Babe Didrikson’s visit to the North Country in 1934 was historic, especially for Plattsburgh, where it was acknowledged as one of the greatest moments in the city’s history. She was an American hero (thanks to a startling performance in the 1932 Olympics), undeniably one of the world’s top athletes, and a phenomenon because of her high levels of talent in various sports. Plattsburgh’s remote location in New York’s northeast corner makes it difficult to get noticed, so Didrikson’s visit was regarded as a major coup.
Coincidentally, she wasn’t the only Babe from the stratosphere of sports fame to visit Plattsburgh in the 1930s. Even more unlikely is that both Babes were among the most famous athletes in America, and both were able competitors in sports other than the one that brought them the greatest fame. Didrikson, a track-and-field gold medalist, brought her basketball team to Plattsburgh, while Babe Ruth, a baseball giant, came north to play in an international golf tournament. » Continue Reading.
The rector of his Bolton Landing parish, as well as his own father, concluded early that Chet Ross had nothing on his mind but baseball. “I was like a hound dog,” said Ross. “I only went home when I was hungry.”
That dedication allowed Ross to avoid trouble – he never once appeared before his uncle, Bolton Town Justice Jim Ross – and, more important, it enabled him to become one of Warren County’s finest pitchers ever.
Including all the details would surely require a hefty tome, but a look at one particular season provides insight on who he was and where his baseball wisdom was rooted. For that, there’s no better year than 1950.
Prior to that time, George, who hailed from the family farm in Evans Mills, northeast of Watertown, was an excellent athlete. At the age of sixteen, he was playing shortstop for a men’s team in the local Adirondack League, rapping out a double and triple in the team’s first playoff game. At seventeen, he led the Evans Mills High School basketball team as a guard. » Continue Reading.
George Kissell, a native of Evans Mills, about eight miles northeast of Watertown, is one of the most famous sports figures you’ve never heard of – unless maybe if you’re a St. Louis Cardinals fan. Conversely, here are some baseball names you might be familiar with: Earl Weaver, Tony LaRussa, Steve Carlton, Joe Torre, Whitey Herzog, Sparky Anderson, Don Zimmer – and to go way back, let’s include Branch Rickey.
For a bit of perspective, listen to what they had to say about George Kissell (who is in no way related to the recent troubles in the Cardinals organization). Hall of Famer Earl Weaver called him one of the biggest influences on Weaver’s career. In Tony LaRussa’s first press conference after being voted into the Hall of Fame, Kissell was mentioned as a primary influence in his baseball life. Another Hall of Famer, Joe Torre, did the same, having noted earlier that, “Kissell taught me more baseball than anybody I’ve ever met in my life.” » Continue Reading.
If you’ve ever been to a professional baseball game, you’ll recall certain things: the food, the camaraderie among like-minded fans, exciting plays on the field, and the overall feeling of enjoyment. And remember that professional doesn’t necessarily mean major league. It also applies to the minor leagues, where, at least in my opinion, all those things are even more enjoyable, especially in Single-A ball. Watching the Geneva Cubs and other teams back in the 1980s in the Finger Lakes region is one of my all-time favorite baseball experiences. » Continue Reading.
Perspective. It is a singular word that can determine a life’s path, quality, and value to others. Those born to all manner of social and financial advantage, but with little change or improvement during their own lifetimes, can be perceived as relative failures, while those who strive to overcome physical, mental, or financial handicaps are viewed as accomplished, no matter what their ultimate achievement might be.
By that measure, one of the most successful citizens to ever have graced the North Country is largely unknown. He was an ordinary man blessed with athletic talent, and raised in a family of outstanding musicians. In the end, it was courage that defined him. Dean Clute was born in Morristown, New York, on the shores of the St. Lawrence River in October 1893. The fourth of Amos and Henrietta Clute’s seven children, he was an average boy who enjoyed the usual pursuits along the river, as well as in Nicholville, a small settlement in the town of Hopkinton where the family lived for many years.
They also lived in Potsdam, but for most of Dean’s teen years the family resided in Ogdensburg. There he attained a measure of local fame for his skill on the baseball field. After high school, he found work on a Great Lakes lighthouse tender, a ship charged with servicing and maintaining the region’s lighthouses.
Among the many ports he visited was Rochester, and in June 1912, a marriage license was issued there to Dean Clute, 18, and Eva McLennan, 25, a girl with family in Ogdensburg. The two soon married, but just seven months later, in January 1913, Eva passed away at home. (It’s likely she died during childbirth. Dean told interviewers years later that he married at 18 but had lost his wife and child on the same day.)
It was an enormous tragedy to endure, but Dean soldiered on. Eventually he found work in a profession he knew quite well: baseball. Over six feet tall and sturdily built, he immersed himself in the sport and became a pitcher of wide repute in Buffalo, Rochester, and Watertown.
Manager John Ganzel (of Michigan’s famed Ganzel baseball family) liked what he saw and signed Dean to play for the Rochester Hustlers of the International League in 1914. This was no small shakes—the International League was Triple-A ball, just one step below the major leagues. Things were once again looking pretty good for the boy from Morristown.
Prior to the season, though, and less than a year after losing his wife and child, Dean began experiencing unusual aches and pains. The diagnosis was arthritis, a disease not generally associated with young, strong, twenty-year-old athletes.
And this was no ordinary case. The effects were so sudden and so debilitating that Dean was unable to honor his baseball contract. He visited several doctors and treatment centers, but no one could do anything to arrest the arthritic attack that seemed bent on consuming his body.
Within a year he was confined to a wheelchair, and as the disease progressed, Dean became bedridden. He moved to Watertown where he could be with family (his father and brother had established a successful contracting business there and built several commercial structures).
After three years of focusing on his own suffering and watching his limbs become gnarled and useless, Clute had an epiphany. His body was dying, but his mind was as clear as ever—so why not use it? His eyes could still move, which meant he could read, even if he needed someone to turn the pages for him. And so he began to read voraciously, ranging from philosophy to the great classics of literature.
As Dean’s condition deteriorated, it became apparent that home care was insufficient to meet his ever-growing needs. In 1922 he moved to New York City in hopes of finding a cure. Within two years, younger brother Walton (twin of Wilton) joined him there.
Despite every effort on his behalf, Dean’s health continued to decline, and by 1924 he was forced to enter City Hospital on Welfare Island (it was renamed Roosevelt Island in 1973). At various times Welfare Island hosted hospitals, insane asylums, and prisons. City Hospital housed hundreds of poor and chronically ill patients who were unable to care for themselves. Dean Clute, almost completely paralyzed from head to toe, had nowhere else to turn.
More than anything else, it appeared he had gone there to die. The loss of his wife and child, the disappointment of a sports career cruelly snatched away from him, and now a virtual prisoner within his own body—it was almost too much for any man to bear.
And then it got worse. In the hospital, Dean had maintained his heavy reading program, which seemed to be all he had left to live for. But arthritis, as cold-blooded and brutal as many other diseases, wasn’t content with paralysis. Clute soon developed problems with his vision, and as the condition worsened, he was given the stunning diagnosis: total blindness was inevitable.
Doctors told him it would happen in a year, perhaps two. How much could one man take? For Dean, even suicide was impossible—he couldn’t move! And yet ending it all was never a consideration.
His reaction to certain loss of vision was to ramp up his reading program and consume every bit of knowledge possible in the time he had left. The one-time athlete had surrendered to physical helplessness, but he existed within a brain still vibrant with energy. Dean’s growing intellect was now insatiable, and he read like a man possessed.
By 1926, after two years at City Hospital, total blindness enveloped him. His life now consisted of darkness and immobility—virtually every person’s nightmare scenario.
But there was that word again: Perspective. Dean focused on what he COULD do rather than what he couldn’t. He could still talk and he could still learn.
Next week: Part 2 of 3.
Photo: Dean Van Clute with two attendants. The inset in the upper right is a closeup of Dean’s face (1932).
Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.
Baseball and blooms are both in full season, so we’ll let Christy Mathewson field the July wildflower date observations (May and June lists here and here).
The following notes are verbatim from a hand-written list compiled by the pitcher in 1922, when the charter Hall-of-Famer was in Saranac Lake trying to recover from tuberculosis. He died there in 1925. July 2 Water Avens Yarrow or Sneezewort (White Rays, also Pink Rays!!!!!) Common Milkweed Indian Poke or False Hellebore Purple Flowering Raspberry Fireweed; Great Willow Herb July 4 Cow Parsnip July 5 Common Elder Yellow Avens or Field Avens July 12 Great Mullein Meadowsweet St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum) Bull Thistle Common Parsnip yellow July 15 Day Lily (H. fulva) July 16 Water Lily: Water Nymph Maiden Pink (D. Deltoides) Yellow Loosestrife (Lysmachia terrictris) July 17 Canada Thistle Early Goldenrod (S. juncea) Loosestrife (in swamp) (Lysimachia stricta?) Broad-leaved Arrow Head Joe Pye Weed Shinleaf Daisy Fleabane? Lance-leaved Goldenrod Hardhack: Steeple Bush (S. tomentosa) Chicory? Asparagus July 20 Catnip Blue Vervain Bellflower (C. rapunculoides, Linn) Tansy, Bitter Buttons Elecampane Bouncing Bet July 22 Pickerel Weed (P. cordata) Narrow-leaved Arrow Head Ladies Tresses Jewel-weed: Spotted Touch-me-not Monkey Flower July 22 Blue Aster (A. sagittifolius?) Potato (Irish) Lettuce (L. interfrifolia? purplish) Turtlehead (C. glebra) July 24 Water parsnip Golden Ragwort – Squaweed Smaller Purple-fringed Orchis Monkey Flower (M. Ringens) Ladies Tresses (S. ceruns) July 26 Dalibarda (D. repens) Fetid Currant Pipsissewa or Princess Pine Common Evening Primrose (Oe. biennis?) July 31 Bedstraw (Galium triflorum) Mad-dog Skullcap (S. lateriflora) White Aster (A. acummatus and umbelatus) August 1 Bedstraw (G. asprillum) Bottle Gentian Wild Cucumber, Wild Balsam Apple August 3 Skullcap (S. galericulata) Bladderwort (U. vulgaris) August 4 Climbing false buckwheat
Some of the common plant names Mathewson noted have faded from use in this region (hardhack, sneezwort, wild balsam apple). My posthumous crush on this guy deepens every time I look at his list. His excitement over pink rays in the yarrow (!!!!!) and uncertainty over a species of primrose (?) are endearing. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary pro athlete taking such careful notice of the natural world.
Photo: Christy Mathewson attends a town league game in Saranac Lake, 1920s. Courtesy of Historic Saranac Lake.
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