October 3rd, 2011

Finding Frank Pidgeon

Apart from family, what seems important to me is play, a more serious activity than work and one that reveals more about who we are or wish to be. Work is performed under duress; play, never. And the work that seems most like play to me is rummaging around in history’s attic, often emerging into the light empty-handed only to discover what was in plain sight all along.

The subject of this post is a man famous long ago and vanished since … only to turn up virtually in my backyard, when I lived in Saugerties, New York, as I long did until a year ago. His name is Frank Pidgeon. He was baseball’s greatest pitcher in the 1850s and the founder of one of its fabled clubs. He was a pioneer shipbuilder whose colleague in the Brooklyn shipyards and lifelong friend was George Steers, the man who built the racing yacht America, for which the America’s Cup is named. Frank Pidgeon went round Cape Horn to California in 1849 to make his mark in the Gold Rush, and came back overland across the Isthmus of Panama. He was an engineer, a painter, a musician, an entrepreneur, an inventor. For the last twenty years of his life he lived in Saugerties, where today no one knows his name.

Frank Pidgeon’s descent from fame to oblivion has been complete, except among a handful of baseball savants. The man who followed him as the greatest pitcher of the age, Jim Creighton, was remembered upon his death with a mighty obelisk in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery. Where was Pidgeon’s monument? A decade ago I received a good-hearted tip that Pidgeon had not only owned a splendid home in the hamlet of Malden, but that he was also buried there, on the Asa Bigelow property that he had purchased in 1860. My three sons and I clambered up and down an ivy-covered hill that contained a vegetation-encrusted above-ground tomb, but it was not Pidgeon’s.

Readying a new book on early baseball rekindled my interest in finding Frank Pidgeon. I realized that I had a better chance of understanding how and where he came to reside in death if I better understood his life. So let me tell you who he was, to the extent I have learned that, and where he is.

Francis Pidgeon was born in the Eleventh Ward of New York on February 11, 1825 to Irish-American parents. As a young man he entered the ship- and yacht-building trades. After his return from California, he married Mary Elizabeth Orr, with whom he was to have six children: Francis Jr, Mary, Annie, Jeannette, John, and Isabelle. (Isabelle died at age seven; Mary Eliza Pidgeon Searing (“A.E.P. Searing”) went on to become an author of children’s books, including the truly delightful When Granny Was a Little Girl (1926).

At about the same time, Frank Pidgeon also secured a patent for “a useful improvement in machinery for making Thimbles,” as reported in The Scientific American of December 13, 1851. (“The improvement consists in the employment of two rollers, of which one is divided transversely to its axis, and in combination with a stationary bar….”) In later years he also invented the only successful steam traction plow ever made.

In 1855 Pidgeon, along with fellow shipbuilders, founded the Eckford Base Ball Club of Brooklyn, one of the legendary early clubs and a national champion. Despite his advanced years (he had passed his thirtieth birthday), he was a great all-around player who captained the nine and played several positions. In the three all-star games of 1858, pitting the best of Brooklyn against the best of Manhattan, he was selected each time and, when he pitched, won the lone game Brooklyn was able to capture. He was a competent second baseman, shortstop, and left fielder, but he won his fame as a pitcher not of the speedy or wild variety that emerged in the 1860s, but as the paragon of “headwork,” changing speeds and arcs while pitching “fairly to the bat,” as was the mandate back then.

Frank Pidgeon was a pure amateur who played baseball for the love of the game. When “revolving”—inexplicable player movements from team to team, no doubt spurred by under-the-table inducements—became a problem, he authored the National Association of Base Ball Players bill against professionalism. He even spoke out against some clubs’ practice of recruiting young players with no visible means of support and then paying them expense money so that they could travel to play ball. “I suppose that you will admit,” Pidgeon wrote to the editor of The Spirit of the Times in 1858, “that a man who does not pay his obligations, and has in his power to do so, is a knave and not fit to be trusted in a game of ball or anything else; and if he has not the money, his time would better [be] spent in earning the same than playing ball—business first, pleasure afterwards.”

In 1860 the aformentioned Jim Creighton became the most prominent player to receive pay for his services, and other sub rosa professionals followed. Pidgeon walked away from the playing field after 1863 and within a year or so took his growing family up the Hudson to make a new home in the Saugerties area. He maintained business offices in Long Island City, where as a contractor he continued to do extensive dock-building and landfill work for the cities of New York and Brooklyn. Pidgeon had accumulated significant wealth through his contracting activities, frequently accepting,  in lieu of cash, parcels of land that he had filled. In the 1870 Federal Census the value of his real estate owned is $91,250 (multiply by thirty to get a comparable figure today); his personal property was worth an additional $18,000.

The family had three domestic servants and one farm laborer, and they built a spacious $30,000 home in Malden, depicted in an Edward Jernegan photo in the 1875 photo-monthly, The Pearl. “Paintings by his own hand adorned his parlors,” reported The New York Clipper.

Pidgeon’s eldest son, Frank Jr., joined him in the contracting business by 1870 and married Mary Kiersted, whose fine home on Main Street is today the Saugerties Historical Society. When Frank Jr. poured new concete floors for the old house, he inlaid his signature pigeons in four locations, still visible today. Frank Jr.’s success continued, and he was one of three baseball-buff petitioners whose efforts culminated in the creation of a fine ball diamond at what is now known as Cantine Field.

But Frank Sr.’s unbroken string of successes finally snapped. A Brooklyn commission investigated cost overruns and halting progress on a bridge project to which his crews and leased equipment had been heavily committed. The municipality held up his invoices as creditors pursued him for payment. A five-year pattern of underbidding municipal jobs so as to leave no profit in them, only parcels of land, had dried up his cash on hand and left him vulnerable. In 1881 he was forced to assign his assets for the benefit of creditors and to declare bankruptcy. His business was gone, and so was his fine home. By 1883 he was working for his son’s still thriving contracting business, overseeing construction; in April 1884 he was compelled to leave Saugerties altogether and relocate to a rented home in Harlem.

Let the contemporary accounts tell the rest. The Kingston Daily Leader, whose editor was Pidgeon’s son-in-law John W. Searing, wrote: “SAUGERTIES, June 14. On Friday afternoon the sad intelligence reached here by way of telegram that Francis Pidgeon, formerly of this place, late of Harlem was dead. His son-in-law Howard Gillespy had left him only the evening before in good health and spirit and as the telegram failed to state the cause of death, it was surmised that he had died suddenly of heart disease. This morning however that idea was soon dispelled, when it was learned that while he was walking along the track near High Bridge, a north bound train of the New York Central Railroad struck him and he was instantly killed. He was in that locality superintending a contract made by his son Frank with the Astors to lay out and sewer certain grounds on the Harlem River. [Why a man looking to place sewers would be walking along the tracks is a question that did not require an answer in the subtly polite newspapers of the day, let alone one managed by the family of the deceased.]

“Mr. Pigeon [sic] had resided in this village for about fifteen years, he erected an elegant and costly residence upon the bank of the Hudson river, which was recently sold to John G. Myer of Albany for $15,000, about half its cost…. Of late years his business contracts proved quite disastrous, and although at one time it was supposed that he was quite affluent, yet he died a poor man. His untimely death is generally regretted in this village and vicinity. He was sixty years of age.”

The Kingston Daily Freeman later reported: “The funeral of Mr. Francis Pidgeon took place from the Reformed Church, on Saturday afternoon at 5 o’clock. It was largely attended. The remains were interred in the new village cemetery at the head of Main street. Rev. Dr. Wortman officiated. The remains were not exposed to the view of the assemblage, being so badly disfigured.”

Here was new information. Not buried in Malden after all, but in the village of Saugerties. But where, precisely? A tip took me out to the tiny, picturesque Lutheran Cemetery on Ulster Avenue, with my photographer son Mark ready to click the great discovery. This proved a bum steer. Corrected information received that evening took me to the Mountain View Cemetery next day … but where was Pidgeon to be found? The custodian’s listing appeared to have Frank Jr. but not his illustrious father. And then there it was, right along the path, behind a boulder with a bronze plate emblazoned, “PIDGEON.” Couldn’t miss it, although the previous day we had.

Mark and I wrote a message for Frank Pidgeon on a baseball that we signed and left at his headstone. Safe at home.

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