Goodbye to Hudson's grand sports ground

Hudson High retired an 80-year-old sports ground this month, a visually striking and distinctive field where I have lost pride, blood and tears. It feels a bit like when they tore down the old Yankee Stadium -- nostalgic for their best days and sad that it is too costly to renovate and maintain these beautiful facilities. 

 Unique and beautiful: The football field with the old school in the background. 

Unique and beautiful: The football field with the old school in the background. 

The John A. Barrett Field at what is now Montgomery C. Smith Intermediate School is a bit spartan but may be one of a kind. It was completed in 1937 by the federal Public Works Administration as part of the construction of Chancellor Livingston High School. The entire project, including the magnificent three-story brick, limestone and slate school building, cost $508,674.

I visited the school last month to talk with the principal, Mark Brenneman, an energetic educator of young people in grades 3 through 5. The hair on my neck stood up when I walked in the building because its looks the same as when I was last there 44 years ago. The marble mosaic floor in the lobby and the terra cotta tiles on the hallway walls have stood up to years of use.

Outside, the grand cupola and its flanking wood railings give the building a stateliness, particularly when viewed across the expansive front lawn. Every time I see this remarkable school, I am proud that my grandfather, Elmer Sheffer, helped build it.

But it is the athletic field that sparks memories for me and my entire family. It is a classic, with overlapping football and baseball fields ringed by an triangular cinder running track with granite curbs. It has an amazing view of the Catskills to the west, which I know well because I once lost a ball in the setting sun while playing right field. The batter circled the bases. Hence the loss of pride. 

Left field is backed by a steep rise of shale topped by pine, cedar and maple trees. We lived a block from the field and spent endless hours climbing the "cliffs," skinning our knees and elbows. Hence the loss of blood. 

 Shortly after it opened 80 years ago. 

Shortly after it opened 80 years ago. 

The football stands are adjacent to this hill, behind the track in dead center field. The stands are the kind of rectangular concrete and wood bench (now aluminum) structure you might see in a crowd shot in a Knute Rockne movie. On the other side of the stands are five well-maintained asphalt tennis courts where players lined up to get a court during the tennis craze of the 1970s and 1980s and when a Hudson High team that included my brother, Ken, dominated all takers. 

Many great athletes have trod these fields and courts, some who have gone on to professional and collegiate renown. I am not one of them. In American Legion ball, I struck out repeatedly against a flame-throwing lefty from Saugerties, NY, who pitched briefly for the Atlanta Braves.

Having the baseball and track fields together seems ridiculously dangerous but it allowed my father to participate in two spring sports: baseball and track. He'd throw the shot put in his baseball uniform when home baseball games and track meets coincided. 

The place was electric for football, particularly night games that seemed to light up the entire city. We used the shadows to try to sneak in without paying. From pickup to Pop Warner to semi-pro, the many games tore up field, denuding it of grass at mid-field. It was fun to play in the mud but I wrecked my knee on a boggy field in my senior year homecoming game and never played football for the Hudson High Bluehawks again. Hence the tears.

The semi-pro football Vikings were a gritty bunch who held their own against teams from bigger cities. The star was Bob Van Ness, a 300-pound linebacker, placekicker and quarterback -- yes quarterback. I can still hear Vikings fans singing a gospel-style cheer before a field goal try: "Big Bob is gonna' kick it now, yeah, yeah. Oh yeah, oh yeah."

Also seared in my memory is the night a bunch of local players took on the barnstorming softball troupe, "The King and His Court," featuring pitcher Eddie Feigner. Few could make contact against the King -- even when he pitched blindfolded -- so he only needed three players behind him in the field. I sensed that night that the King and his men were more worried whether any local taverns were open than winning the softball game. 

And then there were non-sporting events. My parents and their friends loved the marching band competitions when a half-dozen corps would perform. On a very hot, humid summer night a trumpet player passed out during a performance and her helmet smacked the granite curb. She was okay but it shook me up.  

One morning, my brother and our friends were playing in the stands when a big white truck pulled on the field. Out of its cab poured about a half-dozen wild-looking men -- the "road crew" for the next night's professional wrestling match. The featured villain was Kurt Von Hess, a German military character. The road crew convinced us to set up folding chairs on the field in exchange for free tickets. Ken remembers helping a wrestler named Lil' Abner with chairs. Von Hess appeared and said without an accent, "let me show you boys how to carry chairs." I guess he wasn't so evil -- or German -- after all.

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Weeds have invaded the outer lanes of the track and I hear the baseball stands behind home plate will be demolished (much needed). The wood pole holding up the lights in left field curves toward center field, like a sunflower reaching for the sun. The fields will be used for gym class and other student activities and the track will remain open to the public. When I visited recently, what looked like a junior high girls soccer game was being played.

Today's Hudson High Bluehawks are making their own memories at a terrific new athletic facility behind the nearby high school. The new synthetic turf field, rubberized track, and metal stands should be a source of pride for Hudson. If I played on a football field as good as the new one, maybe I wouldn't walk with this limp. 

But there is something about the old field that is special, beyond my memories. It has been a bit worn and down on its luck at times, but it is resilient, idiosyncratic and full of character -- much like Hudson. Recently someone said admiringly of the field, "How perfect is the whole thing, anyway." I'd say pretty damn perfect.