Karl Lindholm: 'Bring it back': The compelling legacy of UVM baseball
Whenever I go to a Lake Monsters game in Burlington, I find an occasion to declare casually to my companions that I played at historic Centennial Field for the Middlebury College nine, many years ago.
If pressed, I have to admit that it was just one game and I was the starting pitcher, and only lasted three innings. We lost 13-5 to the University of Vermont. I always add: “They were really good!”
Nonetheless, only a few years after my dismal performance, the decision was made to drop baseball as an intercollegiate sport at UVM, or more accurately to suspend the program. It left in 1971 for “budgetary reasons” and returned in 1978 only to be abandoned in 2009, again for financial reasons, after a 30-year period of competitive success.
It’s too bad. Baseball at UVM had a 120-year history and some marvelous teams and players — and they played in that beautiful timeless park, Centennial Field, constructed from 1904-06, and named for the University’s first graduating class 100 years earlier.
Vermont was like everywhere else in the country after the Civil War — baseball mad. The game was being played on campus in Burlington as early as 1866, and the first intercollegiate game was in 1882 against in-state rival Middlebury College. By 1888, UVM was competing against Middlebury and Norwich in the Vermont Intercollegiate Baseball League.
In the early 1890s Vermont had one of the best college teams in the country. In 1893, the UVM pastimers participated in a competition with a number of the best teams in the country at the grand Chicago World’s Fair, a series billed as the “National Championship.” Behind the strong right arm of “Arlie” Pond of Rutland, UVM finished second to Yale in this famous event.
Dr. Erasmus Arlington Pond was a major leaguer (for the great Baltimore Orioles team of the National League), a medical doctor and humanitarian hero for his work in the Philippines. The exploits of Pond and his UVM mates are chronicled in Tom Simon’s lively account of the “The Wonder Team in the White City.”
The Red Sox were the best team in the Major Leagues for the first two decades of the 1900s, winning World Series in 1903, 1912, 1915, 1916, and 1918 and they were well represented by Vermonters! Larry Gardner (Enosburg Falls) and Ray Collins (Colchester), both class of ’09, were stalwart Red Sox players — Gardner a 3rd baseman and Collins a lefty pitcher, like his teammate Babe Ruth.
Gardner played 17 years in the major leagues and was inducted in the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2000. Collins won 19 games in 1913 and 20 in 1914; he was the father of beloved Middlebury physician, Ray “Doc” Collins.
Collins threw the first pitch and Larry Gardner was the leadoff hitter for UVM in the first game ever at Centennial Field against the University of Maine in April 1906 (a 13-5 win). Gardner was the UVM baseball coach for 20 years (1932-52) after his playing career ended and also the athletic director for 10 of those years.
The next distinctive epoch was the Ralph LaPointe years. LaPointe from Winooski entered UVM in 1942 and starred in football and basketball that year, but never played baseball as a Catamount, entering the Army instead in 1942 and serving stateside for three years. After the war, he played professional baseball for six summers (including two with the St. Louis Cardinals) before being tapped by Gardner to be his successor as baseball coach.
Gregarious in the extreme, LaPointe was beloved as well as successful. He won 216 games against 127 losses in his 15 years as coach, won two Yankee Conference championships, and never had a losing season. Sadly, he died from cancer in 1967 at just 45 years of age.
Jack Leggett of South Burlington, who starred in baseball and football at the University of Maine, rebuilt the UVM baseball program after its hiatus from 1972-78. He left UVM after six winning seasons — and became one of the country’s great coaches. In 22 years at Clemson University (1994-2015), he was 955-480 and competed in the College World Series six times. In 2014, he was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame.
Bill Currier played for Jack Leggett at UVM and served as the baseball coach from 1988 to 2009 when baseball was abandoned. In its final two years, the team was anything but inept: the Catamounts had a winning record in America East and qualified for the conference tournament. Currier has the distinction of having the most wins of any coach in UVM sports history (486).
That’s a rich history of competitive success in well over a century of play, a tradition to be proud of. Dozens of UVM players were signed to professional contracts: Kirk McCaskill (106 wins with the Angels and White Sox from 1985 to ’96) and Matt Duffy (2009 America East Player of the Year) are two who made it to the Majors in recent years. Hundreds and hundreds of young men, many of whom went to high school in Vermont, have enjoyed the great game of baseball in the Green Mountain State at its flagship university.
That brings us to the present. The sounds of baseball still can be heard at Centennial Field from June to September with the minor league affiliate of the A’s, the Lake Monsters, and then from September till the chill of November with the UVM club team, coached by longtime baseball man Jim Carter (click to read sidebar). The club team practices a couple nights a week and plays doubleheaders on the weekend against other teams in the New England Club Baseball Association (NECBA) whose season ends with playoffs.
There are no scholarship athletes, just 15 or 20 young guys who love the game. The club team is supported by student activities at UVM, supplemented by funds raised by the Friends of UVM Baseball, whose main goal is to bring back varsity Division I baseball to the flagship state university.
“Bring It Back” — it’s a long shot. Bruce Bosley, former UVM Sports Information Director for baseball (whose job was eliminated along with the program) acknowledges the difficulty of the task: “As upset as I am we don’t have a team, I’m a realist. I know what it would take.
“It all has to do with money, so there are a couple of million reasons it’s not coming back, but . . . never say never.”