It’s like looking at a high school yearbook," says Tom McCarthy, the Philadelphia Phillies broadcaster. "Just seeing how young those guys looked when they were playing in Trenton. And how much hair I had."
McCarthy is talking about his new book, "Baseball in Trenton," recently published by Arcadia as part of its "Images of Baseball" series. The book was released just as the Trenton Thunder rounded up its 10th successful year as an Eastern League franchise. McCarthy will sign copies at the Trenton Baseball Hall of Fame dinner on Thursday, November 6. Three figures from Thunder baseball — David Eckstein, Ken Macha, and Mo Cunningham — will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in the ceremony at La Villa Ristorante in Hamilton. Proceeds from sales of the book go to the Grand Slam We Care Foundation, the charitable arm of the Trenton Thunder.
"Baseball in Trenton" is a comprehensive look at the city’s rich history of the summer game. McCarthy has done a superb job tracing the history, outlined mainly in a treasure trove of archived pictures from the early and mid-20th century, complemented by the outstanding work of Dave Schofield, who has been the team photographer for the Trenton Thunder since the team’s inception. Names and pictures roll by like a litany to baseball excellence: from the long past, Walter Alston and Del Ennis; from the recent past, Nomar Garciaparra, Trot Nixon, and Tony Clark; and from the present, Stump Merrill and Chien-Ming Wang.
It’s not surprising that Arcadia should choose to work with McCarthy on this project. No one knows Trenton baseball better. After a stint as a sports reporter with the Times of Trenton, McCarthy joined the newly-formed Trenton Thunder in 1993 as broadcaster and director of public relations. He became assistant general manager in 1996, and in 1999, having earned a Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award, left to host a popular drive-time sports talk show on ESPN radio and to broadcast the pre- and post-game shows for the Phils. He is also the voice of Rutgers football and St. Joseph’s basketball.
For McCarthy, talking about the history of Trenton baseball is a labor of love. His research, he says, gave him new insight into the history of baseball in this area. Many people are familiar with the story of the old Trenton Giants, who played at Dunn Field in the city from 1946 to 1950, and were the last pro team in Trenton until the Thunder’s arrival. Most are aware that a 19-year-old Willie Mays made his organized baseball debut here with that club in 1950.
Baseball buffs know about Trenton native George Case, who played with the independent minor league club, the Trenton Senators, before he went on to lead the American League in stolen bases six times. But how many know that Trenton was a Phillies affiliate during World War II, or that Baseball Hall-of-Famer Goose Goslin managed the Senators from 1939 to 1941? Or that Trenton’s first pro team took the field in 1883, and that one of the most famous Negro Leagues team, the Cuban Giants, played here in the late 19th century?
With such a rich history in the game, the only question is why it took over 40 years, from 1950 to 1994, for baseball to come back to Trenton.
"That surprised me, too," admits McCarthy. "Cities like Trenton, and even smaller towns, had minor league teams all those years. How did we let them go? A lot of it was financial. Dunn Field had seen its best day, and building a new stadium would have been expensive."
It still was, in 1993, when Trenton businessmen Sam Plumeri Sr., Jim Maloney, Joe Finley, and Joe Caruso formed Garden State Baseball LLP to bring minor league ball back to Trenton. Mercer County Waterfront Park was completed in spring of 1994 (at least, completed enough to play in — on sunny days), and the Trenton Thunder of the AA Eastern League was born. The fans began to stream through the gates on opening night, and they have never stopped coming. In 1998 Baseball America named the Trenton Thunder its Double-A minor league franchise of the year. Last June 25, in its 10th year, the Thunder welcomed its 4 millionth fan. That’s the shortest span in which any Double-A team has reached the mark. The Thunder are also the only Double-A team in history to draw over 400,000 fans for nine consecutive seasons.
Why has Trenton succeeded where other minor league cities have failed?
"It was the right time," says McCarthy, "And the people who live and work in the area like the fact that they can call something their own. And the people in the political world put their necks on the line, as did the owners. This turned out to be more than any of us thought it would be. Personally, I was confident in the people I worked with. Wayne Hodes (the general manager) and his staff — Brian Mahoney, Todd Pae, Eric Lipsman — had been part of minor league ball before. The first day that the tickets when on sale, the response was so great that I thought, `Wow, if we can sustain this!’ But I don’t think that anyone anticipated that we would draw over 400,000 and keep it going over so many years."
The success shows no signs of abating. The Thunder spent one year as a Detroit Tiger affiliate, and eight years as a farm club of the Boston Red Sox. No matter what the insignia, the fans have been there. And it got even better in 2003, the Thunder’s first year as a New York Yankees affiliate. When Yankee star Derek Jeter spent five games with the team in May recovering from an injury, attendance records shattered.
There will be plenty of accolades to go around at the banquet, especially since two of the inductees, David Eckstein and Ken Macha, will be in the house.
One of the most popular players with fans, media, and staff, the hustling, unassuming Eckstein was a 24-year-old second baseman just two years out of the University of Florida when he played for the Thunder in 1999. He batted lead-off for the Thunder and hit .313 with 109 runs scored and 32 bases. His .440 on-base percentage was second in the Eastern League. The Thunder won a club record 92 games in 1999, and were in first place from opening day until the end of the season.
Just three years later, Eckstein batted .293 as the shortstop and lead-off man for the 2003 World Champion Anaheim Angels. He was the first ex-Thunder player to pick up a World Series ring (Carl Pavano, Thunder Class of `96, was part of this year’s champion Florida Marlins).
Ken Macha managed the Thunder to consecutive first place finishes in 1995 and 1996. In 2003 he managed the Oakland A’s, the Western Division champions of the American League, in his rookie season as a major league skipper.
Mo Cunningham was a slugging outfielder for the Trenton Giants in 1948 to ’50. He led the Interstate League in RBIs in 1949. Cunningham was a teammate and mentor for 19-year-old Willie Mays when the youngster came to Trenton in 1950. After his playing days, Cunningham settled in Hamilton, where he worked for Prudential Insurance and was active in youth baseball. He died in 1987; his wife Ruth will accept the honor on his behalf. In addition, she proved to be a great source of information and material for McCarthy.
"Ruth Cunningham was unbelievable. She has so much stuff from her husband’s years here," says McCarthy. "What I am hoping is that more people come forward with more pictures, because I could probably do a reprint in a year with more vintage photos. I know there has to be more information out there on George Case, on Al Downing (the Trenton native who pitched for the Yankees and Dodgers) and especially on Willie Mays."
If not, wait another 10 years. It’s a guarantee that the next decade of Trenton baseball will only add to the luster.
Trenton Baseball Hall of Fame Induction, La Villa Ristorante, 2275 Kuser Road, Hamilton, 609-394-3300. $29; $26 children under 12. To order tickets call Vicky Rhinesmith at ext. 118. Thursday, November 6, 6 p.m.