The striker approached the plate Saturday afternoon in Gloversville, willow in hand, as the noon sun beat down and the crankers cheered and jeered behind him. The pitch came in; he made contact, sending the ball arcing out to the fence. He was no muffin.
That description would make a lot more sense to baseball fans in 1886, the time period re-created in a vintage baseball game at Parkhurst Field on Saturday as the Fulton County Baseball and Sports Hall of Fame welcomed two new inductees.
“This place has lots of history to it,” said Buck Pieraccini, former captain of the Whately Pioneers, a recreation team out of Massachusetts, as he leaned over the fence near his team’s dugout Saturday. “Parkhurst Field has great history to it.”
After the first inning of the game, hall of fame founders Mike Hauser and David Karpinski inducted George J. Burns, who played 15 seasons in the major leagues with the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies. Burns lived much of his life in Gloversville.
Later, they inducted the Ken-Wel Sporting Goods Company in a new “Contributors Category” for people or companies that did not necessarily play professional sports, but had a notable effect in other ways.
“Baseball’s soul is right in this area,” said Pieraccini. Like the rest of his team, he wore a vintage uniform, gray with “Pioneers” printed in large black letters across the front, high black socks and a wide, black belt.
“This is where baseball was almost born, right in this area right here,” he said.
Before the game began, Pieraccini explained some of the differences: a batter — or striker, as it was called then — got seven balls instead of four, but still three strikes. The pitcher’s box, not mound, was closer, at 50 feet from home plate. The batter called his own strike zone, high or low. A foul ball meant nothing and, perhaps the most noticeable difference to a layman, players wore thin leather gloves, nothing like modern gloves in appearance or protection.
“Otherwise,” he told the crowd of families and lots of Little Leaguers, “just enjoy the ballgame.”
For Mike Hauser, inducting Burns was something of a personal accomplishment. Burns was a relative of Hauser, and the source of many family stories that Hauser heard throughout his childhood.
In a career that spanned from 1911 to 1925, primarily with the Giants, Burns played in three World Series — including the first Subway Series, against Babe Ruth’s New York Yankees. Overall, the 5-foot-7, 160-pound outfielder hit .287, led the National League in both plate appearances and walks five times, and was outstanding in the field, twice leading the league in putouts and fielding percentage by left fielders.
He recorded 384 career stolen bases, six times stealing 30 or more in a season and twice leading the league. Burns is third in Major League Baseball history with 28 steals of home.
“Burns came back to Gloversville after the 1931 season, ran a pool hall on South Main Street, played for some local teams, umpired high school games,” said Tom Roehl, who emceed the induction ceremony. “Over the years, he did get votes for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, just not enough to be inducted. That’s not a problem here in Gloversville. He is a deserving inductee into the Fulton County Baseball and Sports Hall of Fame.”
Marie Jablonski, Burns’ stepdaughter, who accepted the honor with about two dozen other family members, said she remembers “Pa Burns” as a “wonderful father and grandfather.”
“We knew he had a colorful baseball history, but he never talked about it too much,” she said. “He was a very, very modest man. A fine gentlemen. Always wore a suit and tie, with a cigarette in his hand.”
Burns lived in Gloversville from 1930 until his death in 1966. Dennis Flynn, Burns’ grandnephew, played in the first game of Little League at Parkhurst Field in 1955, and remembers Burns and his wife sitting in the stands near first base, where he played.
“Every time I would play, he’d come to the games and sit in the bleachers just behind first base to watch,” said Flynn, who joined Jablonski in accepting the honor. “And of course I remember George Burns at Christmastime coming to our house when we were kids and bringing gifts. At that age, you didn’t understand who George Burns really was and what it was all about. He was just family to us.”
The hall of fame also welcomed the Ken-Wel Sporting Goods Company, founded by the Kennedy family in Gloversville in 1916, which at one time supplied most of the gloves used in professional baseball, according to Roehl.
“There was a time when most of the players in America’s national pastime were using equipment made right here in Gloversville,” he said. “By 1924, there were more Ken-Wel gloves and mitts used in Major League Baseball than all other brands combined.”
The vintage game was played between the Whately Pioneers and a re-creation of Gloversville’s historical A., J. & G. (Amsterdam, Johnstown and Gloversville) team made up of former area Little Leaguers. That game was followed by a throwback game between the Gloversville Little League majors all-star team, dressed as the Gloversville Glovers, a professional team that played in the city from the 1930s until 1951, and the Johnstown Little League majors all-star team, playing as the Johnstown Buckskins, which played in Johnstown in the late 1800s.
Pieraccini, 70, said he’s mostly retired from the Pioneers, but has been coming back for the past three years to join this game in Gloversville, drawn to the history of the area and the “pure” passion of Hauser and Karpinski.
“A baseball field is magic,” he said as his team took the field. “Especially a maintained baseball field that looks like somebody loves it. And it becomes a center of a community. And let me tell you — kids love baseball. If it’s played with the right attitude, with the true spirit of it, there’s nothing more fun than that.”
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