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14. Athletics

Athletics have always occupied a prominent place in the life of the community of Newton Upper Falls. In an industrial community where few young people had the opportunity to attend college it was possible for more mature boys to contribute their natural athletic skills on the local playing fields. This meant that boys and girls could compete successfully with the other young people of the city. Before the days of Little Leagues and Babe Ruth Leagues, Newton had their forerunner in well organized Midget, Junior and Senior Leagues. The men’s baseball teams often dominated their league as well as other teams in the city in the city and surrounding communities. Sporting events were well patronized by the village since very little professional entertainment was offered Thousands attended baseball games between such rivals as Upper Falls and the West Newton Town Team, the West Newton Catholic Club, the Saxony Knitting Mills, the Nonantum Athletic Association and the Nonantum Boy’s Club.

Baseball in the Nineteenth Century

Typical early baseball team

Although the game of baseball is attributed to Colonel Abner Doubleday who laid out the first baseball diamond at Cooperstown, New York in 1839, the first rule book defining the rules of the game authored by Henry Chadwick was not issued until 1858. Prior to the Civil War baseball was played largely in the Northeastern states, and newspapers of that period in Newton indicate that a number of teams were operating here. No doubt there was some similar activity in Upper Falls, but most of the following records of local contests are of a slightly later period From a local news item of June 11, 1881:

Base Ball interest is now quite lively. The ‘Our Boys’ Club have re-reorganized with A. Ledgett as Captain, and John Hardy as Secretary, are now open to receive challenges from all Amateur Clubs.

Another item (“a pitcher’s duel?”) of July 8, 1882:

The Young Mechanic base ball club of this place played the Grantvilles at Lower Falls Tuesday morning, resulting in a score of 19 to 12 in favor of the former.

And this one of July 22, 1882 of a little more “newsy” nature:

On Friday evening of last week the base ball enthusiasts of this village, of which there are quite a number, assembled at Fanning’s Hall for the purpose of organizing an association for the purpose of aiding the Newton Club, and from the interest manifested there, it presents every aspect of becoming a permanent and well-organized association, as already a large number of members have signed the roll. The meeting was presided over by M.J. Crowley, and H. A. Clarke officiated as secretary. After a few enthusiastic speeches, the Newton Base Ball association was organized with Horace Albert Clarke, president, Wm. Dyson, vice president, L.H.L. Davis, treasurer, and Henry Duran, secretary. A committee on constitution, etc., was appointed, who will report at the next meeting, to be held on Friday evening of this week.

If the method of scoring was the same in those early days as it is today, it would seem by the following that the pitching staffs were not the outstanding features of any of the teams. This is from an item of August 5, 1893:

The Young Mechanic Base Ball Club of this village defeated the Maugus Club of Wellesley Hills, at the ‘Waban Grounds’1 last Saturday, by a score of 32 to 5. The Newton Base Ball Club will play the Norwoods at Newton Highlands this Saturday at 3 P.M.

And from an item of September 9, 1882:

The Newton Base Ball Club played a game with the ‘Wabans’ at the Highlands last Saturday, resulting in a score of 21 to 2 favor of the Newtons. The Wabans agreed to play with the Young Mechanics, but at a late date informed them that they wished to cancel the engagement, which caused considerable dissatisfaction among the Young Mechanics, who issued a notice declaring themselves the champion junior nine of the city.

It should be noted that the ‘Wabans’ referred to above represented another section of the city, not the village of Waban which at that time was not yet a separate community.

This final account, of August 1, 1885 seems to cover a “pick-up” game:

There was a base ball game last Saturday at Needham Plains between the Mugwumps of this village and the Saccarappa’s of Keeler’s Mill of Needham, resulting in a victory for the former of 10 to 8 in ten innings.

This reference to a football team of the nineteenth century comes from a news item of December 10, 1897:

Newton Upper Falls A.A. defeated the Highlandville A.A. eleven on the home grounds last Saturday afternoon 4 to 0. Campbell made a touchdown for Newton just at the call of time in the second half. Highlandville claimed the touchdown was made after the call of time, and after they had withdrawn their goal defense. The umpire, who was the manager of the Upper Falls team, decided in favor of his own team.

It would appear that the referee had a high regard for his own safety. Also note that those early football teams made it easier n their scorekeepers than those covering the above recorded baseball contests.

It is believed that the early playing field of these games was the area now included in the Upper Palls Playground. The original field was owned by J. Edward Dudley, a resident of Oak Hill (Dudley Street was named after the family). It consisted of about six and one-half acres. Mr. Dudley used the land as a hay field and after the hay was cut (about July 1st) the field could be used as a ball field. The charge, if any, was nominal. About 1909 the field was purchased by a local committee and presented to the city as a playground. In 1924 it was enlarged by a purchase of part of the Marcy property.

It is difficult to name all the outstanding athletes from the village of Newton Upper Falls, some of whom earned extraordinary local reputations while others went on to national fame. Again, because of economic reasons many potential athletes of ability could not receive the honors that their skill and ability might otherwise have gained.

Mr. McLaughlin, in his history, speaks of some who “made it” and of some who didn’t:

Back in the ’80s the Horrigan brothers were champions in Greco-Roman and ‘catch: as catch can’ wrestling and toured the country in exhibitions and contests. At the close of their careers they purchased and managed a granite quarry in Quincy. They should be remembered as the donors of the granite block for the World War I memorial on the Emerson School lawn.

About the same time another local boy, Lawrence Daniels, was for a number of years the first-string catcher for the Kansas City Base Ball Club of the National League. Salaries in those days did not compensate for the idleness between seasons so he, after a few years, settled in Waltham.

One of his friends, and in the opinion of many ‘old-timers’, the best ball player in the district was John (Shiggy) Sullivan. He played short-stop for the Greater Boston Factory League Goodyear (United Shoe Machinery Co. ) team. Because of his obligations to a widowed mother and a younger sister he would not give up the security of his position with the U.S.M. Co. for any of the many professional offers he received.

Another ‘great’ who did not accept the lure of professionalism was James (Jim) McNeally, for many years a foreman in the Pettee Machine Works, and after his retirement a successful horticulturist, specializing in the growing of dahlias. In his youth he was a good heavyweight boxer. His best effort was a ‘draw’ with ‘Jake’ Kilrain at the time when ‘Jake’ and John L. Sullivan and ‘Jim’ Mitchell were world champions. He never followed it up except to give exhibitions locally and as a ‘trial horse’ for local boxing aspirants who generally learned that the gap between amateurism and professionalism was too much. (See further information regarding above at the end of this Chapter).

Another local ‘star was Bobby Dresser . Although outclassed physically (about 5′ 8″ – 140 pounds) he starred in boxing, football and baseball for school teams and local clubs. He had a successful tryout as a pitcher for the Boston Nationals (Boston 2 – Pittsburgh 0) but decided or a future in the banking and investment field, in which his family was prominent, rather than baseball. His career was cut; short, however, by tuberculosis while he was still young.

One of the local boys who made a successful career of professional baseball was John (Shano) Collins. He went from the local clubs to the Springfield team of the New England League and then to the Chicago White Sox of the American League as outfielder and first baseman. He played for them a number of years and survived the so-called Black Sox Scandal in 1919 as ‘Honest John’, without a smirch of dirt on his record.

Leaving the White Sox he was successful as manager of a Triple A team (believed to be Kansas City). This led to his appointment as manager of the Boston Red Sox. However, friction of all kinds made success impossible and he retired from baseball.” (Later he built and operated a restaurant on Needham Street. Ed.)

Mr. McLaughlin continues – regarding a local golfer:

“In professional golf a number of local boys as caddies at the Charles River Country Club, etc., achieved some championship skill. One of them, ‘Bobby’ Crowley, was Captain of the Boston College golf team which won the college championship of New England four times. He captured the N.E. Intercollegiates three of the four years he attended college. He later won the N.E. PGA championship five times and the Massachusetts Open four times. He was a consistent winner or runner-up in various state and national tournaments but preferred his position as ‘Pro’ at the Pine Ridge Country Club of Weston (20 years) to the grind of tournament competition. During the winter he also worked as a ‘pro’ in Florida. (Now enshrined in the B.C. Varsity Club Hall of Fame) “

Later Baseball Heroes

Our older fans might recall some of these players of bygone days including Walter Slattery (who became a lawyer and later Clerk of Court in Newton), Asa McKenna (later Chief of Police of Waltham), Bill Halliday (later president of a local bank), Bondy Collins, brother of Shono, Frank Yates, (killed in WW I), Chet Carroll, Mal Blue, Dewey Evans (no, not the former Red Sox outfielder), Brody Ormond, Jerry Kelliher, Jim Driggs, Jim Malone (who later joined the ticket sales department of the old Brooklyn Dodgers) and Joe Russell (later an outstanding pitcher in the Eastern and New England Leagues who was once given a tryout with the Chicago White Sox).

Remembered among the more modern players would be the late Johnnie Proctor who starred in many sports along with his cousin, Bill Proctor. John later became a very successful athletic coach at Weston High School. At one time he was awarded the “Outstanding High School Coach of the Year” award and the athletic field at Weston High School is named in his honor.

Joe Kerrivan, after starring on local teams became the property of the Boston Red Sox. He had a successful minor league career with Brockton and Portland of the New England and Eastern Leagues before a broken leg and family obligations curtailed his baseball activities.

Neil T. Mahoney was another local boy who contributed a great deal to professional baseball and was highly respected by the Boston Red Sox management with whom he was associated for 34 years. A record of his achievements is contained in this news item in the Boston Herald American which appeared following his death on May 23, 1973 at the age of 66:

He was the senior member of the Red Sox organization, having joined the club in 1939 as a scout. Among the top players he personally signed were Jim Piersall and present vice president Haywood Sullivan.

Mahoney was a native of Newton, and was known as one of the top collegiate and semi pro catchers in baseball After his graduation from Northeastern University he was for many years player-manager for many teams in the Cape Cod League and the Northern League.

During World War II, he was coach of basketball and baseball at Bowdoin University.

He was Eastern Scouting Supervisor for the Bed Sox in the 50s and became Farm Director in September of 1960. Since 1969, he has been director of scouts. Neil also served as one of the directors of the Hearst sandlot baseball program.

Among the outstanding baseball teams which represented Newton Upper Falls in the past was the “Upper Falls A. A. ” When WW I broke out, almost all of its members joined up with Battery “B” under the late Sinclair Weeks.

Girls’ Baseball

Perhaps one of the most exceptional baseball teams in the village was a group of teenage girls which was organized a number of years ago by the local playground director. For four or five years they played together against other girls’ teams in the city, winning almost all of their games. It is said that occasionally they played against boys’ teams and gave a very good account of themselves. One of their outstanding players was Helen “Nellie” (Moran) Arata, who later became prominent in Democratic Party affairs both nationally and in Massachusetts. At one time she was a candidate for Congresswoman, running against Congressman Christian Herter.

Jim McNeally

Regarding previous information concerning the boxing skill attained by a local resident, James McNeally, and his success in the ring with two former world champion fighters, John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain. From a summary of an article that appeared some time ago in the Boston Globe regarding these men, this excerpt:

“John L. Sullivan was still the world’s champion boxer-fighter when he fought Jake Kilrain in the last bare-knuckle fight on July 8, 1889 at a secret sight in Richburg, Mississippi. … It was a winner-take all bout. … They fought under a 100 degree sun that scorched both men’s backs crimson.

By the 30th round, Sullivan’s green breeches and flesh colored stockings were mottled with blood, most of it Kilrain’s. … It took two hours 16 minutes and 48 knockdowns for Sullivan to induce Kilrain to throw in the sponge…”

As I write this, I cannot believe that the tall lanky mild mannered man I knew as a youth and often visited in his home on Oak Street, Jim McNeally, had the physical ability to handle these two men in a ring and not show any visible scars from the experience. I do not recall him ever speaking of those exciting days when he was young.

  1. Near the present Eliot MBTA station. The name “Waban” is that of a former Indian chief of the same name. See Chapter 1, Historical ↩︎

Copyright 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 Kenneth Newcomb and The Friends of Hemlock Gorge. All rights reserved.