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‘It all begins in Billtown’

From Phillies prospects to little leaguers, Williamsport is a place where an endless catalog of baseball stories have begun.

Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

One of the many topographical sightings of a New Zealand Antarctic expedition in the sixties was the Millen Range of Antarctica’s Victory Mountains. As they cataloged peak after peak, one precipice with a set of teeth snarling upward from the glacial wilderness stood out to them. ‘Crosscut Peak,’ they called it, for its serrated northern ridges that tore into the horizon.

The name came to them from the image of the crosscut saw that the mountain resembled; a staple of the lumberjack trade with alternating teeth used to cut across the grain of a piece of wood, rather than along it, like its cousin, the rip saw. First mentioned as far back as ancient Rome, crosscut saws became prominently used by European woodsmen in the 15th century to tear into a tree without felling it, with an ax used to bring it down. It was the loggers of central Pennsylvania who did away with the two-step process around 1880 and decided the crosscut was good enough to do the whole job.

By that time, central Pennsylvania, and more specifically Williamsport, was well into its existence as a boomtown of the lumber industry. The first sawmill had risen in 1792 on the banks of Lycoming Creek, and with the jagged efficiency of the crosscut saw, loggers devoured the dense woods of the region for huge cash payoffs in the decades that followed. 1849 saw the industry intensify, thanks to the forming of the Susquehanna Boom Company, which set up a seven-mile system of man-made stone enclaves connected by chains of floating logs on the Susquehanna River meant to corral floating lumber. Boys and men called “boom rats” would mark incoming logs as property of particular saw mills. The innovative method had the potential to make Williamsport the logging companies of the area upgrade from “rich” to “ungodly rich.”

And the money poured in. Williamsport became the home of more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in America. In 1906, a minor league baseball team was formed and, thanks to the high salaries the logger baron team owners were able to provide, newspaper writers referred to them as the Williamsport “Millionaires.” Flaunting their riches through the nickname of the local ball club clearly wasn’t enough—the team had a song, too: “The Millionaires March Two-Step,” composed in celebration of the Millionaires winning the Tri-State Championship in 1908. To this day, the local Williamsport high school sports teams are known as the “Millionaires” as a reference to the upper class dreamland the town had once been.

But by 1908, Williamsport didn’t have as much to sing about. From 1861-91, Williamsport was considered the Lumber Capital of the World, but due to the advent of railroads, the devastation from biblical floods, and the inevitable depletion of the timber supply, Williamsport saw its infrastructure begin to crumble. By the arrival of the 1900s, circumstances were best summed up by the state of the local police department:

“Susquehanna, River of Dreams,” by Susan Q. Stranahan

The Susquehanna Boom Company disbanded in 1908. Workers packed up their axes and their crosscut saws and headed out to find parts of America where forests still stood. In a mass exodus and a cloud of saw dust, the lumber industry left Williamsport behind. But baseball, it turns out, wasn’t going anywhere.

***

Things can change quickly in the minors. In 1997, the Williamsport Cubs finished a hair out of last place, squeezing only 29 wins out of the 75-game New York-Penn League schedule from June to September. But the following season, the Chicago affiliate rode a talented pitching staff, as well as the greatest hitters in team history—one of whom was Eric Hinske—to a much more aggressive season, finishing 39-36. In one game, Hinske and the Cubs’ catcher, Marcel Longmire—cousin of Tony—hit back-to-back home runs in back-to-back innings, an event that hadn’t occurred on a baseball diamond since 1951. Despite their success, however, Williamsport was informed by their parent organization after the 1998 season that the Cubs were ending their affiliation.

Like most minor league teams, the Williamsport Cubs had once been known by a different name in a different town. They began life in 1947 as the Geneva Red Bird, then became the Geneva Robins, an affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The team imploded and the league folded, but the Geneva franchise came roaring back in 1958, from which point the team spun around the minor league circuit, dancing with any partner it could find: The Geneva Redlegs, Geneva Senators, Geneva Pirates, Geneva Twins, and finally, the Geneva Cubs were all at one point the hometown team for what must have been a confused and exhausted stadium full of Genevans. The team had relocated to Williamsport in 1993, where they existed until the end of 1998, when Chicago pulled the plug on the operation.

At that point, Vice President of Marketing Gabe Sinicropi and General Manager Doug Estes, considered a bold new concept: The Cubs had cut ties with them. Their new affiliate, the Pirates, would someday, too. It was the nature of the business. But Williamsport, their new home, wasn’t going anywhere. What if, in the constantly shifting world of minor league affiliations, they never had to change the name of their franchise again? What if they broke tradition and went with a name that reflected their team, and not the parent club to which they were attached?

“It’s kind of an old story, but both Doug and I, as soon as we moved from Geneva, we wanted to change the name. But we were, let’s say, ‘outvoted’ by the two owners, 2-2,” Sinicropi says. “We wanted to forge our own identity down here, sell more merchandise. We saw that opportunity and wanted to take advantage of it, knowing we weren’t going to be with the Cubs forever. [The owners] really were with the Cubs forever for a few decades in Geneva, so they knew nothing else. But we knew the day would come when we weren’t with the Cubs, and we’d have to then change everything as far as our branding from inside the stadium, to outside, down to the letterhead.”

Williamsport, too, was open to having a home team. But they had been burned before.

“Prior to us coming in in ‘94, this place would have a team for a little while and then the team would leave or get sold,” Sinicropi says. “So we weren’t there a full season and people were asking us daily, ‘Are you going to be around next year?’ We signed a five-year deal with the city to show that we were going to be around. It took a few years before people stopped asking that.”

Williamsport’s baseball heritage had arisen alongside its lumber industry, immortalized by an endless line of popular figures, teams, and moments. There was the minor league Willamsport Grays, which had existed for stretches of time between 1924 and 1962, with their final roster including Dick Allen. There was beloved Grays manager and hustle advocate “Minooka Mike” McNally. Connie Mack had been a periodic spectator and scout at Bowman Field during the 1930s and 40s, and was honored before a Grays game by being gifted a bench made out of bats. There was the House of David team that claimed to be connected to the Davidian church, but by the Great Depression was being comprised of unemployed ball players who were simply willing to grow the required beard for a chance to earn a buck.

Bowman Field had been an incubator for baseball innovation, as well. Dave Bresnahan, a catcher for the AA Williamsport Bills in 1987, once threw a skinned potato to third base, tricking a runner into coming home, where he tug him out with the ball.

This fun baseball anecdote naturally led to the end of Bresnahan’s career.

“An umpire retrieved the potato and awarded the runner home for Bresnahan’s deception. The following day, Bresnahan was fined by his manager and then released by the Bills’ parent club, the Cleveland Indians, for what they perceived as an affront to the integrity of the game.”

The people of Williamsport were quite familiar with the history, legacy, and occasional trickery that baseball had brought to their community; a foundation in place off of which Sinicropi and his marketing team could build. When the Pirates took over as their parent club after 1998, it was ultimately decided that the team’s uniforms would not say “Williamsport Pirates,” but rather sport a new name representing the proud local legacy of logging and baseball.

“We brainstormed a list of literally a couple hundred possible names,” Sinicropi recalls. “[We wanted] something to do with lumberjacks, or ‘Jacks.’ But that didn’t pass muster with the trademark offices, because of the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx at the time. Nor was the owner of the Diamond Jaxx in the mood for us to do that at that time. So, we elected to go with another choice.”

The next name off the board was a more indirect reference to the region’s past. When the Williamsport Crosscutters were formally introduced, Sinicropi realized he’d thrown the fans a slight curveball.

“It took a little bit of education,” admits Sinicropi. “Even locals asked, ‘Crosscutters, what does that mean?’ We hoped when they’d see the logo, there was a big crosscut saw in it at the time and a lumberjack mascot, and they would understand that this has to do with the lumber heritage of the area.”

Williamsport 2015
Wet Luzinki’s Minor League Photo Safari #KilomeDay

Eventually, the people caught on. And when the inevitable happened, and the Pirates were no longer the affiliates of the Crosscutters, the team did what it planned to do: Absolutely nothing.

“And here we are now with the Phillies starting in 2007, and we didn’t have to change a thing,” Sinicropi says.

It’s been 20 years that the team has been the Crosscutters, kicking off a season-long anniversary celebration at Bowman Field and continuing the story of baseball in Williamsport. In 2001, the Crosscutters shared the New York-Penn League championship with the Brooklyn Cyclones in a series cut short by the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York. They returned to the finals in 2003, taking down the Cyclones for the franchise’s sole championship. Their roster has included 580 future big leaguers, from Rajai Davis and Andrew McCutchen to Rhys Hoskins and Maikel Franco. But over the course of two decades, in the front office, not much has changed at all for the Crosscutters.

“It’s not a typical minor league team, where somebody’s here for a couple of years and then moves onto something bigger and better,” Sinicropi explains. “We’re people who have been here 10, 15, 20, 25 years. We’re just really invested in the community in every single way and obviously that helps our business. People can’t help but know us. We like to think that we’ve been an important part of the community in every way, shape or form, not just the games we play here at the ballpark.”

The oldest member of the Crosscutters has been a part of baseball since 1926. Sinicropi can quite clearly recall the first time he laid eyes on Bowman Field, now known as BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field. Because he hated it.

“It was at the time called Bowman Field and I said, ‘You know what? We’re going to call this Historic Bowman Field,’” he says with a laugh, having witnessed firsthand the disrepair into which the stadium had fallen when the Crosscutters had first inherited it. “We could have called it ‘Old, Crappy Bowman Field.’ So we just tried to put a little shine on it and celebrate the fact that we’re old, not hide it. Because there was no hiding it.”

From 1936 to 1961, an Italian immigrant named Al Bellandi had served as head groundskeeper and turned Bowman Field into the “Garden Spot of the Minor Leagues,” refusing job offers in the majors to continue his work in Williamsport. It seemed that after Bellandi’s departure, someone had forgotten to carry on his legacy. But, having undergone $4.5 million in renovations since Sinicropi’s first visit, Williamsport’s home field, one of the oldest stadiums in the country, still stands, hosting summer after summer of baseball in various forms. And the locals could probably tell you about every one of them.

“Whenever somebody mentions about baseball in Williamsport, the locals, they always have a story—something they saw, something they heard about that their grandparents or parents told them about,” says Sinicropi. “‘Did you know this? Did you know that?’ We’ve always celebrated this place, the people who have played here, the things that have happened here, because there’s a lot of that.”

Last season, MLB’s first ever Little League Classic was held, in which the Cubs and Cardinals played a regular season MLB game at BB&T Field in the midst of the Little League World Series. It was smallest venue to ever host an MLB game. This Sunday, the Phillies and Mets will travel to Williamsport for the 2018 iteration of the now annual event meant to connect MLB with the LLWS, the tournament around which the Williamsport calendar rotates.

“It’s the hardest major league ticket to get, because there’s only 2,500 of them,” Sinicropi brags. “We become, on the 19th, the center of the baseball universe.”

The goal - Williamsport, PA.
The goal - Williamsport, PA.
Rob Carr

***

“There is a purity to it,” says Mitch Rupert, sportswriter for the Williamsport Sun-Gazette. “When you get past the fact that every game is on TV, and there’s sponsors up everywhere, and the kids get a bunch of free stuff... When you get past the marketing of it, there’s still a purity to it that, as much as winning matters once they get here, it’s still just kids playing baseball.”

There’s nothing more whimsically American than a summer evening smelling grilled meats and listening to the telltale **ping** of aluminum bats making contact. But the Little League World Series, for which thousands of people flock to a quiet town in the middle of Pennsylvania every year, can take its toll on the local newspaper.

For two weeks every summer, the tournament settles into Williamsport. And for two weeks, Rupert and his colleagues at the Sun-Gazette cover it until their eyes bleed.

“We have a six man staff,” Rupert says. “For the better part of the year that’s fine, that’s all we need. I think we cover a little north of 20 high schools in our area, and I think we have four colleges in our area. So six guys, four of us are full time. That’s a good number of guys.”

“But for two weeks at the end of August,” he laments, “it’s brutal.”

There’s video to be shot and uploaded every morning. There’s the 12 to 14 hour days with no breaks. There’s figuring out who the teams are and tracking down the largely unavailable stats on the international squads. There’s the regular desk shifts that need to be worked to put the paper together. Then there’s the exhaustive high school football kickoff that isn’t going to cover itself. Even the Crosscutters know better than to stick around, using the last half of August to go on a road trip strategically placed on their schedule at this time every year.

“I tell people all the time, I’m not a big fan of it,” Rupert confesses. “If they wanted to move it, I’d be okay with that.”

“But,” he says, finger in the air, “if you’ve never been here, you’ve got to come see it, because it’s just not the same as watching it on TV. Twelve-year-old kids putting it all on the line, and the fact that they rise to that and you see performances like Todd Frazier, you see performances like Jake Fromm, who is now the starting quarterback at the University of Georgia—they called him ‘The Man-Child’ when he was here—you can see this stuff at the ground floor. There’s a level of purity to it because, beyond all the glitz and glamour, it’s just kids playing baseball.”

When the Little League tents come down and the coast is clear, the Crosscutters return to finish out the home stretch of their season, which is about when people are most familiar with the players on the field.

“At this level, you don’t know who’s going to be on the team until 48 hours before they get here,” Sinicropi explains. “On June 1, even the Phillies don’t know who is coming to Williamsport. These players are totally unknown when they come in here. Nobody’s the wiser about who our first baseman is and who our third baseman is. As soon as you really get to know our team, we’re in our last weekend of games.”

That’s why, for the Crosscutters marketing department, baseball is about the baseball, and doesn’t dwell on who exactly is playing it; a philosophy that is reflected by the fans.

“The people who show up here love baseball,” Rupert affirms. “They may not know who Francisco Morales is. Or Jonathan Guzman or Ethan Lindow. But that’s where I put the weight on my shoulders, to explain who these guys are, and why they’re relevant. These are guys who are going to be playing in the big leagues in four or five years. Get to know them, enjoy watching them at 18 years old and say, ‘I remember when he played here.’”

“I tell people all the time, sometimes I’m the first real set of eyes on these guys,” Rupert says. “It’s cool to see them on TV, to see the person I knew as a 19-year-old kid making waves in the big leagues as a 24-year-old. I’m not going to lie, I really enjoyed when Franklyn Kilome was here. He and I had great talks about baseball and pitching, and when he got traded the other week to the Mets, it kind of hits you in the feels a little bit, because he’s a good kid, he’s a great kid to be around. But to see, say, Rhys Hoskins do what he did last year, knowing I watched his first professional baseball game here at Bowman Field, it’s unbelievable. As much as a professional as I may be, there’s still a part of me that roots for good people.”

That starts with the culture created in Williamsport, at the baseline of the Phillies’ organization. This season, the Phillies’ first-year manager Gabe Kapler has overseen his clubhouse with a wave of positivity, choosing not to overly criticize his players in public and create an environment in which talented young players can feel comfortable enough to hit their ceilings. With the team in first place, all minor clubhouse dramas squashed quickly and effectively, and the players with no complaints after some initial stumbles on their manager’s part, it’s tough to argue with Kapler’s strategy.

It sounds similar to the culture that Williamsport manager Pat Borders has been establishing in his clubhouse on the other end of the farm system for the last four years.

“The big thing that Pat does, is he doesn’t care where you come from,” Rupert says. “He doesn’t care if you’re a first round pick or a 35th round pick; if you’re a million dollar guy out of Latin America or a $5,000 guy out of Latin America. The way that he treats people is he encourages them to be aggressive and take chances, even if that means you fail.”

“I’ve never in four years heard him yell at a player for making a physical or mental error. And talking to the kids about that, they say that’s the reason they're able to play loose and easy. They can take a chance on a ball in the dirt trying to get to second base because Pat’s going to applaud the effort, and say, ‘What could we have done better here to make sure that you were safe instead of getting thrown out?’ And that’s why I think people like playing for him at this level: He fosters that ability to just go out and play with the god-given talents that you have, and the instincts that you have, and then just tweak things to make them even better. They don’t have egos about them; they’re willing to say ‘yes sir’ and sit back and listen.”

A looser culture produces looser players. So when they play the music in Williamsport—it’s not the “Millionaire March Two-Step” anymore—Borders has taught his players another lesson: You can’t dance if you’re not loose.

***

This past May, FOX Sports posted an arbitrarily-picked list of the best baseball cities in America. No time or thought was put into it; it was a clickbait clone of the same list you’ll see come from any outlet looking for content throughout the course of the season. This list, and others just like it, wind up being a ranking of major American cities that happen to have an MLB franchise. The actual discussion of a “baseball city” and what exactly such a label entails does not appear among the creative selections like “Boston” and “New York.”

The best baseball cities in America often aren’t cities at all; they’re towns in which going to games isn’t just something to do—it’s the thing you do. Where the newspaper burns through its resources and staff to cover a tournament for kids, where the local minor league affiliate can pull in over a thousand people on pure baseball fandom without even knowing who’s playing for the home team, where you can’t walk into the stadium without thinking about all the bricks and mortar, batted balls and hurled potatoes that built it. Williamsport distinguishes itself with two tiers of the sport offering less insulation between the spectators and the game.

“I think the little league and the Little League World Series celebrates something that’s totally different from what the Crosscutters celebrate,” Rupert theorizes. “What the Crosscutters are celebrating is their history and their tradition. They gave out shirts this year that say, ‘It all begins in Billtown,’ with all the former Crosscutters who have played in the big leagues. Little League celebrates the purity—people volunteer because it’s a volunteer-run organization for the most part. They celebrate that it’s people coming together to give kids something to do.”

“I didn’t realize how important it was to the city that they have this recognition,” Rupert says. “The two things Williamsport is known for is the Little League World Series and Bowman Field and what they have here in a 90-year old-ballpark, and the lumber boom that took place in the early 20th century. It matters. The history of this area matters to the city, and they hold onto it with everything they have.”

Notes:

  1. Williamsport’s Baseball Heritage, by James P. Quigel, Louis E. Hunsinger
  2. Susquehanna, River of Dreams, by Susan Q. Stranahan
  3. Gateway to the Majors: Williamsport and Minor League Baseball, by James P. Quigel and Louis E. Hunsinger
  4. Play Ball!: The Story of Little League Baseball, by Lance and Robin Van Auken

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