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Baseball: The historic route to normality

In the midst of the Spanish flu pandemic, residents of the Eagle Valley found comfort in America's pastime

Kathy Heicher
Special to the Daily
The Eagle baseball team played the semi-pro Denver Bears in September, 1915. In the front row, left to right, are catcher Eddie Place and pitcher Bill Nimon. Middle row: Leo Carey, an unidentified player from Minturn, Roy Dodson, and Frank Stapp. Back row: Loyd Carey, Omar Howland, Roy Langford, and Charley Hemberger (from Red Cliff).
Courtesy Eagle County Historical Society/Eagle Valley Library District

In the summer of 1919 citizens of the Eagle Valley, like the rest of the country, were overwhelmed. The terrible “war to end all wars,” World War I, had just ended when the Spanish Influenza pandemic arrived. The miners and ranchers in the valley desperately needed a break from death and bad news.

Their solution: baseball.

A return to the community’s favorite sport during a time of crisis offered the illusion of normality.

“How about a baseball team in Eagle this year? There’s no reason why Eagle should not be on the baseball map,” goaded the Eagle Valley Enterprise on April 11, 1919, noting Eagle had not fielded a team the previous year (probably because the young men were off to war), resulting in a “dull summer” for everybody.

“We have never met a dishonest umpire, but have seen some awful bad ones.” — Eagle Valley Enterprise, April 23, 1909

Times were tough for baseball. Even Major League baseball had been forced to reduce its 1918 schedule in order to protect the health of players and spectators.

Baseball first came to Eagle County with the mining boom of the late 1800s and quickly became a beloved summer tradition in the valley. Every community fielded a team. Fans and players turned out in good or bad weather, traveling washed-out roads and outwaiting derailed trains in order to get to the games. The rivalries were fierce, and fun.

A mallard locomotive steams past the Red Cliff baseball field in 1917.
Courtesy Eagle County Historical Society/Eagle Valley Library District

The Eagle County Blade newspaper reported on a July 4, 1899  baseball match in Eagle between the Eagle Irrigators and the Red Cliff Dwellers. The score was close for seven innings, then Eagle surged ahead for an 18-11 win.

The Cliff Dwellers fans handled their loss in a traditional way: They blamed the umpire, who “was apparently not up to date on the rules of baseball.” The newspaper also suggested that the prowess of the Cliff Dwellers was hurt by the lack of beer at the Eagle ballfield.

Denver Bears versus Eagle

Probably the biggest moment in Eagle Valley baseball occurred on Sept. 15, 1915, when the Denver Bears, a minor league team, made a short-notice trip to the valley to play the Eagle baseball team. Most likely the Bears were scouting the local baseball star, Will Nimon, whom many believed had potential as a big-league pitcher. Nimon was so sought after by other ball clubs that he could command a $25 per day fee when playing away from his home team.

Given just a couple of days to prepare for the big game, the Eagle team, which had not played for a month, recruited a ringer from the Red Cliff team, Charles Hemberger. Gameday arrived cold and rainy. The local ranchers, scrambling to harvest potatoes before the freeze, could not attend. Only a small crowd turned out.

Omar Howland was a ranch hand who loved baseball, and played for Eagle from 1912-1918. He also worked at the zinc mine in Gilman, and as a deputy sheriff and courthouse custodian.
Courtesy Eagle County Historical Society/Eagle Valley Library District

The Bears dominated, winning 7-4, with the locals scoring all of their runs in the last inning. Nimon struck out nine men, while the Bears pitcher struck out seven. The Bears posted 13 hits to the locals’ 10 hits. Hemberger belted two singles and two doubles in four at-bats.

Despite the loss, the locals were elated

“Those who saw the game felt they got their money’s worth, as the Bears are classy ball players and it was a pleasure to see them play … We did not win the game, neither did we expect to, but we gave them a ‘run for the money’ and made them work for their victory,” the Enterprise reported.

Will Nimon never played for the Denver Bears. Despite his athletic talent, he considered baseball merely a pastime. He established a ranch east of Eagle. The community was shocked when Nimon, 26, died on Feb. 25, 1919 after contracting the Spanish influenza, leaving behind his wife and two small children.

As for the summer of 1919, Eagle recruited a baseball team, and persuaded the Town Board to allow fencing of the ballfield in order to keep cattle and horses out. But the local boys did not post a winning season. The team struggled to find a new pitcher comparable to Nimon. The Edwards team, led by pitcher Charles Eaton and his brother Carl, proved to be the 1919 champs of the Eagle River Valley.

Every community in the valley fielded a baseball team. This photo captures a baseball game in Red Cliff in 1929.
Courtesy Eagle County Historical Society/Eagle Valley Library District

Despite their 7-6 loss to Edwards on June 14, 1919, the Eagle baseball fans were happy. “There were many thrills and heart-rending plays in the game, and the fans were given a good run for their money,” reported the Enterprise, predicting that the ballpark would be filled for the next match between Edwards and Eagle.

And for a few hours during troubled times, the baseball players and their fans could believe the world was normal.

Kathy Heicher is president of the Eagle County Historical Society and author of several local history books. Email her at kheicher@gmail.com.


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