- 1 of 4 Photos | View More Photos
Long before football took over Northeast Ohio, ballplayers took over Kent.
Men back home from the Civil War picked up baseball, with Cathy Ricks, environmental educator for Kent Parks and Recreation, unearthing a treasure trove of news clippings from as far back as 1867, along with a particularly high volume from the early 20th century.
One of the earliest articles Ricks found was from the Sept. 25, 1867, edition of the Portage County Democrat, which noted that "a very interesting and attractive feature of Wednesday was the Base Ball Contest for the prize of a Silver Ball and Rosewood Bat offered by the ladies of Ravenna." Battling for the prize were the "Ledge of Nelson," "Island of Kent" and "Star of Ravenna." It is that occasion, that 1867 exhibition, that sparked Kent's celebration of 150 years of baseball, even if as Ricks concedes, the sport may stretch further back. The records just don't yet exist.
"The good thing about baseball is they're really good at keeping stats," Ricks said. "We know there's more out there."
These ballplayers didn't just take over the diamond. They took over the popular imagination, as evidenced by their consistent placement on the front page of local newspapers.
Take that 1867 contest, which the Democrat wrote led to the playground being "encircled all day with a crowd of people and the amphitheater of seats packed full of spectators."
If baseball was a "very interesting and attractive feature" in 1867, it was a regular front-page occupant by the late 19th century and early 20th century.
The June 30, 1899, front page of the Kent Courier included a full column of "Base Ball," highlighted by the glorious news that "The Kents defeat the Akrons." Following five straight losses to begin the 1899 campaign, "the spell has been broken and the Kents have won a game." The Courier reported that "old reliable Bob Spade did the twirling," which "caused grief among the Akrons and their supporters."
The crowd was driven into a similar frenzy, according to the June 20, 1902, paper, by a grand slam from the Kent catcher. The "crowd was wild with delight over the history-making occasion," Island Park's first grand slam according to that day's Courier.
The Courier went further on Aug. 10, 1901, with editor J.G. Paxton penning an epic poem about Jack Bracken, then departing Kent for the Cleveland professional baseball team. As Paxton wrote, "Who was it mowed Milwaukee down? / Who crazed the fans of Cleveland town? / Who gave to Kent such great renown? Jack Bracken." (Blues fans might not have felt the same way, after Bracken posted a 4-8 record and 6.21 ERA in his only season of Major League Baseball.)
"People are writing about these guys as if they're big heroes," Ricks said.
For Tim Wunderle, who organizes baseball activities for Kent Parks and Recreation, it's no mystery why baseball captured the popular imagination. Many local residents were working six days a week at grueling factory jobs. On that seventh day, long before television and smartphones took over the entertainment sphere, baseball was as welcome as a summer breeze.
"Their Sundays were picnics, family dinners and sports," Wunderle said. "You filled your Sunday with something other than the mundane, and baseball fit the bill."
Those factories played a big role in the rise of Kent and the rise of baseball in Kent, according to Wunderle. Sending several players to the major leagues, as the semipro Kent Kings did, isn't common, but Kent had a couple of characteristics that helped it succeed as a baseball town. From the time the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad first came to Franklin Mills in 1863, as told in Michelle Tryon Wardle's history of Kent, Kent became a railroad town, a key point on the journey from New York to Dayton. "Many people came into Kent," Wardle explains, "first to construct the railroad shops, then to work in those shops."
"Not only did the railroad run through the village," she writes, "the railroad shops were also located here, bringing the boom to the area that people had hoped would come earlier with the canal."
One train turned to three, according to Wunderle, citing the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad (eventually acquired by the Erie Railroad Line); the Connotton Valley Railroad (which became the Wheeling and Lake Erie); and the Pittsburgh, Youngstown, and Chicago Railroad (which became the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad). Like so many American cities, Kent turned into a central meeting place for three railroads that connected a number of America's biggest cities -- and a hub where crews changed, freight was loaded and train cars repaired.
"This was a hotbed for 30-year-old immigrants -- big, strong, burly guys," Wunderle said. "This would be prime for ballplayers."
The game they played, at first, was vastly different from today's iteration.
That's evidenced by the box scores from the 1867 Portage County battle, including the Island of Kent's impressive 63-22 victory over the Ledge of Nelson. Fortunately, Nelson, despite 17 "missed flies" in a time when no one wore gloves, kept its composure. The Democrat noted that the "Ledge boys took their defeat in a very quiet, gentlemanly manner, but appeared to enjoy the afternoon match."
Kent's June 30, 1899, victory over Akron included some stoppages that would be familiar today -- "it was stopped twice by rain" -- and some that have generally been eradicated from the game. After Kent's 5-3 victory over Akron was halted "several other times" by "lost balls," "a lost ball ended the contest" in the sixth.
Even the vernacular was different. The "twirler" hurled in a delightful "game of ball," as the Courier put it. When the "box artist" Bob Spade took the hill, he had "the visitors on the string and they made many painful fractures of the air." Prior to Spade's performance, his teammate Dan Potts "pitched like a fiend," serving as "the worst kind of enigma for the visitors, who have the reputation of being hard hitters." Reputation be darned, they "chopped the air" against Potts, as the "twirler" allowed "but five safe hits" while not making a "single first base presentation."
The Kents played home games at Island Park, as well as a game "abroad" in the foreign land of Warren. Photographs were replaced with drawings, including one of the heroic catcher Livingstone, who "made two home runs, one of them when the bases were full" to push Kent to 8-4 on the season. (The paper was likely referring to Paddy Livingston, another Kent player who spent time in the big leagues.)
Perhaps the biggest difference was the Democrat's description of umpire A.H. Hunker, who the paper described as "prompt and impartial in all his decisions." That's not the unusual part, of course. Instead, it was the next sentence, with the Democrat stating that "he gave entire satisfaction to all concerned." Who knew that was possible?
For all the differences, however, Wunderle maintains that baseball then and baseball now have one thing in common.
"I think you had pride in your city," Wunderle said. "I think you've always had that."
And the passion has remained constant as well. While talk always hovers around the diamond of the sport being in decline, hundreds, if not thousands, continue to play baseball in Kent, on the exact site of the former Island Park. A number of former Kent Roosevelt players take the field, along with Rough Riders coach Mike Haney. Just down the road, Kent State has turned into a dynasty. Moreover, according to Haney, the Golden Flashes have become more and more approachable. It doesn't hurt that current Roosevelt players can watch their former teammate, Joe Watts, play for Kent State.
"I think the boys are in tune to it and I go out of my way to make sure they are," Haney said.
History has always been a key part of the game, whether it's the recent history of Joe Watts; the older history of famed Kent State catcher Thurman Munson, Haney's idol; or the century-old tales of Jack Bracken, "who pitches ball that's surely right." Their field of dreams, the one they held in common, was in Kent.
"I think kids love baseball in this town," Haney said. "I think dads love baseball in this town. I think it shows in how many guys are still playing."