Over the past few months, our friends at Brattleboro Area Hospice have talked about their “A Year Well Lived” campaign, to get people thinking about what they would they would like to do if they had a chance to really do what they loved.
For me, a year well lived would be incomplete without spending as many sunny afternoons as possible sitting in the grandstand at Tenney Field in Brattleboro, watching baseball and listening to the swallows chirping away as they swoop in and out of the rafters.
My introduction to Tenney Field came in the spring of 1989, when I first came to Brattleboro to cover local sports for the Reformer.
It was called Stolte Field then, and Carl Tenney was still with us and coaching varsity baseball at Brattleboro Union High School. The longtime Colonels baseball coach died in 1998 at age 66, and the field was renamed in his honor not long after.
Tucked between the Public Works Department garage on one side, and Natowich Field and the high school on the other, what first struck me about Stolte Field was the big concrete and steel grandstand behind home plate.
To me, the grandstand was the best feature, especially when it rained or on a hot summer day when you wanted to get out of the sun. I soon learned that this was the only town in southern Vermont that had one.
The dugouts then were recessed intro the concrete base of the grandstand. They flooded when it rained and it was easy to crack your head on the low ceiling. The outfield was asymmetrical and spacious. To hit the ball out, especially to left-center field, required a powerful swing.
I’ve seen many baseball games there — high school, Babe Ruth, American Legion, and semi-pro baseball — and over time, I learned about the great history of this field and the memorable players and teams that played there in front of that big grandstand.
For me, it seems unthinkable that this grandstand might disappear. But it could.
If you attended any baseball games at Tenney Field this year, you might have noticed that the old grandstand was closed to spectators. There was talk that it would be torn down, but no one would give a straight answer about it.
Put me down on the side of those who believe that demolishing this structure would be a huge mistake and an affront to Brattleboro baseball history.
A public works project
Like so many great public structures around Vermont, and around the nation, Stolte Field was built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal jobs program created by the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s to put unemployed people to work building public infrastructure.
The field was built on the site of the former Valley Fair. The 83rd Annual Brattleboro Auditors’ Report, for the year ending Jan. 31, 1939, reported the following:
“Another outstanding development is the building of a new athletic field. Through the cooperation of the [Brattleboro High School] Alumni Association in donating $600 at the annual meeting last June, it was possible to get the work well started.
“The project has been carried on with WPA labor. The splendid co-operation of the town officials has made it possible to push forward this work. Incidentally, this has given employment to many men who would otherwise have gone on the relief rolls and the material used has been furnished without cost to the town.
“Many citizens have been much interested in this project and it is planned, this spring, to give those who wish an opportunity to help financially in the completion of the project. About $1,500 will be needed to complete the work.
“When completed this field will be the best high school plant in the state and will be better than some college fields. Such a project could not be completed as a private project for less than $30,000.”
Work began on the field in the summer of 1938, but it was interrupted by the Great New England Hurricane in September of that year. The widespread damage from the massive storm pulled the WPA crews away from the Brattleboro project to work on emergency relief projects for several months.
Construction resumed on a wooden grandstand in 1939. It was finished in the spring of 1940, giving the town what the Auditors called in their 1940 report “facilities for football, baseball and track, as well as dressing quarters, which will be second to none.”
The field was named for Diedrich “Dede” Stolte, a longtime coach and physical education instructor at Brattleboro High School. He died in 1926 in Rutland while coaching the varsity basketball team in the Southern Vermont Interscholastic Tournament. He coached championship teams in football, baseball, and basketball during his tenure at BHS.
A fire in the fall of 1946 destroyed the wooden grandstand, and a concrete and steel grandstand — the one we see now on the field — was built as its replacement at a cost of $29,038.47. It was opened in time for the 1947 baseball season.
The Maples take root
While the field has been mostly used for high school baseball, its history was made during the 1940s, when it was a prominent stop for aspiring major leaguers playing in the semi-pro circuit known as the Northern League.
The first Northern League started in 1926, and was strictly a northern New York State circuit centered around Malone, N.Y. The league disbanded in 1939, and then reorganized into a six-team league in 1940 with teams in Burlington, Montpelier, St. Albans, Rutland. and Plattsburgh and Glens Falls, N.Y.
There was support for making it an eight-team league and so Brattleboro and Bennington were voted in. Plattsburgh didn’t like the idea and dropped out. Claremont, N.H. was happy to fill their spot.
There was a contest staged in the spring of 1940 to name Brattleboro’s new team. A total of 177 names were submitted, and a panel of judges chose the suggestion of Ralph A. Oakes, a longtime local athlete and sports fan.
He suggested “Maples,” a name he said was “fitting in view of the many stately maple trees in this vicinity and of Vermont’s famed maple products.” Oakes won a season ticket for the 1940 season.
The eight cities and towns in the Northern League fielded teams in 1940 and 1941, but World War II forced the league to disband for the duration of the conflict.
In 1946, the league reformed. Glens Falls and Claremont bowed out of the new Northern League, and were replaced by St. Johnsbury and Keene, N.H.
Brattleboro, Bennington, Burlington, Montpelier, Rutland, and St. Albans were other towns with teams after the war. This eight-team alignment lasted until 1950, when the league again disbanded at the end of the season. There was one final try to revive the Northern League in 1952, but Brattleboro was not a part of it.
While many college baseball players played in the Northern League, it was frowned upon by the NCAA due to its semi-pro status. The lack of sanctioning by the NCAA and the stricter enforcement of rules regarding the amateur status of ballplayers was the death knell of the original Northern League, and it disbanded for good after the 1952 season.
The original Northern League had several alumni move on to the big leagues, including several Maples.
Dave “Boo” Ferris was one of the top pitchers for the Red Sox in the late 1940s. He briefly played for the Maples in 1941 before the Sox signed him later that year. His best season came in 1946, when he compiled a 25-6 record and pitched in the World Series. He went on to a long career as the coach of Delta State University in his native Mississippi.
Third baseman Ted Sepkowski, who played under the name of Sepko for the Maples in 1941, played briefly for the Cleveland Indians in 1942, 1946, and 1947 before finishing out his career in the minor leagues in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Other notable Northern League alumni who played at Stolte Field and later played in the major leagues included Sam Mele (Red Sox), George “Snuffy” Stirnweiss and Vic Raschi (Yankees), Lennie Merullo (Cubs), Walt Lanfranconi (Braves), Ron Northey, Jim Konstanty, and Robin Roberts (Phillies), Ralph LaPointe (Phillies and Cardinals) and Johnny Podres (Dodgers).
An amateur, summer league version of the Northern League was revived in the late 1970s, and lasted until the early 1990s. A new incarnation of the Brattleboro Maples played in that league while it was extant.
Major leaguers who played in the modern Northern League included pitcher Kirk McCaskill who was a UVM student who played for the Burlington Expos in the late 1970s and early 1980s before starring for the Angels and White Sox, and Mike Rochford, a South Burlington native who also played for the Burlington Expos before reaching the majors with the Red Sox.
Mark Brown played for the Saxtons River Pirates in the late 1970s. The Bellows Falls native had a couple of brief pitching stints with the Orioles in the mid-1980s.
Where Ernie’s career began
Then there was the other major leaguer who never played for either version of the Maples, but was a high school star on Stolte Field — Brattleboro’s Ernie Johnson.
Johnson signed with the Boston Braves in 1942. His baseball career was interrupted by service with the Marines during World War II, and he scuffled in the minor leagues after the war before he eventually became one of the top relief pitchers for the Braves in the 1950s.
He played on the National League championship teams in 1957 and 1958 and the 1957 World Series champions before finishing his career with the Baltimore Orioles in 1959.
Johnson went on to be the Braves’ play-by-play announcer on TV and radio for nearly three decades and remains the only Brattleboro native to play in the major leagues.
What will happen next for Tenney Field? I recently spoke with current Colonels baseball coach Chris Groeger, who said that a group is getting together, as Team Tenney Inc., to advocate for preserving and renovating the grandstand.
Admittedly, the grandstand definitely needs work. Some new seating, a wheelchair ramp, and some paint would go a long way toward sprucing it up.
As for the structural integrity of the grandstand, Groeger asked a simple question: if it was deemed to be dangerous for spectators, why are the storage area and the public bathroom that are both located underneath the grandstand still being used by the school?
We hope to learn more about the fate of the Stolte/Tenney Field grandstand in the coming months, as Team Tenney gets organized, but it is already clear that the school will not pay to preserve it.
In a post on the Brattleboro Historical Society’s Facebook page on Dec. 20, 2016, the BUHS board stated that “renovation of this structure would be very expensive and would divert resources from more pressing educational needs. Barring a drive to raise funds through the community, we will plan to remove the structure in the next two years. At this time we welcome your thoughts on the disposition of the grandstand.”
The post also sought public input and stated to “direct your comments or suggestions to Steve Perrin, BUHS Principal, at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
A poll linked to that post — now closed — generated only two responses, both in favor of preservation.
If the Stolte/Tenney Field grandstand is to be preserved, it may take an effort similar to what it took to get lights installed at Natowich Field back in the 1990s— private funding and volunteer labor.
It will also take letting the school board and the BUHS administration know that there is community support for saving this landmark.