Batters UpstateJul 28, 2022 09:00AM ● By William H Brewster
Early professional baseball has deep roots in the Twin Tiers. Many of the founders of baseball’s modern (post-1900) era hailed from local farm, factory, mining, and railroad towns, working men playing alongside working men, many of whom have descendants still living and working in the area today.
Late nineteenth century baseball is fertile ground for historical and genealogical research. Research of 1880-something baseball in my own hometown of Waverly took me well beyond online sources to the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, and to local libraries and historical society museums in Elmira, Sayre, Athens, Owego, and Waverly, each of which contains fascinating materials and exhibits.
The Twin Tiers’ baseball pioneers included Ithaca native John Clapp and Bellefonte native John Montgomery Ward, teammates on the 1883 New York Gothams. Clapp was one of the first major league catchers to wear a mask. He was also the proprietor of an early New York City sports bar, and the first manager of Waverly’s team. Ward organized baseball’s first labor union, the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players. Before they became major leaguers, Clapp and Ward toiled for teams in Owego and Binghamton.
Paying Players, Integrating Teams
In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, towns on railroad lines used baseball teams to compete for businesses and lure spectators and shoppers from other towns. Newspapers publicized the teams and the games, leading some towns to compete for better players by paying them. The major leagues existed, but they drew much smaller crowds than today. Overall, baseball leagues were so unstable that, prior to 1900, only twenty-five percent of professional baseball teams lasted more than two seasons.
Achieving more stability meant attracting a broader base of spectators, which required players to put a livelier game on the field. Team owners in the International League understood this in 1887, when they allowed seven of the best African American players in the country to play on white teams. The two best were Buffalo’s Frank Grant and Binghamton’s Bud Fowler, second basemen known for great speed, hitting, and fielding. The two faced each other in a series of riveting games in early 1887. Despite on-field success, Fowler left Binghamton before the end of the season, and the League abandoned the integration effort after 1888.
To honor their roles as baseball pioneers, Grant was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, and Fowler was inducted this summer on July 24. On July 23, the Binghamton Rumble Ponies celebrated Fowler’s induction with a special bobblehead giveaway.
Just forty miles west of Binghamton that same summer of 1887, John Clapp led the Waverly players to a successful season with a team featuring local ace pitcher Nat Lowman and second baseman Harry L. Taylor, a native of nearby Halsey Valley. Waverly’s opponents included teams from Elmira, Sayre, Painted Post, Susquehanna, and Watkins Glen. Lowman left baseball after the summer to pursue his railroad career. Taylor, a twenty-one-year-old student at Cornell, went on to Cornell Law School and played the next two summers in Elmira. His 1888 Elmira teammates included Bill Heine and Bert Kenney, friends and mentors of Truxton native John McGraw.
Leagues and Unions
A couple seasons later, in 1890, these players would find their way to still more connections with one another in the drive to improve the game. Angry about the reserve clause that prevented players from freely moving, Ward organized his own Players League, which opened playing opportunities throughout organized baseball. Taking advantage, Heine and McGraw each joined Kenney on a team in Olean; Taylor found a major league spot in Louisville; and Grant found a spot as the only African American player on a team in Harrisburg.
Joining Grant in Harrisburg was Hughie Jennings, an eighteen-year-old breaker boy from Pittston, in Pennsylvania’s coal country. Energetic and impressionable, Jennings was heavily influenced by Grant’s ability and flamboyance. The two future Hall of Famers were at crossroads in their respective careers. The twenty-five-year-old Grant was no longer welcome in white professional leagues after 1890, and instead played the next decade for the Cuban Giants and other traveling teams, routinely visiting Twin Tier ballparks during his teams’ annual sojourns. Jennings, meanwhile, joined Taylor in Louisville in 1891, and in 1893 jumped with Taylor to Baltimore, joining McGraw to build the Orioles powerhouse. Jennings later followed Taylor to Cornell Law School and coached the baseball team.
By 1900, Taylor and Jennings were so prominent in baseball circles that they were named the counsel and spokesman, respectively, for the new Players’ Protective Association, the successor to Ward’s first players union. This was the organization that united players and fans behind the new American League in 1901, and launched baseball’s modern era.
While Taylor, Jennings, and McGraw were prominent in major league developments, their old friends and teammates continued to play ball back home. Taking advantage of its central location at the nexus of multiple railroad lines, Waverly’s professional seasons culminated in 1901 with a franchise in the New York State League, managed by Taylor and McGraw’s old friend Bill Heine. Over the years, Waverly pulled players from throughout the region, including future major leaguers “Wild Bill” Donovan, Frank “Wildfire” Schulte, John “Sandy” McDougal, and Charles “Heinie” Wagner. Waverly’s schedule illustrated the wide range of competitive teams at the time, from barnstormers like the Nebraska Indians and Cuban Giants to town teams like Towanda, Hammondsport, Moravia, and Troy, and city teams like Albany, Wilkes-Barre, and Syracuse.
It was truly a Golden Era for local professional baseball.