By Bill Simons
It is Shabbat, Saturday, June 26, 2021. Dozens of hasidic women, children and men walk the streets and pathways. The women are dressed conservatively, and the men, with side curls and beards, are, despite the advent of summer, attired in traditional, black-brimmed hats and long coats. Although the scene evokes images of Hasidic neighborhoods in Brooklyn, this is Fleischmanns, a small, hilltop town in the Catskill region of New York state. With disinterest, the Chasidic families pass by a baseball game on the M.A.C. Graounds at Fleischmanns Park.
The ballplayers are also uniformed in identifying clothing and hats. The Chasidim and the ballplayers both look as though time portals had transported them from another century to an annual summer encampment in Fleischmanns. While the Chasidic attire and rituals are more venerable, the ballplayers, eschewing the last 126 years of the game’s evolution, play and dress by 1895 protocols. Despite their physical proximity, the Chasidim and the ballplayers appear to exist in totally separate spheres of reality, marked by rigid, if invisible, boundaries that prevent them from seeing one another. Nonetheless, a strong Jewish component resonates through the ballplayers’ field of dreams.
Accompanied by family, the Jewish Fleischmann brothers, Julius and Max, scions of a yeast and whiskey empire, Ohio political powerbrokers and part-owners of the Cincinnati Reds, found relief from blistering Midwestern summers in the locale that now bears their surname. Bringing their baseball passion to the Catskills, the brothers, circa 1895, founded and played for the original Mountain Athletic Club. They built, enclosed and groomed a ballfield, initially time stamped by modest grandstands. Several future major leaguers played on that field. In 1914, the park was donated to the village.
M.A.C. Grounds at Fleischmanns Park and the Mountain Athletic Club experienced ups and downs in subsequent decades, paralleling the village’s own ascent and decline as a Jewish summer resort. Former Fleischmanns mayors Dave Morell and Todd Pascrella, now an M.A.C. leftfielder, revived the Mountain Athletic Club. But in 2011, Hurricane Irene flood waters submerged M.A.C. Grounds, rendering a proud baseball heritage dormant for the next six years.
The post-2017 revival of the M.A.C. field and team was an ecumenical enterprise led by the indefatigable Collin “Stumpy” Miller, who serves as muse, fund-raiser, publicist, historian, recruiter, manager, scorekeeper, grounds crew and centerfielder. Miller credits the formidable research assistance provided by SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) and John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball – and the son of Jewish Holocaust survivors who found pleasantries in Fleischmann’s mid-20th century resort hotels – in earning the M.A.C. Grounds recognition on both the New York state and national historic registers of notable places. When Miller presided over the unveiling of the M.A.C. Grounds roadside marker on May 29, 2021, the Star of David was visible in the stained-glass windows of the adjacent Congregation Bnai Israel sanctuary.
The June 26 game is the second home game of the 2021 season for the Mountain Athletic Club. It is a picture-perfect day, ideal weather for baseball. The Mountain Athletic Club and the visiting Delhi, NY, team dress and play in the authentic 1895 style, meaning that certain rules are at variance with those of today. Chalk records inning-by-inning runs on the wooden scoreboard.
Player beards are common, but gloves are not. Save for the substantial catcher’s mitt, the few fielding gloves donned have no more padding than a garden glove. The wooden bats are less tapered than those of today. The ball is squishy and sometimes thrown to the first baseman on a bounce.
Although there is no admission charge at M.A.C. Grounds, donations, refreshment purchases and a raffle raise money for the local volunteer fire department. Aluminum bleachers provide limited seating, prompting most of the 80 or so spectators to perch on their own portable, folding lawn chairs or stand.
The June 26 game is one-sided in terms of outcome. The Mountain Athletic Club tops Delhi 31-6. Make no mistake, however: it is a well-played, exciting vintage game, robust, but gentlemanly. The game provides pleasant respite in the baseball world of 1895. The fans are family-friendly and voluble. And the hot dogs and cold beer at the concession stand are reasonably priced.
There is one Jewish player on the Mountain Athletic Club, Nate Fish. Even at age 41, he is a dominant athletic presence. Most of the players look as though they might have been good high school players in their youth – and now well practiced in vintage baseball. Fish, however, has played the game on the collegiate, professional and Olympic levels. He is currently a coach for the 2021 Olympics Israel National Team.
A muscular, black-bearded, confident 6-footer, Nate looks good at the plate, on the bases and in the field. He scores four of the Mountain Athletic Club’s runs on June 26. And Nate hits the longest ball of the day, a rising line drive into the trees separating centerfield from Wanger Avenue. Branches knock the ball back into the park and under field rules it counts as a ground-rule double.
Nate plays eight errorless games at shortstop, exhibiting good fielding range and a strong arm. And he is baseball smart. After preventing a well-placed ground ball from scooting through the infield, Nate found himself off balance. He stopped himself from making an immediate throw and instead waited until regaining balance before making the toss to first base. After the game, I commented to Nate that a less experienced player, anxious about the runner approaching first base, would have made the throw while still sprawled on the ground. Nate responded that veteran players possess an “internal clock” on the field.
In the ninth inning, Nate took the mound to pitch. He ended the game by striking out a Delhi batsman.
Charismatic and singular, Nate terms his distinctive hairstyle a “Mohawk Covid” cut. There is a lot more to the story of Nate Fish, the onetime “King of Jewish Baseball,” much of it relevant to his Jewishness and some of it bordering on the fantastical. That tale will provide color for my next Reporter column.
Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.