Memories of the Game
Bush League Baseball in Geyserville
Bob Meyer is 94 years old and remembers that Sunday afternoon in 1947 like it was yesterday. On their dirt baseball diamond, on a rare cloudy August day, the Geyserville town team hosted their Healdsburg arch-rivals. Geyserville’s Sam Sinclair and Healdsburg’s Rudy Ruonavaara locked horns in a first-class pitching duel. It wasn’t until the 7th inning that Buckshot Fredson led off for Geyserville and was hit by a pitch. Bob Meyer, Al Strehlow and Eugene Domenichelli followed with hits for Geyserville’s two runs. The game ended in a stunning 2-0 upset win for the locals. However, as was often the case in games with Healdsburg, the outcome was not without controversy. The June 13, 1947 issue of the Geyserville Press, as well as Geyserville left fielder Bob Meyer, note that Healdsburg had their chance in the 8th inning.
According to the Press, “Healdsburg started a rally in the eighth as pinch-hitting Iverson singled to right and Mascherini walked with one away. Rudy then hit a long fly to left center which landed between the fielders. As Iverson was scurrying home he tripped and fell. This gave Geyserville the break it needed. A quick relay from Les Meyer to Lampson to Whitton not only put out Iverson but nipped Mascherini at the plate ending the inning . .” Bob Meyer will tell you that the newspaper did not tell the whole story. Healdsburg complained that Geyserville watered down their dirt diamond, hoping the mud would slow down Healdsburg’s fast runners. Geyserville insisted they watered only to keep the dust down. Waldo Iverson’s flop while rounding third base was all the proof Healdsburg needed to validate their assertion and guarantee that the rivalry would continue. Bob Meyer recalls Whitton’s quick one-two tag outs at home plate as a thing of beauty.
This was bush league baseball at its best. Long before television, fast cars, the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s, bush league baseball was what people did in Geyserville on summertime Sunday afternoons. Young men, with their loyal “rooters” in the grandstand, displayed their talents on the diamond. A source of civic pride, the Geyserville town team began in the late 1920’s, took time out for WW II, resumed in l946 and lasted till the early 50’s. This writer’s father, who played for Geyserville in the 30’s, regaled our family with bush league tales. He was particularly verbose about the 1939 team that finished with a thirteen win and one loss record. Most notably, they defeated Cloverdale 8 to 4 and Healdsburg twice, once 4 to 3 and again 7 to 5. And yes, Dad hit a home run at Healdsburg’s Recreation Park that cleared the left field fence and hit a house across University Street. Given the number of times he told the story, one might say he was prouder of that feat than the birth of his only son.
Located behind the high school, the local diamond had a skin surface and short foul lines. Left field was carved out of the side hill and right field was measured by a picket fence. Both foul poles were not more than 250 feet from home plate, which meant special ground rules. Any fly ball that landed on the left field hill to the left of the big oak tree and any fly to right field over the picket fence were doubles. Fly balls that left the field in straight away centerfield were homeruns. The field itself was rock hard dirt, with a black eye just a bad hop away. Other bush league diamonds also had their quirks.
A 1949 loss at Bodega prompted the local paper to report that “locals made many errors” because “they got confused because the diamond resembled a cow pasture more than a place in which to play baseball.” (Geyserville Press 6/22/49) Bob Meyer remembers playing left field in Occidental, where a chicken coop was near the foul line. Bob chased a foul fly behind the chicken coop, unable to make the catch. While out of the umpire’s site, Bob deftly picked up the ball and ran back onto the field holding the ball over his head. The batter was called out.
Viewing games in Geyserville was not a comfortable experience. The wooden grandstand with chicken wire fencing faced westward where “rooters” baked in the hot summer sun. The heat combined with redwood splinters in the grandstand benches led a number of former players to marvel that their wives and girlfriends were regular attendees.Josephine Fredson, wife of pitcher Don, attended many games. As she explains, it was a time when most families had only one automobile and not a lot of extra money, so going to the ball games was a social outing where one could visit with friends. It was worth any discomfort. Admission fees involved “passing the hat.” Local shopkeeper, Tom Addleman, often served as the PA announcer. Sporting a black fedora, thick glasses, short cigar and gravelly voice, the Geyserville Press (July 5, 1946) said Addleman, was “Geyserville’s ‘Ted Husing,’” and at games “with his wires and ‘mike’ to tell you what’s going on.”
Games were well attended. A 1947 report noted that 650 fans watched as Healdsburg “gained partial revenge on the locals for an early defeat, this time winning 2 to 1.” (Geyserville Press 8/1/47) For years, Milton ‘Dint’ Rose was an avid fan at most games played in Geyserville. Dint recalls a full grandstand with more folks sitting on the left field hill. Young boys climbed onto the roof of the high school bus barn for an upper deck view. A contingent of male fans was found standing down the right field line, where they discussed the action, criticized play and taunted the umpire. Dint also traveled to many away games. In the 20’s, Dint’s father, Russell Rose, played on a Geyserville Odd Fellows team. As young boys, Uncle Pouch Rose took Dint and brother Bud to their father’s away games.
Bush baseball generated lively local interest and biting criticism. Displaying obvious favoritism, local scribes were not kind to Geyserville opponents. A 1940 story of a 4 to 3 loss to the Healdsburg Odd Fellows was punctuated with the quote that “winning did not come easily for the lodge men . . . They broke eight bats in gaining their victory (bats that cost $1.75 each) – one for each hit or $3.50 for each run.” (Geyserville Press 6/14/40) Sub-par play by the locals did not pass unreported. After a 13 to 2 loss, an article stated “there should be no further presence of ‘lead’ in some players trousers that was so evident in several cases last Sunday.” (Geyserville Press 7/5/46) One can imagine what the right field critics said during that game.
Disagreements and rhubarbs were not uncommon. The Healdsburg Tribune (7/7/39) noted that a Geyserville victory over Healdsburg “was marked by many spirited arguments due to the spirited rivalry between the two squads.” One game with Petaluma, called a “wild and wooly affair” by the Geyserville Press (7/18/47), ended in a 12 to 12 tie, with the Petaluma team walking off the field in the 10th inning after disputing an umpire’s call. Umpires were local men that lived in the communities where they officiated. This may have tainted their eyesight. Hank Del Sarto, a local merchant, umpired numerous Geyserville games. Visiting players, and some locals, said Del Sarto
provided Geyserville a clear home field advantage. Other Geyserville umpires included Hank Witbro and Louie Lombardi.
The Geyserville I.O.O.F. Lodge was an on-again, off-again sponsor of the local team. When sponsored by the lodge, they went by the moniker of Geyserville Odd Fellows. Some years, when local businesses donated funds for equipment, the ball team went by Geyserville Merchants. For a time they were known as the Geyserville Oaks, since star pitcher Sam Sinclair had tried out with the Pacific Coast League Oakland Oaks and kept the uniform, which he proudly wore when pitching for Geyserville. At other times, they were known simply as Geyserville. Old team photos provide little help in defining their nickname, since players often wore uniforms emblazened with a collection of logos that included Geyserville I.O.O.F., Geyserville, G.H.S., Oaks or whatever else served as a playing shirt.
Over the years, Geyserville played in several leagues and also, at times, played an independent schedule. In the late 20’s and early 30’s, they were part of an Odd Fellows League that played its games at two parks near Guerneville. Bill Ferguson, Geyserville I.O.O.F. Noble Grand, hoped sponsorship would entice young men, particularly young Italians, into the lodge. It was said that the local Catholic priest told the Italian boys that they should not get involved with the Odd Fellows lodge. Some quit the team and this contributed to Geyserville eventually dropping out of the I.O.O.F. league.
From 1939 to 1941, Geyserville played most games at home. Using the services of San Francisco bush league guru and master schedule maker, Al Erle, Geyserville hosted teams from the Bay Area. These teams included dozens of teams such as the powerful Sausalito Fire Department and Jefferson Athletic Club, the oldest bush league team in San Francisco. However, neither league affiliation nor Al Erle ever precluded Geyserville from scheduling local rivals Cloverdale and Healdsburg. After the war, they played in the Sonoma County League that included teams from Healdsburg, Sebastopol, Occidental, Petaluma, Santa Rosa VFW, Crown Machine (Santa Rosa) and Geyserville.
Geyserville team rosters were reinvented each year. During the early years, Frank Banti was a talented player and team manager, responsible for getting players, scheduling games and umpires, procuring equipment and being the field general during games. In 1939, Nick Scatena assumed the manager role. Chic Lombardi and Bill Sciutto offered coaching assistance at different times. Raymond Brandt, Les Meyer, Bob Meyer, John Whitton, Eugene Domenichelli, Sam Sinclair, Nick Scatena, Bud Rose, Don Fredson and Byron Lampson were mainstays that played both before and after the war. Many players were talented athletes with some having played intercollegiate baseball. In the late 40’s, young Ernie Domenichelli briefly pitched for Geyserville before pursuing a professional career. Many followers agree that over the years the most talented player was John Whitton, a big strapping man who was an excellent catcher, fast on his feet and fearsome hitter. A heart condition is said to have thwarted Whitton’s professional aspirations.
It was the manager’s job to put a competitive lineup on the field each Sunday. With some players away at college and most with jobs, it was not always a simple task. Fruit harvest, which began in August, also posed problems. A review of game box scores indicates that there were often fill-ins who played only a game or two. Pitchers were the key to bush league success. Sam Sinclair, wearing his Oaks uniform, pitched for Geyserville for nearly a decade. Roger ‘Bud’ Rose and Don ‘Buckshot’ Fredson were also successful Geyserville chuckers. Rose was a big man who did not throw hard, but
had a huge, sweeping curve ball that Bob Meyer recalls during one game he threw clear over the backstop. ‘Buckshot’ Fredson derived his nickname from his ability to throw a mean fastball. Teams were not above coercing pitchers from outside their own community. In 1940, Geyserville recruited the services of Penngrove resident Jim Dowling, who had pitched at SRJC. In that same year, the Cloverdale Reveille reported that “Negotiations have been started to get Don Fredson, University of California and former J.C. Pitcher to pitch for the Legion . .” Fredson, however, stayed with Geyserville.
Aside from baseball itself, teammates shared a camaraderie and social connection. Throughout the years, social activities often followed the action on the field. Nello Biaocchi recalls post game Sunday evening dinners at the Occidental Hotel. By all accounts a loud and raucous group, the Geyserville boys were seated in a banquet room off the main dining area. Liquor flowed and food sometimes flew across the room. Nello remembers waitresses stopping in the doorway and waving a white towel before entering the room to serve the group. Many recalled Byron Lampson as a good third baseman and an all-star reveler. In 1940, Geyserville traveled to Fort Bragg to face a tough coast team. The Loggers beat the locals, but treated them to dinner at the Piedmont Hotel. In 1947, thirty dinner reservations were made at Skaggs Springs for the Geyserville Merchants baseball squad and their guests. Tom Addleman was master of ceremonies for the end of season event. (Geyserville Press 9/6/47)
By 1949, things had begun to change. A scathing editorial in the Geyserville Press was a precursor of things to come. It chastised local folks with the following: “There’s not much incentive to playing to an empty house . . . the good sport stands by his own – win, lose or draw . . . Remember Nick Scatena has given most generously of his time to keep the community represented in the county . . . support your home town team by attending the games.” (Geyserville Press 7/24/49) In 1950, Geyserville played in a Napa-Sonoma League. At age 35, Bob Meyer was still a player and helped organize the six-team league. Les Meyer was player/manager. There was no Geyserville team in 1951. There was a softball league in town, but it was not the same. People had other things to do. Young men left for the Korean War. Bush league baseball in Geyserville was doomed.
Perhaps the most noteworthy legacy of bush league baseball in Geyserville was its contribution to civic pride and sense of community. Baseball was part of the fabric that held the community together and gave it an identity. Talk at the local barbershop, grocery store or watering hole often centered around what happened on the ball field the previous Sunday afternoon. Geyserville, located between the larger communities of Cloverdale and Healdsburg, relished the underdog role and took particular delight in seeking superiority on the ball field. History suggests that the boys from Geyserville made the town proud. As my Dad often said, “Geyserville ball players were a tough bunch and played damn good baseball.”
Geyserville Press 1940-41, 1946-51
Healdsburg Tribune 1937-41
Cloverdale Reveille 1938-41
San Francisco Chronicle - ‘Bush Ball’s Last Echo’ Art Rosenbaum, June 12, 1978
Harry Bosworth – Photographs and interview
Interviews - Robert Meyer, Nello Biaocchi, Milton Rose, Josephine Fredson
Website - Good Old Sandlot Days - goodoldsandlotdays.com
Personal Recollections/Conversations with former Geyserville players:
Amerigo ‘Peli’ Pelanconi
Don ‘Buckshot’ Fredson
Roger ‘Bud’ Rose
Emil ‘Mose’ Sacchi