The 19-teens were a transitional decade in Delaware sports. A time traveler from the 1990s would feel at home with distinct seasons for baseball, football and basketball, albeit in primitive form. His fellow traveler from the 1890s would still recognize these games as well - before the lively ball, the forward pass and the jump shot - and also find the major sports of his century, trotting and trapshooting, going strong.
Baseball dominated the Delaware sports scene. Pro baseball was sporadic but there were more leagues and teams than at any time in the state’s history. Downstate, where sporting diversions were fewer, baseball was an absolute passion. Some games between ancient rivals Milford and Dover drew as many as 5000 fans, including many taking the train down from Wilmington.
In Wilmington the biggest sports day of the year was Baseball Booster Day which marked the end of the long winter and Opening Day of the baseball season. All the teams displayed their colors in a great parade through the city. There was seldom any question when Opening Day arrived as newspaper headlines screamed: THIS IS THE DAY! BASEBALL BUMPS OTHER THINGS ASIDE.
In football Wilmington High School emerged as the leading pigskinners in the state. Grudge matches with Chester High School were the most anticipated games of the day. Only two of the sports fields in Delaware - outside of Delaware College’s glorious Frazer Field - had stands for football so the games were for real fans only - standing several heads deep and battling the elements.
In women’s sports Ursuline and the YWCA played the first field hockey in Delaware in 1914. That first contest was taken by the Ursulines 4-3 in front of a large gathering at Rockford Park. Elsewhere, women could be seen competing in baseball and basketball.
In basketball dribbling was allowed for the first time and standardized rules enabled more games to be played. The Wilmington Amateur Basketball League formed with eight teams but bowling remained far and away the leading indoor winter sport. Any club that had any room at all installed a few lanes for members.
The roller polo craze died out by 1912 but was soon replaced by indoor quoits as the Delaware sports rage. The Wilmington Fraternal Indoor Quoit League organized in 1914 and all games were witnessed by large crowds. The game caught on so quickly that two more leagues formed within a month and stayed popular through the decade.
During this time Wilmington was still known around the east as “Horsetown” but the trotter was slowly losing its hold on the public’s imagination. In 1915 automobile and motorcycle races became a feature of the Delaware State Fair on the card with the horse races.
For the one-mile race, drivers had to run 100 yards and enter their machines with engines running and circle the 1/2- mile track twice. The winning mile was raced in a fraction over one minute and 24 seconds. Also on the program were three- and five-mile runs.
Even more insidious to traditional sports than the automobile to the horse was the spreading of the population. By the end of the decade both Wawaset Park, begun as Scheutzen Park nearly a half-century before, and the grounds at Front & Union Streets, Wilmington’s leading 19th century sporting grounds, were sacrificed for housing developments. Downstate the Seaford grounds, the most historic sporting field in southern Delaware, was similarly dispatched for building lots. Not twenty years into the new century, Delaware had severed most of its sporting ties to the 1800s.
The Big Noise
In the first decades of the 20th century the two great sporting passions in America were baseball and trapshooting. Naturally it was only a matter of time before the world’s greatest gunpowder concern got into the game. As the dominant supplier of the new smokeless powder E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company maintained a force of 20 men whose sole responsibility was to build up trapshooting clubs across America. And when the DuPont Gun Club organized on November 14, 1910 it was an enterprise befitting Delaware’s leading company.
The clubhouse on the grounds at New Bridge, just beyond Rising Sun, was built at the cost of $3000. President T. Coleman du Pont pledged $200 a year for trophy spoons which became coveted prizes for Delaware marksmen. At the first shoot on December 17 the DuPont Gun Club boasted 100 members; several months later the rolls swelled to over 500.
The first year over 1.3 million targets were broken - more than any trapshooting club in the country. An enterprising young contractor named Harry Carlon reclaimed 23 tons of lead from the DuPont grounds by skimming one inch of soil and putting it through a grinder. He was able to sell his buried treasure for 4.5 cents a pound.
All this shooting produced superior marksmen in Delaware. With Alden “Dal’ Richardson, Billy Foord, Eugene du Pont, J.H. Minnick and Wardlaw Hammond the DuPont Gun Club team was one of the strongest in the East.
In 1913 Harriet Hammond organized the Nemours Club for women trapshooters, the first women’s shooting club in America. The Nemours Club soon boasted over 100 members, mostly from the agricultural division of the DuPont Company. The Nemours women even toured the country to demonstrate their skill.
Several thousand spectators would arrive for the “Big Noise” on days of important tournaments, which went on year-round. In 1915, to accommodate the huge throng of shooters, lights were installed for night shooting. The popping of guns against the stars pushed area residents past the breaking point. Night shooting was stopped on August 15 but a suit was brought against the DuPont Gun Club complaining that the noise was a nuisance. A court injunction temporarily closed the grounds.
In January 1916 the suit was heard in open court. Over 110 witnesses jammed the courtroom to testify that shot falling into the public road was endangering life and traffic. So many people were on hand to testify that the overflow was sent home. Although the original DuPont Gun Club site was selected for its excellent distance from the city, yet its remoteness from residential areas, the club was disbanded. The former members scattered to the 23 other trapshooting clubs in Delaware, the best forming the Wilmington Trapshooting Association at Old Homestead on the Philadelphia Pike near Bellevue.
First State Sports Hero of the Decade: Alden B. Richardson
For want of 543 votes Harry Alden Richardson, canner and president of the First National Bank of Dover, would have been governor of Delaware in 1890.
He re-emerged in state politics in 1907 when the Kent County Republican stalwart was elected to the United States Senate. While Richardson was attracting attention in the Roosevelt and Taft administrations his son Alden B. “Dal” Richardson was making noise back home on the trapshooting line.
When he wasn’t tending to Dover business Richardson won over 30 trapshooting medals, knocking clay targets out of the sky at a rate of over 93% most years. He was the Delaware state champion in 1909, 1910, 1913, 1914, and 1916. He won at the national level as well, taking first place from the 20-yard line in the prestigious Grand American Handicap in Dayton, Ohio in 1913. He was runner-up for the national amateur championship that year and again in 1915. Richardson was a member of a world-record setting five-man team described by American Rifleman as “the fastest moving and fastest shooting squad in the Eastern States.” Richardson shot fourth in the potent line-up.
The Dover marksman was enjoying his best year in 1916 at the age of 40 when he was roundly hailed as the top shooter in America. He ran a program of 200 straight in a Philadelphia tournament on Memorial Day - “he nailed every target in the center” - and made a world’s record of 99 from 22 yards at the Midsummer Handicap a month later.
But on the evening of July 30 Richardson returned to his Dover home and reached into a pocket in the side of his car to retrieve a Colt revolver when the gun discharged a bullet that punctured his intestines in eight places. Richardson, known for his graceful and perfect positions at the trap, did not survive.
The Great Shipyard Teams
During World War I the U.S. government issued a “work or fight” edict that sent many major league baseball players scurrying to the safety of the huge shipyards and munition plants that peppered the Atlantic Seaboard. Enough big leaguers came to work for Wilmington’s Harlan and Hollingsworth yard to mold two teams, including the nine that captured the Atlantic Coast Shipbuilding League title in 1918. Pusey and Jones of Wilmington also fielded a squad of local stars which, while a good club, was not of the caliber of the galactic Harlan team.
Anchoring the Harlan and Hollingsworths were Rogers Hornsby and Shoeless Joe Jackson, two of only three major leaguers to hit over .350 for their career. The 22-year old Hornsby cemented the inner cordon at shortstop while Jackson, a terrific slugger then in his prime, patrolled the outer perimeter in centerfield. He was heavily criticized as a draft dodger but he had been married ten years at this time and supported his mother and crippled sister as well. He had applied for work in the shipyard even before the 1918 baseball season had begun. Unable to read or write, the other players would drive Jackson crazy, it was said, by pointing to something in the newspaper which they told him was his name on the draft list.
All told there were eight big leaguers on the Harlan and Hollingsworth team. The moundsmen were led by Lefty Williams, a two-time 20-game winner who would compile a .631 winning percentage. Both Jackson and Williams would be thrown out of baseball as members of the Chicago “Black Sox” two years later.
The shipyard ball park was an exceptionally fine playing field and large crowds would turn out for the Saturday afternoon games. When an overflow crowd of 4000 greeted the opener of the Ship League it was observed: “It was a typical Wilmington baseball crowd too, because it ‘panned’ every player who made a misplay and then made him king when he redeemed himself.”
So popular were the contests that the team began playing illegal Sunday games. Police waited patiently until the final out when each player was ceremoniously arrested, escorted to City Hall and assessed a slight fine. Gate proceeds were turned over to the war effort so even strict Blue Law adherents winked at the Sabbath charade.
The Harlan and Hollingsworths met the Staten Island yard of the Standard Ship Company for the league title in September 1918. The five-game series opened in Phillies Park in Philadelphia and although Hornsby was ineligible for the championship the Wilmington team prevailed 3-2 in Game 1. They won another low scoring affair the next afternoon in New York, 2-0.
Williams took the hill for Game 3 back in Philadelphia and shut down the New Yorkers on two scratch singles. But his service in the 4-0 clincher was overlooked in the excitement of Jackson’s performance. He doubled and scored in the game’s first run in the 4th inning and crushed a long 2-run home run over the right field wall in the 6th. In the 8th inning pandemonium reigned when Shoeless Joe clouted another circuit blast. When the great outfielder reached home plate he walked around in front of the fan boxes and picked up bank notes which workers, who seemed to entirely disregard them in those days, threw to him. He returned to the dugout clutching a large handful of such notes.
The drives were not hit off a local riveter. Dan Griner took a 2.15 ERA with him that year when he left the Brooklyn Dodgers. Harlan and Hollingsworth thus brought the Coxe Trophy back to Wilmington with a 3-game sweep. The Armistice was signed less than two months later and the greatest baseball team to ever play in Delaware was quickly disbanded.