Mansfield University commemorates historic baseball anniversary
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Today’s segment of the Mansfield University Beat will look back on Mansfield’s long and storied history of baseball.
Speaking from the foyer of Decker Gymnasium, Mansfield University President, Fran Hendricks, stands before a backdrop of Mansfield University Hall of Fame student athletes going back to the early days of Mansfield sports. “Athletics has always been an integral part of who we are here at Mansfield University. We’ve played field hockey and basketball for more than 100 years. This fall we will celebrate the 125th anniversary of the world’s first night football game played right here in Mansfield. On February 18, we opened our 150th season of playing baseball. This epic milestone is the topic of this edition of the Mansfield University Beat.”
Terry Day had the opportunity to speak with Steve McCloskey, Mansfield University’s Director of Sports Information, and asked him what comes to mind when thinking about 150 years of Mountie baseball. McCloskey replies that this year Mansfield University is celebrating the 160th anniversary of its founding, and the 150th year of its baseball program. “Our first athletic program was baseball; our first contest was a baseball game. One hundred fifty years ago, you would see a ragtag bunch of Wellsboro guys getting on a train to come to Mansfield to play the very first [Mansfield] baseball game. That game was actually played, not down at Smythe Park, which we associate with most of the baseball history of Mansfield, but where Marx Brothers is . . . so on that small, tiny field which is not even quite an acre, that first baseball game was played.”
That was two years after the Civil War,” McCloskey continues, “Over the past 150 years we probably have had 75 or more players who have gone on to professional careers [in baseball]. Six of those have ended up in the major league level. . . . Probably the one we best remember now, and the most recent one, is Tom Brookens, who played 13 years, played in the World Series, played with Detroit, played with Cleveland, and ended his career with the New York Yankees. But we have had a series of people who have gone on. If you look at the 1920s, we had Mike Gazella.”
Mike Gazella played baseball at Mansfield when it was the Mansfield State Normal School and went on to become a member of the 1927 Yankees, one of the greatest teams in baseball history. “He played with Babe Ruth, who he was intimate friends with, along with Lou Gehrig, and was a third baseman, a utility player for them,” McCloskey explained.
“Another player who actually played with him at Mansfield when they played their games down at Smythe Park, was Joe Shaute,” continues McCloskey. “Joe was the person that we named our baseball field after. Joe left here and played for Chicago and was the first pitcher in 1923 to record a 20-game winning season. In that famed year  where Babe Ruth set his 60 home run record, he struck out the Babe six times during the course of the year, but the Babe got him for six home runs. . . . Interestingly enough, his very first pitching game, his very first time in the major league, the very first batter he faced was Babe Ruth, who he struck out on three pitches.”
When asked about the significant coaches/managers in Mansfield’s history, McCloskey points out that for a very long time only students participated in directing the teams. A student manager would take care of scheduling and handling details for the team. Eventually one coach would be hired to handle coaching for the football, baseball and basketball teams. “The first one that really had a significance for us was a man by the name of Bill Gibson,” McCloskey noted. “He made Mansfield a dominant basketball power.” Gibson coached at Mansfield in the late 1950s and early 1960s, having previously coached basketball at Troy High School. From Mansfield, he went on to be a head coach at the University of Virginia, where he integrated Virginia basketball, bringing in the first black player who, interestingly, was from Waverly, New York.
“Bill was a guy who brought a lot of great athletes here [and] had the very first 1961 PSAC championship team; and when Bill left, a man by the name of Dr. John Heaps, who would do more for baseball than anybody, perhaps up to the era of Harry Hillson, took over the program.” Dr. Heaps would elevate Mansfield’s baseball program to one of the best NAIA college programs in Division III history. “In 1969, that team went to the College World Series for Division III where they finished third in the nation,” remarked McCloskey.
Currently serving as head coach is Harry Hillson, who has been involved with Mansfield University’s baseball program for 31 of its 150 years, and has led the team to more wins than any team in Mansfield history.
When asked what comes to his mind in looking back over the 150 year history of Mountaineer baseball, he points to to the great support of alumni and the local community, as well as the pride in the tradition of the program. “I think the players really appreciate that, and they know that they are living in the footsteps of the guys who have been there before; and there is a long tradition, and they take a lot of pride in the program and in upholding the winning tradition here at Mansfield.” He imparts to the players who came before them and what was accomplished adding, “The history of the game is very important, especially in a sport like baseball, that has such a rich tradition throughout the country and now throughout the world. . . . It’s important to know where you came from.”
In Hillson’s 31 years with the program his most vivid memories center around opening day. “I think the biggest thing is opening day,” he reflects, “Opening day is a big deal and I think you tend to remember those; some of the World Series [events] and the championships, you remember . . . but I can just about remember every opening day I’ve had since I was eight years old with the National Anthem and those types of things. We just were out in Tennessee opening up, and we are going to have an home opener up here on March 25th. I think that is what you remember the most. Opening day is just like a sacred day in baseball.”
Until next time, Go Mounties!
Videography: Andrew Moore, Kline Kaufer
Video Editing: Andrew Moore
Writing: Heather Weiner
Produced by Vogt Media
Supported by Mansfield University