Baseball at The University of Vermont: Part One
In February, the University of Vermont Catamounts announced that it would be dropping its baseball and softball programs. The baseball team at Vermont has a long history, with its first collegiate games stretching back to 1888. In part one of this series, here is look at the Catamounts baseball program from 1888-1905.
The Wonder Team (1888-1892)
Baseball didnâ€™t just start at the University of Vermont in 1888; it actually was being played as far back as 1866 as a club sport. In 1882, the team played its first game against another college and got slaughtered, 44-4 at the hands of Middlebury. Finally in 1888, the baseball program joined up with teams from Middlebury and Norwich to form the Vermont Intercollegiate Baseball League.
The team played an exhibition schedule in the fall before the regular season got underway in the spring. In one of the team’s fall games, the Catamounts traveled to Dartmouth and got beat handily by one of college baseballâ€™s powers at the time. When Dartmouth traveled up to Vermont for another game, they were first challenged by the Catamountsâ€™ freshman squad. Dartmouth accepted and then could not hit the ball against this freshman pitcher, who ended up striking out 16 Ivy Leaguers. Then, in another tune-up game between the freshmen and varsity squads, the same pitcher led the freshman club to victory. The pitchers name? Bert Abbey, the first baseball star at the University of Vermont.
The varsity club recruited Abbey and four other freshmen to strengthen the team for its spring schedule. In the end, the Catamounts went 11-1 overall in its first season and went 4-0 against VIBL opponents to win the league championship. Part of the reason for the dominance, according to Middlebury and Norwich, was the fact that 1/3rd of the team’s players were medical students at the U of V, who were much older than the rest of the competition. The University refused to drop the medical student players and the league soon disbanded after one season.
In 1890, Abbey was named both captain and coach of the varsity squad as a junior. For the first time, the team worked out during the winter in a YMCA under Abbeyâ€™s watch. No longer was this a club team. The extra work paid off as the team went 8-3 in the spring, including its first ever victory against Dartmouth, which came at home on Decoration Day. However, Abbey did not want the season to end just yet and convinced local business owners that baseball was a benefit for their businesses and got them to donate money to the team for a summer schedule. Over the month of July, the Catamounts played six exhibition games in Burlington; two against a team from Montreal, two against a Brattleboro semi-pro team, and two more against the Cuban Giants. The team won five of the games, losing only once to the Cuban Giants, the great Negro barnstorming team.
The team continued winning in 1891, going 13-4 overall with an impressive win against Michigan, but losses to both Yale and Harvard. That year, Abbey was joined on the mound by an impressive freshman hurler, Arlington Pond. Abbey, then a senior, was expected to hand off the torch to Pond for the 1892 season but the captain had not obtained enough credits to graduate from the school so he decided to return for the â€™92 season.
With Abbey, Pond, pitcher/first baseman Frank Oâ€™Connor, and catcher Larry Kinsella, the 1892 Catamounts were poised to be the best baseball team ever fielded by the University. The team didnâ€™t have a confidence problem as they began calling themselves the â€˜Wonder Team.â€™ During Easter break, Vermont challenged both the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Senators to exhibition matches. The games didnâ€™t turn out well on the scoreboard, dropping games 7-0 to Washington and 24-3 to the Phillies, but it was a nice recruiting trip for Abbey and Oâ€™Connor, who both caught the eye of Senators manager Billy Barnie.
Despite being trounced by professional teams, Vermont was possibly the best college team in 1892. They traveled far to play Virginia, the king of college ball in the south, then promptly disposed of them 10-1. They also had wins against Ivy League powers Yale, Harvard, and Cornell. The season ended with a 3-2 loss to Northampton, dropping their overall mark to 21-9. Abbey would finish his collegiate career with a record of 30-12. Three days later, he made his major league debut for the Washington Senators. A year later, he was joined in Washington by ex-teammate Frank Oâ€™Connor. Over the next century, the team still had many successful years, but never did they dominate for a stretch like the â€˜Wonder Teamâ€™ did.
The Downturn (1893-1905)
With Bert Abbey and Frank Oâ€™Connor now gone to the major leagues, the Catamounts lacked leadership but they still had the talent. Junior Arlington Pond was turning into a stud on the mound and catcher Larry Kinsella also returned. Junior first baseman Lyman Allen, a captain on the 1892 squad, provided a good bat in the Vermont lineup. However, unlike the first five seasons under Abbey, the Catamounts opened the season with a loss, losing 6-3 to Princeton. The team continued to make a spring trip down south and had victories against Virginia and North Carolina. At the end of 1893 season, the team was invited to participate in the World Fair Series in Chicago, where the first national championship of college baseball would be decided. Vermont participated in the eastern pool consisting of themselves, Yale, Amherst, and Wesleyan. The Catamounts went 1-2 and were eliminated in the first round.
Then, things started going on a downward spiral for the University. Over the next four seasons, the Catamounts only posted one winning season. No longer did the team win games against the top Ivy League schools and against the Cuban Giants, a team Vermont dominated in the Abbey Era; the team went 4-8-1 during that stretch. The Catamounts no longer were even the top team in their own state and never brought a future major leaguer in that time. The low point of the era was in 1902, when the team went 2-12, with their only wins coming in a pair of 4-3 victories over Syracuse.
The team started to turn things around in 1904, posting its best record, 15-5-1, since Abbey left the University. However, powers like Dartmouth, Yale, and Harvard were replaced on the schedule with weaker opponents such as Colgate, U of Rochester, and RPI. The fact was that the team could no longer compete with the muscles in college baseball and their schedule reflected that.
In 1905, the team got a boost from an unexpected transfer. Notre Dame star pitcher/outfielder Ed Reulbach was playing in the Northern League during the summer of 1904 when he met his future wife, Nellie. Wanting to be closer to his newfound love, Reulbach transferred to the University of Vermont medical school. Reulbach turned out to be possibly the best all-around player ever to don a Catamount uniform, despite only being there for a half a season. He pitched, he played leftfield, he batted clean-up; he did everything for the â€™05 team until his departure. After shutting out Syracuse 1-0 on May 12th, Reulbach got a call from the Chicago Cubs. That same night, he boarded a train to New York to meet his new teammates on the road.
The Catamounts were 9-1 at the time of Reulbachâ€™s departure and would end up finishing the season 16-6. What would happen in 1906 was anyoneâ€™s guess. It would be the beginning of a new era for the U of Vermont with a new stadium opening up and two new recruits who could really play the game of baseball.