Through connections made in a town history group on social media, a legendary photograph of the Fleischmanns Mountain Athletic Club (M.A.C.) from the late 1890’s has returned home.
In July 1963, the centennial edition of the Catskill Mountain News (CMN) ran a picture of the famous local baseball team claiming to be from 1895 and featuring Honus Wagner – regarded by many to be the greatest shortstop ever and a member of the first class inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. Even Harry M. Stevens, the famous concessionaire from Niles, Ohio credited with inventing the drinking straw, the modern score card (and perhaps the hot dog ) was also listed in the caption as having umpired for the M.A.C. It also may be the only image of the team’s founders Julius and Max Fleischmann in uniform. The photo was loaned to the CMN by John Kelly who was the postmaster in Fleischmanns in the 1940’s.
As I got deeper into researching M.A.C. team history for an official historic-place designation at Fleischmanns Park in 2020, I wanted to correctly date the photo. But my research found that the famous shortstop Wagner played for five other teams in Ohio in the Iron & Oil League during his rookie year of 1895 making it highly unlikely he would be in Upstate NY and in this photo. Furthermore, there’s no evidence of the team being called the Mountain Athletic Club until the Pine Hill Sentinel mentions the team in 1897, a year when they debuted their blue and red uniforms with the word “Mountain” emblazoned across the chest (as depicted in the photo).
Another wrinkle is that so many sports card collectors like me who came of age in the 1980’s could not mistake the face of young Honus Wagner because of his 1909 tobacco card that fetched $451,000 at auction to hockey great Wayne Gretzky back in 1991 – a record price paid for any sports memorabilia at the time. Because of the notoriety of the card, Wagner’s face is among the most recognizable images of any ballplayer and the card is among the rarest and most valuable in the world. It is the baseball card equivalent of the Mona Lisa. In August 2021, the Wagner card in near mint sold for $6.6 million, another record at the time.
Despite all the local hype in the past about the Wagner connection to the M.A.C., I was not convinced that Honus was in the photo and that it was taken in 1895. But I thought that if I could find the original photo, maybe it would yield the correct identification of each of the players (with writing on the rear of the photo) and rule out the Wagner connection purported by the CMN in 1963. Players identified correctly could give me more clues as to when the photograph was taken. So, I reached out to a local Facebook group called “Memories of the Town of Middletown.” I asked the group if anyone knew if John Kelly (original owner of the photo) had any offspring and if so, were they reachable. To my surprise, a distant cousin of Mr. Kelly responded and put me in contact with John’s son, Bob who was then 94 and living in Florida. I contacted Bob and was delighted to learn that the photo was indeed still in the family’s possession. He agreed to put me in touch with his daughter Jane (Kelly) Ebberts who put the photo into storage near her home in Utah.
Months went by and I was getting concerned. “Could something have happened to Bob?” I wondered. Then, on February 24, 2020 (serendipitously Honus Wagner’s birthday), Robert’s daughter Jane (Kelly) Ebberts called me from Utah, and we talked about the photo. She explained that she had the photo appraised some years ago following the market frenzy brought on by Gretzky’s purchase of the Wagner card. While the appraisers found the photo intriguing, according to Jane, they could not verify that Wagner was in the photo or that he had ever played in Fleischmanns. Therefore, it was tucked away and not thought about much until I reached out to the family. When I finally heard from Jane, I was pleased to learn that my suspicion was correct; it did have names of the men handwritten on the photo back. Jane explained that it was her grandmother’s handwriting and she had most likely written it sometime in the 1950’s.
It was exactly as it had been printed in the caption in the CMN in 1963. Some men were labeled correctly (mostly the players snatched up from the Kingston area such as Winters, Riley, Whitaker and "Peekskill" Pete Cregan), but others were not. One man listed in the photo with early connections to the founding of the team was Delaware County native, Arthur Reynolds who worked for several years as a distiller in the Fleischmann’s yeast factory in Peekskill and lived in Grand Gorge later in life, passing away in Stamford in 1965. However, another ballplayer from Rhode Island was incorrectly claimed to be in the photo was pitcher, Andy Coakley. He would’ve only been 13 years old if it were really him and conversations with his SABR biographer Tara Krieger suggest that it was most likely a mistaken identity with the pitcher, Tom Colcolough (also pronounced Coakley) who had pitched for the M.A.C. at one point following his release from the NY Giants in 1899. Although Jane thinks that maybe her grandmother may have been confused, we may never know why some of these other men were identified incorrectly.
Despite not having the information sufficient to positively identify all the men of the M.A.C. circa 1897, it is a wonderful photograph with many of the key figures that led to the team’s development into one of the most famous semi-professional teams of the late 1800’s. It has a level of detail not visible in the copy printed in the CMN and it is highly valuable to local baseball history. Last November, the photograph was pulled out of the family’s storage unit in Utah and sent to me with the agreement that it be put on public display in honor of the photo’s original owners, Jane’s grandparents John and Iva Kelly. A pre-game ceremony is planned for the Mountain Athletic Club Vintage Base Ball’s home opener on May 21st at Fleischmanns Park when the photo will be donated to the Skene Memorial Library in Fleischmanns for permanent public display.
Author's note: I learned from Jane that Bob Kelly passed away peacefully on February 2, 2023 at the age of 97 (see Obituary). Coincidentally, it was the same day that my 94 year old grandmother also passed. I have to think they stopped each other at the pearly gates - if just for a minute - to talk some baseball.