Acton Baseball's Early Days
The Society has in its collection a picture of an Acton baseball team. Unlabeled, its only clues are the team uniforms, most of which say Acton, and a sweater with a date that indicates that the picture was taken in the first decade of the twentieth century. Trying to find out more about the history of Acton baseball in the Society’s archives, we were surprised to find that our collections do not have a lot of detail about the sport or early players in town. Perhaps baseball was so commonplace that most people did not think to record its history or to save souvenirs.
There is disagreement about when “base ball” actually started, but we know that the game goes back to 1840 or before. The earliest mention that we found of the sport in Acton was a comment in the School Committee report of 1861-1862 that in the school yard, the “bat and ball and every other boyish play” had been replaced by military exercises deemed better physical training in the Civil War years. (page 11) We do not know exactly when adult teams were organized in Acton. Newspapers covering Acton news before the late 1880s are hard to locate. The earliest local team that we could find was mentioned in the Boston Journal, August 23, 1875 (page 4), playing the Edens of Charlestown. The Boston Daily Globe (Jan. 15 1917, page 15) reported that a reunion was being planned of the New England players of 1873-1875 who played against the Bartlett Club of Lowell. Among them were the Actons. We also found an entertaining report on West Acton’s 11-inning outing against Fitchburg in 1876. The article detailed the exploits and occasional errors of Acton’s players Campbell, Conant, Driscoll, Gardner, Marshall, Mead, Taylor, A. Tuttle and J. Tuttle. (Fitchburg Sentinel, July 31, 1876, page 3)
Phalen’s 1954 History of the town of Acton mentions “Mr. Hoar’s” recollection of “Acton’s first knights of the diamond,” which probably overlaps with the Fitchburg game list, (though he dated the first team at 1877): James B. Tuttle, Frank Marshall, George Reed, Edward F. Conant, Charles Day, Arthur Tuttle, Simon Taylor, John Hoar, William Puffer, Lyman Taylor, and Dennis Sullivan. (page 225)
One would assume that in the earliest days, local teams were organized with local players. A manager handled arranging games and finances; he would have had to find equipment and (eventually) uniforms for the team, locations at which to play, and a way to travel to games. By the time we find Acton teams in local newspapers, team composition was not necessarily all native. Small towns might not have had adequate “talent” to cover all positions. In May of 1888, the Concord Enterprise reported that the Acton team had procured a baseman named Baker who previously had been captain of the Marlboro team; “He is just the man Actons want, and we are glad the managers were able to secure his services for the coming season.” (May 12, page 2) In turn, Acton’s previous second baseman transferred to the Nashua team. Concord apparently managed to field its own team that year. A very pleased reporter from Concord reported on a June 1888 victory over Acton. Piling on insults, he turned around the often-repeated assertion that it was Acton men who had done the fighting at Concord in April 1775 and then made sure to mention that Concord’s baseball team was made up of Concord residents:
“They came, they saw, but alas! They were conquered..... How true it is that history oft repeats itself. It is only a little over one hundred and thirteen years ago that Concord furnished the field for Acton corpses, and Saturday afternoon she repeated the operation... There seems to be some doubt, however, as to the entire remains belonging to the town of Acton, it having been whispered that certain other towns contributed their quota to aid Acton in its endeavor. If this rumor be true, then all the more glory for the boys of old Concord.” (Enterprise, June 30, 1888, page 3)
The author also had opinions on the behavior of some of the 200 people at the game: “A large delegation from Maynard, Acton and Westvale came down to see the fun and cheer the Actons to victory. They were anxious to bet, even as high as 2 to 1 on their favorite nine, but fortunately for them they struck a town where such a use of money is not countenanced.” The author made some suggestions to the public, urging them to support the team and “above all things don’t guy [ridicule], or give advice to the players; it is neither witty or wise, and is very annoying to both the public and the players.”
Despite the Concord reporter’s gloating over the victory of a purely “Concord” team, it was clear from news reports that teams paid to get good players, either for a season or on a temporary basis to fill holes in the roster. On May 31, 1889, the Concord Enterprise explicitly reported that the West Acton club would need to pass the hat around “owing to the large salaries paid to new players.” (page 2) The Boxboro base ball club in 1892 “intent upon defeating their ever victorious rivals... procured, at considerable expense” players from Boston to help them defeat the strong West Acton team. The result was a classic game of neighborly rivalry. Boxboro led 6-0 after eight innings, to the elation of “the large delegation among the spectators of Boxboro farmers who had left the hay field and taken their families to the game...” Unfortunately for the Boxboro crowd, in the ninth inning, West Acton managed to score three runs. With two outs, Conant, a noted member of the “old Actons,” hit a grand slam into the woods, clinching the game for West Acton. (Enterprise, July 29, 1892, page 4) One can only imagine the reaction from fans on both sides of the contest.
Venues varied. In the early days, the town did not provide athletic fields; teams had to find owners of land who would allow them to play. (We did not find any mention of rental fees paid until much later, so we do not know whether it was a business decision or pure generosity on the part of the owners.) The August 18, 1888 Enterprise (page 2) mentioned that “The Actons can boast of one of the finest ball grounds in the state, and all through the kindness of Mr. Barker who gives them the use of the ground and also keeps it in first-class shape. But it must be distinctly understood that his apples are not free, and the acts of last Saturday must not be repeated.” Presumably, the generous field owner whose orchard was raided was Henry Barker; he owned the South Acton cider mill. In South Acton, we also found mentions of games played at the Prospect Street and School Street grounds, Fletcher Corner, and at the back of Warren Jones’ place. West Acton teams played at various times at the cemetery (Mount Hope) grounds as well as fields described as Hapgood’s, Blanchard’s, and “opposite the Aldrich farm.”
The teams played near-by rivals most often, of course, allowing for cheaper travel and easy attendance by friends and family. They also played teams from farther afield, including, among other places, Pepperell, Clinton, East Cambridge, and Boston’s Custom House. In the particularly ambitious season of 1897, the Acton team did a tour that included Hinsdale, NH and Rutland, VT. (Fitchburg Sentinel, September 2, 1897, page 2 and September 7, page 6)
Inevitably, umpires were the source of complaints. (“Mr Hoar’s” recollections in Phalen’s History indicated that originally, there were no called strikes or ground rules and that hits were common. However, players and fans still found things to complain about.) In 1876, the Fitchburg Sentinel reported that despite inadequate umpiring, all of the players kept quiet except for Acton’s second baseman, “who, to say the least, was at times a little ‘emphatic.’” (July 31, 1876, page 3) In August of 1888, the Concord Enterprise reported that in a home game against Chelmsford, the umpiring was so bad that the Acton team forfeited the game in the sixth inning, walking off the field in protest. (August 25, 1888 page 2)
More baseball drama occurred the next year; the Acton team disbanded in July, 1889. As reported in the Concord Enterprise, “The game at Lexington was the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back.’ Some of the ex-members we are informed will seek consolation in another enterprise where there is less danger from flies and foul tips.” The Maynard reporter helpfully added, “We hear the Actons have disbanded. We reckoned they would after their remarkable record at Lexington.” (July 26, 1889, page 2) Investigation showed that Lexington had won the game 29 to 1, stealing 17 bases in the process. (Enterprise, July 19, 1889, page 2) Tempers cooled eventually, and the team was back in business in the 1890s.
Funding was an issue for all teams. Evidently, admission fees were charged in Boston. Fitchburg tried that, but the local newspaper complained that people were finding holes in the fence and other means to avoid paying the small price of admission. (Fitchburg Sentinel, July 31, 1876, page 3) The alternative, as in Acton, was to pass a hat at games for voluntary donations. Newspapers encouraged townsfolk to attend the games and to be generous when the hat came around. The teams also did fundraising in the off-season. Dances seem to have been a good source of revenue. For example, in December, 1888, the Enterprise noted that the Acton Base Ball Club’s fundraising ball had brought in 100 couples. One reporter called it a grand affair. (January 4, 1889, page 2) Another noted that “All had a good time, barring the dust.” (December 28, 1888, page 2). Branching out, in the winter of 1904, a benefit production of the Lothrop dramatic company was staged to aid the Acton baseball team (Boston Daily Globe, March 26, 1904, different editions pages 2 and 5). The crowd was described as “One of the largest audiences on record,” presumably meaning at South Acton’s Exchange Hall.
Aside from teams that represented “Acton” or its villages, there were games between other groups. There was, for example, the very popular tradition of the Married versus Singles game. (Concord Enterprise, August 2, 1900, page 8) In June, 1911, the Enterprise announced: “This is the time of the year when the old men feel young again and the young men feel their importance. So to give expression to these pent up feelings they are arranging to crush the exuberance of each other and on the morning of July 4th they will meet in a game of baseball, the great event of the season – Married vs. Single Men – on the School st. grounds.” (June 28, 1911 page 8) Sometimes teams were created for workplace rivalries, for example pitting “the morocco shop” against “the piano stool shop players.” (Enterprise, August 2, 1900, page 8) The Acton team played a game against the Boston & Maine/ Boston YMCA team in 1907. (Concord Enterprise, July 10, 1907, page 8) By that era, there was even enough organization to have an inter-grammar school competition between the schools at Acton Centre and South Acton. (Concord Enterprise, May 15, 1906, page 8).
For a while, Acton had a high school that was able to produce a team. In 1892, the Acton High School team, formerly having been known as the West Acton Stars, was looking for opponents. The manager C. B. Clark advertised that the average age of the players was 17. (Concord Enterprise, June 10, 1892, page 5) Presumably, during the period in which Acton exported its high school students to Concord, there was no longer an Acton High School team. A news item from 1911 mentioned the Acton Centre team was mostly made up of Concord High School players. (Enterprise, June 28, page 8) It is likely that the majority of them actually lived in Acton. After the new high school was built, according to Phalen, an athletic field was cleared of ledges and boulders, and a school team was again in operation in 1929. (page 336)
Phalen also mentioned pictures of early teams. One, once in the possession of James B. Tuttle, showed Acton’s team wearing white caps with a blue A and wool shirts with a shield featuring buttons and a navy blue “old English A.” The Society has no photograph of that team or uniform. Another photograph that Phalen mentioned, at the time owned by Mrs. Charles Smith, was of the high school team of 1903 in navy uniforms with striped socks. (It included Harold Norris, George Stillman, Carl Hoar, Edward Bixby, Ralph Piper, William Edward, Richard Kinsley, Clayton Beach and Harold Littlefield who became a professional baseball player.) Though our baseball photograph seems to be of the same era, it must not have been of the same team. (Our picture features people of the mixed ages and different uniforms.) If anyone can help us to identify our picture, give us more information about Acton baseball, or find us copies of pictures of early Acton teams, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us.
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