When I read, with real surprise, Town Manager Ralph Nelson's serious proposal to develop Bay Street into a stadium and a home for a professional baseball team, it stirred and brought to life a whole raft of memories of the 1940's and early 1950's, when we did have a professional baseball team in St. Johnsbury.
Does anybody remember the Tri-County Yankees? I sure do, and the memories are of one of the most enjoyable and happy periods in my life. The Yankees were a professional baseball team, a member of the old Northern League, with nine or ten teams from Vermont and New Hampshire. Among them were teams from Montpellier/Barre, Rutland, Burlington, Newport, and Keene, NH. I was a rabid baseball fan, starting in 1946 when I was eight years old. So was my father. That was before television. He and I listened to every Red Sox game (except, of course, when our Yankees were playing at the same time) on the Narragansett Baseball Network, and I kept score in an official scorebook.
The Tri-County Yankees played on the old Hazen Field, which started out in the 19th century as a county fairground with a horseracing track and a dry-bridge that was still there when I-91 was built. It then became the baseball/football/track for the Academy until Fairbanks Field replaced it. Hazen Field and a lot of local history disappeared under I-91 eventually.
I got to know a lot of Tri-County Yankees every summer, primarily because I had three good-looking older sisters, and our house became a home-away-from-home for these young guys. I ran into one of them fifty years later, and he remembered all three of my sisters by name.
A ticket to a game cost ten cents. I don't know how much it cost for adults; I was only about 13 when the team disbanded. Hazen Field had lights, so many of the games were at night. Soon after we were allowed to go to games alone, my brother Michael and I got jobs selling soda pop, popcorn, and hotdogs from deep trays that we paraded with down the length of the first base bleachers, back through the grandstand, and down the third base bleachers, shouting all of the time, "Soda! Popcorn! Hotdogs," selling them to the fans. Michael was so young that he didn't know how to make change. He just held his hand out, and his customers made their own change from his hand. He lost a lot of customers because he kept watching the game while he was shouting his goods and, not looking at them, he often didn't hear them, either.
Young boys were everywhere. Some hung around behind the grandstand, where high foul balls flew over it, landing and rolling into the parking lot. Every time that happened, the boys would chase the ball, the lucky kid who got there first would pick it up and keep running through the parking lot and the woods, and his gang would have a new ball to play with the next week. When a batter cracked a bat, he would give it to one of us. Every kid in town knew how to repair a broken bat with a small wood screw and black electrical tape. Peck's Hardware sold baseball equipment, but they didn't sell many bats or balls, because we young scavengers equipped ourselves with the foul balls and broken bats of the Yankees.
Among so many things that I remember with pleasure, two stand out. One is when the third baseman, a young man named Shultz, did a triple play all by himself. The batter hit a screamer right down the third base line. Shultz dove and caught the ball as he fell on the bag, putting the man heading for home out, then jumped up and tagged the man coming in from second base, who obviously didn't see Shultz catch the liner.
The other is when a player named Rice finally lived up to our expectations. The word had spread all over town that he hit the longest balls anybody had ever seen during batting practice. Everybody paid silent attention every time he came up. The problem was, though, that he struck out a lot, thirty-nine times in twenty games, without a single home run. The day came, though, when he redeemed himself. He hit the longest ball in Hazen Field's history. The left field fence was 356 feet away with an electric scoreboard at least fifty feet beyond the fence. He cracked a home run that rocketed by at least 25 feet above the scoreboard. Nobody got it as a souvenir, though, because it rolled down the bank into the Passumpsic River and floated away.
It's all gone, now. It's been gone for sixty years. Television killed it, just as electronic games are changing the world of youth now. Whether our municipal authorities can revive it on Bay Street is far from an idle question. Thomas Wolfe wrote a book about the impossibility of recreating the past. Its title is "You Can't Go Home Again." Maybe Wolfe was wrong.
November 30, 2011