220811ind History

In the summer of 1936, the NK Bulldogs, also known as the Allenton Club of North Kingstown, had a remarkable run to a championship title in the Southern Rhode Island Men’s baseball league.

Over the years that I have been studying on the history of our fair town, I’ve been blessed to have encountered quite a collection of artifacts that have silently spoken volumes about those that came before us. Old photographs, diaries, scrapbooks, and the like that have been conduits that carry me to times long past. I’ve seen numerous grand old homes, and they, along with all the things that were once in them, have taken me back to days only dimly remembered. These last few years though, I’ve been blessed to spend time with these ancient baseball uniforms, three quarters of a century old woolen jerseys that, as clean as they are, still reek of the past. Indeed when I hold them close I can close my eyes and sense a warm summer day, maybe even the smell of popcorn and the sounds of the Lafayette Band playing in the background, their melodious tones overwhelmed by the cadence of a roaring crowd of spectators. You see these baseball jerseys, worn with pride by Fred E. “Mutt” Matteson, are wool-woven time machines that take us back to the “glory days” of baseball in South County, back to a time when the best game in town, short of the major leagues themselves, was played right here in the old Southern Rhode Island Men’s League which ran from the 1890s right up until the closing days of World War II.

You see, back in those days baseball was still king and the old Southern RI League, supported largely by the region’s many textile mills, existed as an avenue to obtain “bragging rights”. Bragging rights for hard working mill hands who felt sure that they were the best ballplayers this side of the Connecticut border. Bragging rights for the villages in which these fellows lived, populated by Town’s folk who deserved something to feel rightfully proud of. And ultimately bragging rights for the mill owner elite for whom everything, even baseball, was an opportunity to get one up on their otherwise neighborly competitors. According to my predecessor, South County historian Oliver Steadman, the competition between the Hazard’s of Wakefield/Peacedale and the mill owners in North Kingstown — the Rodmans, Greenes, and Currys — got so extreme that these well-heeled industrialists often “hired” ringers from the major leagues and put them on their mill payrolls. In the first decade of the 20th century for instance, after the Hazards added a number of Brooklyn players to their team, the NK mill owner’s countered by hiring Philadelphia Athletics pitcher Andy Coakley and his favorite catcher to pitch against their counterparts from the Brooklyn Nationals. Heck, no Hazard was going to “one-up” a Rodman, you can bet your bottom dollar on that!

So as you can imagine, in an age before television, in a time when folks once relished the opportunity to get together and spend time with their neighbors and friends, these games were well-attended, hard-fought extravaganzas, replete with peanut and popcorn vendors, brass bands, and even the occasional fisticuff in the stands. Hundreds of folks crammed the bleachers at old Mountain Field in Wakefield, at the Allenton ball field in North Kingstown, at Guersey Park in Shannock, and at the ball field in East Greenwich each and every weekend. Usually, the Championship Series — a best-of-three contest — boasted each and every year of attendances approaching one thousand baseball loving South County-ites, urging their hometown team on to a championship.

In the season of 1936, the Allenton Club of North Kingstown, who called themselves the NK Bulldogs, had a banner year. These guys, seen in the accompanying photograph, went 16-5 and found themselves playing in the League Championship against a very tough team from Hope Valley. The best-of-three series went four games, due to a tie game that was called because of darkness, and when the dust settled The NK Bulldogs were the South County League Champions.  Bragging rights for a whole year for the many North Kingstown mill villages whose men made up the team!

Fred ‘Mutt” Matteson, a multi-purpose athlete who played pitcher, catcher, infield, and outfield, would play in the league for seven more seasons, and then go on to coach Little League teams for several years more, including the team of youngsters sponsored by his final employer, the Hamilton Web Company. Baseball was in his blood and it was a part of his life, a facet of his very soul, for as long as he lived. He had a lot of good years with that old hickory stick on his shoulder that’s for sure. But few of them measured up to that glory season of 1936.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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