Howards of New Rochelle 44-31 on September 4, 1869. On the 23rd, they played the Nonpareil of City Island, but lost 31-16.
On March 17, 1883 a meeting was held at Kapp’s Hotel in Mount Vernon for the purpose of establishing the Westchester County Base-ball Alliance. Robert T. Bach of Mount Vernon was chosen Chairman. Each club in the alliance would play four games with each other during the season, and the prize to the winning club would be a set of colors. Delegations were present from Yonkers, Hartsdale, New Rochelle, Port Chester and Mount Vernon. However, the Mount Vernon entry ultimately pulled out of the league in August. As baseball grew in popularity, teams were formed to represent villages and towns, and rivalries were established between these local teams. Beginning in the 1890s many municipal fire departments had baseball leagues among their various companies. Volunteer fire companies continued to have teams and highlights of the season were when the competed against other city’s teams.
In 1899 a local team, the Mount Vernon Base Ball Club, formed an amateur league. The Mount Vernon News of June, 1, 1899, reported on three of their games. On Decoration Day (now called Memorial Day), they split a double header with the All-Collegiate team, winning 11-10 in the first game and being shut out 6-0 in the second. Another win came against the Manhattans of New York City 23-12 on the YMCA grounds. In the early 1900s, other local companies also started teams. This was also a method to build employee morale and loyalty at the company. One of these local teams was the Mauser Manufacturing Company team of 1907. They were silversmiths, and their factory was located at Columbus and Washington avenues in Mount Vernon.
Mount Vernon High School Baseball
Schools were not left out of the baseball craze either. Mount Vernon established its first high school in 1894. Edison High School was built in 1910 and the old Mount Vernon High School building was replaced in 1912, and ultimately renamed A.B. Davis High School in 1933. It is likely that Mount Vernon High School began inter-scholastic baseball in the late 1890s.
A Hero Visits
In 1921 Babe Ruth had a monster year for the New York Yankees. He pounded out 59 home runs breaking his year-old record of 54, had a record 177 Runs Batted In and had a batting average of .378. People couldn’t get enough of Ruth, who attracted crowds wherever he went. On November 3rd, he made his vaudeville stage debut at F.F Proctor’s Theater in Mount Vernon, where he sang and performed in skits. This show ran three days there, then moved to New York City for 15-weeks. Ruth maintained a relationship with the RKO Proctor Company after F.F. Proctor sold his theaters to RKO, as evidenced by another card of him batting in the 1932 World Series.
There was tremendous expansion in popularity of the game when Babe Ruth hit the Major Leagues in 1915. By the 1920s, nearly every municipality had baseball leagues, with games primarily being played after work. These “Twilight Leagues” took hold and companies, civic organizations, unions, local bars, etc. all had teams playing baseball. The best players, and particularly pitchers, might receive payments to play with different teams. A 95 year old friend in Poughkeepsie played on several teams in the 1940s and 1950s, but when the Kingston Recreations called him to pitch, he would leave wherever he was to get paid $50 a game.
Semi-Pro Baseball at Memorial Field
The Mount Vernon Scarlets, sometimes known as the Red Caps, were a well-known semi-pro team that played at Memorial Field for about 25 years from the late 1930s to the early 1960s. Major League pitchers Andy Karl and Emerson Dickman played with the Scarlets as did John Branca, Ralph Branca’s brother. Al Gardella, who played one season with the New York Giants in 1945, also played briefly with the Scarlets in 1944. He also played for the Peekskill Highlanders Minor League team.
Andy Karl and Emerson Dickman had short careers with several teams. Karl was born in Mount Vernon. John Branca went on to be head of Mount Vernon’s Recreation Department, was twice elected to the New York State Assembly, and was appointed Chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission by Governor Mario Cuomo. Al Gardella and his brother Danny both played with the New York Giants, although Danny had a longer career.
For several years the Scarlets were in the Metropolitan Baseball Association, a loose affiliation of semi-pro teams (1938-1947). These teams played independent teams, minor league all-star teams, Negro League teams, barnstorming teams like the House of David, and teams led by major leaguers. The Bushwicks of Brooklyn were the league powerhouse, winning the league in 1938 and 1939 while the Scarlets played less than .500 ball. However, in 1940 Mount Vernon had a fine year and won the league with a won-loss percentage of .679. Some of the other teams in the MBA included: Barton’s Nighthawks (New Hyde Park), Bay Parkway (Brooklyn), Bay Ridge (Brooklyn), Bushwicks (Woodhaven, Queens), Carlton’s (Throggs Neck, Bronx), Cedarhurst (Long Island), Glendale Farmers (Queens), Queens Club (Woodside, Queens), Springfield Grays (Queens), Union City Reds (New Jersey), and West New York (New Jersey).
Other Professional Baseball Players from Mount Vernon
Ralph Branca – played for A. B. Davis High School and was signed at 18 with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1944. He pitched for 12 seasons and won 21 games in 1947, but is best known for the home run pitch to Bobby Thomson in the 1951 playoff game against the NY Giants.
Roy Smith – Mount Vernon High School class of 1979, he was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies, and played 8 seasons with the Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Twins and Baltimore Orioles.
Ken Singleton – Mount Vernon High School class of 1965, he spent 15 years in the major leagues, primarily with the Baltimore Orioles. Ken amassed more than 2000 hits and 1000 RBIs, and became a very popular sports announcer and analyst.
Garvin Alston – Mount Vernon High School class of 1988 and cousin of Dell Alston (a native of Valhalla and former New York Yankee), he was signed by the Colorado Rockies and appeared in 6 games in 1996 before a career ending injury.
Brian Bochow – Mount Vernon High School class of 1968 was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates and played for the 1972 Niagara Falls Pirates in the New York – Pennsylvania League.
George Bochow – Mount Vernon High School class of 1964, he was drafted by the San Francisco Giants and played for the Medford Giants in the Northwestern League in 1972.
Jimmy Cardasis – Mount Vernon High School class of 1964, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers and played in the minors in 1969 with Rogue Valley (.342) and in 1970 and 1971 with Daytona Beach in the Florida League.
Teddy Cardasis – A.B. Davis High School class of 1960, he was signed by the New York Mets and spent 1963 with the Quincy Jets in the Midwest League.
Another personal link to Mount Vernon baseball connects to my attending Martin H. Traphagen Junior High School. Traphagen was a principal in the Mount Vernon public schools from 1912 to 1948, and was a graduate of New Paltz Norman School. Normal schools were primarily focused on education of future teachers, and Traphagen played on the school’s football and baseball teams.
Baseball has had its ups and downs. Tremendous growth in local/town teams after the Civil War; increase in Major League attendance with the coming of Babe Ruth; another big spurt of growth in the Minor Leagues after World War II. On the down-side, I don’t see the after school pick-up games as I did throughout my youth, and the sport has seen the loss of public interest after the player strikes and proliferation of steroid use. Today, baseball is big business. The allure of corporate sponsors and professional paychecks have changed the game. My collection of baseball memorabilia gives a glimpse of a time when the game was one of pure fun and social interaction.