This article was written by Francis Joseph O’Boyle
There used to be a ballpark on the edge of Burlington’s Intervale, near the intersection of North Prospect Street and Riverside Avenue. It was known as Athletic Park, and from 1903 to 1906 it was the home of Burlington’s team in the first of Vermont’s legendary Northern Leagues.
During those years Athletic Park was the site of what may have been the highest caliber of baseball ever played in Vermont. It was where stars like Jack Coombs, Ed Reulbach, Larry Gardner and Hall-of-Famer Eddie Collins got their start. But none shone brighter in the Northern League than Burlington’s captain and two-time batting champion, a former St. Louis Cardinal by the name of Willard “Doc” Hazelton.
Willard Carpenter Hazelton was born in Strafford, Vermont, on August 28, 1876, in the midst of the National League’s first season. Willard was the fourth and youngest son of Henry and Amanda (Carpenter) Hazelton, both of whom were also Strafford natives. Henry Hazelton’s sister married the brother of Justin Morrill, who served with distinction in the United States Congress as Representative and Senator from Vermont for 44 years. Morrill is best-remembered as the moving force behind the land-grant college system in the United States.
The Hazelton family was proud of its descent from several of Strafford’s earliest settlers. One of them was Willard’s great-grandfather, Thomas Hazelton, who fought at Bunker Hill in the initial stages of the Revolutionary War. The old family homestead was destroyed by fire in 1921, but the hotel operated by Willard’s father still stands, though it’s now a private residence. It borders the Strafford common where Willard played his first baseball. Years later when he signed a major league contract, the Chelsea Herald wrote, “His love for baseball dates back to the lad in kilts whose chief fun was in tossing a ball on our little common near his home. One remembers well his laughing, sunshiny face as he caught the ball, beating some other boy not as deft-fingered as he.”
Will attended Strafford common schools, the town’s public elementary schools, and a village diary indicates that as a 15-year-old he helped plant a garden for an elderly resident named Belle on June 3, 1892. Because Strafford did not have a high school he was forced to go away to further his education. He spent the 1893-94 school year at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, New Hampshire, then returned to Strafford in 1894-95 and earned $110.00 teaching at the common school near Miller’s Pond. “The Fall and Winter terms of the Pond school were taught by Mr. Will Hazelton, who spared no pains with the twelve young pupils entrusted to his care,” wrote that year’s Strafford Town Report. “The deportment of the school was first class and an earnest effort at improvement in studies was made by all.”
In the spring of 1895 Will enrolled at Dean Academy (now Dean College) in Franklin, Massachusetts, where his field of study was “Technical Preparation.” “[D]uring his stay [he] was very popular because of his genial manner and real friendliness,” states his obituary in the Dean alumni notes. The school always had a strong baseball program — among its alumni are Hall-of-Famer Gabby Hartnett and Heinie Stafford, another Green Mountain Boy of Summer — and Will pitched for the varsity. He was also elected president of the Class of 1897.
Following a well-developed trend of Dean graduates, Hazelton matriculated at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, where he majored in engineering. “While at Tufts, he endeared himself to his schoolfellows by his quiet, studious and gentlemanly demeanor,” wrote the Chelsea Herald. As a freshman Will was unanimously elected captain of the baseball team — in fact, a note in the March 17, 1907, issue of the Boston Globe credits him with forming Tufts’ first-ever team — and he spent summer vacations playing with amateur teams all over New England.
During the summer after Will’s sophomore year the sport nearly cost him his life. On August 25, 1899, three days before his 23rd birthday, he was batting in a game at Fabyan House, a resort on the side of Mount Washington in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, when a pitch struck him in the forehead. Will managed to pick himself up and play for three innings before he finally fell unconscious. He was rushed to Mary Hitchcock Hospital in Hanover where he was diagnosed with a skull fracture and a burst artery, which formed a blood clot that pressed on his brain and caused right-sided paralysis. Within a week of the injury a Dr. Connor of Cincinnati performed surgery to remove the blood clot and pieces of bone from the skull. “There was little expectation of his recovery,” the Chelsea Herald reported. “Nearly a week had elapsed before he regained consciousness, but in a month’s time he was allowed to come to his home. His physicians told him his perfect physical condition is what saved him.”
By December the Herald reported that Willard C. Hazelton was in Maryland interviewing for the position of chemical assayer at Strafford’s Elizabeth Copper Mine, which was owned by the Baltimore Chrome Works. Apparently nothing came of the interview, because by March the Herald reported that Willard spent two days in Boston recently and expected soon to return to Tufts to complete his college course. He did in fact return, graduating in June 1901.
The winter following his graduation Will signed a contract to play for the St. Louis Cardinals, the money from which he intended to use to pay his way through medical school. In February 1902 the Boston Post wrote that news of his signing “was read with intense pleasure by that young man’s friends, who are legion in Boston and throughout central Massachusetts, where he enjoys a high reputation as a fast and most promising player.”
The Milwaukee Brewers decided that change was in order after finishing dead-last in 1901, the American League’s inaugural season. Before the 1902 season they moved to St. Louis, adopted the nickname “Browns” and raided the crosstown Cardinals for several established National Leaguers: Hall-of-Fame outfielder Jesse Burkett (.382 in 1901), the NL batting champion; another Hall-of-Famer, shortstop Bobby Wallace (.322); outfielder Snags Heidrick (.339); second baseman Dick Padden (.256); and pitchers Jack Harper (23-13), Jake Powell (19-19) and Willie Sudhoff (17-11).
That winter Dan McGann, the Cardinals’ regular first baseman, further decimated the team by jumping to the AL. Into the breach created by McGann’s departure stepped Willard Hazelton, by that time better known as “Doc” because of his ambition to study medicine. While Cardinals owner Frank DeHaas Robison was in court asking for an injunction to prevent his former players from taking the field for his crosstown competition, Hazelton was making his major league debut.
It was April 17, opening day of the 1902 season, and the Cardinals were taking on the previous year’s NL champions, the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cardinals were a ragtag assemblage of unknowns, predicted to finish last by most experts. The Pirates, on the other hand, retained their entire lineup from 1901, completely unscathed by the American League’s raids. To make things worse for the Cards, the Pirates were pitching their ace, Deacon Phillippe, one of the NL’s best. St. Louis gamblers, perhaps being generous to the home team, made them only 8-to-5 underdogs.
To the surprise and delight of the 11,000 fans who showed up at League Park in St. Louis, the reconstructed Cardinals battled the powerful Pirates nip-and-tuck for nine innings before bowing, 1 to 0. Despite a badly-skinned knee suffered during the exhibition season, Doc Hazelton started at first base and collected his first major league hit, a single off of Phillippe.
The Cardinals dropped the next contest, 10-4, as Doc picked up his second hit in as many games. He was also the only St. Louis fielder not to make at least one error. “Medals and other congratulatory testimonials are contemplated,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch snickered. In the third Pittsburgh game Hazelton was 0-for-4 and contributed two errors in a 10-2 drubbing.
The Vermonter’s slump continued as the Cardinals headed out on the season’s first roadtrip. In games at Chicago and Cincinnati Hazelton was a combined 1-for-15. Before the end of April, with his team off to a dismal 1-6 start, St. Louis manager Patsy Donovan decided he’d seen enough of his big first baseman. Doc was handed his release after starting the first seven games of the season, making contact in each of his 23 plate appearances but managing only three singles for a .130 batting average, with no runs scored or batted in. Hazelton put in a short stint with Rochester, New York, of the Eastern League, then jumped his contract in June and spent the rest of the season with an independent team in Milford, Massachusetts.
The following spring Doc returned to his native state to coach the University of Vermont baseball team. For the next several years he coached in the spring and played for Burlington’s Northern League team in the summer. Though it was not the majors, this was the apex of his baseball career.
In Disorganized Baseball: Baseball In Vermont (1887-1935), Vermont baseball historian Merritt Clifton writes:
It is probable that the level of 1901-06 represented the pinnacle of professional baseball in Vermont. An all-star team of Northern League performers could undoubtedly have performed respectably in the major leagues. Many players more than held their own from the first with virtually no other professional experience.
The Burlington team that Doc Hazelton captained in 1903 was a typical Northern League aggregation. In addition to Hazelton, it included four other former or future big leaguers: Bob “Doc” Lawson, who had pitched in the majors the previous two seasons; Libe Washburn, who had lost all four of his starts with the Phillies earlier in 1903; Jack Doscher, a pitcher who joined the powerful Chicago Cubs later that season; and Ed McLane, who went on to play one game in the outfield for Brooklyn in 1907.
Money, of course, is what attracted the talent; some players were promised more in the Northern League than they could earn in the majors. Collecting, however, was often a different story, as Doc learned during his first summer in Burlington. On August 20, 1903, his $100 pay check bounced. The club soon disbanded and Doc hooked on with an independent team from Newport, Vermont.
Hazelton started the 1904 season with Toledo of the American Association, at the highest rung on the minor league ladder. He was not there long, however, before he jumped his contract and returned to Burlington, taking with him slugging outfielder Art Brouthers, who later played in the majors. Despite his bad experience the previous summer, Doc was induced to return to Burlington by a lucrative offer from the team’s new owner, George Whitney, millionaire heir to inventor Eli Whitney’s fortune.
Though Whitney got his money’s worth — his captain and clean-up hitter won the first of two consecutive Northern League batting titles in 1904 — Hazelton himself paid a steep price for his contract-jumping: organized baseball’s ruling body, the National Commission, branded him as a baseball “outlaw.” A definition of that term appears in Hugh Fullerton’s Baseball Primer (1912):
A player who offends against baseball law is punished by being “outlawed” or blacklisted. … There are several hundred players on the blacklist at present who cannot play in any clubs belonging to the National Agreement until reinstated by the Commission.
Fortunately for Hazelton, by that time he had established himself as one of the best and most popular players in perhaps the finest outlaw league in the country — right in his native state.
Around that time Doc Hazelton was also enjoying extraordinary success as a collegiate baseball coach. Taking over a UVM program that had fallen on hard times in the years since Bert Abbey and Arlie Pond, Doc led the team to an 11-13 record in his first year, then followed up that performance with a 14-5 record in 1904. The 1905 team was undoubtedly Hazelton’s finest at UVM, and the man most responsible was a 6’1″, 190-lb., hard-throwing pitcher named Ed Reulbach.
Hazelton had discovered Reulbach in the Northern League the previous summer, as the 22-year-old was going undefeated for the Montpelier-Barre team while pitching under the pseudonym of Sheldon to protect his amateur status. Born in Detroit but raised in the St. Louis area, “Big Ed” had attended college at Notre Dame the previous three years. He had come to Vermont intending to stay just for the summer, but he met and married Nellie Whelan of Montpelier, and Hazelton convinced him to forego his senior year at Notre Dame and enroll in medical school at UVM.
After losing to Harvard, Vermont reeled off nine consecutive victories to open the 1905 season. Newspapers were calling Reulbach the “greatest of all college pitchers.” On May 12, following a masterful 1-0 shutout of Syracuse, Big Ed received an offer from Frank Selee, manager of the Chicago Cubs, that “would take the breath away from an average person” (Burlington Free Press). The midwesterner could not refuse. That night, accompanied by a large group of students and fans, he caught the train to New York. The Free Press described the scene as “like a funeral” until the boys gave the departing pitcher the college yell as his train pulled away.
Three days later, Reulbach was on the mound against the world-champion New York Giants, hurling a complete game and yielding only five hits in a 4-0 loss. By the end of the 1905 season, Reulbach’s record with the Cubs stood at 18-13 and his ERA was 1.42. In his star pitcher’s absence, Hazelton managed the best he could, but losses in five of the last ten games left UVM with a still-impressive 16-6 record.
That 1905 season was the last of Hazelton’s first stint as UVM baseball coach. In 1906 he turned over the position to Northern League teammate Tom Hays, choosing instead to play during the early part of the season with Johnstown, Pennsylvania, of the Tri-State League (another outlaw circuit). After umpiring several UVM games, Hazelton left Burlington for Johnstown on May 16.
Much to the concern of Burlington baseball fans, the popular first baseman had still not returned by June 22, the day before the opening of the Northern League’s 1906 season. Burlington was playing a scrimmage that day against the UVM varsity, featuring Ray Collins on the mound and Larry Gardner at third base. “It was not a happy introduction to Burlington fans that the league team met,” the Free Press reported, “as the crowd was distinctly pro-Vermont and did not hesitate to jeer the leaguers and roast the umpire at every chance.”
At least that was the case until the dramatic arrival of Doc Hazelton, standing out from his teammates by showing up in one of the Burlington team’s new gray-and-blue uniforms:
[W]hen the old boy showed up, the only enthusiasm of the afternoon was manifested by the crowd in favor of Burlington. It was very complimentary to Hazelton and he made good by the snap and pepper he put into his play. Bill and his trusty big stick failed to connect for a good biff, but there will be a lot of those coming later.
Unfortunately, the optimism of the Free Press proved unfounded; Hazelton batted only .258, his lowest average in four Northern League seasons. It was also a disappointing summer for the circuit as a whole, which entered a 30-year hibernation after 1906.
Though now 31, Doc Hazelton evidently felt he still had a few years of baseball left in him. In 1907 he applied to the National Commission for reinstatement; his application was refused. A news item from May 1907 states that he will be unable to play for Johnstown that season due to a recent baseball injury. No records exist of his whereabouts for the next two years, when he was probably injured or playing in outlaw leagues.
In 1910 Hazelton returned to UVM for a second stint as baseball coach, remaining in that position through 1911. After a brief foray into the automobile business in Burlington, he accepted a position as baseball coach at his alma mater, Tufts University, later that year. Following the 1912 season, Willard returned to Burlington and married Emma Louise Beech. The Hazeltons had one child, a daughter born on May 7, 1913, whom they named Cora Maybelle. In August 1915 Doc was named baseball coach at Dartmouth College. After leading Dartmouth to a 12-9 record in 1916, he signed on for an unprecedented third stint as UVM baseball coach. This time Hazelton lasted just one season — 1917 was the last year of his involvement in baseball.
Moving to New York City, Hazelton worked for a woolen brokerage with offices at 103 Park Avenue. The ten-year-old Cora’s death on April 20, 1924, according to the Dean alumni magazine, “brought Mr. Hazelton great sorrow from which he never recovered.” Following his retirement in 1937, Doc and Emma returned to Burlington and rented a room at the prestigious Hotel Vermont, at the corner of Main and St. Paul streets. They still resided there when Doc died of cancer at Mary Fletcher Hospital on March 10, 1941.
Doc Hazelton’s obituary in the Free Press failed to make any mention whatsoever of his lengthy career in baseball. He was laid to rest in Oak Section, Lot 5, of Lake View Cemetery on Burlington’s North Avenue, only a mile or so from the former site of Athletic Park. The next time you drive by Lake View Cemetery, think about the Strafford native who was the Queen City’s greatest baseball hero at the turn of the century, only to be forgotten by his adopted hometown at the time of his death 40 years later.
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.