Friday, June 12, 2020

A matter of historical record: Windham native Mains an early star of 19th century baseball

By Walter Lunt

Among the handful of notable people born in Windham who qualify as famous is Willard Eben Mains. Having hailed from a multi-generational Windham family, Mains was born in North Windham on July 7, 1868.

Although little is known about his childhood, it is assumed that young Willard worked with his father on the family farm. The online publication Baseball Almanac lists his high school as ‘undetermined’ and that he did not attend college. “Willie,” as he sometimes called, was described as 6-feet-2 inches tall and weighed about 190 pounds. He batted left and threw right.

Williard Mains, 19, first played for Portland
in the New England League in 1887.
It is, however, a matter of historical record that Mains began his colorful and mostly successful baseball career in his teens, first playing close to home in Portland for the New England League in May of 1887 where he pitched seven games, winning four and losing two in that first season.

The following year, Mains moved to the Central Interstate League in Davenport, Ohio, achieving an 18 and 5 record while completing all of his starts. Next came a major league trial in the National League with the Chicago White Stockings (forerunner to the Chicago Cubs).

It was here he earned one of several nicknames: Grasshopper ((likely due to his thin, pointy head). Mains threw in two games, winning one, losing the other – a disappointing effort that resulted in a move back to the minors in 1889.  

In his starting year with the St. Paul Apostles of the Western Association, Mains displayed renewed confidence and a strong arm, winning 32 and losing only 13. The team achieved second place in its division. 

The next season, however, the team fell to last place with Mains losing 26 games while hitting a whopping 40 batters – the most in the league that year.

Despite his setbacks, Mains won another shot in the majors, pitching a 12-12 season for the new King Kelly’s Killers of Cincinnati in the American Association.

But the team, while mildly successful, had gotten off to a disreputable start. The players, wildly undisciplined, were known to take the field in a drunken state, and at one point were all arrested (Mains included) for breaking the state’s blue law by playing on Sunday. 

As a result, the Killers were replaced in the league by the Milwaukee Brewers. Mains was retained, but finished out the year 0 and 2.

By 1892, Mains was back in the minors, honing his hitting skill and playing for several teams, including the Portland Webfeet in Oregon and (again) in Portland, Maine, and in Lewiston (Maine) where he had an outstanding year as a two-way player, pitching 24-14 and batting .364. 

That same year in Lewiston, Mains played along side Louis Sockalexis, who would eventually become the first major league Native American baseball player.

Although short-lived, Mains’ third and final opportunity in the majors came in 1896 with the Boston Beaneaters of the National League. He shared the field with future Hall of Famers Hugh Duffy, Billy Hamilton and Jimmy Collins, but despite the variety of talent, the team finished fourth. Mains pitched eight games, winning three and losing two; still not good enough for a permanent spot.

Willard Mains continued his baseball career in the minors, playing for nine more teams throughout the country, concluding with Syracuse in 1906 – he was 38, and his arm, after nearly 600 games, had weakened considerably. 

Over his 18-year professional career, Willard ‘Grasshopper’ Mains recorded 318 wins and 179 losses in 545 minor league games.

In retirement, Mains returned to Bridgton, Maine, where he continued operating a business that he launched during the off-season of his playing days, the manufacture of baseball bats, which he sold throughout the country.

Mains married Edith Chaplin in 1914. He was 46, she was 24. 

Apprehensive over the age difference, the couple kept their marriage a secret for months. Eventually, close friends found out and revealed the truth. Edith and Willard had two children, Francisca, born in 1916, and James, in 1922 (a third, a daughter, was stillborn in 1920).

Reporting for the Society for American Baseball Research, writer Bob Mayer described Mains as a ‘renaissance man.’

“…he was an avid fisherman and successful pearl hunter…One of his largest (finds was a) rose pink pearl weighing 15 grams. For a while, he experimented with the formation of pearls in mussels. (His) woodworking skills were…exceptional…he crafted a violin for his daughter.”

Willard E. Mains died of heart disease in May 1923. His son James was just 11 months old at the time. He would later attend Harvard College where he also played baseball.

In 1943, James would have the briefest major league career of all-time. Called up from the minor league Utica team in 1943, he pitched one game for the Philadelphia Athletics, and lost. His career in the majors lasted only a matter of hours.

He did however set a longevity record: for the longest time span of father/son debuts in major league baseball, some 55 years.

Willard ‘Grasshopper’ Mains, one of just a few famous folks from Windham, Maine, is buried with his wife, Edith, at the High Street Cemetery in Bridgton.  <

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