Pastime podcast: Ahead of vintage baseball game in Frisco, a glimpse into the sport’s history in Summit County
FRISCO — To preview this coming weekend’s first Summit Historical Society vintage baseball game, I knew there was one Summit local I had to go to. Luckily, each day she sits about five yards away from me: Susan Gilmore.
Gilmore is our assistant editor by day and the biggest baseball fan you know by night (and, I suppose, for day games, too). A lifelong Coloradan who grew up — quite literally — with the Colorado Rockies franchise, Susan’s baseball devotion isn’t tied to just the Rockies. A former graduate student at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor specializing in archives and records management, in recent years Gilmore dove deep into archives and records, including old copies of the Summit County Journal, to learn the story of Summit County’s baseball history.
After all the research Gilmore did — which she presented at a Summit Historical Society event last Wednesday night — Gilmore compared Summit’s baseball history to South and Latin America, of all places. To Susan, the way baseball is the center of communities in countries such as Puerto Rico and Venezuela is similar to how baseball once was the straw that stirred the social sports scene here in Summit County. Way back when, during the sport’s Summit County heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it wasn’t Alpine skiing or snowboarding or mountain biking that brought the people of Breckenridge together. It was baseball.
What: Lunchtime Lecture Series: Baseball in Colorado, 1862 to the Present
When: noon Wednesday, June 26
Where: Frisco Historic Park Log Chapel
What: Summit Historical Society Vintage Baseball Game
When: noon Saturday, June 29
Where: Frisco Adventure Park
“I think the biggest thing is that America as a country and baseball have always been tied together,” Gilmore said. “And whoever’s side you are on in terms of the origin story of baseball, the fact is their identities are co-mingled. And a lot of that is because of the communities baseball creates. And you see the same things now where, down in South America, you’ve got a lot of local ball clubs, you’ve got these small teams across the country. It’s just a chance for everybody to come together and see each other and take on a sport together.”
“Whoever’s side you’re on in terms of the origin story of baseball?” At last Wednesday’s presentation, Gilmore laid out how Colorado actually played a weird part in the incubation of baseball during the late 1900s into the country’s national pastime. Gilmore says the first date to note is Aug. 10, 1859, the day — 17 years before Colorado became a state — Reuben Spalding filed the first gold claim. With the gold rush came a mining boom in a much-geographically-larger Summit County that led to evolution in the areas population and culture and, in turn, sports.
During this same time, in the late-1800s, Gilmore said baseball leagues began sprouting up across the country, including a more “roughneck” version out in the Wild West of Colorado. Baseball was booming so much so across the country that another Spalding — Albert Goodwill Spalding — hosted a World Baseball Tour in 1888 where Americans showcased the pastime in England, Italy and even in the shadows of the pyramids in Egypt. In a way, it was a star-spangled sporting ambassador mission for America’s game.
The only issue was, come 1903 there was skepticism that the game truly was created here in America. A man named Henry Chadwick wrote an article staking the claim that the game, in fact, evolved out of the British game of rounders. Chadwick had his share of dissenters, though, including a man named Abner Graves, which brings us back to baseball in Colorado. Graves, a mining engineer in the Denver area, claimed he was there when the game was drawn up, quite literally, in the dirt by Abner Doubleday in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. The information was a revelation to some, including some local newspapers that ran with the news. The only problem, ultimately, was that Graves’ recollection was fake news, as the newspapers at the time failed to follow up on such inconvenient facts as the reality that Graves’ was just 8 in 1839 and Doubleday resided in West Point, New York at the time.
In the end, chalk one up for Chadwick and the Brits. Gilmore said within the Wild West community of Colorado baseball, for many years Graves’ assertion was passed along as the true history, all while upward of two dozen small, local teams formed in the Summit County area.
Of all of those squads, the evil empire of turn-of-the-century Summit County baseball — the equivalent of the Yankees joining forces with the Red Sox — were the Breckenridge Reds. Thanks to the town’s nearby railroad station, Gilmore said the Reds were able to recruit the best players and the best equipment to beat up on other teams, including outfits based out of Leadville, Fairplay and even such remote locations as Red Cliff, Slate Creek and Montezuma. Whoever ended up trying to conquer the Reds, it was always in a fashion fitting of a frontiersman.
“On the East Coast, the kind of baseball they are playing is a gentleman’s game,” Gilmore said. “They have professional leagues. They’ve got really nice uniforms that they are wearing, nice little top hats. … There are fines for bad behavior. You’re fined for cursing — all of this sort of stuff. The version of baseball you are getting in Summit County, that’s not it. It’s more roughneck baseball. And so out here, at our height, about 1892, we’ve got 26 different baseball clubs just in this area. … Even some of the ranches in the area had teams. Mining companies had teams.”
Gilmore said 25 of the 26 teams hated Breckenridge. It even got heated for old sports writers of the day, as Gilmore said the Summit County Journal would get into making fun of other teams. One day, an editor at a paper in Fairplay got into a fight with the Summit County Journal editor. That’s how much baseball meant to some of Summit County’s earliest locals.
Though Breckenridge was regarded as the most “professional” team in the area, Gilmore said the Reds and the rest of their teams would fund their 20ish-game seasons with events such as Fourth of July or Labor Day galas. At the galas, members of the community could catch up with players because, for example, one of the Reds’ captain’s owned the local grocery store.
But once Summit County’s baseball players stepped onto the playing surface, it was all business. To the point where dust-ups were common, especially when Breckenridge was involved. No matter how nasty the fight, making it back home by train was always of paramount importance.
“Both teams are squaring up,” Gilmore said about a game between Breckenridge and Leadville, “benches cleared, turns into this full brawl. At the same time, the train comes around the hill. And that’s it.”
In the end, Gilmore said baseball back in the day was a way for locals to come out of their winter hibernations and catch up with neighbors under summer’s sunshine.
As for the sport of baseball itself, it also has a lingering legacy and place in Summit’s sports scene.
“One of the guys who came out to my baseball talk last week was one of the former heads of the Summit Youth Baseball program,” Gilmore said. “And he and I got to chatting about Thomas DeBonville, who is out in (University of Nebraska at) Omaha playing baseball. We still have that community. They had a lot of people gather together to watch (Thomas) try to make it into the College World Series. You’ve still got those players that everyone is rooting for.”
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