'You can look it up!' or ask Greg Peterson

The Chautauquan Daily
By Mark Altschuler
July 19, 1996

Many people love baseball. Greg Peterson LOVES baseball. Many people know some baseball history. Greg Peterson KNOWS local baseball history because of arduous research he has engaged in over the years. Peterson's combination of love and work has resulted in the publication of "The Celoron Acme Colored Giants" in The National Pastime: A Review of Baseball History, a Society for American Baseball Research journal. It was published in late spring.

Peterson's article chronicles the brief history of the Celoron Acme Colored Giants, an African-American baseball team that played in Celoron, a nearby "village on Chautauqua Lake". They played only one season, 1898, and Peterson believes it was the last professional minor league team in existence before the color line descended completely and relegated blacks to their own separate but unequal leagues.

Harry Curtis, a white businessman, organized the team as part of an entertainment package along with the large amusement park he owned in Celoron, which he billed as "The World's Greatest Pleasure Resort." Although baseball had already moved toward excluding blacks from integrated baseball leagues, Curtis saw this venture as a good investment, believing a winning baseball team would result in healthy gate receipts. Curtis signed only second tier players; the team's 1898 season produced a .213 winning percentage and lost revenues. Curtis replaced the black team with a white team that lasted less than two weeks as an independent minor league team.

Peterson has written another article that has yet to be published. "Yes, Irene, Babe Ruth Played in Celoron and Hit a Ball into the Lake!" gives the detail of Babe Ruth's visit to the Jamestown area in the fall of 1921. With the Yankees in '21 Ruth clouted 59 home runs in what was arguably his greatest season. The Yankees won the pennant that year, then lost the World Series to John McGraw's Giants. Major League Baseball had a rule that players on the pennant-winning teams could not barnstorm after the season. Ruth, in his usual swashbuckling fashion, defied the rule.

As Peterson writes in his article, the rule that banned pennant-winning players from barnstorm tours was rooted in "the fear that the special impact of the World Series would be devalued." Many baseball scholars theorize that was the stated reason for the ban and the real reason was fear of embarrassment that a backwater team would beat the "World Champions." Ruth, who had the box-office appeal in his day of Frank Sinatra and Michael Jordan, saw barnstorming as his meal ticket. He arrived in Jamestown on October 17, 1921.

On that day, the Jamestown Post shouted in bold type, "BABE RUTH TO PLAY HERE! Babe Ruth! The name falls like magic on the ear of every baseball fan. Fans have longed for the opportunity to feast their optics on this Champion of Champions and baseball phenon." The Babe, as always, did not disappoint the fans.

The game took place on October 18 at Celoron Park. The opposing pitcher was local legend Hugh Bedient, who had pitched for the Boston Red Sox in the 1912 World Series. Ruth did not homer off Bedient. But Ruth did homer, and that homer has passed into local legend. The Jamestown Journal reported, "Before the game, in a long-distance hitting exhibition Ruth knocked one into the blue waters of Chautauqua Lake, a distance of more than 500 feet."

Ruth was not finished. He made two appearances at vaudeville theaters in Jamestown during the evening of the game. Banned from barnstorming, Ruth would later go on to a reasonably successful vaudeville career in baseball's off-seasons. At the Wintergarden Theater in Jamestown, Ruth, an unabashed heavy cigar smoker who would die young of cancer, warned boys about the evils of smoking. In 1921, anything the Babe said or did passed for entertainment.

Then, recently appointed commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, suspended Ruth for the first six weeks of the 1922 season because of his participation in the barnstorming tour that included a stop along the shores of Chautauqua Lake. Ruth, a magnet for fans and controversy, riled Landis's anger by choosing to sit out the last World Series game of 1921 because of an elbow injury only four days before his appearance in Celoron. Ruth's response was, "I heal quickly. I always heal quickly." Landis and Ruth would go on to have tangled and complex relationship during the next 14 years remainder of the Babe's playing career.

Peterson has continued his research on local baseball history and drops names from local baseball lore in casual conversation. He said, "Ray Caldwell, a pitcher who grew up on a nearby farm, once was felled by lightning while on the mound for the Cleveland Indians. This was early in the century; there were two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Caldwell was unconscious for some time. He revived, pitched the final out and won the game." As Casey Stengel said, "You can look it up!" But you don't have to. Just sit down and listen to Greg Peterson spin baseball stories with the glee of a young child.

Peterson is an attorney in Jamestown, where he was born and raised. He and his wife Cindy own a condo on the grounds of Chautauqua. The couple has three children: Amy, 15; Megan, 13; and Brent, 11. His family does not share his passion for baseball. Peterson was one of the driving forces behind the return of minor league baseball to Jamestown in the form of the Jamestown Jammers, a Class A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, in 1994.

In typically humble fashion (he never did hit a 500 foot home run into the lake), Peterson said, "I am not really a very good writer. I write a little bit like a lawyer. My research is not going to change the world, but I do respect the history and tradition of baseball in the area. We do not want to lose the stories. Besides, I'd love to dive into Chautauqua Lake and find that Babe Ruth baseball."

 

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