By Mary Lou Nahas
For Capital Region Independent Media
“There was no question as to what the most popular sport was [in Oak Hill and Vicinity in the early decades of the 1900s]. Hands down, it was baseball,” wrote Mike Hayes in his book “Oak Hill Voices from an American Hamlet.”
It is widely agreed that by the last half of the 19th century, baseball had become the national pastime. The United States was a little more than 100 years old, and baseball had evolved with the country and Oak Hill was loving it, too.
I did a little research on the history of baseball in general and found that references to baseball date back to the 1700s where in England it was referenced in 1744 in the children’s book, “A Little Pretty Pocket-Book.” It is suggested the immigrants brought the game with them when they came to America.
During the 1830s and 1840s, organized amateur baseball grew up in eastern United States cities, and the rules and innovations made by New York City clubs became the basis for the modern game, far removed from its English ancestor.
The earliest known mention of baseball in the United States is either a 1786 diary entry by a Princeton student, or a 1791 Pittsfield, Massachusetts, ordinance that barred the playing of baseball within 80 yards of the town meeting house and its glass windows.
Another early reference reports that baseball was regularly played on Saturdays in 1823 in what is now Greenwich Village in New York City.
The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown describes their Doubleday Field as the “widely recognized…birthplace of America’s pastime”. Many do not agree with that claim, but Abner Doubleday — who was born in Ballston Spa and later went on to be a celebrated Army officer and a general for the Union during the Civil War — was batting around a ball in 1839 in a cow pasture owned by Elihu Phinney, Cooperstown’s first print shop owner.
Doubleday claims he didn’t invent baseball, but Abner Graves of Denver, Colorado, claims he watched firsthand while Abner Doubleday helped a group of kids in Cooperstown from the Otsego Academy and the Green’s Select School improve upon their concept of “Town Ball.” Some believe Graves’ story, and some don’t. Either way, visitors have been seeing games at the famous Doubleday Field in Cooperstown since the 10,000-seat grandstand was built in 1920 right on the old cow pasture.
Hayes wrote that “Oak Hill had a good team in the ‘30s. Originally named the Plowboys, they soon became known simply as the Oak Hill Baseball Team. Although they could play well enough, the team that really drew the crowds and attracted its share of excellent Oak Hill players was the neighboring Preston Hollow Sodbusters.
“Oak Hill’s best players vied for a spot on the Sodbusters. They attracted huge crowds and many Oak Hill residents made the seven-mile trip to Preston Hollow on Saturday afternoons to see the games… They started out as a high school team called the Arapahos and were formed in the early 20th century by Willard P. Elsbree, who was senior partner in the Preston Hollow general store. After graduating, the team stayed together and eventually took the name the Sodbusters.”
Hayes said Bob Dingman and Pete Cooke made up the heart of the team. Roy Brandow, of Oak Hill, a former catcher for a Durham team, could be found at most games. He was often the umpire. Alfred Burnet played for a while and then became scorekeeper. Alfred Hulbert was an early member of the Preston Hollow team. The Sodbusters’ first baseman was Donald Wade and his older brother Leslie played as well. Both were Oak Hill men.
As the years rolled by and the Sodbusters began to age, Pete Cooke helped develop another Oak Hill baseball team. For a while they played in a field up Schoolhouse Hill Road, but later played on land owned by Roy Brandow near the creek and Eagle Bridge across from Howard Poultney’s farm at the intersection of county Route 22 and Clay Hill Road.
Junior Ives told Hayes, “We’d meet at the DeWitt Hotel when we started up in the spring. We’d see where we were going to play and who we’d play. We had a town league, we’d play Alcove, Ravena and Preston Hollow. They brought in the best players from all over.”
By the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the enthusiasm waned as Pete aged and more people began to stay home to watch baseball on television, while some Oak Hill men played on teams in the Mountain Top League. However, about that time Little League became active in town; these teams played at the site of the Old Oak Hill Baseball Diamond.
Little League managers came to the town meeting asking that the board meet with Mrs. Ada Brandow, owner of the property who lived just up the road and whose late husband Roy had been a community benefactor, to propose buying the property.
When approached, Mrs. Brandow agreed to donate 7.53 acres, which had to be used for recreational purposes only for 20 years. The town accepted the deed Oct. 10, 1966. The field was to be called Brandow Memorial Park. A committee of six men and two women was appointed by the town to plan and conduct recreational activities for youth there.
By 1983, there was a Durham Baseball Commission, which opened the season with seven teams. Dennis Statham was the baseball commissioner. It was announced that the commission would be having games all summer long with teams in the community Youth League. Teams were sponsored by local businesses such as The Durham Auction Barn, the Zoom Flume and Becker Electronics.
We are well past the 20-year limit, the park is still operated by the town and provides a place for recreation for both youth and adults.
Hugh Elsbree wrote “Twentieth Century Memories of Baseball in Preston Hollow,” a publication I’ve never been able to locate. If anyone knows where to find one, please let me know.
The best published account of baseball in Oak Hill and Vicinity is that by Hayes, which I have referenced. I do, however, have a number of pictures of early teams, which tell their own story.
The earliest photo I have is of the baseball team the Wade brothers played for — they are on the first row on the left, first two seated. I’m not certain why the uniforms have a “G.” There was also a Greenville team, which the Wades may have played for.
The 1956 Oak Hill men’s team included Lee Hunt, Herb Steifel, Pete Cooke, Gerry Beechert, Ed Beechert, Bob Cooke, George Ford, Bob Dingman, Pete Woodruff, Bill Burke, Bob Esposito, Charles Alsbury and Bob Ramburg. The photo was contributed by Dorothy Beechert Jennings.
Today there are youth teams, sons of fathers on earlier teams, often playing here. Their pictures are posted on Twitter as well as in newspapers. I hope someone might want to write the whole story of the history of baseball in our town.