The 70th Anniversary of Wilton’s Days at Battle Creek in the Baseball World Series
(and the Pitcher Featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not)
By Roger G. Spear
This month marks the 70th anniversary of one of the more phenomenal events in the history of baseball in Franklin County; the Wilton Loggers 1948 qualification for the Amateur Baseball World Series in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Teammates Herb Austin and Vance Wells, the only surviving team players, recently reminisced with this writer about that remarkable season of baseball. They couldn’t believe that it was 70 years ago!
Because of the Loggers superior season (25-8), the team was selected by the American Baseball Congress to represent the State of Maine in competing for the New England Amateur Baseball Championship. Their opponent was the Annex Athletic Club of New Haven, CT. The winner of the best-of-three series would represent New England at the National Amateur Baseball World Series in Battle Creek, Michigan, during the week of September 18.
The New England Championship series was played in Farmington at Hippach Field, before 1,800 fans. In preparation for this series and under the rules of the American Baseball Congress, the Loggers were allowed to pick up two players from other Timber League teams to supplement their roster. Loggers player/manager Burt “Lefty” Vinal selected Dixfield’s second baseman, Sheldon Gordon, and Farmington’s Stewart “Stoogie” Whittier. Whittier was the league’s leading hitter and home run slugger.
In the first game of the series, Loggers Joe Dyke and Whittier both hit grand slammers as the Wilton nine soundly defeated New Haven 12-2. Lefty Vinal was on the mound for Wilton and gave up only six hits.
(This same Lefty Vinal once gained national attention when he struck out 31 batters in a single game. Can you believe it? Well, it really happened in a game against the Virginia Indians of Rumford. Lefty pitched a 15-inning, two-hit win in a game played in Wilton. The southpaw fanned 31 men and walked only two. From the seventh inning to the twelfth, Lefty fanned 14 men in a row. Lefty’s feat drew national attention through the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” publication.)
In the second game, the Loggers made it two straight to win the series. A 4-1 triumph gave Wilton a berth in the National Amateur World Series. Nineteen-year-old Herb Austin pitched a six-hit game for Wilton and got 11 hit support from his teammates; everyone in the line-up got at least one hit. Dick Austin (Herb’s older brother) drove in three runs with a pair of timely singles and Herb aided his own cause with a double and scored a run. Austin showed excellent control, walking just one batter. The nine-inning contest lasted only one hour and forty minutes. So, it was on to Battle Creek for the Loggers!
Austin and Wells told about the team’s tremendous community support. Wilton residents drove to Battle Creek to watch the games. Joe Bozes and his wife were among them. Bozes owned the local Esso gas station. Earlier in the season he had footed the bill for the team to go see a Braves/Dodgers game in Boston. He also provided gas and a vehicle for team away games. In his own way Bozes was a team mainstay.
The trip to Battle Creek would be costly and the funds had to be raised through donations. Area merchants contributed generously. Major sponsors included the Wilton Lumber Co. and the Wilton Woolen Mill. The necessary money was raised for the transportation and each player received $123 for expenses. The batboy, Denny Karkos, son of player Francis “Fat” Karkos, received a half-share of $62. The unpaid scorekeeper was 14 year-old Arthur Wells, brother of player Vance Wells.
The Loggers departed September 15th on the 1,000-mile trip to Battle Creek in one of Phil Hodgkins’ Blue Line buses. The bus stopped in Littleton, New Hampshire, to try to entice teammate Elmer Knowles onto the bus. Knowles, after playing all summer for the Loggers, had just started his first teaching job. As he faced the open door of the bus, he had to decide whether to do what he wanted to do — play ball, or stay and pursue a teaching career. He stayed. The bus also stopped in Morrisville, New York to pick up team member Vance Wells, who was there attending Morrisville Agricultural and Technical Institute. Vance got on the bus!
Baseball lore tells of the bus stopping at numerous small-town pubs in route and at each stop Loggers Bob Brown, Vern Smiley, and Holman Davis entertained the pub regulars with their barroom harmonizing! One-night team members actually took over the stage from the local performers. Holman Davis also entertained fans while on the mound. He pitched with either arm! Davis was not only a singer but a comedian and also a target for practical jokes by his teammates.
During a different season, the team was going to the state prison to play an inmate team. In preparation, team member Ivan Crouse, shop teacher at Wilton Academy, fabricated a hack saw to be secretly placed in Holman’s duffle bag.
On game day the team entered the prison. A guard routinely inspected all items brought into the prison. He opened the duffle bag and pulled out the hack saw and confronted Holman who is mortified and frighten, and desperately pleads no knowledge. The guard was in on the joke but they got Holman good that day! Loggers bat boy Denny Karkos once wrote about being at a prison game and when a ball was hit over the prison wall; the prisoners would yell “I’ll get it Warden!”
Back to the trip to Battle Creek: the Wilton Boys of Summer were having a real good time along the way! They often played music on the bus with Herb Austin on harmonica, Bob Brown playing jug, and several others taking their turn on the wash board!
A stop in Wickliffe, Ohio, was certainly one of the most memberable as Austin and Wells recalled it. The next morning the team bus was given, with cruiser lights flashing, a police escort out of town to the city limits of Cleveland!
The team arrived in Battle Creek on September 17th. Their first game, the next day, was against Aberdeen, South Dakota. Logger Aaron “Stub” Parker years later told of how well their stay in Battle Creek was organized. Much of this was due to the volunteer efforts Battle Creek business people who acted as hosts to the visiting teams. Players enjoyed visits to the famous W.K. Kellogg cereal plant. The Post Cereals Division of the General Food Corporation provided Post Park, one of the beautiful fields used for the World Series.
The Loggers lost the opening game to South Dakota 9-7 in extra innings. Wilton almost had the game won in the bottom of the ninth when Sheldon Gordon tried to stretch a triple into a home run. He was thrown out at the plate. South Dakota won it in the tenth inning. Herb Austin and Lefty Vinal in relief, shared the pitching duties for the Loggers.
The World Series was a double elimination event so the Loggers returned the next day to face McClusky, North Dakota, who had lost the previous day to Hannibal, Missouri. This time the Loggers were successful as Herb Austin hit home the winning run after Bion Keene’s hit had tied the score. Austin then relieved starter and winning pitcher Vinal in the ninth inning to save the 4-1 victory.
The Loggers had the next day off and then resumed play against Little Rock, Arkansas, in the quarter-finals. The Loggers won 8-7 when Keene knocked in the winning run in the ninth inning with two out. The Loggers starting pitcher was Holman Davis, who was later relieved by Stoogie Whittier. However, it was the diminutive 19-year-old Herb Austin who gained the victory, making his third pitching appearance in as many games. Austin contributed his success to a submarine curve ball and mixing up his delivery motion to throw off the timing of hitters.
On the next day, the Wilton nine met and lost to a very formidable Birmingham, Alabama, team. Austin (the iron man) once again was sent to the mound in the starting role, but not even he could calm the bats of the Birmingham club. The Loggers were eliminated and Birmingham went on to win the 16-team World Series.
Wilton finished a very respectable sixth. Wells said they were referred to as the “Cinderella” team in Battle Creek. Among the top World Series hitters were Loggers Herb Austin (.474), Bion Keene (.412), Mel Pomeroy (.375) and Sheldon Gordon (.357). Keene, at age 38, was voted World Series first team catcher, and Austin was voted second team pitcher/outfielder. Honorable mention was awarded to Pomeroy, Vinal, and Gordon.
For the trip home Austin and Wells remembered bus driver Phil Hodgkins asking the team if they wanted to take a couple of overnights along the way. The consensus was, it’s time to get back to Wilton. They had played hard on and off the field; it was now over. As the team slept, Hodgkins drove, without any sleep, straight back home with only one incident! In the middle of the night Hodgkins suddenly slammed on the brakes causing players to fall to the floor. Phil had missed a turn and had driven within inches of the front porch of a farm house!
The Loggers went to Battle Creek without high expectations, realizing they would be facing the best amateur teams in the country. They weren’t as photogenic or as sharp looking as their opponents. The wool material for their uniforms was given to the team, and Mrs. Yvonne Schuman of Wilton sewed them. The uniforms were not “uniform.” Nevertheless, the Loggers showed that they could play with the best. They did Wilton and Franklin County proud in 1948.
Vance Wells, at age 88, is a retired UMF Associate Professor of Biology and lives in Lincolnville. He played golf at Wilson Lake CC the day of our interview.
Herb Austin, soon to be 90, over the years was a “jack of all trades” and also a master of them all. He resides in Wilton.
Roger G. Spear, UMF VP Emeritus, is a well-known authority on local sports history and is currently working on a manuscript of local baseball, 1865-1956. He can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.