Home Teams: Talking North Fork Baseball

Baseball has brought Americans together since the first game of our national pastime was played here in 1846, so it’s little surprise that, after a year we’ve all spent very much apart, baseball would prove to be the glue to help bring a community together.

Writer and recent Orient transplant Tom Dyja has teamed up with poet and proprietor of the Orient Service Center Billy Hands — the son of Chicago Cubs pitching great Bill Hands — for an exploration of all that baseball has meant to Orient and the North Fork, on view through Aug. 22 at the Oysterponds Historical Society’s Old Point Schoolhouse at their museum complex on Village Lane.

Titled “Home Teams: Baseball on the North Fork,” “the exhibit includes copious historical artifacts from OHS’s collection, complemented by deep research into adjacent communities, which show how, for more than 150 years, the people of the North Fork have been both enthusiastic participants in and devoted fans and spectators of America’s pastime,” says Exhibition Designer Alison Ventura.

The Oysterponds Historical Society has a season full of events scheduled in conjunction with the exhibition, including a vintage baseball game, an Q&A with Tom and Billy, and baseball movie nights on the historical society grounds.

Here’s what Tom and Billy have to say about the exhibit:

Q: How did this exhibition come about?

Billy Hands: Last Spring Tom Dyja walked into the gas station and told me about an idea he had and explained the early framework of the exhibit. I was interested but not initially knocked out.  Our small community has had a great deal of new people with new ideas and I ruminated about it. Finally a light bulb went off and I realized that the best way to get people together was through a mutual love of baseball!  I believe it has worked!

Tom Dyja: This show brings a lot of things together for me. My wife and I bought our place in Orient five years ago, and one of things that made me feel it was the perfect place for us was when I went into Billy’s and saw the Cubs shrine on the wall. I grew up in Chicago, a Cubs fan, and so I was immediately at home here. So there was that piece, and then I saw some photos of local baseball teams from the 19th Century and I just knew there had to be more. I’m a writer — my first novel was about baseball during the Civil War and last non-fiction book just came out this spring — “New York, New York, New York” — so I had a plan for the archival research, and connecting with Billy helped connect me to the community history. So we pitched the OHS on a show.

2. What can people expect when they come to see the show?

Tom Dyja: We have objects and imagery going back to 1869. It’s a truly rich show, representing all the towns of the North Fork, all the way up through this year’s Little League season. We found a lot of fascinating people and stories that really do tell a history of the North Fork through how we’ve played baseball.  

Billy Hands: Visitors can expect to see the bonding of people through the years, with baseball as the glue. This is a chronological display, well thought out and informational, as well as fun.  Following the timeline and the way the game changed is no different from following the people of the town and the way that it has changed.

Q: Where did you find the material on display?

Billy Hands: The material for the show was collected from so many different sources.  Oysterponds Historical Society had a number of items, participation from other local HIstorical Societies  as well as local papers were invaluable.  Tom spent hours on end combing through archives and of course there were interviews and blowing dust off of treasures in grandma’s attic!

Tom Dyja: The OHS had many things in their collection, and then (OHS Collections Manager) Amy Folk was invaluable in talking with the Mattituck Historical Society, the Mattituck-Laurel Library and the Southold Historical Society to see what they had in their collections. I reached out to other people in the community — Southold High, Mattituck High, and others, so we could really tell the stories of the individual towns at the same time as the entire North Fork as one place. Billy did some great interviews and I spent months going through digital archives of all the North Fork newspapers going back to the 1860s, scouring them for what they had about baseball — and there was a huge amount!

Q What surprised you the most about the material gathered for the exhibit?

Tom Dyja: The breadth of what we found. We found African-American teams and the great Barnstormers coming through Greenport and Riverhead, like the Cuban Giants. We found Herman Strickland, an African-American high schooler, playing for Mattituck in the East End League in 1940 — seven years before Jackie Robinson plays for the Dodgers. The great wave of Polish immigration (I’m Polish, so I was excited about that!) had an immense impact on the game here, too. It’s fascinating to see all these things play out (so to speak) through baseball. I guess I was expecting something so much simpler — people playing baseball. But instead baseball really taught me history and brought me into this community.

Billy Hands: There were so many surprises during the research for this event that I would have to write a separate page! During an interview with Roscoe King, a 100-year-young Orienter, I learned where the first ball fields were put down, who built them and who played. There were stories from a man who had stories from his father. You’re talking about firsthand information from people who had played in the 1800s — that’s priceless! I connected with Orlando Martinez, who lives out at the Point, who shares the same early life as I. Orlando is the son of a Major League baseball player as am I, and it may sound funny but we are a small group of people. We can talk about our experiences all day long, but until you’ve lived this interesting life, you just can’t fully grasp it. Orlando has lived out here for a half a dozen years and our paths had hardly crossed. But there you have it, the miracle of baseball, bringing communities and people together for 120 years!

The Old Point Schoolhouse is located at 1555 Village Lane in Orient, and the exhibit is open on Fridays from 2 to 5 p.m., Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 2 to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 for the general public and free for OHS members and kids. The Oysterponds Historical Society can be reached at 631.323.2480.

Here’s the schedule of this summer’s events in conjunction with the exhibition:

Saturday, July 10 at 10 a.m.: Roundtable discussion on Baseball on the North Fork with Tom Dyja and Billy Hands

Wednesday, July 21, 8 p.m.: Baseball Movie Night: “A League of Their Own” on the grounds of the Old Point Schoolhouse

Sunday, July 25, 2 p.m.:  New York Mutuals Vintage Baseball Game Vs. Orient Residents: The New York Mutuals Baseball Club fields a team in authentic replica uniforms and plays a an actual nine-inning game using replica equipment. Following the game, they give the children in the audience a chance to play and swing a bat in a game called rounders.

Wednesday, July 28, 8 p.m.: Baseball Movie Night: “Field of Dreams” on the grounds of the Old Point Schoolhouse

Wednesday, Aug. 18, 8 p.m.: Baseball Movie Night: “Bad News Bears” on the grounds of the Old Point Schoolhouse

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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