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.

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