America’s pastime has long history in Northern NY
By Tim Rowland
On Oct. 12, 1912, Ray Collins of Colchester, Vermont, took the mound for the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, facing the New York Giants and future Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson. With a 4-2 eighth-inning lead, Collins got pulled for a reliever in an error-filled contest that ended in a tie, called on account of darkness.
By 1922, Collins was out of pro ball, but was still a local hero. He sailed on a Vermont ferry bound for New York where a thousand of his closest friends intended to pack the stands in a game pitting the Green Mountain Boys, with Collins on the mound, against Plattsburgh.
In this small chapter of the long history of North Country baseball, Plattsburgh fans pushed back. “It is now the duty of the Plattsburgh Base Ball Association,” the organization implored in a newspaper advertisement, “to give you time and notice, so if you intend to see the game next Sunday, which will start at three o’clock sharp, be there at TWO—ahead of the (Vermont) excursion.”
Plattsburgh won a majority of the seats, and the game. Adirondack-region baseball was at a fever pitch.
A century later, baseball is once again firing imaginations.
Its popularity is being aided by devoted followers of the national pastime, an MLB decision to scale back its Minor League teams, and athletic men and women who dare dream the impossible dream—that against all odds they may one day make it to The Show, starting in places better known for high peaks than hardball.
Welcome to the short-season Empire League, with teams in Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake, Plattsburgh, Malone and, this is not a misprint, Japan.
The pro developmental league is something of a farm system to a farm system, where players stay sharp and hone their skills hoping to catch the eye of a wandering or vacationing scout, or get called up to the Empire State Grays, a Tupper Lake-based team that plays in the Frontier League, a partner of Major League Baseball.
Players in the Empire League arrive to their respective teams from a diverse network of schools, countries and backgrounds. Some young, some not so young by baseball standards, they filter into the Adirondacks in hopes that lightning will strike.
“They need the exposure to show that they can play,” said Eddie Gonzalez, chief executive officer of the Empire Professional Baseball League. “We’re a good league because we get kids who really want it but have been overlooked.”
The Adirondacks have been good for the league, and the league has also been good for the Adirondacks, in terms of entertainment, cultural engagement and economics.
“It’s not just about swinging the bat and throwing the ball,” Gonzales said. Players spend money locally, and parents book rooms when they come to see them play. The players read to local kids, teach baseball camps, march in parades and even deliver pizza or do other jobs on the side. Language is not the barrier it once was, thanks to translation apps.
“I love (the Adirondacks), the people have been very kind,” said Kira Kuwamofo of Osaka, Japan, who got four hits and knocked in three runs in 26 at-bats for the Japan Islanders last year, when no league in her home country would give her a second look.
Here, she and her Islanders teammates played among many other hopefuls with long odds, seeing the occasional player make it into Major League organizations including the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves.
Breaking down cultural barriers and incorporating women both into the stands and on the field is not new for the Adirondacks, which always seem to have a quirky twist on dominant trends.
“The Adirondacks, like every other place in the nation, had this love affair with baseball, both at the national and local level,” said journalist and baseball historian Maury Thompson. “With no radio or television, stores, hotels and saloons would post results on chalkboards—and to get the thrill of the game, you had to get it locally.”
Baseball and the Adirondacks grew up together, born of the same era, riding waves of popularity and suffering troughs of obscurity, always in need of capital and living tooth by jowl with schools, towns, hotels and industries that made up the fabric of the park.
By the 1870s there was a team in Ticonderoga, Thompson said, and through the years baseball took—and takes—many forms, from school to sandlot to professional.
As tourism expanded through the North Woods, baseball followed. Hotel staff—including people of color—would step out of their serving smocks and into a baseball uniform, playing games for the amusement of the guests. Fans may not have overcome racism, Thompson said, but they were prepared to be situationally tolerant 70 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.
The great industries of iron ore, timber and milling began to field teams by the 20th century, and in the background were community games played for the fun of it, Thompson said, organized by “the fats versus the thins” or “bachelors versus benedicts.”
The quality could be exceedingly good or comically bad. An early team in Moriah, the hometown paper boasted, demonstrated great offensive prowess, putting up 20 runs in its first game ever. Lamentably, they were not so gifted at catching the ball and lost by 50.
The industrial teams, meanwhile, “could play some really serious ball,” Thompson said. Vestiges of these teams remain today, including the Lyon Mountain Miners now of the Champlain Valley Baseball League. Lyon Mountain, Au Sable Forks, Mineville, Ticonderoga—towns with big time industry always had big time ball.
Baseball reflected the social, cultural and economic trends of the times. Every town wanted a team, but not everyone could afford one. Those that could had regional bragging rights.
“It was considered a part of economic development. If we have a baseball team, we’re a town on the move.”— Maury Thompson
Yet many of these teams and leagues were unsustainable, and were gone almost as fast as they arrived, a reality even today. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the sport ran headlong into the religious temperance movement, which also frowned on Sunday baseball.
In St. Huberts, Sunday games were canceled under the threat of withholding funds from the team. The Ticonderoga justice of the peace in 1886 banned Sunday shooting, hunting, racing and baseball.
In response, some teams hired fake players who were dutifully arrested and hauled off to jail, at which point the real teams took the field. In Glens Falls in 1910, according to the Post Star, fans paid 25 cents admission, ostensibly to hear a choir sing gospel hymns. At intermission, baseball players took the field for a “demonstration” of pitching, hitting, fielding and baserunning.
Operating in a region with sparse populations, Adirondack teams needed all the fans and players they could get. So they broke with social norms by soliciting women spectators and players.
Prisons in Dannemora in Clinton County and Great Meadow in Washington County had teams, and good ones. “Great Meadow had some tremendous players,” Thompson said. “To beat the Prison 9 was bragging rights. Of course, they played all their games at home.”
The Empire State Grays of Tupper Lake, by contrast, play all their games away, their name “Grays” emblematic of always playing in road uniforms.
Jed Dukett, an acid rain scientist and baseball author, is a member of Tupper Lake’s Keepers of the Diamond, which has transformed the village stadium into one that is almost up to professional standards, but still lacks some of the niceties (like adequate bathroom space) that would allow the Grays to play at home.
Still, Dukett said, the view from the grandstand is unparalleled, looking out as it does over Moody Pond and the mountains of the Central Adirondacks. And the quality of baseball in the Empire League is beyond what anyone would expect in such a remote outpost.
“Baseball is definitely taking off; there’s an excitement for it in Tupper Lake right now,” Dukett said. “Independent leagues are popping up, and they get respect. Some of these players may make it, you never know.”
In 2020, Major League Baseball streamlined its minor league system, cutting ties with 42 franchises. That left lots of players with nowhere to show off their skills, but it also opened opportunities for independent pro leagues. “I can’t imagine MLB would have ever put a (minor league) team in the Adirondacks,” he said. “The Empire League has brought back a new interest and passion in baseball, and I don’t know where we would be without it.”
The location doesn’t hurt, either, and not just for the view. Municipal Park is not far from the western terminus of the planned rail trail to Lake Placid, with a projected annual ridership of 100,000, some of whom may be baseball fans.
Dukett and his wife have their own dream. They plan on opening an ice cream shop near the Tupper Lake ballpark to take advantage of what they hope will be growing crowds coming to see the hometown Riverpigs.
“This gives us something to do,” said fan Sean Van Nostrand at last year’s Empire League All Star Game in Tupper Lake. He lives in the village and can walk to games, enjoying the sport, but also socializing with people he knows from town.
“The quality of play is amazingly good,” he said. “And the sunsets over the water are pretty amazing too.”
Editor’s note: This has been updated to correct the spelling and title for Jed Dukett.