Farnham, 1952: First season for a young pitcher, last season for a small town

Texte de Christian Trudeau, publié en 2006 sur le site de SABR-Québec

Text by Christian Trudeau, originally published in 2006 on the SABR-Quebec website

First season for a young pitcher, last season for a small town

Farnham, summer of 1952. A 17 year-old right-handed pitcher named Bill O’Donnell, who had just graduated from his high school in upstate New York, took his first steps in baseball and in adulthood. At the same time, Farnham lived its final days as a baseball town.

After emerging as a good baseball town during the war, Farnham became a solid part of the Provincial League afterward. Known for its link with the black baseball community, Farnham fielded interesting albeit not always successful teams, culminating in a presence in the finals in 1949, where the Pirates pushed the heavy favorites Drummondville Cubs to the series-limit of 9 games.

However, attendance always lagged behind other teams, and when the league joined organized baseball, and furthermore Quebec City and Trois-Rivières joined the league in 1951, Farnham became too small, its stadium too old, its attendance too sparse for the league. Still, Farnham gained a little national recognition when its Pirates became in 1951 the first team in organized baseball to have an African-American manager, Sam Bankhead.

Back to the 1952 season and O’Donnell. Not really aware of the situation in Farnham, O’Donnell was just happy to be paid to play baseball. The league he joined was the Northern League, a longtime league that was historically based in Vermont, but that year had teams in Plattsburgh and Malone, New York, as well as St. Albans and Burlington, Vermont.

The Northern League had for a long time been a natural competitor for the Provincial League, aligning former major leaguers, suspended players, young prospects and college players. However, since the late 1940s, the league had essentially become a summer league for college players.

O’Donnell had been scouted a few months earlier by Lefty Lloyd of the Philadelphia Athletics, which arranged for him a scholarship to Villanova University in Pennsylvania. In the meantime, he assigned O’Donnell to Farnham. While college players were supposed to remain strictly amateurs, they were paid “under the table” in the Northern League. O’Donnell, one of the few players in the league who had not yet started his college career, was paid around 175$ per month.

“In retrospect it seemed like a magical summer for me, not least of which was being in French-speaking Quebec. I felt far from home and quite independent and free”, remembers O’Donnell, in a discussion by emails.

O’Donnell recalls living at the Hotel Martin in Farnham, traveling with taxi squads, swimming in a nearby body of water and dating a local girl. All this and being paid to play baseball, not bad for a 17 years old!

The Farnham Pirates were managed by Joe Krakowski, a former pitcher who had been Farnham’s player-manager in 1948-49, where he had records of 4-6 and 9-9. His whereabouts in 1950-51 are unknown, but there he was in 1952, managing some young college players.

On the team were also many players who would go on to have long pro careers: pitchers Tom Tewkesbury, Bob Thwaites and Jim Pelcher, first baseman Hugo Guidotti, shortstop Norm Griffin, outfielders Ron Cooper and Jack Vail, infielder Bob Ricciani and catcher Bobby Walsh.

The star of the league was however a young pitcher with St. Albans, Joey Jay, who went on to a long major league career.

Attendance remained poor in Farnham, and soon, the team was unable to pay its players and forced to fold. For a young pitcher like O’Donnell, this was only a small bump on the road. However, for his manager Joe Krakowski, it was a lot more tragic:

“An image I have in memory from 54 years ago in 1952 is of Joe and his wife. The Farnham team had just folded. Joe and his wife were seated on a couch in the darkened lobby of the Hotel Martin. She was comforting Joe and he was resting his head on her shoulder. And Joe felt really bad and was actually weeping a bit. I heard her softly refer to him by her apparent pet name for him -- "Krakas." I'll never forget that scene. I was only 17, and Joe was at the end or near the end of his career...sort of an adolescent "rite of passage" for me, as I had an introduction to another side of professional baseball...” remembers O’Donnell.

O’Donnell rebounded quickly, replacing Joey Jay with St. Albans, who had left the team.

It was the end of pro baseball for Farnham, and the final season of the Northern League, but only the start for O’Donnell. He left his scholarship at Villanova for a chance to pitch professionally. In 1953, he pitched for Oshkosh in the Wisconsin State League, where he met his future wife. Then, he moved to St. Cloud in the Northern League (the one in the Midwest, not the one in Vermont). In 1955, he was in the Tri-State League, pitching for Rock Hill.

After the 1955 season, O’Donnell was at a crossroad, and he ended up quitting baseball to get married and start a family. He went back to college and graduate school and became a clinical psychologist, specializing in children and family therapy.