The Mill Leagues   
     The very first popcorn man was William Baszner who lived on Maple Street.

    Most of us know that baseball has been an established American institution for well over a hundred years. But did you realize how much of this national pastime was enjoyed in the Blackstone Valley? While there exists some doubt as to whether Mr. Abner Doubleday invented the game, or whether it came from the combined results of a native American game and the English game of cricket, baseball will always be regarded as an exclusively American tradition, and no where was it more popular than in the towns of Douglas and Northbridge, MA since the 1920's. There has been a Renaissance of Soldiers Field in Douglas, largely due to the untiring efforts of a group in 1995 to form the Soldiers Field Baseball Association. They refuse to let their town's involvement in baseball be just memories. The town recently celebrated (1996) its 250th celebration, and the fiftieth anniversary of the Yankees-Red Sox exhibition game held at Soldiers Field in 1946, during the town's 200th anniversary celebration. Douglas and Northbridge always had a love affair for baseball since the sport's inception.

     As long as I can recall, baseball played an integral part of the lives of mill workers in their recreational pursuits as residents of the Blackstone Valley. In 1921, the Whitin Machine Works financed and assumed total responsibility for their town's baseball team, which ten years earlier, had some of the best semipro ballplayers in all of New England. I was personally influenced by some "shop workers" in the late 1940's, and more so, in the 1950's and 1960's. Some of the men had lofty ambitions of playing in the major leagues, although I recall those who built character and good sportsmanship, gentlemanly conduct, discipline, fair play, and team work. Names like Fran Lash, Mac McCool, Louis "Chewey" Lucier (had pitched for the Red Sox), Charles "Rusty" Malkasian, Harley Buma, Leo Roy and especially Jackie Ratcliffe, stand out, along with my strong Northbridge High School coach and teacher, the late Mr. Leo Smith. As a southpaw pitcher, I played a lot of baseball. I loved it! First, it was the "farm team" as a lad of 10 and 11, then, the Little League, then the Intermediate League (13-16). I made the 1956 all-star team as "Braves" player, and later high school ball, and college at Worcester State, as an all-time Lancer Varsity Letterman. The various leagues were set up by volunteers who coached and managed teams sponsored by "The Shop," starting in 1951. Mr. Jim Brosnahan, the first President as well as coach of the Northbridge Little League, had a tremendous love for the game, and impacted many lives of young men who grew up in Northbridge. He was a wonderful, warm, personality who deeply touched many of us, who were later saddened to hear of his early death.

     The years, 1946-1958, saw huge amounts of capital investments by the W.M.W. on the sponsorship and proliferation of many different athletic programs, which included soccer also. "The Shop" started all the ball teams, as well as soccer back in the 1920's. There was the Industrial Soccer League and the Sunset Baseball League, in addition to the old Industrial Baseball League. At the time of World War II, and afterwards, during 1946 and later, sports and the Whitin Machine Works was indeed "the big issue." "The Shop" started a second version of the Blackstone Valley League.

     Winfred A. Schuster and other mill owners in the Blackstone Valley area, brought in college boys from Yale University in particular, like "Arty" Moher, and Norm Felske, two players well known then. Later on, "The Shop" sponsored basketball at "The Gym" (Whitin Community Center); a softball league, also from 1946 on; and the Blackstone Valley League. As the years progressed, they recruited more and more collegians. So, smaller towns and districts in the Valley, like So. Grafton, and St. Peter's in Rockdale, could not compete with the talent in Douglas and Whitinsville. (In the late 1940's, ball players such as centerfielder Jackie Ratcliffe, newly inducted into Northbridge High Sports Hall of Fame, would get $50.00 per week to play ball. Meals and uniforms were also provided at no additional cost.) The teams that the Whitin Machine Works supported financially were like those of the professionals. There were 25 team members, having two sets of baseball uniforms, travel and home, along with the best equipment and bats and balls that money could buy. The athletic facilities in Northbridge, particularly Vail Field (commemorated after a fallen W.W.I comrade, Jeffrey Vail) was kept in "tiptop" shape by a skilled grounds crew from the Shop's Maintenance Dept. This field, where the Balmer School stands today, was so well cared for and maintained, that it was often remarked to be "the second best cared for ballpark in Massachusetts" second only to Fenway Park in Boston, during l946-1956. Lights were also installed for night games when "The Shop" sponsored Little and Intermediate League teams. American Legion games were also played there. There was an annex "The Shop" provided for the players. It was at the base of Forest St. in Whitinsville and there the team members would "suit up," store their athletic equipment, and relate their preparations for the games.

     At the time when the Blackstone Valley League was in its heyday, a Texan and Whitin executive, Mr. Fletcher 0. Rizer-a lover of baseball and imposing tall figure--over 64" in height, and manager of Jackie Ratcliffe's team, would strongly caution his players, prior to a game the next day, to "rest up, go to bed early, and be sharp for the game." He would always remark, "who are we playing tomorrow?" Other famous baseball greats, legends like Hank Greenberg, of the Detroit Tigers, and Gabby Hartnett, of Rhode Island, who hit a total of 236 homeruns lifetime, had their origins in the Blackstone Valley League. Douglas baseball was made even stronger when Winfred Schuster, owner of the local woolen mill in East Douglas, brought in pro baseball players to compete with the mill workers of Whitinsville at Vail Field in the New Village section of Whitinsville. Competition was at its best then.

     In addition to some of baseball greats previously mentioned, there was Mike Roark and Chet Nichols--once pitched for the Boston Red Sox--who recently passed away in 1997. I recall the name of Walt Dropo, an outstanding first baseman and a long-ball hitter, who drove a baseball into one of "The Shop's" garden plots adjacent to Arcade Pond! I also remember Gerry Moss, the tall lefty, fast-baller, who made it big from Legion Ball and the Intermediate League to try out with the Boston Red Sox. Jackie Ratcliffe willingly shared some of his memories and past experiences, as a coach and player, with former workers of the Whitin Machine Works at a recent meeting at the Whitin Community Center. And he had some good things to say about Joe Morgan, past manager of the Boston Red Sox. Will this be the year they enter "the series," Jack? (After 80 years---)

     I wish the days of popcorn, baseball, and nostalgia of the Blackstone Valley League would re-occur. Baseball parks, where Valley folks would be so comfortable, could host people who could come on down, watch their youngsters, and see them make a play, see the glow on their faces and the reaction of the fans in the grandstands, and wish with all of their might that they could enjoy more than nine innings of a good game, part of Americana, and summer in their neighborhoods.

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