Book Review: One Patch of Grass
Harrisburg's Rich History Grows From One Place
One Patch of Grass: How the Babe, Spottswood, Oscar, Eleanor, Vlad and Milton helped Harrisburg make magic on an island in the backwaters of baseball
By Andrew Linker
List Price: $14.95
Any number of minor league cities can trace their baseball roots back into the 19th century. What makes Harrisburg, Pa., unique is that you don't need to hopscotch all over town to track the game's progression. No old ball grounds were demolished to make way for a parking lot or a Walmart. When Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper took the field as Senators, they worked the same real estate as Hall of Famers Frank Grant and Hughie Jennings, who starred for the Harrisburg Ponies in 1890.
City Island, on the Susquehanna River, has always been the capital city's home for professional baseball. Teams and leagues have come and gone over the years. Grandstands have burned down, flooded and abandoned. But baseball has always returned to the same place, most recently in 1987 when the Double-A Senators filled a void created when the area's Class B squad dropped out of the Interstate League after the 1952 season.
Andrew Linker, who covered the Senators for 20 years for the Harrisburg Patriot-News and was a longtime correspondent for Baseball America, chronicles the island's rich history in "One Patch of Grass: How the Babe, Spottswood, Oscar, Eleanor, Vlad and Milton helped Harrisburg make magic on an island in the backwaters of baseball."
While much of the book is devoted to the modern Senators, there are plenty of history lessons here, particularly on some of the great Negro League stars to call Harrisburg home over the years. One of the greatest stuck around when his playing days were over. Spottswood Poles is a name that might not resonate for many fans, but those who watched him play in the early 20th century referred to him as "the black Ty Cobb." Of course, to many of Poles' peers, Cobb was known as "the white Spottswood Poles." The center fielder, who played for the Harrisburg Giants from 1906-08, narrowly missed enshrinement into the Hall of Fame in 2006 as part of a special election of former Negro League greats.
Oscar Charleston, who received his due in Cooperstown in 1976, roamed center field for the Giants in the 1920s, spending four years as a player/manager until the Eastern Colored League folded in 1927. He married the daughter of a local minister, making City Island a true home field for him.
Another local player made headlines in the early 1950s—without ever appearing in an official game. Desperate to boost their flagging attendance figures, the Senators inked Eleanor Engle, an area softball and basketball star, in June 1952. The deal was immediately struck down by National Association president George Trautman. Engle receded into her private life, reluctant for decades to discuss her near moment in the sun, until Linker finally got her to talk.
He didn't have to dig so far into the archives for stories on players like Strasburg, Milton Bradley, and Vladimir Guerrero. Having lived in the Harrisburg area since 1984, Linker was on hand to cover them personally as they rocketed toward big league stardom, or at least notoriety. Some of their lesser-known teammates were at least as compelling.
"Players like Curtis Pride and Jamey Carroll were great to cover as they overcome great obstacles," Linker says, "whether they were Pride's inability to hear or Carroll's inability to get the Expos to consider him to be more than just an organizational player."
Carroll, who eventually graduated to a long career as a utilityman in the big leagues, appears in one of the book's most entertaining chapters (or "innings," as Linker tabs the longer stories), along with a handful of budget-conscious teammates from the 1999 Senators squad. During the team's run to the Eastern League title that September, Carroll, Andy Tracy, Brandon Agamennone, Jeremy Salyers and Christian Parker camped out in the home clubhouse, on the sly. Their apartment leases having expired at the end of the regular season, they had no place to stay and no money for a hotel room. So they made themselves comfortable on trainer's tables, air mattresses and a lounge chair and had a slumber party they'll never forget.
That '99 club capped an amazing string of four consecutive league champions, an incredible dynasty given the turnover on a Double-A roster from year to year. Despite the four-peat, the late-90s Senators had nothing on the '93 team.
"Jim Tracy did a spectacular job in 1993, and not just because the Senators that summer won a total of 100 games between the regular season and playoffs," Linker says. "Tracy's real feat that season was keeping in check the collective egos of a team full of ridiculously talented Alpha males. This was a team that sent more than 20 players to the majors, with eight of them spending at least all or parts of 10 seasons there. Yet, from their demeanor, talking to first-round draft choices like Cliff Floyd, Shane Andrews and the Whites—Gabe and Rondell—was no different than talking with a pitcher like Darrin Winston, the final guy on the roster who was trying to revive his injury-plagued career."
The champions and the cellar dwellers all get their due in "One Patch of Grass," whether in the longer "innings" chapters or in the dozens of sidebars, charts, and lists interspersed among them. While the book has been particularly well received in central Pennsylvania, most of the names will be familiar to fans around the country. From Babe Ruth to Satchel Paige, the roster of legends to set foot on Harrisburg's legendary patch of grass is long and fascinating.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. His novel, The Greatest Show on Dirt, is now available. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.