Mangled Forms

From "Play's the Thing, The Woodstock Times, July 29, 2004:

Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge University mathematician, is famous in this country for his best-selling if little-read Brief History of Time and for his role in an episode of The Simpsons. On July 21, 2004, in a paper to the 17th International Conference on General Relativity and Gravitation in Dublin, he recanted his long-held theory that black holes destroy all the “information” they consume, reporting instead that these collapsed stars spit out matter and energy “in a mangled form.” With this tilt back to the mainstream of quantum physics he also settled a bet he had made in 1997 with Caltech astrophysicist John Preskill, who had insisted that matter consumed by black holes could not be destroyed. The loser was to provide the winner with the encyclopedia of the winner’s choice, a repository of either indestructible or migratory information.

At the conference Dr. Hawking presented Professor Preskill with the reference work he requested—Total Baseball, which I have edited through eight editions since 1989—after having it expressed to the Dublin conference from the U.S. “I had great difficulty in finding one over here,” Hawking told reporters, “so I offered him an encyclopedia of cricket as an alternative but John wouldn't be persuaded of the superiority of cricket.”

A few days before the conference, appearing on the British Broadcasting Corp.’s Newsnight program, Hawking tiptoed around the major announcement he planned for Dublin. “A black hole only appears to form but later opens up and releases information about what fell inside,” he indicated. “So we can be sure of the past and predict the future.” This remark has set me to thinking.

Fleischmanns, New York, is an appealingly forlorn spot 30 minutes from Woodstock and 50 if not 100 years from the rest of America. Its old-fashioned Catskills summers—fresh air, cool mountain nights, porch sitting, ball playing, swimming, and dozing off in lawn chairs—have been swallowed up in this country’s black hole of visceral diversion, cheap transport, and festive biodomes in steamy locales uninhabitable before the advent of contrived cold air. In Fleischmanns the mangled evidence of its former glories has not yet become unrecognizable; on the contrary, the eerie remains of grand hotels and the burnt offerings of desperate arsons form the spur to memory. In this somewhat remote place, determined individuals and families who love the old ways are working to be sure of the past; the extent of their success will indeed predict the future of Fleischmanns and so many other communities whose histories, if properly understood and conveyed, are their principal assets.

John Duda is one such person. As a trustee of the Skene Memorial Library (a handsome 1902 building on Main Street) and the Greater Fleischmanns Museum of Memories, a granny’s-attic barn alongside the library, he proudly rummaged through some of the museum’s treasures. Billheads, photographs, postcards, scorecards, tools, menus—all attested to a vibrant Fleischmanns whose permanent population ca. 1940 reached 500 (today it is 351); but by the Fourth of July back then, it was said there would be 10,000 folks in town. While recent summers have brought no trainloads of tourists, Mr. Duda loves the Fleischmanns that was and, while he works toward the community that might be, it was plain that he loved the Fleischmanns that is.

And so do I. I loved it when I was 5, vacationing at a local bungalow colony with my extended family, and I loved it two decades later, when it was time for me to leave New York City with my wife and four-month-old son and look for a new home in the old Catskills. The swarms of tourists were gone, but I figured the mountains were still there, so was the air, and one could make out pretty well on a small purse. While I live there no longer, the place still tugs at me whenever I visit. For years the onset of spring—which in our household meant the chance to play, watch, and chatter about baseball—was not assured until my sons and I drove up to Fleischmanns—gloves, bat and ball in the trunk—to cavort on the field along Wagner Avenue where we knew Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb and other major leaguers had once played (either as autumn hunting guests of the Fleischmann brothers or as ringers brought in for the semi-pro team they sponsored). Local legend had it that the elders of Fleischmanns named the Avenue for Honus Wagner, but that has since proven to be apocryphal.

Julius and Max Fleischmann came to this community to escape the heat of Cincinnati summers around 1883, when it was called Griffin Corners. (The newly incorporated village was renamed “Fleischmanns” in 1913, after the family’s donation of the ballfield.) Their father, Charles, who had founded the Fleischmanns distilling and yeast companies, had just bought land west of the village near the Ulster & Delaware railroad station. The Fleischmanns and their friends soon built summer homes that were the stuff of fantasy, with porches, turrets, and terraces and costly interior trappings; the Fleischmanns’ grounds included a deer park, a riding stable, a heated pool filled with spring water, and a trout pond. Jewish families—not welcome in many respectable hotels of the region, despite their wealth and stature in New York City—flocked to the new hotels that also sprang up in the region. Entertainment was provided by Broadway and operatic stars of the first rank, furloughed for part of the summer because of the city’s heat. Some, like Julia Marlowe and Amelita Galli Curci, built fine summer homes in the hills.

Julius joined his father’s firm out of prep school and by age 28 he was elected mayor of Cincinnati in 1900; his popularity won him a second term as well. He and older brother Max became principal owners of the Cincinnati Reds in 1902, and they even had, secretly, a piece of the Philadelphia Phillies, too, a breach of baseball law even in those lawless days. But the Fleischmann brothers, for all their success back in Cincinnati, were active sportsmen first and foremost—polo players, yachtsmen, hunters, and would-be baseball players. In the summer, away from their home town, they had no way to see or play their beloved game. So, anticipating the movie Field of Dreams, they built a fine ballgrounds (by 1903 it could accommodate 5,000 spectators) and started up a team; as if it were just another trout pond, they stocked the Mountain Athletic Club—also known as the Mountain Tourists—with the best players they could buy, generally professionals or high-caliber collegians willing to play under pseudonyms that would safeguard their amateur eligibility. Honus Wagner may not have given his name to the avenue beside the playing field, but he did play with the Fleischmanns club in 1895 along with Max Fleischmann, who did the best he could in the outfield. (Manager of that team was Harry M. Stevens of Niles, Ohio, who five years later would wrap a frankfurter in a bun and, after seeing cartoonist Tad Dorgan’s characterization of the wiener as a dachshund, call it a hot dog.) In the first years of the new century, the Fleischmanns club featured such future major leaguers as Miller Huggins (playing as “Proctor,”) Red Dooin, Doc White, Jiggs Donahue, Barney McFadden, George Rohe, and Kingston-born Pete Cregan.

The New York Sun of July 12, 1900 observed that the Mountain Athletic Club “diamond is at the base of the mountains and the field has been laid out with no sparing of expense. The grounds are inclosed [sic] with a wire-netting fence and there is a small grand stand, which is always devoted to the Messrs. Fleischmanns’ guests. Guarantees, as much as $150 a game, are paid to the clubs to play there, irrespective of the small gate receipts. The players are quartered at a first-class hotel, and are serenaded by a band once a week.”

On August 10, 1903 the Mountain A.C. played at home against the famous Cuban Giants, who featured Bill Galloway at 2B. He was the last African-American to play in an integrated professional league (for Woodstock of the Canadian League in 1899) until Jackie Robinson. The “Cubans” were held to one run by the Fleischmanns’ pitcher, “Goldburg.” Jews summered in Fleischmanns because they were excluded from other, tonier resorts; blacks had to play on teams of their own because they were excluded from both the major and minor leagues. This was an oddly emblematic contest.

Although the Catskills region may have exhibited more tolerance than other locales, its appetite for diversity was no greater. There were the Jewish Catskills (and among these, pockets devoted to specific national clientele: Rumanian, Hungarian, Austrian, German, etc.). There were Irish Catskills. There were Italian Catskills. Oh, there still are such designated areas, but the national pursuit of homogenization and standardization has robbed them of authentic flavor.

In any event, the era of the grand hotel—atop Highmount or tucked in the hills along the Delaware River—is forever gone at Fleischmanns, and hurtling along toward its exit in Sullivan County. An arson epidemic, not all of it inspired by insurance fraud, robbed the region of many fine buildings (remember the Catskill Mountain House?) that might have been reclaimed by later generations, more attuned to the economic and psychic value of preservation. The question must be asked: In the absence of tangible ruin, how can we “be sure of the past and predict the future,” in Stephen Hawking’s words?

A pilgrimage to the site of the Takanassee Hotel in Fleischmanns, scorched or torched in 1971, reveals a fantastic remnant. Two massive stone pillars along the roadside invite the pilgrim to a broad vista of parched earth, bulldozed up the hill to where the hotel once stood. Where the clearing efforts appear to have ceased, nature has begun to reclaim her ancient right of way. Walk a little into the overgrowth, past the incongruous concrete slab and there!—in the sacred wood—a vast reservoir, filled to the rim, with fat fish swimming lazily amid the wrecked lumber tossed in long ago. This was the hallmark of the Takanassee—the famously huge swimming pool, 275 feet long, nearly a football field, and 145 feet wide. Information mangled beyond recognition, yet with the aid of memory, revivified.


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