Let’s Play Ball!
by Carol Deibel
Play Ball! The traditional sound of spring has greeted Harford Countians since just after the Civil War, and it was in 1920 that the first semi-pro league formed. The local Susquehanna League was part of the All-American Baseball Association and began with six teams: three from Harford County, two from Cecil County and one from Oxford, Pennsylvania. The players were all male, most held full-time jobs, and playing in the League was typically an avocation. The fans loved their local teams. Crowds would often number in the thousands to attend the Sunday afternoon games, with lesser numbers at Wednesday afternoon make-up games.
Admission ticket costs were generally modest, although the entrance fees differed slightly based on location and teams playing. Ticket costs ranged between 35¢ and 60¢ for men. Women typically were charged 25¢, and children were always free to attend. A season ticket was available for $5. Even with these charges, it was sometimes necessary to pass the hat to cover costs. The fees collected from admissions paid for baseballs, umpires and groundskeeping.
Every Decoration Day (now called Memorial Day), the teams would kick off the season with a doubleheader. One game was played in the morning and one in the afternoon at a different location, allowing each team to play before its hometown crowd. The season included between 20 and 21 games depending on the number of teams fielded in a given year. The Aberdeen Canners was the only team to play in all seasons. Bel Air, Hickory, Havre de Grace and Darlington also fielded teams over the years, but somewhat sporadically. Initially, the games were played purely for fun, a way to show off your talents for your sweetheart, friends and family, or to relive earlier days on high school or college fields. A few players were motivated by the promise of exposure as professional scouts routinely attended the Susquehanna League games searching for potential signers.
In 1920, the Susquehanna League held its first semi-pro game. The season included The Bel Air County Seaters, Aberdeen Canners, Havre de Grace Rivermen, Perryville Railroaders, Hickory Docks, the Darlington Farmers and others. Team nicknames were assigned by local newscasters or reporters and sometimes from team sponsors. A few of the names changed from season to season. For instance, Havre de Grace was sometimes called the Rivermen, the Cokes, and other times, the Legionnaires, depending on the year, the sponsor for the season, and the newscaster or reporter telling the story.
This was a time before television and an era of limited mobility, so the games were often the highlight of the week for both the players and their audiences. Local newspapers covered the boys of summer extensively, as did the area radio stations. Robbie Wallis from The Aegis, William Cronin, Aberdeen Enterprise, Sam Lawder, the Harford Democrat and The Record routinely covered the games. The competition was stiff, and records suggest there were often sizeable wagers on some of the games.
Play was suspended during the war years (1941-1945), but the League formally reorganized in 1946. Glenn L. Martin, the owner of a major aerospace company in Middle River, saw baseball as a way to improve morale and heal the troops coming back from the war. In 1944, he founded the All-American Amateur Baseball Association with terms equivalent to current lower class A teams, like the
Orioles Delmarva Shorebirds. Team baseball was a welcome return to normalcy for many. Attending Susquehanna League games became part of routine county life.
The competitions took place on local fields, sandlots and school facilities. The Hickory team played games where the Ball Park Restaurant is now situated in Dublin. Bel Air’s home field was on Lee Street at the site of Bel Air Elementary School. Havre de Grace had the only lighted field and a public address system. In one instance at the Havre de Grace field at Juniata and Boulton Streets, Bud Lloyd, “a renowned Havre de Grace slugger,” smashed a ball into a moving boxcar for a home run. The Havre de Grace home left field was exceptionally short due to the railroad tracks beyond the fence, and the ball was never recovered. In 1950, Aberdeen installed a new field just off Perryman Road, complete with a grandstand that could seat 1,100 fans. The playing fields did not always have outfield fences, forcing the outfielders to run long distances to catch a line drive. Irregular maintenance, particularly with tall grass in outfields, led to charges to teams hiding balls during the games. Despite the challenges, the League games were the highlight of the summer.
The Susquehanna League players were truly local heroes. Several went on to professional careers, including Dick Hall, Lew Shellender, Bill Ripken, Cal Ripken, Sr., Harry Anderson and Norman Abrams. Each year the communities would hold the end-of-season banquets and awards dinners to honor their team and players. Formal trophies were only presented in 1946 when Harry Lawder, a well-known Havre de Grace businessman, and Governor Herbert O’Conor donated trophies. Bill Burns of the Aberdeen Canners, won the inaugural trophy for a season batting average of .408.
In addition to providing much-needed entertainment, the League also sponsored charitable events. They provided funds for an iron lung and other charitable projects to assist Harford Memorial Hospital.
Increased mobility, competition from television, player shortages caused by the Korean conflict and other factors led to a loss of interest and the League’s demise. Although the Susquehanna League ceased to operate in Harford County in 1954, it is still active in several Pennsylvania townships. Some still rue the loss of those exciting days of the Grand Slam, the high fly and the last strike on county fields as local players showcased their talents. The Ironbirds bring back some of this, but the inter-county rivalry of days gone by still tugs at the heart.
For more information about the League and its players, visit the Historical Society of Harford County, Inc. website, www.harfordhistory.org. There you will find Harford Historical Bulletin 90 and 95, The History of the Susquehanna Baseball League 1946-1953, Parts I and II.