Baseball originated in the early 1800s and came to be known as “America’s pastime” — a sport that millions continue to enjoy throughout the spring and into the fall. The purists will tell you that compared to other major sports, baseball has maintained the closest resemblance from its beginning to how the game is played today.
The spirit to play the game had entered in the lives of young American boys since the first diamonds were carved out of pastures on rural farmland and along the sidewalks of urban streets.
For players of my generation, to be the next Tris Speaker, Cy Young, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron or Willie Mays was always in the hearts of young, enthusiastic kids from coast to coast.
Up until the 1940s, many wide-eyed farm boys throughout our great nation either could not find time for organized baseball or youth baseball programs did not exist.
Between farm chores, the annual church picnic may have been as organized as many rural kids had to develop their skills for the game they learned to love. Aside from that, most farms kids would find an open area on the farm and establish their special neighborhood rules of the game.
City youths would find an area on the street or an open area between buildings for their special “choose ‘em up” or “work-up” games, which in turn led to the origin of “sandlot” baseball where it all started for the youngest of American’s youth.
Most working families did not have money for bats, a ball, or gloves. So, broom handles or sticks often simulated a bat. A ball might be anything that could be thrown and hit.
One part of the game that I cherished growing up in Clatskanie is something we called “Town Team” baseball.
In the early 1900s, almost every small town in America had a baseball team. The city park in the summertime was a place where families gathered to watch baseball prior to the advent of television. This was pure, unadulterated baseball at its best.
Contests with neighboring communities were always heated, competitive affairs. Rivalries between neighboring town teams brought about the famous phrase “Who’s the ringer?”
With pitching often the controlling factor in baseball games, many teams frequently brought in a “ringer” to pitch. The murmur around the park was: “Who’s the pitcher?” Answer: “He just moved into town this week.”
Winning earned teams local bragging rights and often brought players from hundreds of miles away. And there were no age restrictions for participation.
Managing the local team was generally done by someone who didn’t want his career fading into the sunset without some local claim to fame.
Workers in mining towns, industrial towns, farm towns, cattle towns, and lumber towns somehow found enough time off the job to gather on Sundays and holidays to play a game or two. Most participants found very little recreational time other than the time they made for town team baseball. It also was one of the few forms of spectator sport during the spring and summer in many communities.
Local fields were generally constructed to make sure the locals had a “home-field advantage.” The pitcher’s mound would be designed to fit the number one pitcher on the local team and pitching off a level surface was also common.
In the early days of town team ball and spectators would encircle the field with their vehicles and farm equipment. All accomplishments of the home team would trigger in-unison horn honking and many visiting teams headed home with ringing ears if the home team won.
Most teams did not have a major sponsor. Instead, each team had a different local business name on the back of the uniform and the local city’s name on the front. Many of the uniforms did not match as they were purchased to fill in. And without purchasing a full set of uniforms, many lettering styles and colors could be seen on the field in any given game.
Washing and mending was difficult in the days of flannel uniforms, and with many of the players being laborers, washing uniforms was not part of the program.
Practicing and preparing for the weekend or holiday games normally would take place a few minutes prior to game time.
To start a game, each team needed a lineup with nine players. (What’s a designated hitter?) Proficiency in a position was a major plus for a team, but that was a rarity.
The umpire typically would be a friend of the local manager, a local policeman, a local pastor, or in some cases, the town drunk. Many games were delayed waiting for someone to head uptown seeking an umpire and book rules and interpretations were left to the umpire’s judgment.
The cliché “We got homered” was truly applicable for most “Town Team” games. Many too-close-to-call plays would invariably favor the local boys. Passing the hat for a collection among the spectators was the umpire’s pay. And game results might determine if the umpire had a good payday or a poor one.
As a participant in “Town Team” baseball in the early 1950s in Clatskanie, I saw the beginning, middle, and end of an era than many told their grandkids about.
Living on a farm in Oregon during and after WWII in the late 1940s, our father took us boys to the city park to see “Town Team” ball. Serving as a batboy and chasing foul balls was a great day in our summertime Sundays.
Those who participated in the true era of “Town Team” baseball are at least 80 and most are in the 90s or older. Anyone with information, old photos, or stories to tell, please don’t let this history fade into obscurity.
As seen in baseball history, we’ve tried to preserve information about the old Negro Leagues and barnstorming teams such as the bewhiskered House of David teams. We also need to make sure that “Town Team” baseball retains a vivid chapter in baseball history.
About the author:
Larry Hermo graduated from Clatskanie High School in 1954. He earned 12 letters in high school and six in basketball and baseball while at Linfield College in McMinnville. In the summer of 1961, Hermo joined the U.S. Army and served in Korea where he was a player/coach on a baseball team in Seoul.
Hermo, 83, played “Town Team” baseball for teams in Clatskanie and McMinnville from 1962-66, and also coached high school baseball for more for 30 seasons with stints at Yamhill-Carlton (1962-67) and Rex Putnam (1967-1991). He was inducted into the Clatskanie Sports Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Oregon High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 1998.)