Vermont’s hidden wonder

 

The new year opens up a renewed chance for everything, including our UVM sports teams. Yet when thinking about the new sports seasons ahead of us, it is only natural to be reminded of the disappointment and controversy surrounding UVM’s decision to drop its Division I baseball team three years ago.

At first thought, it is easy to understand why baseball was the program that was cut. The Catamounts haven’t spent much time in Omaha, nor have they sent too many student athletes to the majors. So when an argument is made for how much baseball means to the Burlington community, it is often dismissed with ease.

What few people know, however, is that there was a time — way back in the day — when UVM baseball was one of the most prestigious programs in the nation.

Between 1890 and 1893, the little Burlington team of wayward players practiced an intercollegiate superiority that entitled them to the nickname “The Wonder Team.”

It all started in 1889, when Essex Junction native and eventual major league pitcher, Bert Abbey, was named coach and captain of UVM’s first varsity baseball team in his junior year. He gave the UVM team, mostly composed of medical school students, their first real training and convinced local businessmen to donate monetary incentives for his team to continue playing through the summers.

In 1891, Abbey led UVM to their best record up until that point, 19-6, as UVM’s growing prestige landed them matchups against powerhouse schools such as Yale and Harvard.

It was in 1892, however, in Abbey’s fifth collegiate year, that the wonder began to grow. This was the year that they began calling themselves the “wonder team,” winning all five collegiate-level games on their first ever southern road trip.

Yet it was after two big losses that the UVM “wonder team” became the target of admiring gazes from across the nation. Getting the rare chance to play against two professional teams — the National League’s Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Senators — the UVMers took a beating, giving up 31 runs and squealing out three for themselves. Despite a less-than-desirable score differential, the Senators’ second baseman Tommy Dowd praised UVM as being the “best college team playing baseball.”

It was after this season, and after Abbey departed to play pro ball with Washington, that UVM nearly became the winner of a college baseball tournament known to be the precursor to today’s College World Series as well as the first major intercollegiate athletic tournament in any sport.

The 1893 baseball tournament, hosted at the Chicago World’s Fair, saw eight of the greatest college baseball teams in the country. It was a double-elimination tournament, with Amherst, Yale and Vermont remaining the last three teams without two losses.

Amherst was to advance to the final, while Vermont and Yale, with one loss each, played their second matchup of the tournament — the first of which Vermont inched out a win 14-12, making them the only team in the tournament to beat Yale.

On July 10, UVM and Yale played what an 1893 issue of the Cynic called “a game in a thousand.” With the score tied at one, a Yale law student, Harmon Sheldon Graves — a student who once played football at UVM, but transferred when they cut their football program, advancing to play baseball for Yale while attending law school — hit a walk-off triple, putting them in the final contest against Amherst in which they celebrated victory in shutout fashion.

Yet Vermont made history during that Chicago trip, establishing a nationally recognized name for themselves and making the small, green state that they represented proud. The Cynic reported that, “the Vermonters in Chicago attended the games in large numbers and inspired the team by hearty cheering.” Even distinguished UVM alum., the man who our museum is named after, Robert H. Fleming, met with the players, “taking them on his private launch to see the display of fireworks on the Exposition grounds.”

In short, baseball carries a very unique history for Vermonters and especially for UVM. The little Vermont team from the little Vermont school was once one of the greatest college baseball teams to play the game. It truly was a “wonder team.”

It may have taken the cancelling of our baseball program to realize it, yet Vermont is rich in baseball history and Vermont fans are more passionate about baseball than many may know.

The 1893 Cynic reporter closed his review of the Chicago tournament with this: “surely there never was a more closely contested and exciting series of base ball games played in any part of the country by any teams, than that of this tournament.”

And UVM was a huge part of it.

Maybe, one day, we will get that chance again.