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Book Review: Wide Awakes, Invincibles, & Smokestackers by Dave Larson

June 18th, 2010 | Author: Brian McKenna Posted at his

At first glance Dave Larson’s Wide Awakes, Invincibles, & Smokestackers might be passed up as
a mere kid’s book with its cartoon cover featuring a Paul Bunyan-type figure. The title is odd
enough to evoke various degrees of interest, confusion or perhaps even apathy. In truth, the
material is about the beginnings of the game in a remote outpost of the Pacific Northwest – the
Puget Sound area in Washington State and into Canada. The title refers to various regional team
nicknames, which if researched are odd and potentially silly no matter what part of the country
one studies.

The work is a compilation of stories and game accounts from local sportswriters taken verbatim.
A little narrative, prospective and insight is scattered throughout the work, including a few short
biographies of significant figures. Twenty full-page cartoon depictions are scattered throughout
the text. More interesting are the 50-plus black and white photographs, mainly group shots, quite
a few which surely haven’t been seen outside the area for decades. A personal favorite was the
Stanwood club of 1891, “Champions of Snohomish and Skagit Counties.” Wide Awakes,
Invincibles, & Smokestackers is billed as “entertaining” and “humorous” with stories from a
simpler time. And, it is.

The work doesn’t pretend to be a comprehensive history of the sport in the area. Rather, it gives
us snapshots from local scribes which when added up portrays the underside of the game which is
often overlooked today. There are no flashy major league personalities or star-studded facilities to
capture our attention. They’re on the other side of the country. What is noticed though is the
development of the game from one community’s perspective. At times they adapted their own
rules and always they portrayed their personality.

The hardworking men and women of Puget Sound drove as much energy into their play time as
they did their daily responsibilities. They knew how to have a good time and take the sport for
what it is, essentially entertainment. They were also steadfastly biased, staunchly supportive of
their local nine. The battles with the big city teams, Seattle and Tacoma, were taken very
seriously and sparked more than their share of heated debate. Eventually, the ball clubs of Puget
Sound branched out and joined the network of leagues and communities which united the country
and formed the industry we know today. The stories along the way show the Pacific Northwest as
unique in the development of baseball as any other outpost.

The story of baseball in the Washington Territory began before statehood, before the attachment
to the transcontinental railroad and even before the clearing of the land. In the beginning the
game was played in unlevel meadows with scattered ditches, potholes, water traps and tree
stumps underfoot. If the area of Puget Sound was known for its tall timber, it was known for tall
aspirations as well. The first citation starts appropriately enough with a supposedly inexperienced
group of men who formed a nine in Port Townsend in 1869. Thoughts weren’t as much on daily
practice and skill building as on a proposed grandiose excursion to the biggest city in the west,
San Francisco, to take on and, of course, defeat the top area club.

Six years later, another story tells us that the game was still in its infancy in that part of the
country. It also speaks to the fortitude and spirit of the frontiersmen. “Several clerks, a mining
engineer and two trappers” challenged some local miners to a contest. It’s interesting to note that,
“few of the miners had ever seen a base ball and most of them scarcely knew the game existed,
but they were not about to take a back seat…so they accepted the challenge.” The contest was
halted for a time while the men bickered about the practice of stopping batted balls with their feet
instead of their hands.

Even in 1877, a sportswriter was concerned for the novice ballplayers that seemed to take more
than their share of balls to the mouth, eye or head. He declared that luckily there was not a “fatal
case of base ball yet,” but he warned, “The undertaker is waiting impatiently.”

Another story tells of the Snohomish Pacifics who took off for Seattle by steamer only to run
aground in a sand bar. They had to paddle a row boat seven miles before catching up with another

The 1884 territorial championship pitted Snohomish against Seattle in a best of three series.
Seattle pulled out the rubber match to take the crown but Snohomish proved to be a worthy
adversary and would prove itself a force in the area during the decade and into the next.

By the 1890s, the larger cities, Tacoma and Seattle, were dominating and a heated rivalry
developed between the two that of course fed the typically raucous crowds. Enthusiasm dictated
that wire reports were sent back to the home city of the visitors. In a scene reminiscent of the next
century’s World Series ado, men and women gathered on the streets where announcements were
made with the incoming reports after each half inning. Blackboards posted the scores and
significant events. The cities took pride in a 22-inning contest in 1891 which was said to be the
longest pro contest on record. Tacoma and Seattle formed the core of the area’s first foray into the
big time, the Pacific Northwest League of 1892, which included a slew of familiar names
including Hall of Famer Clark Griffith.

On the lighter side, a “scrub” game in Snohomish in 1893 pitted players in “all stages of dress
and undress and various conditions of uniform.” Local personalities, some dressed in clown
outfits, fill the pages. The writers of the era, as today, focused on the colorful storylines and
characters. At times, style won out over substance but all-in-all their entertaining prose leaps from
the pages and emits a homespun feeling. Who wouldn’t want to take a lazy steamer trip with
family and friends to a nearby town and play or watch a hard-fought game with a local rival and
then traipse to the nearby Poodle Dog Café for a feast fit for a king and a good bit of braggadocio
between bites?

However, baseball is baseball after all. Puget Sound was no different than any other area when it
came to gambling, charges of game-fixing, rowdy crowds, threats against reporters, excessive
drinking, criminal activity and fisticuffs. Also, umpires figure prominently in Larson’s work.
Outside the normal kicking (arguing) and baiting, umpires were subject to physical abuse and
bombardments of rotten vegetables and eggs.

Another universal aspect of the game is hero-worship, and there was enough to go around. Walter
Thornton was a particular favorite. An orphan, he moved to Snohomish as a teenager and became
the first from the area to make the majors. Local newspapermen funded his attendance at Cornell
College where he was noticed by the great Cap Anson. He joined the club now known as the
Chicago Cubs after his first college season. In 1901, Thornton managed and played first base for
the locally heralded Everett team, an independent squad, which won its first 27 contests. Everett’s
pitcher was Fred Schock, a member of the University of Washington nine. He shut out each of the
three big professional clubs – Tacoma, Seattle and Spokane. In 14 games that season, Schock
averaged nearly ten strikeouts a contest.
The 1905 Everett Smokestackers won the Northwestern League pennant. The nine included
longtime ballplayer and manager Billy Hulen, who appeared in two seasons in the majors, and
outfielder Heinie Heitmuller who played for Connie Mack in Philadelphia from 1909-1910.
Heitmuller died near the end of the 1912 season of typhoid fever, but his batting average was
strong enough to finish for the lead in the Pacific Coast League. Another local ballplayer of note
was Thomas Bird who rode with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

Larson also presents extended pieces on excursions (trips from town to town), steamships, Native
American and female baseball and various local challenge matches, such as Fats vs. Leans and
Bachelors vs. Married Men.

Larson’s Wide Awakes, Invincibles, & Smokestackers takes us on a journey of not only early
baseball history and the development of the game, but gives us a glimpse into the characters and
personalities of the northwest. The scribes of the day hold little back. If they felt cheated, they
ranted and raved and outright accused. Conversely, if the hometown team lost to a stronger nine,
they sucked it up and readily admitted so. The ballplayers and teams of Puget Sound may not be
familiar to us today but their quest to play the game and to enjoy it always will.

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