On a warm June day, my wife and I pulled into the parking lot of Fort George Park in Castine, Maine. Set upon the highest point of the Bagaduce Peninsula, between the river of the same name and Penobscot Bay, the fortification was a British stronghold beginning in 1779, when General Francis McLean took over the town and had the structure built. The British abandoned it in 1784, returning from 1814-15, with the Americans using it at times before and after the War of 1812. It was deserted for good and demolished in 1819.
As we stepped out of the car, the earthen ramparts of the 18th century citadel rose before us, with an opening to our left behind a decorative cannon pointed toward the Bagaduce River. A nearby sign display recounted the history, including colonial attempts in 1779 to take the fort from the British — an operation so disasterous it makes Charles Lee’s retreat at the Battle of Monmouth look like sound military strategy.
But we didn’t come for the military history. Inside the earthworks, within what would’ve been the fort itself, is a baseball diamond. If not for the misshapen backstop at the far end of the field, it would’ve been hard to spot amid the knee-high grass. With my hiking pants tucked into my socks to ward off ticks, I strode through center field until the faint outline of the infield soon became apparent.
The field within the fort’s walls has been used for baseball since at least the 1890s. In an article published in Down East magazine in 1963, the writer Francis W. Hatch — who was born in 1906 — recalled watching the Penobscot Indian and former Cleveland Spider Louis Sockalexis play there.
As a boy I watched him play for the town team of Castine, after he was well over the hill. Even then Sockalexis could step across the plate and whack a pitch-out over the ramparts of Fort George.— Hatch, “Sockalexis: Maine’s All-Time Great Baseball Player,” reprinted in the Maine Indian Newsletter, November 1972
After his brief major league career, Sockalexis returned to the Penosbscot Reservation in Old Town and played for teams there and in nearby Bangor. He’d also work as a ferryman between the reservation’s Indian Island and the village of Old Town. In summer, he’d canoe down the Penobscot River to Castine to spend the warmer months with an uncle — and to whack balls over the manmade hills and into the remains of the fort’s moat.
If the opposing pitcher tried to walk him, with an extra wide pitch, Sockalexis merely stepped across the plate and slapped it over the right field embankment so the fielder, high on the rampart, could only make a futile attempt to catch the ball and then scramble out of sight down into the mote [sic] to retrieve it. By this time, Sockalexis would have leisurely made his way around the sacks.— Trina Wellman, “Louis Francis Sockalexis: The Life-story of a Penobscot Indian” (1975), Maine Collection at the University of Maine
While a look at Fort George Park on Google Earth shows a pretty clear baseball diamond, it doesn’t seem to get much use these days. Even the soccer goal posts along the right-field line lacked a counterpart out in left-center.
A white plastic anchor for second base lines up with a pitching rubber, but there is barely a mound to speak of. Home plate is gone. The short benches along each baseline are cracking and tilted, providing no comfort — or cover — for any team assigned to play there.
It would’ve been something to watch a game here, though. There are no bleachers, even in an aerial image from 1956 — but there was also no need. Spectators could perch themselves along the fort’s earthen walls anywhere around the field to take in the action.
All Fort George Park needs to at least reach sandlot status is a good mowing, and a little dragging of the infield could have it ready for more organized games. It’d be limited to softball and youth baseball, though — the fort’s earthen walls are about 200 feet long all around, measuring about that distance down each foul line and 315 feet or so to dead center field, where a 1940s reconstruction of a magazine is embedded — and crumbling back into — the earth.
But now, it’s just another lost diamond where town teams once played and the youth of Castine got a glimpse of Maine’s all-time great baseball player.