On Ben's Farm

Never on Sunday
UNH's fifth president was once the "Pitching Professor"

Bookmark and Share
Easy to print version

Click the bottom right icon to make slideshow full screen.

They called him the "Pitching Professor." Three decades before he became president of UNH in 1927, Edward Morgan "Ted" Lewis was a star pitcher for Boston in the hardscrabble National League of the 1890s, winning 21 games in 1897 and 28 games in 1898 for the National League champion Beaneaters.

At 29, after tossing a shutout for the fledgling Boston Americans (later the Red Sox) of the American League, he announced his retirement from baseball to dedicate himself to teaching. He went on to become good friends with Robert Frost, and the two would play catch in the backyard while discussing poetry.

In an era of sharp spikes and tobacco juice, when baseball was notorious for fighting, cheating and rowdyism, Lewis was an anomaly—a college man, and a religious one, who had considered entering the ministry. "If ever a player did not seem to fit with the rough-and-tumble nature of the game that was popular in the 1890s, it was Ted Lewis," writes Bill Felber in his book A Game of Brawl.

Refusing to pitch on Sundays, he was nicknamed "Parson" Lewis, Felber writes. Teammates and fans liked to tell the story of how Lewis met his wife: Playing summer ball in upstate New York, he had promised a friend he would usher a woman named Margaret to her seat. However, he was pitching that game—and Margaret arrived late. "Seeing her from the mound," Felber writes, "Lewis gallantly called time out, dropped the ball, walked off the mound, and escorted her to her seat. ...Then he resumed pitching."

Lewis was born on Christmas Day, 1872, in Machynlleth, Wales. At 8 he moved with his family to Utica, N.Y. From his earliest days poetry and baseball were of a piece. "He told me once...that he began his interest in poetry as he might have begun his interest in baseball—with the idea of victory—the 'Will to Win,'" Frost wrote in a memorial tribute when Lewis died in 1936.

Frost described how as a boy in Utica Lewis had attended a Welsh cultural festival called an eisteddfod at which a bard from Wales chose the winning entry in a poetry contest. "The bard...said he wished the unknown victor would rise and make himself known and let himself be seen. The little 'Ted' Lewis sitting there beside his father looked up and saw his father rise as the victor. So poetry to him was prowess from that time on, just as baseball was prowess, as running was prowess."

His early years had a Horatio Alger ring. He delivered groceries and worked odd jobs while studying borrowed textbooks by lamplight, and put himself through college, according to a biography by Rory Costello for the Society for American Baseball Research. At Williams College, where he graduated in 1896, Lewis captained the baseball team. When it came time to fund his graduate studies, the aspiring scholar turned again to baseball.

While pitching for the Beaneaters (later the Braves), Lewis coached the Harvard baseball team and earned his master's at Williams on the side. When he retired from baseball, he left behind a career won-lost record of 94 and 64 and an earned run average of 3.53.

After teaching at Columbia and Williams, and running unsuccessfully as a Democrat for Congress in 1910, he joined the faculty of the Massachusetts Agricultural College in Amherst. He served as professor of English and dean of languages and literature (and ran again for Congress in 1914) before being named president in 1926 of what would become the University of Massachusetts. It was there he befriended Frost, a fellow professor then unknown as a poet. Lewis gave the first public reading of Frost's verse.

In 1927 he was offered the UNH presidency. During his tenure the college established a graduate school and built its first women's dorm. He died of liver cancer at 63 in May 1936. At his memorial service, New Hampshire Gov. Styles Bridges and former Boston teammate Fred Tenney acted as pallbearers, and Frost read Lewis' favorite poems, Tennyson's "In Memoriam" and Walt Whitman's "On the Beach at Night."

Twenty years later, in an essay for Sports Illustrated on the occasion of an All-Star Game, Frost, by that time America's most celebrated poet, recalled his old friend: "He let me into the secret of how he could make a ball behave when his arm was just right. It may sound superstitious to the uninitiated, but he could push a cushion of air up ahead of it for it to slide off from any way it pleased."

The university archives contain records of his correspondence with the polar explorer Admiral Byrd and Vice President Calvin Coolidge, Chief Justices William Howard Taft and Charles Evans Hughes, boxing champ Gene Tunney and Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack. Also in the archives is a worn photocopy of a picture of the 1899 Boston Beaneaters. The inscription: "Ted—it brings old back memories."

Mark Sullivan has written for newspapers and college publications in New England. He currently works in higher education as an editor.

blog comments powered by Disqus