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Passamonte, Mount Morris fete pro baseball’s first star

scottteaser-215x160Gary Passamonte is like a pesky hitter who keeps fouling off pitches in hopes of eventually getting one he can smack for the game-winning hit. In this metaphor, his prolonged at-bat is a cause he’s pursued for nearly three decades. The Mount Morris native is determined that a long-dead guy from his Livingston County hometown finally receives his due.

And that is why Passamonte continues hacking away, dreaming that one day Ross Barnes will be immortalized in bronze at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

“If I were a betting man, I’d probably bet against me,’’ said the retired postmaster. “But I’m not going to give up the fight because Ross belongs in the Hall.”

Passamonte’s personal crusade traces to the summer of 1987 when folks in Mount Morris finally got around to dedicating a monument to native son Francis Bellamy. The author of the “Pledge of Allegiance” certainly was worthy of immortalization in stone, but his long overdue recognition also prompted mention of another fellow from that town 45 miles southwest of Rochester who had been forgotten by history.

At the same time Passamonte and others pledged their allegiance to Bellamy, long-time Democrat and Chronicle reporter Bob Bickel lamented what a shame it was that Barnes, professional baseball’s first superstar, hadn’t received his due in his own hometown with a plaque or a scholarship in his name.

“I read with great interest what Bob had to say about Barnes, but I kind of pushed it aside because I had something bigger in mind,’’ Passamonte said. “I started campaigning for Barnes to be enshrined in Cooperstown, and I figured we could do something in our town after he was inducted. But it’s been an uphill battle, so we finally decided to take care of first things first.”

And, so, Saturday morning, a monument to Barnes, who hit the first home run in National League history and batted above .400 four times, will be unveiled near Bellamy’s. It is a two-sided granite memorial with a portrait on the front and a full-body etching on the reverse side, along with text about Barnes’ roots and baseball superlatives. The top of the monument has been left blank for a Hall of Fame induction date in the event Passamonte’s ultimate dream comes true.

“It might seem like I’m biased because I’m from his hometown, but there are baseball historians with no connection to Mount Morris who agree with me,’’ he said. “Author David Nemec devoted an entire chapter to Barnes in one of his books; called him baseball’s first big star. Some have compared him to Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner. There are members of SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) who have gotten on board. And SABR’s influence on Hall of Fame worthiness has been growing. So, maybe there’s a glimmer of hope.”

That the 60-year-old Passamonte would become smitten with Barnes’ legacy isn’t surprising, considering the hometown connection and Gary’s passion for baseball. He was a pretty fair player himself, once striking out 21 batters in a seven-inning Pony League game and pitching and batting his Mount Morris varsity team into the Section V championship game as a sophomore. But it wasn’t until the late 1980s that he became familiar with Barnes. An article by a local historian piqued his interest, and soon he was collecting original photographs of Barnes and journeying to Cooperstown to research him and other significant 19th century baseball figures.

What he discovered was a player who dominated the game the way his idol, Sandy Koufax, had in the early 1960s. Barnes won two batting titles while helping the Boston Red Stockings to four consecutive National Association titles. Then, after joining the Chicago White Stockings, in 1876—the National League’s inaugural season—he dominated baseball, leading the league in batting (.429), hits, runs scored, doubles, triples, walks, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He also was a fearless base runner and a superb fielding second baseman at a time when that position was as significant as the modern-day shortstop.

Additionally, Barnes became so proficient at the fair-foul hit that baseball adopted a rule banishing it.

“Imgaine that,’’ Passamonte said. “That would be like having to move the fences back in today’s game because one guy was hitting too many home runs.”

Unfortunately, for Barnes, his career was cut short by a mysterious illness, and he became a shell of himself in the three seasons following his spirited ’76 campaign. He played just nine years in the big leagues, but dominated in six of those seasons, finishing with a lifetime .360 average in an era before the widespread use of gloves.

“Admittedly, .400 was more commonplace than in the modern era, but he was the only one to do it as many times as he did, and one year he batted 60 points higher than the second-place finisher, so that speaks to his dominance,’’ Passamonte said. “In that respect he was like Koufax, dominant for a six-year span.”

Despite his mastery, Barnes remains a long-shot. He probably would need the Hall of Fame to convene a committee of 19th century experts, the way it did several years ago for the Negro Leagues, when a bunch of players, managers and executives were inducted en masse.

“I’m not holding my breath,’’ Passamonte said. “But you can’t give up hope.”

A century and two years after Barnes died at age 64, he finally is getting his due in his hometown, thanks to the tireless efforts of Passamonte and SABR member David Stalker, a Wisconsin resident who several years ago began a memorial series to erect monuments to pioneering players and teams.

“It’s been nice to see the way Mount Morris residents and businesses and David have gotten behind this,’’ Passamonte said. “Even if we don’t get Ross into the Hall of Fame, future generations here will know about him, and that’s really gratifying.”

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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