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The Altona Blues

“My Adirondack Baseball Journey”

There Once Was a Time

Where Every Town Had a Team

Every Team Had a Star

Every Boy Had a Dream


     I grew up in the 1960’s and ’70’s.  An era when baseball was still our nation’s true pastime. When every stick was a bat.  When every hand held rock was a ball.

     Every vacant lot and backyard was a baseball field.  Neighborhood kids all rode bikes with kickstands & rear pedal brakes.  They came standard.  Kid’s bicycles all still had just one speed.

    New pick-up baseball teams formed every day. Every neighborhood had one. Best friends still freely shared one worn out favorite glove. Even when they ended up on opposing teams.

     My first clear baseball playing memories are from Stanfordville, New York.  The year was 1969.  I was in the first grade. I was six.

     My next door neighbor, Mark, was a 3rd grader. In the kid hierarchy of things, that made him permanent team captain.

    Mark had two sisters, a 2nd Grader named Carol, and an older one whose name I long ago forgot.

    His family had a big yard. It housed a chicken coop full cool of junk, an old stone “summer house” way out back, a big red raspberry patch, and a raised wooden hut for Mark’s pet rabbit.  Mark had a dog too. I don’t remember the dog’s name either.  For some reason I want to say it was “Flash”.

     My little brother Raymond and I lived with our mom, dad and two cats in a rented house with a long gravel driveway and a big barn out back.

     My Dad was a Forest Ranger.  He drove a red Willie’s Jeep. My Mom kept a big vegetable garden. We had a calico cat.  Her name was Princess.

     I learned to ride a two wheeled bike on that long gravel driveway. My bike was fire engine red.  It was quite an accomplishment when my father finally took the training wheels off. My brother Raymond inherited my big front wheeled “trike”.

     Dad drove the ambulance for the local Volunteer Fire Department.  One time he ended up with his arm in a sling. Every night at 6pm the town fire alarm went off as a test. Fire department members took turns going down to the station and turning it off.  That particular night whoever was supposed to turn the alarm off apparently forgot.  As  it turned out, that whoever was my Dad.

     Once he realized his error, Dad raced down to the fire station.  He was in such a hurry that he forgot his key. He climbed into the Fire Station through a window.  The window slammed down on his arm.  Dad got cut pretty bad.  He needed a bunch of stitches, and ended up in a sling. It’s  funny the memories that stick with you through time.  My most vivid memory from that incident is of  Mom helping Dad shave.

       Mark, Carol, Raymond & I would play “Hide & Go Seek” across both yards.  We practiced “skidding out” on our bikes.  We swam at the local beach when one of our Moms took us. We played croquette.  I once got mad and hit Carol over the head with my mallet. Must have been I was losing. I got in big trouble that day. 

    We also engaged in “War” marathons using two decks of cards.  Sometimes those games would last several days! I don’t recall ever having clobbering anyone over the head with a deck of cards. Though that doesn’t mean I didn’t.  We played another card game called “bloody knuckles”. I did clobber some knuckles. Especially my brother’s.

    We challenged each other to clover pulling contests to see who could build the biggest pile to feed to Mark’s pet rabbit.  Both yards had big pine trees out front.  Locusts would sing once summer days got longer and it began getting warm.  We would search around the base of the trees for dried brown locust skin “sheds”, racing to see which of us could find the most.

     Mostly though, when we weren’t busy doing all of that, Mark, Raymond, and I played baseball out in Mark’s big back yard.  Carol played sometimes too.  Generally speaking though, it was just us three boys.

     Mark was the oldest.  He was also the best baseball player amongst us and could hit the ball farthest.  So either Raymond & I would team up against Mark, or I would play Raymond, and Mark would just pitch.  We  used  “Ghost Runners”.  Each team got one out.  If someone managed to hit a ball all the way to the Summer House, it was a home run.  Mark hit a lot of them.  He usually won.

     Mark also played Little League.  Raymond and I were too young.  We went and watched some of his games.  His team played in the same recreation park where we swam.  Mark’s team was the “Mets.” That is how I ended up a Mets fan. That plus the fact that the “Miracle Mets” won the ’69 World Series. 

“The 1969 Miracle Mets”

The New York Mets have been my favorite team ever since.  Funny how such things sometimes work.

“My 1968 TOPPS Koosman/Ryan Rookie Card”

     Beginning right in the midst of 2nd grade, our family moved three times in rapid succession. I finished 2nd grade in Duanesburg, NY  followed in short order by a move to Northville, where we lived for a year. By the time the dust settled in 1972, we lived in Lake Placid. I was 8 years old, ready to enter 4th grade.

     My 4th grade class was in a temporary tin building behind Lake Placid’s main school. Mrs. McCarthy was my teacher. We ate lunch in the main cafeteria.  I brought my lunch, along with five cents for a carton of school milk.

Mrs. McCarthy also had a system where we could earn paper “tokens” through good grades and good deeds. We could redeem them during breaks for snacks, pencils, and other small fun prize items. I liked tokens. I got good grades and earned a lot of them.

     We held recess on a playground out in front of the school, near the Olympic skating oval.  I was playing tag one day. Two girls named Alexis & Mary Jo were giving chase. I just  ran.  Much to my chagrin, I did not watch where I was going. I slammed my face head on into the monkey bars, full force.  The monkey bars won. I lost my two front teeth. I had to go to the dentist and get caps.  I still have them.

     I made  a lot of friends that year in school. Alexis & Doug, whose families each owned local hotels.  Sam, Rhett and Hayes; Rhett and Hayes were cousins. All three of them played hockey. I didn’t.

   Two of my closest friends though, were Chris, whose Dad was my dentist, and Timmy, whose Dad worked at the Local Grand Union.  Timmy played hockey with Sam, Rhett and Hayes.  But he liked baseball too.  

     In Lake Placid, I played Tee Ball, 1973. I was nine.  I was on the same team as Timmy and my brother. Timmy played shortstop. Raymond played right field. He would sit in the outfield grass with his blue glove on his head, picking dandelions. I played first base.  Our team won the league championship.  Must have been the stellar play of our right fielder that put us on top.

     It was in Lake Placid that I earned the money for my first real leather glove. It was dark brown leather, a Wilson. I saw it in the window of the Sporting Goods store.  I went inside, the clerk retrieved  it from the window and let me try it on. 

  That was the first time I had ever felt real leather on my hand.  It was perfect, fit me just right. I can still remember that new baseball glove smell. I had to have it. I fell love with that glove.  Dad let me put it on layaway. I can’t  remember for sure, I think it cost around ten bucks. A lot of money for an unemployed nine year to come up with in 1973.

     Dad  had a two phased attack planned for that.  Phase I: “Meet The Wood Pile” and Phase II: “Chores”.

     It took me all summer, one twenty five cent chore or stack of wood at a time, but by the time we were packing to move yet again, this time to Saranac Lake, I owned that glove.  It was mine.

     Once settled into our new home on the corner of Stevenson Lane in Saranac Lake, Raymond and I quickly made new friends.  We played pick-up baseball across the street in the vacant lot at the base of Carpenter’s Hill, or across the Pine Street Bridge in Denny Park. Each field had its own set of uniquely tailored ground rules.

“One Stevenson Lane”

Artist’s Sketch by Jane B. Gillis, 1977

    We formed two teams, Reggie Jackson’s “Oakland A’s” vs. Pete Rose & Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine”.  Those two teams were the rage. 

      I was still a diehard NY Mets fan.  I watched the ’73 World Series team from my 5th grade friend Bruce’s house out on Panther Mountain Road.

     My Tom Seaver led Mets tried valiantly that year. They took Oakland all the way to Game 7 on the strength of their pitching & airtight defense.

    Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack and Seaver were the “Big Three” in the starting rotation. Tug McGraw manned “The Pen.”

    Bud Harrelson played shortstop, Felix Millan was at 2nd.  Ed Kranepool manned 1st. Cleon Jones roamed center field. Jerry Grote caught. It was not enough to beat Reggie, Catfish, Vida Blue & Rollie.  My heart broke when the final out was made.

    One of my fifth-grade best friends that year was named Bruce. Bruce’s father was a DEC Forester, Forest Ranger, or ECO. I’m not sure which. He worked with my dad.  One day Bruce’s Dad took us duck hunting.  He shot some mallards.  Bruce’s Mom cooked up the duck breasts for dinner.  She served them with a side of mint jelly. They were rich tasting, distinctively good.  That meal left a lasting impression on me. It was the first time I had ever tasted wild duck.  

     I played “Little League” in Saranac Lake. Except Saranac Lake renamed it the “Matty League”, after Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson.   He passed away in Saranac Lake after taking up residence as a patient there trying to recuperate from TB.

     My first team was Rotary Club in the summer of 1974. I was 10 years old.  I played 3rd base. The older boys pitched.  I was still too young to throw hard enough. Raymond wasn’t old enough that season to play.

    We  didn’t get many games on our two channel black & white Zenith TV. I followed the Mets through our local newspaper, “The Adirondack Daily Enterprise.”  I taught myself to read box scores.  Once I learned, I devoured them.

     Raymond was in Cub Scouts.  I was a “Webelo.”  That winter Raymond’s Cub Scout Pack held a raffle. He won the “Grand Prize”; autographed black & white photos of  The New York Mets team.  I was jealous.  He knew it.  That made them one of my little brother’s prized possessions.  Several years later, however, my brother took pity on me.  They are now one of mine.  

“Tom Seaver”

“My Mets Idol”

    We took a family trip to Montreal that summer. We watched the Expos play in old Jarry Park.  They faced the Dodgers.  I got several autographs and a program. Steve Rogers, Barry Foote, several others.  I still keep them in an album.  Montreal won that day, somewhat of a rarity for them.

      Tom Seaver was my idol.  I desperately wanted to pitch. I was self taught. I practiced in games during our neighborhood league. I threw tennis balls against a square that I drew on the garage. During the winter I substituted snowballs for baseballs and practiced throwing at frozen trees. I had a full length mirror mounted on the back of my bedroom  door.  I would stand in my bedroom and practice my windup while I listened to crackling records on vinyl. 

     My practice paid  off.  I played for Rosebud Creamery my second season, 1975. Raymond was finally old enough to play.  He was back in the outfield.  He still sported his blue leather glove, but at least by then he knew enough not to pick flowers or use his glove as a hat in right field.

      I still played 3rd base and 1st base, but I finally got a chance to pitch.  I even made the All Star Team that season.

In 1975 I began collecting baseball cards in earnest. I had collected some in ’74, but traded them away for something else, I don’t recall what, maybe comic books.

We bought cards at Hoffman’s Pharmacy, used them as currency. I completed the TOPPS set that year, 660 cards. Carl Yastrzemski was the final card I needed for my set. I still lacked his card in October. I used my birthday money to buy a whole 36 pack box. I finally got a “Yaz” in the final wax pack.

I collected baseball cards from there forward. I completed a TOPPS set each season, right through to today. I never threw them out. I still have them all. Now my collection goes back into the 1800’s. I have 3 rooms full of cards. My baseball card collection currently totals nearly one million.

 1976 was my final season of Matty League Baseball. I played for Ayres Insurance.  “Giff” was my coach. He was the first coach who took a true interest in my passion for pitching.  He helped with my windup, my control, and my grip.  He tried to teach me a change-up. He would even take me one on one and squat down to catch.

    He made me his primary pitcher.  I was so proud.  We won some games and lost some  games.  I was a bit wild.  I made the All- Star team again.  Giff may have been the best baseball coach I ever had. 

    Saranac Lake did not have a “Babe Ruth” league.  We had “Larry Doyle” instead.  For the same  reason we had the “Matty League”, Larry Doyle was Mathewson’s NY Giants teammate.  They both lived in Saranac Lake while they battled TB. The both died there.

     I have vintage tobacco cards in my collection of each of them as teammates with the Giants. Christy Mathewson  pitched.  Larry Doyle played 2nd base.

     My Larry Doyle team was called “American Legion”. Long story short, we were stacked.  Many of the best high school athletes at Saranac Lake High School played on that team.  I pitched, played 1st base and outfield. I twice made the All-Star team.  That American Legion team won at least one league championship while I was on it.

“The Adirondack Daily Enterprise”

(Page 7, Sports Photo, 1979)

“Regular Season Champions”

“The American Legion”

     My summer baseball league success did not carry over to High School baseball.  Don’t ask me to explain it.  I have never been able to.

     I tried out for The Saranac Lake Redskins High School Baseball team for three seasons.  Every year I got cut.  I cried when I saw the Coach post the team list on the bulletin board outside the locker room and my name was not on it.  Then each year,  I resolved to keep trying. 

     I threw tennis balls at the garage, snowballs at trees, and sometimes  even made my brother Raymond or best friend Chris catch while I practiced.  In the meantime, I ran track.

     Finally, my Senior year at Saranac Lake High School, my perseverance paid off.  I made the varsity Baseball team!  I felt both elated and proud.  I was happy.  I was finally playing varsity Redskins baseball.

“The Saranac Lake Redskins”

“Varsity Baseball”

     I wish I could report that I distinguished myself that season.  In truth, I did not.  After three years getting cut,  I had missed out on three crucial developmental seasons, and I struggled as a result.

      One yearbook quote stands out in my mind.  Our senior 1st baseman, nicknamed “Moon”  (I don’t know why). “Moon” may have been our best player.  He sure could hit!

 He wrote in my yearbook:

     “El Presidente”(I was Senior Class President too),

  “It was really fun playing baseball with you and you’re not too bad even though you can’t hit worth a damn.”

    He was probably right.  At that point, I couldn’t.  But I did pitch a little.

     Several positive things did happen for me though during that season.

     First, our varsity baseball Coach, Coach Zerrahn, occasionally brought in local athletes who had achieved some degree  of success to tutor us a bit, and offer advice.

     One was Charlie Decker, a local sports reporter for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise who had achieved some degree of baseball notoriety. He was a pitcher. I found him inspiring.

One year Charlie went with all the Enterprise newspaper boys on a bus trip to Montreal to watch the Expos play the Reds. It must have been 1977,because my baseball idol, Tom Seaver, had just been traded. He was starting for Cincinatti that day. A little ironic. the first and only time I ever got to see my baseball idol pitch was not in a Mets uniform, but for the Reds.

Charlie used his press pass to get into the Reds dugout before the game. He got Tom Seaver’s autograph, well sort of. Charlie came back up to the stand just before the first pitch. Seaver had scribbled the initials “T. S. on a white piece of paper. I remember thinking;

“Wow! It must have taken a lot of guts for Charlie to ask Seaver for his autograph just moments before he was getting ready to take the mound.”

I have always remembered that moment.

  My other high school baseball inspiration that year came from Coach Zerrahn’s brother, John.  He played town team ball in the Champlain Valley League.  I knew his name from the sports page of the paper. Coach Zerrahn invited him to varsity baseball practice occasionally to work with the pitchers.

  John Zerrahn took me aside during one practice.  He showed me how he gripped his curveball and took the time to work with me a bit. His lesson and the fact that he took the time to work with me stuck with me.  I worked hard and made that overhand curveball my main pitch. 

     The other thing that happened was that I became close friends with our best pitcher, Tim.  Tim was left-handed and threw pretty hard.  He was far better than me, had true baseball talent well beyond mine.  We did share two things. Tim and I both pitched.  We both loved the game.

     As graduation neared and our Varsity baseball season ended, I one day lamented to Tim:

   “Well, that’s it.  The end of my baseball career.  Most likely I will never play baseball again.”

     Tim allayed my fear.  He had good news.   He played for a town team himself in the Champlain Valley League. Tim played for The Altona Blues. They were looking for pitchers.  Tim invited me to try out.  I accepted his invitation.  I went with him to a practice.

     Altona is a hamlet between Saranac Lake and Plattsburgh.  It rests a bit off the beaten path.  I had never been there before that first day of practice.

     I had also never met anyone quite like Coach Brunell.

     “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” He would say.  He was very animated.  He also needed more pitchers. I made the team.

     I did not have a car.  Tim rode to practices and games with his  family. They drove a sedan.  They frequently did not have room for me.

     My Dad was too busy for baseball. He was DEC Regional Director and by that point in time, the job filled his life.  He had no time for out of town weekend baseball double headers, certainly not for that drive.

   So I did what ballplayers had done for a century. I would get up on weekend mornings, slide my glove over my bat, tie my spikes together, hang them over it too, put my bat over my shoulder, step out onto Route 3 towards Plattsburgh, and stick out my thumb.

     I hitchhiked to Altona, Champlain, Saranac, Lyon Mountain, Peru.  When I couldn’t hitch a ride, I just walked. A couple of times Tim and his family drove by in their sedan. They would wave but not stop.  I cut it close a few times, but I never missed a game.

    I did not play much.  I was used to that.  I finally came in to relieve Tim in the 7th inning one game with runners on base and no outs.

     Coach Brunell was waiting for me on the mound with instructions.

     “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” He muttered.

     “They’re gonna bunt.  Throw a pitch up. They’ll foul it off or pop one up.”  I nodded.

     The catcher crouched behind the plate and put down one finger.  I threw a fastball, right down the middle, and up.  Sure enough, the batter squared around to sacrifice bunt.

He hit a soft liner directly back to me. Just like Coach Brunell planned. I caught the ball and doubled the runner off first. It happened so quickly, I had no time to think.

   I got the last out, and we won the game.  I got a save.  My first post-high school career stat. A  pretty good debut.

     I continued hitchhiking to games, but not pitching much.  I pinch ran once against the Redford River Rats.  I took too big a lead off 2nd, and got myself picked off. I also volunteered to catch once. That proved disastrous.

     Still, I just loved being part of a team.  I kept making the trips. They played weekend double headers, sometimes both days.  I never had a place  to stay.  I had no money.  Tim & I  would hang out and drink a few beers with our teammates after the games sometimes. They were all local men with families and jobs. Tim then rode home with his family. I had no ride home, so I stayed. I slept in the dugout. I used my glove for a pillow. Some nights it got pretty cold.

     Finally, one weekend, Coach Brunell informed me:

    “Kid, we’ve  got an exhibition game next weekend against the Plattsburgh American Legion team.  Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! You’re starting.”

“Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” Was I ever excited!

  I was finally going to get my first start.

     I was working two jobs that summer, trying to stockpile extra money for college. I worked days as a laborer at the DEC Meadowbrook Campground in Ray Brook. I worked evenings serving pizzas & subs at Dagwood’s in Saranac Lake.

I was scheduled for a Friday night shift the night before my big game.  There was no such thing as “calling in”.  I worked my shift  despite knowing we’d  be open until 3:30 am.  I most likely would have to get on the road right from Dagwood’s if I wanted to make the game.

      That, however, did not end up being my problem.  Dagwood’s had an old meat slicer we used to cut deli meat for individual subs. It did not have a guard. Sometime early in the evening, I was cutting ham slices for a sub. I felt a funny sensation. I looked down. I saw blood. It was mine. I realized I had just sliced the end off of my right thumb. 

Needless to say, that ended my shift.  I applied direct pressure to my wound. Dagwood’s owner called my parents.  They came and drove  me home.

     Upon inspection, there was not much to be done.  The tip of my thumb was cut clean off, right down to bare bone. I don’t know where it landed.  Hopefully not in some unwitting customer’s ham sub. 

     There was no reattaching it, nothing to stitch, so we wrapped it in gauze, and Dad taped it really tight with white tape. That was it.

     The bleeding stopped. The pain wasn’t too bad. I  made plans to head out for the next day’s game.  I remained determined to pitch.

     It was a night game, scheduled to be played under the lights. I don’t recall where, Plattsburgh maybe. I arrived at the field just in time. I related what had happened to Coach Brunell, and stuck out my thumb.

     “Jesus!  Jesus!  Jesus!”  Coach Brunelle muttered.

  “Ain’t no way the umpires are gonna let you pitch with all that white tape on your thumb.”

     We approached the umps.  They examined my thumb.  They agreed to let me pitch, as  long as no white tape showed. Someone went to their truck and retrieved a roll of black electrical tape.  We re-wrapped my thumb.  I took the mound for the game, and attempted to pitch.

     Needless to say, it did not work. I lasted two batters,  got blood everywhere, walked them both.  That was it.  The end of my brief Altona Blues pitching career.  I would not play organized baseball again for another ten years.

    The North Country baseball season could best be described in one word:


     Thanks to one late Dagwood’s Pizza & Sub Shop meat slicer incident, so could my boyhood dreams of a pitching career.

And my right thumb.


“Nearly 40 Years Later…”

“My Uniform Still Fits!”


Until Our Trails Cross Again:

“It’s Always Baseball Season Somewhere”

“Let’s Play Ball!”


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