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Monday, October 26, 2015

Gary Cieradkowski Shares a Bit of Fort Thomas Baseball History

Illustration by Gary Cieradkowski, author of The League of Outsider Baseball

In June we wrote about local author Gary Cieradkowski, who authored and illustrated the celebrated The League of Outsider Baseball. Baseball and history buffs, and fans of Cieradkowski's work, also regularly visit his blog, The Infinite Baseball Card SetCieradkowski's most recent blog post is a nod to Fort Thomas, which he now calls home. 

When we caught up with Cieradkowski he had just returned from Madison, Wisconsin, where he was a guest speaker at the state book festival. "At the reception last night I was shocked at the number of people who wanted to live someplace other than where they currently were," Cieradkowski says. "On top of that, no one wanted to believe that I was content living in northern Kentucky. I said I wasn't content—I was happy to be living where I do. I smiled and thought of the introduction to the story I had just written. On Saturday, November 14, I get to show off my book at the Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort, which makes me very proud as it's my adopted state." 

Cieradkowski was gracious enough to let us share with you his research into the connection Fort Thomas has with baseball. Be sure to check out Gary Cieradkowski's book, which is available online and in bookstores, including The Blue Marble. It would make a great holiday gift. And if you've already purchased Cieradkowski's book, consider supporting him with a review on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Goodreads

Soldier Grimes: From the Parade Ground to the Ball Field
by: Gary Cieradkowski 

My wife was in Oklahoma City with her sister's family and I was home alone. I called up my friend Vic and he crossed the river to my home in Kentucky to watch one of the Mets playoff games with me. As we walked to one of the local taverns here in Fort Thomas, Vic kept remarking how nice the town I lived in was. The streets were clean and tidy, people wave to you as you walk by and kids were out playing as the sun slowly went down. I couldn't help but agree, I do live in a special place.

That walk inspired today's story. The town of Fort Thomas is named for the military installation that still stands today. Though many of the buildings are gone, a good number still remain and the property is now owned by the city. The old water tower disguised as a medieval stone parapet still guards the entrance to the Fort. The tree-lined streets that once reverberated with the sound of marching boots now allows walkers and joggers a picturesque setting in which to exercise. Many of the stately old officer's houses are restored and lovingly maintained by their civilian owners. The VA operates a large outpatient facility on the grounds and the old gymnasium is now open to the public. A small museum manned by enthusiastic local historians tells of the Fort's past and a large playground entertains the children who will one day be the town's future. For a history buff like me it's a great place to wander around, and being a baseball fan, I looked for something to tie my two interests together. 

I didn't have to look far. As recently as 1968 Fort Thomas had a deep connection with baseball: Pete Rose and Johnny Bench did their Army Reserve duty at the Fort serving with A Company of the 418th Engineering Battalion and you can find pictures of the heart and soul of the Big Red Machine peeling potatoes and doing KP duty in their fatigues. 

But I like older stories so I dug deeper. Since the Civil War the U.S. Army embraced baseball. Not only was it a healthy activity for troops but it also instilled teamwork and regimental pride in the men. The 6th Infantry Regiment stationed at Fort Thomas on the Ohio River was no exception. In the 1890s the regiment’s commanding officer was Colonel Melville Cochran. The Civil War veteran from Maine was an early and tremendous fan of the national pastime and had formed baseball teams at every post he was stationed, from Fort Apache to his new command in Northern Kentucky. 
In tribute to the team’s founding father, the 6th Infantry club was named the Cochrans and the men’s jerseys bore their patron's name in bold letters across their chests. The Colonel’s dedication to the team’s success was so complete that he was known to order key players locked up in the brig the night before a big game to ensure their sobriety. He also turned a blind eye when the Fort's provost let members of the team out of the brig  to participate in a big game.

A large part of the Cochrans' success was that big league ballplayers who lived in the area used the Fort’s large indoor athletic facilities to keep in shape over the winter. Connie Mack, Bill Wilson and Jesse Tannehill were among the players who used the indoor batting cages and equipment. In return, the Cochrans benefited from being coached by real major leaguers. This impressive athletic hall still stands on the grounds of the old Fort and still serves in its original capacity as a community gym.

Throughout the 1890s the Fort Thomas Cochrans fielded the best baseball team in the U.S. Army until 1898 when the regiment left to fight in Cuba. The star of the Cochrans during their heyday was a sergeant from Baltimore named John Thomas Grimes. A veteran of the Sioux Indian War, it’s not known when Grimes began playing baseball, but by the time he was posted to Fort Thomas he was a talented twirler.

When not hurling for the Cochrans, Grimes hired his services out to teams as far away as Indiana when they needed a professional arm. He made headlines in 1894 when he whipped the Cincinnati Reds of the National League while pitching for the semi-pro Newport Reds.

In 1897 Sergeant Grimes wrangled four months of leave and began playing minor league ball in Evansville, Indiana. He was an instant success and became extremely popular with the Evansville fans—so much so that he acquired a "groupie," Rose Stewart, who cause a sensation by leaving home to follow the dashing soldier on a road trip. The scandal made all the Indiana papers and Grimes was momentarily accused of wrongdoing but quickly cleared when it became known he hadn't encouraged Rose's affections. Seems Miss Stewart was a bit of a Victorian hell-raiser and perpetual runaway.

By the end of the summer Grimes, now called “Soldier Boy,” had made it all the way to the majors with the St. Louis Browns. On July 31, 1897, Grimes made history by hitting a record six Louisville batters in one game—though to be fair it appears that he did it on purpose! Apparently there was some bad blood between the two clubs and Grimes was dishing out some retribution. In all he pitched three games in the majors, lost two and had an admirable .286 batting average. After his leave was up, Grimes returned to the army where he served in the Spanish-American War and World War I before retiring with the rank of captain. 

As an interesting side note, you might have noticed that I obscured Grimes' face. See, John Grimes is one of the only men to play in the Major Leagues of whom there is no known photograph. I was rather shocked by this as not only did he play minor league ball and was quite popular but he was a wildly sought after semi-pro mercenary. On top of that he was a soldier for more than 40 years—surely there is a photo of him somewhere? Enjoying a good hunt, I scoured the local archives for hours on end. At the Fort Thomas Museum I found a team photo of the Cochrans—but Grimes was absent that day! So the search continues. Hopefully some day I can revise his portrait, dropping his hands to his side and re-introduce the face of the man who made Rose Stewart leave home back in 1897.

1 comment:

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