September 4, 2016

Boys of summer: baseball stoked the passions of early Aspen

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The Aspen Colts, an early Aspen baseball team. The specific date of the photo is unknown, but it's likley circa 1910.

Aspen Historical Society

The Aspen Colts, an early Aspen baseball team. The specific date of the photo is unknown, but it's likley circa 1910.

ASPEN – At 4 a.m. the whistle of the Brooks and Bethune sampling works jolted the mining town of Ashcroft awake on the Fourth of July in 1882. At 9 a.m., as “sticks of Giant exploded in many parts of the town,” the Aspen “base ball” team arrived to play their Castle Creek rivals, the Aspen Times wrote on July 8. Spectators came in the Wall and Witter Concord coach from Aspen to join the swelling crowd, many having come from Leadville the day before. Seats had been erected for the visitors. Both teams warmed up on the field at the entrance to town as the “extensively advertised” daylong celebration got underway.

Ashcroft and Aspen had reshuffled players from their local sandlot teams to come up with their best nine for the game. Earlier in June, the Rocky Mountain Sun in its “Ashcroft Notes” column reported that the “Terrier base ball Club of South Ashcroft” challenged the “Saint Cloud Club” of Ashcroft. Presumably the town’s holiday game roster was cobbled together by Ashcroft scouts after viewing that game.

Heavily favored Aspen had beaten the Sparkill (Independence) team twice in June. Ed Nathan was selected as umpire for the Ashcroft game. The Aspen boys won the toss and Ashcroft went to bat. In a game described by the Times as ripe with errors and a bit of luck, Aspen’s star pitcher Byron Shears delivered “balls too great for one man,” but lost his “dependable catcher,” Mr. Perry, who sustained an injury resulting in a change in the line-up. In a six-inning game, Ashcroft won 11-6.

The biased Times reporter complained that the “grounds were poorly adopted to a game, being uneven, with the pitcher’s position being higher than the striker or first base.” This led to two Aspen overthrows that gave Ashcroft two unearned runs, from which Aspen couldn’t recover. He allowed that Ashcroft was strong and showed very little “kicking at the umpire.”

An afternoon dinner followed the game. Then the crowd gathered for the reading of the Declaration of Independence, horse races, foot races, and wheel barrow races. A grand ball capped off the festivities at the Elma Hotel that evening, attended by some 60 couples.

The stands are packed for a baseball game in Aspen's baseball stadium (one of two) located where today's Aspen golf course abuts the roundabout. Note the fence around the park and Shadow Mountain in the background, right.

Aspen Historical Society

The stands are packed for a baseball game in Aspen’s baseball stadium (one of two) located where today’s Aspen golf course abuts the roundabout. Note the fence around the park and Shadow Mountain in the background, right.

Home games

In those days, downvalley from Ashcroft in Aspen, the rules of baseball were evolving from rowdy to respectable. During the 1880s the high number of hardy young men in town took to the new game, mirroring the rising popularity of the sport across the country. By 1881, only two years into Aspen’s existence, baseball became a popular pastime for players, bettors, spectators, and sponsors. At the same time, volunteer umpires had a rough time with objections from unruly players and fans.

In its first few months in print, the June 4, 1881, Aspen Times noted that the Tibbett’s House baseball club, “made up of professional men, lawyers, surveyors, and assayers, practiced regularly on their grounds west of the hotel and will challenge the Ute City boys soon.” The Tibbetts House on West Deane — in the neighborhood of today’s St. Regis hotel — was “the largest hotel in Aspen,” said the paper, before the Clarendon opened that following November at the southeast corner of today’s Wagner Park.

The first actual reporting of a baseball game in Aspen ran in the Times on June 25, 1881. “The Frontiers and the Duffers played their first game of the season last Tuesday,” said the story, implying that organized games started the summer before. The coverage highlighted that “Sam Garrett distinguished himself by masterly base running; Myers stood manfully at the bat; Bernoudy gathered in the flies in fine style; and umpire Dr. Thompson made prompt decisions that gave general satisfaction,” amidst “enthusiastic applause.”

The Frontiers won 21-19 in four innings. The paper said that “The ‘boys’ have demonstrated material for a first class nine that will compare favorably with any club in the state.” To meet rising demand, Webber’s dry goods advertised, “Base ball shoes for two dollars.”

With these indications of things to come, Aspen’s early sandlot league laid the groundwork for a team that would later compete sporadically in a state league. But all was not copacetic downtown where the games were first played.

The Aspen Colts, sporting an Aspen attitude.

Aspen Historical Society

The Aspen Colts, sporting an Aspen attitude.

Peanuts, popcorn, Crackerjacks

In a letter to the Times on June 24, 1882, the writer complained that baseball games should be a pleasant time for both players and spectators and “not degenerate to the disgraceful level of entertainment furnished at a city cock pit.” (The paper noted regular Sunday cock fights.) Signed anonymously as “Spectator,” the citizen wrote that at a recent game between Aspen and Independence there was too much drinking, profanity, and gambling.

At the game, “drunken men hooting like Indians raced up and down the streets on horseback, endangering pedestrians,” and “the most outrageous profanity was freely used in the hearing of ladies.” Tensions between the free-wheeling element and the more settled business interests in town found a rub, a theme that still echoes today.

At another game, the Times said that the unpracticed teams “degenerated into wild hitting and all interest in the play of the game as base ball died out,” with too much “unnecessary kicking against the umpire.” Mr. Fisher, the ump, “was forced to give up his thankless and disagreeable position” and another came onboard. The final tally was 24-23, Aspen. In a Leadville game in the “Cloud City,” the Times reported that an umpire was mobbed for calling too many successive balls and local police had to save him.

Citing nightly rows downtown caused by locally produced “double concentrate bug juice,” the Times reported on August 6, 1881, that city council appointed a known roughneck, James Magee, as the new marshal. His job was to handle ball game antics as well as general downtown disorder. The paper described his style as “walking the streets with two big six-shooters” while carrying “a dirk knife,” and that it “took three drops of Aspen whiskey to give him an appetite for breakfast.” He started the first chain gang in town that same August said the Sun, while busting up fights, arresting gamblers (to little avail), and shooting unlicensed dogs.

The touring Bloomer Girls from Denver, a Ladies Base Ball Club, make an Aspen stop in August, 1898, to play a ringer team of Aspen men. The Aspen Times wrote that some 300 people showed up to watch. Aspen won 18-8.

Aspen Historical Society

The touring Bloomer Girls from Denver, a Ladies Base Ball Club, make an Aspen stop in August 1898 to play a ringer team of Aspen men. The Aspen Times wrote that some 300 people showed up to watch. Aspen won 18-8.

Batter up

Still, local baseball enthusiasm remained unchecked. With Aspen rapidly expanding, boom-town opportunists with baseball experience continued to roll in. From those first pickup games and into the early 1900s and beyond, baseball grew into an Aspen staple.

As recreation that a cross-section of town could enjoy, whether in the form of camaraderie-organized “nines” or business-sponsored teams, rivalries developed. The competitive fervor was so great that scratch teams collected money to challenge each other, generally playing for pots of $50 ($1,200 today) or more, reported the summer editions of the 1888 Aspen Evening Chronicle.

In various accounts, artfully named teams received regular mention: The Cigar Makers played the Bar Tenders; the Single Men challenged the Married Men (aka the Benedicts, named for a freshly married character from a Shakespeare comedy); the Millionaires played the Colts; the Barbers played the Saloon Men; and the “Calithumpians” (an early Americanism, referring to a discordant or noisy group) “crossed bats at Athletic Park with the Juniors.”

Neck and neck horse racing at Athletic Park in Aspen on the Fourth of July, 1912 or 1913.

Aspen Historical Society

Neck and neck horse racing at Athletic Park in Aspen on the Fourth of July, 1912 or 1913.

New stadiums

Up until 1889, games took place here and there in town lots. But later that year, Aspen baseball secured a quality home field. On March 9, the Chronicle reported that Charles Hallam, who made his money as an agent of David Hyman, the prosperous owner of the Durant and Smuggler mine, donated 110 building lots of his Hallam Land Company for use as “the necessary grounds for a base ball park and race course.”

Known as “Athletic Park,” complete with viewing stands, the ball diamond was located off the north point of Shadow Mountain where today’s sage-filled meadow at the Aspen Institute still blooms undeveloped. Around the circumference they laid out a horse racing track where local horses and trotters pulling riders on sulkies competed.

As was the leisure-time appetite of working men, betting swelled attendance at the park, and an upgrade was needed. In May of 1895, the Sun said the racetrack and ball field were to be refurbished to include space for field sports and a quarter-mile bicycle track. Fencing was added around the park so admission could be charged for upkeep. In 1896 the June Aspen Tribune priced admission from 25 to 50 cents, depending on whether you sat in the bleachers, the grandstand, or your own carriage.

If one walks the perimeter there today, portions of the oval track are still apparent, though remnants of the once popular baseball diamond are long gone.

At some point in the mid-1890s, the popularity of horse racing at Athletic Park caused scheduling problems with baseball games. But because enthusiasm for the national pastime was so great, Aspen built a second fenced baseball field with grandstands in 1895 or thereabouts, near where the present roundabout stands. A Tribune article on Oct. 1 of that year references the old and new baseball parks, and an Aspen Historical Society panoramic photo dated 1900 shows both fields.

Horse racing in Aspen's West End. Some of the oval pattern of the racetrack is still visible at the Aspen Meadows.

Aspen Historical Society

Horse racing in Aspen’s West End. Some of the oval pattern of the racetrack is still visible at the Aspen Meadows.

Origins of the game

When baseball took root in 1880s Aspen, variations of the “American game” had been around for a while. John Thorne in his baseball paean, “A Garden of Eden,” wrote that different rules applied in New York, Philadelphia, and Massachusetts as early as the 18th century, and that its roots could be traced back even further to the two English games of rounders and cricket, brought to New England by the colonists.

The November 1885 Sun explained a version played in the southeast of the country, wherein the pitcher and an umpire worked together as hawkers who owned the ball and bat and served both sides. Two teams of seven anteed up a nickel apiece to the duo and players won a nickel for every scoring run in a set number of innings.

With assorted rules, lots of action, and because fielding skills remained undeveloped, high-scoring games characterized play in the wild West of the first half of the 19th century. In a game in Helena, Montana’s Last Chance Gulch in the 1860s, one side outslugged the other 85-19, noted Duane Smith in his book, “Rocky Mountain Mining Camps.” In earlier times, some leagues played without baselines, and players without gloves chased runners all over the field trying to get them out by throwing the ball at them.

This mayhem prevailed in rural leagues until the 1840s, when the so-called New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club rules gained national favor. These changes elevated the game by designating a diamond shaped field, foul lines, and the three-strike rule.

In November of 1888 the Times reported new national committee rules: “four balls will give the batter his base” but “he will be allowed to run on a foul tip” of the third strike. The Chronicle wrote in May 1893 that the committee now placed the pitcher in the middle of the diamond on a rubber plate “63 feet from the home base, eight feet farther back than 1892.” They also defined the balk rule and refined the terms of base stealing, thus placing more emphasis on the pitcher.

But great controversy arose in 1907 around the supposed origins of baseball. A loaded investigative commission chaired by sporting goods magnate Albert Spalding tried to usurp history by establishing Cooperstown, New York, as the birthplace of the American game. Using hearsay evidence, Spalding claimed that farm boy Abner Doubleday — a future Civil War general — laid out the first game in Elihu Finney’s cow pasture in Cooperstown in 1839. This set the stage to later promote Doubleday Field — the home of the annual Hall of Fame baseball game — and the baseball museum in Cooperstown, built in 1920 and 1939 respectively. This cow field myth was subsequently debunked by facts.

In this view of Aspen from Smuggler Mountain from about 1906, the town's first baseball stadium and horse racing track are visible to the right of the photo. Behind Athletic Park, the outline of the second baseball stadium near today's roundabout is visible.

Aspen Historical Society

In this view of Aspen from Smuggler Mountain from about 1906, the town’s first baseball stadium and horse racing track are visible to the right of the photo. Behind Athletic Park, the outline of the second baseball stadium near today’s roundabout is visible.

Laundry leagues

As the rules of early Aspen games steeped in this historical stew, intramural teams peaked during the late 1880s and early 1890s, based upon the high volume of newspaper snippets. Following a series of court cases that climaxed in 1886 in the state supreme court in Denver, which freed up legally hamstrung Aspen silver mines and saw the impending arrival of railroads to the valley, a sudden surge of people filled town. Along with this growth, the swelling town league provided an expanded pool of experienced draftees for an Aspen Baseball Club team to begin playing other Colorado towns.

As train traffic increased between Aspen, Glenwood, and Leadville, away games became popular, with each town posting boastful challenges in the other’s newspapers while promoting mutual prosperity through inter-town tourism. On May 7, 1890, the Chronicle recounted how the Sunday “laundry trains” to Glenwood from Aspen and Leadville — named for the many who took their weekly bath in the hot springs — had combined with baseball team travel to bring games to Glenwood, whose team the paper dubbed the “Scaldville Sluggers.”

Aspen’s fan base for the game was so strong that the Branch saloon, which boasted “the largest billiard and pool room in the city,” advertised in the August 1890 Chronicle that “baseball scores and bulletins of sporting events throughout the civilized world are absolutely correct at the Branch.”

The Chronicle had said the year before that a state semi-pro league based in Colorado Springs was forming, and Aspen was invited to compete against teams from Leadville, Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo. Aspen played a few series in the league, but travel expenses were a problem. Unfortunately the league’s full blossoming was stymied by the silver crash of 1893. But in 1896 the state league resurfaced, and the June Tribune previewed a league home game between Aspen and Denver, praising Aspen’s new “twirler” Lefty Macdonald from Kansas.

Yet even with the national economic downturn, sports remained an integral part of Aspen life. Addison W. Rucker’s store advertised “New novels, baseball goods, footballs and boxing gloves” in the 1897 Times. In 1901 the papers listed the National, American, and Western league tallies, and the 1907 Aspen Democrat noted an upcoming game at Athletic Park between the Aspen Colts and the Aspen town team, with “no ragging the umpire.”

A ticket from 1915 to a game at Aspen's Athletic Park, also known as the Fairgrounds, one of two base fields at the time.

Aspen Historical Society

A ticket from 1915 to a game at Aspen’s Athletic Park, also known as the Fairgrounds, one of two baseball fields at the time.

The convenience of downtown baseball

On May 1, 1912, the Aspen-Democrat Times said that Mayer Charles Wagner, a man of many town accomplishments, pushed through an in-town baseball diamond on empty lots that today make Wagner Park, but not without controversy. A faction of Aspen citizens objected, preferring a tranquil city park there instead of loud Sunday ball games where “the cheers and rootings will disturb any church services or jar the religious scruples of citizens.” To this, the paper wrote, his honor said, “Dat scheme is no goot.” Others complained that those too lazy to walk out to Athletic Park for Sunday games were not true baseball fans.

Gradually the other two parks outside of town were abandoned for the convenience of downtown baseball, and Wagner Park took center stage. But a photo of a game ticket documents a Leadville-Aspen matchup at Athletic Park as late as 1915.

In May of 1934, the Times ran a notice from the American Legion Baseball Committee for “All boys interested in playing baseball this summer to be at Wagner Field this Friday afternoon.” Through the so-called quiet years through the 1940s and into the 1950s and 1960s, Aspen High and various leagues played baseball there. In 1955 the Times ran a captioned photo of a fully uniformed Aspen town player in Wagner, with Aspen Mountain in the background, sprinting to first on the Fourth of July against a
victorious 12-6 Camp Hale team.

The Aspen town team plays a team from Camp Hale, near Leadville, in Wagner Park in Aspen in 1955.

The Aspen town team plays a team from Camp Hale, near Leadville, in Wagner Park in Aspen in 1955.

Still vivid in ’70s

In the 1970s, a highlight of the summer was the loosely organized annual Aspen-versus-Crested Butte softball game in Wagner. In those Halcyon days, everybody still lived in town, and an eclectic — if not psychedelic — crowd from both communities carried on in fine Aspen tradition.

Though locally run businesses began diminishing in the 1980s and 1990s, and a downvalley migration gathered steam because of soaring housing costs, Aspen managed to field sponsored softball teams during that era.

Before the arrival of contracted private events in the park, Wagner hosted games most summer evenings and a women’s league attracted a lot of attention. Two baseball diamonds in the park — one at the north end and one at the south end — had regular use into the 1990s. A notable local named “Froggy” wrote a weekly column about the softball scene. Of late, some softball games are played out at Iselin Park next to the high school, with attendance by the devoted few and little newspaper mention.

While today’s jam-packed summers in Aspen may be the good old days for newly minted Aspenites, nostalgia for homegrown baseball and the camaraderie of uncomplicated times has retreated to memory. Local ball has gone the way of the trains, free-roaming dogs, and unrestricted parking, and Aspen’s boys of summer are but a pleasant daydream.

Editor’s Note: Tim Cooney, a freelance writer and veteran Aspen Mountain ski patroller, is a lifelong Red Sox fan who dislikes the Yankees more than nukes. He is collaborating with Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News to explore Aspen history. The Daily news published this story on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016.

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