Like many sportswriters and fans, I easily get sucked into Mount Rushmore debates. If you could choose only four people to carve into your favorite team’s version of the mountainous presidents’ statue in the Black Hills of South Dakota, who would you choose? Who would be your equivalents of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln?
I broach this topic because, this week, in a clever promotion celebrating everything Rochester, the Red Wings are giving their fans mini-statues with likenesses of four of our most famous citizens. The “Mount ROC-more” giveaway features women’s rights champion Susan B. Anthony, famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, photography magnate and philanthropist George Eastman and baseball savior Morrie Silver – each donning a Wings baseball cap from a different era. Yes, you might argue for someone other than Silver—Nathaniel Rochester comes quickly to mind. But for the purposes of this ballpark promotion, Silver fits like a glove. After all, he spearheaded the community stock drive in the late 1950s that kept professional baseball here.
Although Anthony, Douglass and Eastman made their marks in other endeavors, there are indications baseball was a part of their lives, too. Especially Douglass’s.
Interestingly, in one of the scenes from last fall’s marvelous Geva Theatre play, titled “The Agitators,” Douglass and Anthony are shown sitting in the stands at a Rochester baseball park, trying to solve the problems of the world while also sorting through their complex, occasionally contentious friendship. Playwright Mat Smart may have taken some license here, but it’s not a reach to think the two famous activists might have attended a ballgame together.
We know that Douglass was a huge fan of the then-burgeoning national pastime, which had captured the fancy of many Rochesterians prior to the Civil War. In fact, there are newspaper accounts of him attending his sons’ games. Baseball clearly offered Douglass a joyful respite from his much more serious pursuits.
Research by friend Priscilla Astifan and other historians suggests that Frederick Douglass Jr. played baseball with the integrated Charter Oak Juniors as far back at 1859, 88 years before Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball. Astifan unearthed write-ups on microfilm indicating that another Douglass offspring, Charles, played for one of western New York’s all-black teams in the 1860s.
After fighting for the Union in the Civil War, both sons moved to Washington, D.C., where they continued their baseball involvement. Charles became the more accomplished player, starring for The Mutuals, a powerhouse African-American ball club that played two games in Rochester in front of huge crowds in 1870. The following year, the team made the elder Frederick Douglass an honorary member, a designation that pleased him greatly.
There are accounts of women playing “base ball” (two words back then) as far back as the 1830s. Although an Anthony/baseball connection isn’t mentioned, her friend and fellow suffragist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, played on all-women’s teams following the Civil War. Unlike the Douglasses, Stanton didn’t see baseball playing a role in the struggle for equality, but rather as a way for women to achieve physical fitness.
Eastman viewed baseball as a recreational outlet for his Kodak employees. The man who brought photography to the masses developed business ties with the Wings and their predecessors, often staged Kodak nights at the ballpark, in which he purchased blocks of tickets so thousands of his employees and their families could attend games for free.
As mentioned, it doesn’t take much to draw me into Mount Rushmore discussions. So, with that in mind, I offer some “Rushmores” in a variety of categories. Let the debating begin.
- Buffalo Bills: Jim Kelly, Ralph Wilson, Bruce Smith and Marv Levy. Strong cases can be made for Thurman Thomas, O.J. Simpson (the player, not the accused murderer), Andre Reed, Billy Shaw, Joe DeLamielleure, Cookie Gilchrist and Lou Saban.
- Rochester sports: Walter Hagen, Abby Wambach, Johnny Antonelli and Trent Jackson. Hagen and Wambach are no brainers, given their contributions to golf and women’s soccer, respectively. Antonelli is our most accomplished baseball player, a World Series hero and six-time National League All-Star. Jackson was an Olympic sprinter, played in the Rose Bowl and NFL and was an outstanding high school hoops coach. Other candidates: Joe Altobelli, Don Holleder, Cathy Turner, Roosevelt Bouie, John Wallace and Les Harrison.
- Syracuse basketball: Jim Boeheim, Dave Bing, Pearl Washington and Vic Hanson. Tough to leave Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Coleman out, but Hanson was a three-time All-American who led the Orange to a national championship in 1926. He’s also the only person enshrined in both the basketball and college football halls of fame.
- Syracuse football: Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Floyd Little and Ben Schwartzwalder. Have to take care of the three 44s, as well as the coach who put SU football on the map. Other candidates: Donovan McNabb, Tim Green, Dick MacPherson and three-time All-American Joe Alexander.
- New York Yankees: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Numbers 3, 4, 5 and 7. Yogi Berra, Derek Jeter, Whitey Ford, Mariano Rivera, Casey Stengel, Joe McCarthy and Joe Torre are knocking on the door.
- Boston Red Sox: Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez. You could also consider Theo Epstein and Terry Francona since they were the masterminds that ended the “Curse of the Bambino.”
- Buffalo Sabres: Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert, Rick Martin and Dominik Hasek. The French Connection and the Dominator. Not a bad fearsome foursome.
- Classic rock acts: The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger. OK, so it’s not sports, but it’s all right to throw a curve once in a while.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.