SABR

Bert Abbey

This article was written by Pat O'Connor.

Like so many of the state's early settlers, Bert Abbey's ancestors were farmers who came to Vermont from Connecticut. Bert's father, Pearl Castle Abbey, aspired to become a Baptist minister, but at his father's insistence remained on the family farm in Essex Center. He was still living there on November 29, 1869, when his wife gave birth to a boy with reddish-brown hair, brown eyes and the distinctive Abbey nose. They named him Bert Wood Abbey after close friend Lambert Wood, shortening the name to Bert because Wood never cared for Lambert.

Like his father, Bert was called by his initials, and the nickname "B.W." stuck with him throughout life. He had one sister, Pearl May, who was two years younger. The Abbey children attended the schoolhouse on East Road in Essex and played together since there were no other children living near the farm. Bert spent much of his childhood fishing and hunting. When he went to middle school at the Essex Classical Institute, his favorite subject, not surprisingly, was natural history. Bert's interest in that subject continued: Initially he studied classical languages at the University of Vermont, but according to family legend, sometime in 1890 Bert stoked the fire with his Greek and Latin texts and enrolled in the natural-science course.

Not until the fall of 1886, when he arrived at Vermont Academy in Saxtons River, did Bert develop an interest in baseball. On September 27, 1886, he played his first organized game against the Putney town team. Though no records of the outcome are known to exist, the Vermont Academy lineup that day lists Abbey as starting pitcher, batting clean-up. One day that fall, after returning from a Vermont Academy game, Bert experimented with a curveball for the first time. He collected a bunch of baseballs and started snapping off curves at a marked target on a barn. "I finally got so I could curve a ball and still keep it under control," he said. After leaving Vermont Academy in February 1887, Bert continued practicing back at the farm, recruiting his sister to serve as catcher.

Bert Abbey entered the University of Vermont in the fall of 1887 and formed the school's first freshman baseball team. "That fall the varsity went to Dartmouth and got trounced," he said. "When they returned we challenged them to a game. I pitched and struck out 16 men. (I really struck out 18, but in those days they didn't count the first two fouls as strikes.) So we trounced the varsity, too, and they ended up taking five of us onto their team."

By the spring of 1888 when Abbey joined the varsity, baseball had a long if not illustrious history at UVM. It was a club sport as early as 1866, and UVM's first intercollegiate game, a 44-4 loss to Middlebury, took place on May 29, 1882. Playing home games at Athletic Park off Riverside Avenue, the current site of Charlebois Trucking, UVM competed in the Vermont Intercollegiate Baseball League against Middlebury and Norwich.

In 1889, with Abbey on the mound and a team composed mostly of "medics" (medical students, who composed a third of the student body, typically made up more than half the team), UVM dominated the VIBL, prompting a demand from the other two schools that only "academics" be eligible to play. UVM's refusal caused the league to disband after the 1889 season, but by then UVM had outgrown the level of competition it could find within Vermont's borders.

Bert Abbey also left Vermont that summer in search of tougher competition. He hooked on with the Shamrocks of St. Johns, New Brunswick, and rapidly earned a reputation as a "dazzler." Between his "out curve" and his "lightning drop," Abbey consistently racked up double-digit strikeouts. After one such performance, the St. Johns Daily Sun wrote: "The Shamrocks made a ten strike when they secured Abbey. He is a darling twirler and has excellent command of the ball. He has an easy delivery, throws quickly to bases and is as cool as a cucumber."

Returning to college that fall, Abbey was named UVM's coach and captain as a junior, and under his direction the team underwent its first "systematic training." Abbey required players to exercise at the Burlington YMCA and held winter practices in a room under the university chapel in the basement of the Old Mill. The hard work paid off: "On Decoration Day, 1890, we beat Dartmouth at home for the first time," Bert said. "This called for a night-shirt parade down Pearl and Church streets to celebrate."

Bert led a campaign to keep the UVM varsity together as a summer team in 1890. After he convinced them that baseball was a benefit to the community, Burlington's business leaders donated over $500 to cover travel expenses and salaries for the players. In what became a tradition over the next three summers, the UVM varsity played a heavy schedule against professional teams from all over the East Coast, including the John Morrills (headed by the popular ex-captain of the Boston Red Stockings) and the Cuban Giants (a great Negro barnstorming team).

Playing for pay during summers caused other colleges to complain that UVM's players were no longer true amateurs. One member of those UVM teams, Dr. Lyman Allen, hardly denied the charge in the 1903 edition of UVM's yearbook, Ariel:


During these years much was said about "professionalism" in this University by representatives of other colleges. While this criticism was to some degree just, still I know positively that other colleges were more blameworthy in the matter than we were, as can be proved by financial offers to many of our players to go to other colleges, which at the same time were pretending to be entirely free from professionalism, and were criticising us.


Whether professional or amateur, the UVM players were good. The 1891 team, with a record of 19-6, was Vermont's best ever. By that time Abbey was joined on the mound by another Green Mountain Boy of Summer, Arlington Pond, and UVM was playing collegiate powerhouses like Harvard and Yale. After a game against Yale, Abbey received a lesson from one of the most influential men in sports history: "[T]he man who really taught me to use the curve with deception and speed was Alonzo Stagg, star Yale pitcher of his day and one of the greatest baseball and football coaches of all time. I got him aside in the basement [of the Old Mill] and he showed me how to pitch a curve that wouldn't tip off the batter. That's the only coaching in baseball I ever had."

Because he still had not completed all of the courses necessary for graduation, Bert returned to UVM for a fifth year in 1892. That year the UVM players, not lacking in self-confidence, began calling themselves the "wonder team." During Easter recess they took their first-ever southern trip, brazenly challenging even major league teams. UVM won all five of its games against collegiate and amateur competition, but how it fared against the major leaguers was a different story. The Philadelphia Phillies, with an outfield of Hall-of-Famers Ed Delahanty, Billy Hamilton and Sam Thompson, gave the precocious Vermonters a 24-3 drubbing. And on April 5, 1892, the Washington Senators shutout UVM 7-0 in front of a rain-soaked crowd of 550.

Even though it lost that game, the "wonder team" received high praise from the Senators. Second baseman Tommy Dowd called UVM the "best college team playing baseball." Abbey was particularly impressive, scattering eight hits, striking out seven (the Washington pitcher struck out only five) and not allowing a single earned run. After the game Washington's manager, Billy Barnie, told a reporter that Abbey and his catcher, Larry Kinsella, made up the best amateur battery he had ever seen. Abbey remembered the impression he had made on the Washington manager: "Somewhere along in the game he called me aside and asked if I had any ideas about professional ball. He said, 'If you ever decide to play, telegraph me!' All the rest of the trip I kept thinking of the offer and the chance to make some money -- more than I would make teaching, anyhow. So I telegraphed him and was told to report at once."

On June 11, 1892, Bert pitched his last game for UVM, a 6-5 loss to the town team from Northampton, Massachusetts. The loss dropped his record for his college career to 30-12. Three days later he was on the mound for Washington against the St. Louis Browns. Years later he recalled his debut:


I was disgusted with my pitching, or the umpiring anyhow! In college I never gave more than one or two bases on balls, but here the umpire called them a lot closer. They had just lengthened the pitching distance by five feet [1] and the catcher stood way back by the grandstand, except for [with two strikes]. When I challenged the umpire on his calls, he replied, "The rules say under both shoulders and over both knees. You're putting the ball over the shoulder [on one pitch] and under the next. You're doing the same with the knees!"


At some point in the game Bert evidently got the knack of pitching under the increased scrutiny; he won by a score of 12-7.

Abbey, who was called "Professor" by his unlearned teammates, compiled his best season in the majors as a Washington rookie in 1892. Though his record was 5-18 for the hapless Senators, he compiled a respectable 3.45 ERA. But in the spring of 1893 Washington sold Abbey's contract to Pittsburgh. The Pirates assigned him to their farm club in Macon, Georgia, where he did some spectacular pitching. "There has been nothing seen here this season equal to Abbey's out and down curve," a New Orleans newspaper wrote after one performance. "It puzzled some of the best batters on the New Orleans team, some of them missing his out and down shoots at least two feet."

Abbey enjoyed his stint in the Southern League immensely. The 5'11", 175-lb. redhead became a fan favorite, especially with the southern belles who followed baseball. In an era when baseball players were notoriously uncouth, Abbey was also popular with the team's management, which appreciated his steady, gentlemanly conduct; unlike many of his teammates, Abbey did not drink or smoke, and he constantly monitored his weight. As for fighting, he engaged in a scuffle only once: One night Abbey was jumped while walking back to his hotel, but he landed the more damaging blows. The next day, when he was asked to identify the suspected assailant, Bert examined the man's battered face and said, "It's kinda hard to tell, but I think it's the guy."

Abbey was basking in his success and popularity in Macon when he received shocking news: Pittsburgh had sold his contract to the Chicago Colts. Though this meant a return to the majors, Abbey was disappointed and threatened not to report, claiming the deal was a direct violation of his contract. National League president Nick Young informed him that he would be suspended if he did not report immediately, but still Abbey stood firm:

I had hoped that I would be allowed to get a full year in the Southern League and then begin a new season with either New York or Boston. I don't want to go to Chicago now. The team is way in the hole and among the tailenders and to go with it this year will injure my chances for next season. One thing for sure, I will go on the bench before I will pitch for Chicago for less than $300 a month.

When Abbey decided to hold out, returning to the farm in Essex Center, the Colts sent a telegram to Vermont asking for his demands. "I didn't want to go to Chicago so I wired a price I thought would scare 'em," he recalled. "I said I'd finish the season for $1,000 and next year will cost $2,400. That was big money in baseball then." Chicago answered almost immediately: "Join the club in Cleveland." Abbey complied.

In hindsight the Colts must have regretted going to so much trouble. Abbey was 2-4 with a 5.46 ERA for the remainder of the 1893 season, then followed up that performance by going 2-7 with a 5.18 ERA in 1894. One can only speculate on how he got along with his manager, Hall-of-Famer Cap Anson. An infamous racist, Anson is often cited as a major force in the creation of baseball's color line. Abbey, on the other hand, enjoyed playing in exhibitions against black players, and openly opposed the demeaning but common practice of throwing change on the floor of the hotel as a tip to the Negro porters. Instead he handed them the change, even though his teammates knocked him for doing it.

Following the 1894 season, Bert married Annie Isham on New Year's Eve at her family's home in Burlington. Though Annie was pregnant by the time Bert left for spring training, she accompanied him during most of the 1895 season. The newlywed Bert had pitched in only one game that year when Chicago traded him, appropriately enough, to the Brooklyn Bridegrooms. Pitching in only eight games for Brooklyn, Bert won five of seven decisions with a 4.33 ERA. One highlight was pitching in a game against the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds before 13,000 fans, at the time one of the largest crowds ever to see a major league game.

Meanwhile, back on the farm in Essex Center, P.C. Abbey was struggling to make ends meet. Clearly his heart was not in farming (he eventually realized his dream by becoming ordained at age 40), and when he questioned his ability to pay the mortgage, Bert lifted his spirits by saying, "If you keep praying and I keep playing ball, we'll make the payments." But Bert's days in baseball were numbered. When his ERA soared to 5.15 in 1896, Brooklyn let him go.  He spent a few years in the minors, ending with Montreal in 1899. In an extra-inning game against Toronto, Abbey uncorked a high fastball and felt something pop in his right arm. At the age of 29, he knew at that moment that his career as a pitcher was over.

Bert Abbey had traveled considerably during his career in baseball, and he had a knack for taking things he had seen in other parts of the country -- from tractors and harvesters to new strains of strawberries and blueberries -- and introducing them in Vermont. Characteristically, he returned to Vermont after his retirement from baseball and founded Central Telephone Company, the first independent telephone company in the state, installing the telephones, wires, cables and switchboards himself. Bert sold the business to Northern Telephone Company in 1909, returning to farm the land where he had grown up.

Bert and Annie and their four children raised corn, oats, barley, cows, sheep, hens and pigs. Approximately 70 bee hives generated a modest inventory of white honey, and 600-plus maple trees in a good year produced 227 gallons of maple syrup (which at the time sold for 50 cents per gallon). Bert enjoyed collecting apples from the family orchard, though he suffered many bee stings in the process (the trees were near the apiary). In summer the family spent two weeks vacationing at Mallets Bay. To Bert, vacation meant one thing -- fishing. But Annie, having grown up in the "big city" (at least by Vermont's standards), never enjoyed life on the farm. On a few instances she left spontaneously to spend time with family and friends in Burlington. At Annie's coaxing Bert sold the farm in 1921, by which time four generations of Abbeys had tackled its everyday challenges.

A passionate hunter, Bert managed to obtain an appointment as a game warden. "The family felt that B.W. got himself appointed game warden so he could go hunting whenever he desired," Bert's granddaughter Betty Royce said. A great shot with a pistol or rifle, Abbey displayed the same incredible quickness and pinpoint accuracy that helped him excel in baseball. When quail hunting he flushed birds and started shooting immediately after they came off the ground, blowing them apart before they got a chance to scatter.

The Abbeys eventually bought another farm, this one located in Shelburne. There Bert helped his son Fred operate a nursery and garden center called Gardenside Nurseries, Inc., which remains in business to this day. Bert studied ornamental horticulture and grew an incredible vegetable garden, as well as a large collection of grapes. In 1934 he gave politics a whirl, running on the Republican ticket for Chittenden County side judge, a quasi-judicial position that is unique to Vermont. It was a bad time to be a Republican and Abbey lost by a wide margin.

In the 1950s B.W. hunted regularly with his grandson Paul. Walking with a cane and stopping frequently to sit in the woods, Bert taught Paul to respect nature and appreciate the beauty of the outdoors. He spoke highly of the undeveloped Vermont countryside, pleased that the hunting territory in Chittenden County that he'd staked out as a young adult had not changed dramatically in a half-century. When interviewed 34 years after his grandfather's death, Paul Abbey still had many fond memories:


He was someone you could look up to. It would always be uplifting to see him. I never saw him angry. He always had a good story, a new subject to discuss. B.W. seemed to enjoy the life of leisure -- he didn't want too many projects. Never complained about the cold weather. Always on time and expected others to be prompt. When the family got together, he was always the center of attention. Maybe a little too social conscious by today's standards, but friendly and outgoing and open-minded. As a matter of fact, he was the perfect grandfather.


Bert was never afraid to voice an opinion, as another grandson found out: "I have a grandson named for me who wanted to be a better pitcher than I was," Abbey said to a reporter. "I told him I'd shoot him if he played professional ball. Baseball's okay in college, but no place for a man with brains!" Certainly a man with brains, Abbey was proud of having attended UVM, though his failure to receive a diploma had always bothered him. That shortcoming was rectified on July 21, 1941, when UVM's trustees bestowed the honorary degree of bachelor of science on 71-year-old Bert Abbey. Six months later, Bert's life went from that high point to a bitter low when Annie, his wife of 47 years, passed away at age 76.

Abbey remained interested in baseball right up until his final days. In one of his last letters he wrote, "[I] am listening to the Yankees again to win, hoping some team will break it up but see little hope unless Whitey Ford's arm gives out." Less than a year after suffering a heart attack, Abbey finally succumbed at the age of 92 on June 11, 1962. Before his death he was thought to be the oldest living former major league baseball player. On October 10, 1969, seven years after his death, Bert Abbey became one of seven original inductees into UVM's Athletic Hall of Fame, along with fellow Green Mountain Boys of Summer Ray Collins, Larry Gardner and Ralph Lapointe.


Note

[1] On this fact Abbey's memory is a bit off; the distance from the pitchers' mound to home plate was not lengthened to its present distance of 60 feet, six inches until the following year, 1893.


Sources

A version of this biography originally appeared in Green Mountain Boys of Summer: Vermonters in the Major Leagues 1882-1993, edited by Tom Simon (New England Press, 2000).

In researching this article, the author made use of the subject's file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, the Tom Shea Collection, the archives at the University of Vermont, and several local newspapers.


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