Block Island and the Great American Pastime
Bright, green grass surrounding that perfectly raked dirt, the bases gleaming white. The thump of ball against mitt, the crack of the bat, and the cheer of the crowd. The smell of popcorn and hot dogs wafting across the stands while you enjoy a cold (albeit expensive) beer. Can you picture it?
The official start of the professional baseball season is just around the corner. Whether you’re a fan of the Red Sox, Yankees or another team near or far, you’re only a few days away from watching them take the field for the 2023 season. It’s not just professional ball, either. There are plenty of opportunities to check out AAA and amateur leagues. Don’t forget the kids getting their start in Little League and beyond.
Baseball as a long and storied history in America. It’d be tough to find a place in the U.S. where the game hasn’t been played. This goes for Block Island as well. In fact, New Shoreham can trace its baseball history all the way back to the turn of the century.
Take Me Out to the Ball Game
Baseball in the United States has been recorded as far back as the late 1700s. In the early 1800s, baseball clubs began to pop up attracting skilled, but unpaid, amateur players. The idea of professional teams, those who paid their players, didn’t really take off until just after the Civil War.
Amateur leagues still thrived, though. Throughout the country, teams formed based on location, occupation, military branch, or those just looking to play the game. One such group that came out of this trend were squads made up of workers (and sometimes guests) of different hotels and resorts.
From Canada to the Caribbean, teams consisting of, bell boys, cooks, waiters, and maintenance men came together to blow off some steam and entertain the establishment’s guests. In fact, the Cuban Giants, based out of the Argyle Hotel in Babylon, NY, were the first professional, all-black team, to be created in the United States!
Ocean View vs Spring House
From the 1909 book Block Island: In Illustrated Guide by Beatrice Ball: “Tennis, bowling and golf are always in vogue and baseball games are played three times a week on Spring House grounds. Here spectators gather from all parts of the town to watch the rival teams.”
Many hotels around the island, including The Ocean View Hotel and Spring House Inn, had their own teams and uniforms. The US Navy even had their own “home field” by the Narragansett Inn where they played during World War I. These teams would compete not only for the entertainment of the island visitors, but also as a part of their own island league. A photo at the Block Island Historical Society shows the Ocean View team posing by the car that toured them around the island to celebrate their Block Island Championship victory.
This tradition was not a flash in the pan, though. Records of semi-processional teams playing on the island can be found ranging from the turn of the century up until, at least, the 60s. Many famous players, local and national, got their starts in these leagues, such as Johnny Cooney (a major league player/coach) as well as island legend, Fred Benson.
With the advent of mass media, the growth of the National and American Leagues, and the change of the times, many of these semi-professional leagues across the country faded away towards the later part of the 20th Century. While that particular tradition has faded away, that doesn’t mean that we can’t still get together and play some ball. Gather some friends, grab your gloves and bats, and make your way over to the island’s Heinz Field.
Batter up and Sail Away…