Monday, July 25, 2011

The Boys of Summer - Belltown Bombers

Our recent EHHS men’s State Champion baseball team brings to mind the storied history of many other EH teams and our “Boys of Summer." I recently read an account of the long baseball history attributed to our Town back to the 1880s. H. F. Scranton wrote of the great Richard Wall – in an article in 1928, as the local Belltown Bombers were making mincemeat of the Middlesex County league. Ironically we had two tremendous baseball players by that name. The first played from the late 1880s to the late teens. A blacksmith by trade, his shop still exists in the rear of 64 Main Street - owned by Kevin and Kim Keily - located across the street from the Congregational Church. Smithy Wall was a stellar catcher - iron strong! By day pounding metal and crafting repair parts for machinery (blacksmiths did more than shoe horses), evenings and weekends saw Dick hammering long fly balls and rifling pick offs of runners testing his steely arm.

I said two Richard Walls. The second, great nephew to the first, was a friend and a political mentor who passed away this June. The second Mr. Wall may have been the best to play the game from our town. Dick told me how another great, Manager Charlie Barber, recruited him to play on the Belltown Bombers while a high school freshman. League rules required players to be 18 or older, so he registered under the name of his older brother John who was away at war. Later they ran Wall’s Dairy until the location was purchase by the Rossini's. Offered a professional contract, with the St. Louis Cardinals , Dick opted to stay at home to develop the thriving dairy bar business with brothers John and Phil.

In 1905, County Commissioner Hubert Hodge's team won the pennant in the Middlesex County League, the first time the title ever came to the Belltown. The 1906 County League Pennant was captured by the Belltown boys as well. Playing for that team were Frank Johnson, Arthur Gates, Richard Wall, Stanley Bevin (with a blistering fastball), Arthur Bride, David Moriarity, Wick Markham, Hubert Hodge, Charles Ivers and David Bride.

Our close knit community saw mechanics and management bank together on the diamond. Many went on to successful business careers or roles as community leaders, the skills learned of working together just another example of the success of our baseball teams.

Bevin, president of Bevin Brothers Manufacturing Co., Hodge, a pharmacist and owner of Barton Drug Store (now Devine Jewelers) who served, as did David Bride, as selecmen and W.W.B. Markham, who owned the T.S. Brown Insurance and Real Estate Agency, the bowling alley and other ventures. S. A. Bevin was the pitcher on that team and was one of the most effective in position because of his terrific speed. Dick Wall, played second base that year and Frank Johnson of Middletown did the catching. In 1914, Mark Hamilton had a jaunt with the home players. Leo Strong was the pitcher and Charlie Metcalf did the catching. In 1915, Dave Bride's team won the Middlesex County League pennant.

In 1928, Harold Scranton, a local boy who covered sports for the Middletown Press, wrote, "A winning baseball team is a good advertisement for any town and for over a span of 35 years East Hampton's baseball nines have averaged up better than any town in Middlesex County ....[he expressed gratitude]... to Rich Wall, the village smithy, considered the best backstop ever to don a net mask and wind pad in Middlesex County, for information given about stars of the old days before shin guards, big mitts and masks were use."

My grandfather Percy Markham, an accomplished player, managed the 1928 Belltown Bombers while playing centerfield, to the Middlesex County Championship. When I was a boy, he relayed stories of his baseball exploits.

Now I haven’t researched the entire history, but I came across some old pictures recently of him playing and certainly have no reason to doubt his word, especially as he was held in high esteem by others in the community. He was elected Tax Collector for 4 terms, Was elected to the Board of Education and served on the building committees for both the High School (now the Center School) and Memorial School and had been the Prosecutor for our local Court for 20 some years.

His most interesting story related to his service in the U.S. Marine Corp. During WW I he was shipped to France with the Doughboys who liberated Europe in the Great War! Returning to the U.S., he extended his enlistment and spent time near Washington D.C. before being deployed to the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua chasing bandits and revolutionaries.

But his Washington service that was of greatest interest, at least with respect to this story. While there, he played baseball as a member of the Marine Corp Team. He told me some really fine players – major league caliper – played and they had games scheduled against major league teams that came to the Nation’s Capitol to play the Washington Senators.

But it was games against the Senators that peaked my interest. He told me he had batted against the great Walter Johnson. He didn’t tell me how he did. However, we all know that the “Big Train” became one of the first five members inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame along with Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner.

As Mike Thompson, Editor of Rivereast pointed out, "Percy didn't tell Dean how he did, but, I wouldn't have been shocked if it was a strikeout. Johnson did, after all, fan 3,508 people over his 20-year careeer, a record that stood for more than 50 years after he retired. It's almost shortchanging Johnson to simply describe him as one of the game's all-time greats. And Percy Markham got to bat against him."

After four years of chasing bandoleros, he returned home, married the former Rose Knotek, their marriage lasting nearly 60 years until his death in 1983.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

My First Old Home Day

Recollections of my first Old Home Day were at the age of five in 1953. My father Donald Markham and Dennis Erickson were co-chairs working tirelessly to reestablish OHD which had withered at the end of WW II from lack of funds, lack of meat (no hamburgs or hotdogs) and support. In the early 1930s, the American Legion and after WW II, jointly with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, organized the summer event.

That August 1st parade included Fife and Drum Corps from EH, Litchfield, Deep River, Chester, Windsor Locks and our EHHS Band. A dozen floats entered representing the Chamber of Commerce, V.F.W. Auxiliary, American Legion and Auxiliary, Belltown Garden Club, Cranmer Club, Rotary Club, Haddam Neck Grange, 46 Club - Eastern Star, Girl Scouts and Rebekah Lodge. Fire Departments from surrounding towns of East Haddam, Cromwell, Durham and Middletown joined our EH Volunteers. The State Police Color Guard led other marching units - the Middletown Police, V.F.W. and American Legion, Sons of Union Veterans and Spanish-American War Veterans, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Cubs and Brownies who stepped off from the old Town Hall.

I guess what brings back the most vivid memory of that 1953 Old Home Day was trigger this past week on the passing of Richard Hitchcock. Richard, who Co-chaired the Parade Committee, and my Dad were best friends. The morning of Old Home Day, my father took me with Richard to erect an American Flag for a widow living on West High Street near the entrance to the Middle School. You see, every year, homes would be decorated with American Flags to welcome all back to our community. This past weeks event has kept up this tradition with telephone poles lining Main Street, North Main, East High, West High and others display our flag.

I never knew the widow's name, but after the bracket and flag was installed, she had us come to attention, salute and recite the Pledge of Allegiance and then I, with my cap gun (do you remember the rolls of red paper caps?) fired 3 rounds in honor of all who had served.

Friday, July 1, 2011

July 4th, 1776 - 2011

The 235th anniversary of the signing of our Declaration of Independence, this Monday July 4th, peaked my curiosity - what did our Chatham Selectmen or Town Meeting (Chatham was then the Town that composed all the land of Portland as well as East Hampton, Cobalt and Middle Haddam) do to recognize this momentous event? The answer, simply - not much - at least immediately! Today, Town cuncil meetings are posted and regularly held. Meetings then were not held at regular dates nor were there instantaneous news updates. Selectmen, elected at the annual town meeting of land holders, would attend to town business as needed and the annual meeting appointed committees to deal with specific issues of the day. For example, there was a committee to oversee hogs. You see, hogs were allowed to roam free and it was the duty of the committee to enforce control over the swine making sure owners had properly tagged their animals. But in light of those types of actions and responsibilities, at the December 9, 1776, meeting, interesting action did occur. Created and empowered was a Committee on Observation. I'm not sure if the purpose or intent was for patriotic citizens to observe their neighbors loyalty to the American Revolution, but that information may come with further research. From those minutes I was able to decipher the archaic handwriting that recorded the events and resolution adopted, which stated:

At the same meeting was voted that this town do accept and approve of the doings of the Continental Congress held at Philadelphia in September last and agree to keep and observe the same and do our utmost that the same shall be purcisely (sp) kept and observed according to the true intent of the Congress and the following persons are appointed as a Committee of Observation according to the Eleventh Article of the Association with the powers and authorities therein mentioned. Committee on Observation - Ebenezer White, Esq., John Cooper, Capt Moses Bush, Charles Goodrich, Capt John Penfield, Enoch Smith, Jeremiah Bradford, Capt George Stocking, Capt Stephen Olmsted, Capt Abijah Hall and Capt Silas Dunham.

One can surmise from the dates that July 4th, in and of itself, was not immediately significant at the time but rather the September actions which were likely printing and dissemination of the Declaration of much greater importance. Regardless, our town stood tall as a new world unfolded whose words that came forth from the Philadelphia Hall ring as true today as then - "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."