Baseball history in Colorado mountain towns
August 12, 2016
It's the bottom of the seventh, two out, with the Leadville Blues trailing the Breckenridge Reds in front of "nearly the entire population" of Breck. The Reds' Whitehead has been causing trouble all game, knocking Gilda, the Leadville catcher, out of action early and completely changing the pace of the then 0-1 game.
As the train approaches, Whitehead again makes a charge at the plate and knocks out the newly installed replacement catcher. The benches clear, the cursing starts and the players square to fight.
The train whistle blows and the game is over.
This game, recounted in the Sept. 14, 1901, Summit County Journal, was pretty standard fare for mountain town baseball. The towns lived and breathed the sport, but regardless of the action on the field, as soon as the train rounded the nearby hill, the game was over. After all, the men on the field were not professionals (well mostly, this would also come to be a point of contention) and the train's schedule was more important than the game on the field.
A SCHISM IN THE CHURCH OF BASEBALL
Since the birth of the sport, there has been contention about its origins, and as usual Colorado has found itself in the middle.
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The Mills Commission of 1908 was charged by baseball commissioner A.G. Mills with discovering the true origins of baseball. As a point of pride, the young nation, and former British colony, wondered whether the sport was truly American born, or did it evolve from European games like rounders and cricket? Well, the commission found quite a bit of evidence that the game was in fact evolved from other games, but they also found one piece of evidence that the game was actually made in America.
A mining engineer from Colorado named Abner Graves wrote a letter to the Mills Commission detailing what it was like to be at the first baseball game ever played, at what in 1839 would become Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, New York. The Coloradan wrote in detail about the game, recalling exactly how this sport was born from Doubleday's brain and what a thrill it was to attend. The problem? Graves was 8 years old when the game was played and more recent research has proved that Abner Doubleday wasn't even in New York at the time.
Still, A.G. Mills saw the letter as proof and Cooperstown was named the birthplace of baseball, a mecca all baseball greats would soon long to visit as the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum quickly took up residence.
THE GAME GOES WEST
Long before the Colorado Rockies took to hitting humidified baseballs out of the park, baseball thrived in Colorado, but the game had to transform before it could truly become a pastime in the American West. At the same time that East Coast gentlemen were dressed to the nines in top hats playing townball, miners out West began to soak up some sun on the baseball diamond. The two games grew up simultaneously, but quickly took different paths. Townball was played by gentlemen. Players were mostly associated with country or gentleman's clubs, drinking was not allowed and swearing warranted a fine.
Baseball was different. Anyone could play the game, there were very few regulations and curse words flowed from the mouths of spectators and players alike. Summit County was no different.
In the late 1800s, towns like Montezuma were on the rise, with growing mining operations and populations. Montezuma was 800 strong and fielded a quality baseball team with eclectic followers. According to Summit County historian Mary Ellen Gilliland, none were truer fans than town madam Dixie. She attended games regularly, took bets and often cleared the stands with her cursing.
Montezuma wasn't the only team in the area with a pitch to throw though. Breckenridge, Dillon, Como, Slate Creek, Sts. Johns, Red Cliffe, Fairplay and Leadville all also hosted teams, just to name a few.
One of the top teams in the area was the Breckenridge Reds. The team officially came into being at a crowded meeting one Thursday night at Fireman's Hall, as reported in the June 17, 1905, Summit County Journal. The original officers of the team were J.H. Seigler, manager; M.J. Waltz, captain; and C.W. Burnheimer, assistant captain. The town soon found it had a major advantage: Breckenridge had the railroad. Unlike most towns in the area, which pulled players from a pool of miners and farmers, Breckenridge could recruit. Other area teams soon looked on with disdain calling the Breck team "the professionals." Towns like Como and Fairplay dreaded taking on the pros and only teams like Leadville (who had the same benefit) were ever favored to beat the Breck boys.
The railroad not only provided an easy way for Ivy League ball players to find their way out West for the summer, but it provided everything the town needed to wine and dine those players — including one top University of Michigan pitcher who spent a summer baffling mountain town batters. Other towns were not amused, but they also enjoyed Breck's lavish lifestyle on occasion.
Series were a rare occurrence in the early days of baseball, but when the team from Red Cliffe ventured down for a five game series, Breckenridge rolled out the red carpet. A rather large purse was on the line for the series, and the town folk were going to do their best to make sure the hometown team took it. The team's manager just so happened to own the general store and he made sure that the Red Cliffe boys never wanted for anything while in town. They attended gatherings at all of the high society homes, drank for free throughout town and had their wishes met within seconds, regardless how extraordinary the request. In short, they spent a week's vacation in Summit with bellies full of delicacies and beers, and their minds far from baseball, or so the town had hoped. Unfortunately, the team was very good and split the first four games of the series with Breckenridge meaning that the winner of the last game would take home the coveted purse. It came down to the last inning of the last game, but the Red Cliffe boys were victorious and went home thinking the people of Breckenridge were the friendliest group they'd ever met.
The Reds weren't the only team to grace the baseball diamond in Breck though. The Ladies Athletic Association hosted an exhibition of women's sports in April of 1908, complete with an indoor baseball game between the Reds and a women's team, the Breckenridge Bloomers. While ringers from Boston were brought in to complete the battery, the rest of the Bloomers team was comprised of local ladies including Mrs. Foote and Mrs. Robinson, two well-known figures in the county.
A special train would run from Breckenridge to Leadville (or wherever the game might be), picking up Breck fans at 8:30 a.m. for a day at the park, and bringing them back home at 6:30 p.m. — the team also rode the same train.
One of the biggest turnouts came in July 1916 when 150 Breck residents, the baseball team and band boarded four specialty coaches bound for Leadville. The raucous crew made for the largest crowd at a baseball game in Leadville in 10 years.
As for the game, Breck was thumped, losing to Leadville 15-8 according to scorekeeper Beam's account of the game. The players refused to admit fault, though, claiming, "The grounds were in deplorable condition and a player unused to them was at a decided disadvantage." It just goes to show, some things in sports never change.
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