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The Fisherville Polish Tigers

 

The Fisherville Polish Tigers
Baseball, Just For The Fun Of It

It was a typically cold New England winter. As baseball fans waited out the winter months with anticipation, baseball's hot stove burned exceptionally bright one January night. Four remaining members of the 1929 Fisherville Polish Tigers got together to reminisce about the glory of their times. It was a golden age for baseball in Massachusetts' Blackstone Valley, as leftfielder Louie Nadolink, coach and infielder Henry Podsiadlo, catcher Hank Wenc, and centerfielder Ted Klocek recounted stories of their young adulthood and the game they loved.

The team was formed by Walter Such in the Farnumsville section of South Grafton, Massachusetts, sometime in 1927 or 1928. That meeting took place on Stanley Matuszek's front lawn. The ballplayers paid dues of fifty cents a week, to help raise money for bats, balls, and other equipment. They sponsored raffles and Saturday night dances to raise additional funds. And as a result of insurance policies taken out with the Polish National Alliance, they obtained uniforms at no cost.

The Polish Tigers were primarily an independent team, arranging their own schedule of home-and home games. They did participate in the Mac Ben League of Worcester, Massachusetts, capturing back-to-back championships in 1947 and 1948. The Dartmouth A. C., on Plantation Street, Worcester proved to be a big rival. Millbury, Rockdale, North Attleboro, Webster, Southbridge, Gardner, Uxbridge, and Chepachet, Rhode Island were just some of the Polish Tigers' opponents over the years.

Getting to some of these games proved to be just half the fun. "We'd put in a buck apiece (for gas) and take off," recalled coach Podsiadlo. While taking off wasn't much of a problem, stopping sometimes was, as Wenc recalled a trip to Southbridge, when Joe Huchowski lost his brakes along the way. Rounding up the boys for the trip home could also be a problem. Especially when the games coincided with Polish picnics, making the day's game an all day and all night affair. They'd get one guy into the car, when another would bail out. Often, the Polish Tigers would get back to Grafton around 10 P. M., with some of them due at work in the local mills at 11 P. M.

The Polish Tigers played their home games at Fisher Park, on Ferry Street in South Grafton. The park was much more than just a cow pasture, which describes at best other fields where the Tigers played some of their road games. On the road, the Tigers played in fields where the leftfielder actually positioned himself across the street. The umpires were typically a bunch of farmers in straw hats. All of which made for some interesting stories. Like the line drive over the shortstop's head, that the umpire called "Foul".



Fisher Park's wooden grandstand withstood many seasons of country ball, until Mother Nature and the hurricane of 1939 brought the structure to its knees. Today, a softball diamond and concession stand sit on the very same spot, as it is put to use by the Grafton Men's Softball League. The League is run by President Kenneth "Chip" Hudson, a nephew of Wenc. As one makes his way from the backstop to the concession stand, traces of the stone footings for the grandstands are still visible above the ground.

Passing the hat through the grandstands was a common practices in those days. Today it is often taken for granted at many a little league game, with no thought as to where the practice originated. Some of the money collected may have been guaranteed to the visiting team, as an enticement to make the road trip. Other times, it was "winner take all". The annual little league parades that take place each year in many communities is another tradition which originated by teams like the Polish Tigers many years ago. Starting at the Polish Club, they would march to Fisher Park to kick off another baseball season.

The Polish Tigers did play some twilight games. But most of the time, they scheduled Sunday afternoon games. "If you ever walked through Farnumsville, all you'd find was a stray dog," said Klocek. "They were all at the ball game." It was a time, according to the Worcester Post newspaper, where "the most red blooded baseball in America, inch for inch, soul for soul, is in the Blackstone Valley."


I was the first-to-third man," recalled Klocek. After reaching first base, he would watch for Coach Podsiadlo's tug on the ear. That was the signal that the coach was bunting on the second pitch. "And I'd be perched on 3rd," according to Klocek. Klocek was the only "outsider" of the group who originated from the Rockdale section of Northbridge, not Grafton. But he quickly established his ties to the community, when "I found a little girl I liked," in reference to his wife.


"I worked them hard," conceded coach Podsiadlo. "He had no trouble motivating the team," said Nadolink. "He was bigger than us, so we had no choice." Not only did they practice every night, but they would often walk to and from the ball field. Harry Stevens, a former pitcher and Dartmouth graduate, who later became principal of Grafton High School, is credited with providing the guidance and direction that prepared Podsiadlo to skipper the Polish Tigers.

Louie Nadolink was the man with a rifle for an arm. "If there were any scouts around at the time, they would have picked him up," said Podsiadlo of his leftfielder's chances of playing professional baseball. "I've seen a lot of guys throw," said Klocek in reference to today's Major Leaguers. "They haven't got half the arm Louie had."

One man who bore the brunt of Nadolink's cannon in left field was catcher Hank Wenc. Opponents, unwise to Nadolink's throwing capabilities, would often attempt to score on a base hit to left. Nadolink's perfectly pegged one-hoppers would give Wenc plenty of time to make the tag at the plate, before rolling two times, head over heels to the backstop.

"I caught one year without a chest protector," admitted Wenc. "We didn't have the money." But Wenc did have the imprint of the baseball's stitches on his chest. This prompted him to swim all summer with his shirt on, to hide his bruises from his mother. It took a little bit of extra prodding to get Wenc to admit that he also wore no other protection between the mask and shin guards.

No team would be complete without its rivalries. And the Fisherville Polish Tigers had their share. "You're nothing but kids. You'll spoil our reputation," balked one opposing ballplayer when a team from Gardner, Mass. made the trip to Grafton. A .00 guarantee was enough for Gardner to field its team, and the Polish Tigers "beat them quite bad," revealed Klocek. "And that's how they ended up scheduling a game up there."

When the Polish Tigers arrived in Gardner for the back end of the home-and-home series, they were subjected to some of the typical ribbing of the home town fans. "Hey fella, we're gonna beat you today," heckled one fan. Upon inquiry by Klocek, the fan explained why: "Because our boys eat kielbasa by the pound."

"We have no fear," replied Klocek. "We eat it by the yard." And the Polish Tigers promptly chalked up another "W" against the Gardner nine.

One of the Polish Tigers most fulfilling victories came at the expense a team from Barre, Mass. "Remember the time we went to Barre, and they had a team that was all college boys?" Klocek reminded all. With Coach Podsiadlo at the altar that day, the Tigers were set to play with only 8 when a second stringer arrived just in time, with uniform in tow.

As was common in that day, friendly wagers took place on the sidelines. And while the Tigers did not have their wallets in their uniform pockets, they were able to borrow some money and get in on the action. Needless to say, the Tigers won that game, and collected their share of the winnings from an Italian gentleman of a gambling persuasion. He even took the Tigers to "Carruso's Bar" for a spaghetti feed that couldn't be beat.

But by far, all agreed that the biggest game was always for the town championship. Every year the Polish Tigers would play the Grafton town team. "Every year, we used to beat them," said Nadolink. "And they'd get mad."

The rivalry reached its peak one year when money was replaced by a wheelbarrow ride to the town common as the friendly wager. With the ride originating from the Polish Club, "We got as far as Fisher's Mill and we had to stop," said Wenc of his worthy opponent on the losing Grafton town team, "because he couldn't make it."

As the years passed, many of the original Polish Tigers married, began families, and eventually retired as active players. A younger generation of Polish Tigers succeeded them, with names like Jimmy Woodburn, Chet Kuras, Frank Linek, Bill Wenc and Peter May appearing in the line up. Woodburn once explained how they would make some of their own baseballs in the mills where they worked.

In a letter to his nephew, Chip Hudson, Bill Wenc recalled fondly how the Polish Tigers farm team, complete with maroon tee shirts to serve as uniforms, practiced and played in the cow pastures of Akstin's farm on Fitzpatrick Road. "We called ourselves the "Farmers A. C."", Wenc wrote. "Every Sunday after church we walked to the farm and flattest pasture to play. We used the new flat dried "cow flaps" for bases. When you slid into them, they broke up, but you didn't hurt your ankles like you would on a flat rock", Wenc added.

By then, former Major League ballplayers were finding their way to the Blackstone Valley, to either play for local mill teams, or simply barnstorm through the valley's hotbed for semi- pro baseball. Former Red Sox first baseman Walt Dropo once played against the Tigers at Fisher Park. The righthanded slugger, at 6'5" and 220 lbs, went the opposite way off of hurler Chet Kuras. His round tripper to right field cleared Ferry Street, and struck a big elm tree half way up the hill of what is now the home of Albert "Cooney" Cardin.

Looking back 65 years later, these Polish Tigers draw a stark contrast to today's modern professional baseball players. "When we were playing," said Podsiadlo, if you told a guy to bunt a ball, he'd bunt it. In the big leagues today, 90% of the ballplayers don't know how to bunt."

"The only thing I'd like to be, is 17 years old today," revealed Nadolink, "and have a chance to play ball. Some one like (Red Sox' Mike) Greenwell, he wouldn't be able to carry my glove." Podsiadlo added, "The difference between these guys in the Major Leagues is that they (the Polish Tigers) would play for free. When we played all together, we had the best time of our lives."

When was the last time you can remember playing baseball, just for the fun of it?

editor's note:  This article appeared in an edition of  the newsletter "A Red Sox Journal", a publication of The Buffalo Head Society, which is permanently archived by the National Baseball Library in Cooperstown, New York. While the Polish Tigers were not Major Leaguers or Hall of Famers, they will forever be "in the National Baseball Hall of Fame", next door in the National Baseball Library.