Hometown History: Mendham, NJ
Hometown History: Mendham
Episode 1: Where Are You From?
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Episode 1: Where Are You From?

Mendham's Most Famous Resident
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Bibliography:

The Centennial Book Committee. (2007) Reflections on a Community. Mendham: Borough of Mendham.https://www.mendhamnj.org/documents/Menhdam%20History/Mendham%20Centenial%20Book%20Reflections%20of%20a%20Community.pdf

Manheim, JB. (2023) Doubleday Doubletake: One Ball, Three Strikes, One Man Out (The Deadball Files Book 3). Sunbury Press. https://www.amazon.com/Doubleday-Doubletake-Three-Strikes-Deadball-ebook/dp/B0CHBSTZH6?ref_=ast_author_dp

Theme Music:

Howard Harper-Barnes / La Danse Timide / courtesy of www.epidemicsound.com

Transcript:

You know when someone asks you "Where are you from?"

Maybe you’re sitting on an airplane getting chummy with the person next to you. Or you’re at a dinner party chatting it up with some people you just met. That question will usually pop up. 

How do you answer? 

I’ve lived all over the world, and my answer usually starts with “Well, how much time do you have?” 

My first hometown, the place where I was born, is Bakersfield, California. And when I tell people I’m from Bakersfield, I also never forget to mention that it is the carrot capital of the world. We’ve been highlighted in some movies, notably Cast Away. You know the port-a-potty Tom Hanks uses to build a boat to escape the island? That is from Bakersfield! 

I moved from Bakersfield to San Jose for college. I lived in Poland for a summer, New York City for five years, and London for four. 

In each of these towns, I’d get the question: “So, where are YOU from?” and I would give different answers every time. While living in London, my wife and I went on vacation to Morocco, where we would say “We’re from The UK.” To my British friends I would say “I’m from the US,” or “New York,” or “California.”

In the fall of 2020 my wife and I were preparing to move again - from London back to the U.S. - but this time would be different. Our next town would likely be our home for a while. And the question “Where are you from?” would hold more meaning.  We’d be putting down roots, buying a house, starting a family. 

It struck me that I would be choosing a place that my kids would think of as their first hometown - the way I saw Bakersfield, California. How would I even choose?

Fast forward to 2023. My wife and I are eating at a nice restaurant in New York City. And this isn’t the type of place where they leave you alone while you eat. They wanna get to know your name, why you’re there, what sports teams you root for. You know, that sort of thing. 

So of course our maitre d’ kicks things off with: “Where are you guys from?” 

I nearly jump out of my seat. 

“We’re from Mendham, New Jersey!” 

Welcome to Hometown History. A series about the iconic places and events that make a town someplace people call home. Stories that people can tell to their friends old and new about the place they live, did live, or will live: In my case, Mendham, New Jersey. 

What is it about this small town, population five thousand seven hundred, that drew my family and centuries of others into its sphere? What makes it feel like the most special place in the Garden State, and the best kept secret in the tri-state area?

I’ve spent the last eight months digging into this question, and I think I’ve finally come up with an answer - one I can give my kids when they ask why we moved to this tiny town. 

And that answer starts with…Abner Doubleday. 

In the fall of 2020 my wife and I had just moved back to the U.S. We were living in temporary housing in Morris County, an area we didn’t know much about. We were anxious to find some place more permanent. A house we could really settle into. So on a cold Saturday afternoon we decided to check out an Open House in a nearby town called Mendham. And I think you can probably guess how that turned out.

RYAN: Alright, it’s November 20th, 2020. We’re driving in New Jersey, um, and we’re going…

MEG: There’s a cop over there.

Ryan: Oh, OK. [laugh] We’re going West from Morristown…

If you drive west on Route 24 from Morristown, youre gonna pass a few things. You’ll pass Delbarton, which is a boy’s school, once attended by the actor Peter Dinklage. You’re gonna pass a crosswalk denoting something called Patriot’s Path.

RYAN: Alright we got to stop for these guys. They have a dog so we have to stop for them.

But then, eventually you’ll pass a sign that is not only inviting and quaint, but also educational? It’s a welcome sign.

MEG: It says…“Welcome to The Borough of Mendham: Settled in the 1720’s”

RYAN: There you go! [laugh]

Yeah, weird they couldn’t nail down a specific year. But regardless…it’s definitely old. I mean, this town was around decades before George Washington’s Army spent a hellish winter over in nearby Morristown. 

But underneath that welcome sign…. is another sign - looking a little like it was placed there after the fact. In big emerald green lettering this sign says “Home of Abner Doubleday - the founder of modern baseball.” 

RYAN: Hey, can you Google that sign? The Mendham sign?

From the passenger seat my wife Meg shares some facts about Mendham’s most famous resident.

MEG: Alright what does it say here…Abner Doubleday…

Abner Doubleday was a civil war general, fought in the battle of Gettysburg. After the war he was an inventor. He patented San Francisco’s most iconic form of transportation - the cable car.  

Meg scrolls through the wikipedia page, hoping for some clue as to what brought the father of modern baseball to Mendham, whether he liked it here…maybe whether WE would like it here too? 

Instead what she found was….ehh a little confusing. 

MEG: Wait wait wait, it also says here he’s NOT the founder of baseball! 

And there you have it. Abner Doubleday is EITHER the father of modern baseball according to, well not just this sign but many stories and even government documents. Or he was the unwitting figure at the center of a concerted effort of individuals who wanted to make baseball a uniquely American sport, as evidenced by many other historical texts and documents. What a way to welcome you to Mendham! 

Alright, four years later, when I drive by that sign I chuckle a bit thinking about how it should  say “Home of Abner Doubleday - the much disputed founder of modern baseball.”

Which leads me to my next thought - who put that sign there? And did they know that Abner Doubleday may not have invented baseball?

I’d like to introduce you to Pat Serrano.

She, in fact, is the WHO behind the sign. And she’s a bit of a legend in town. 

PAT: I always had a couple of tricks up my sleeve

In 1976 Pat opened Serrano Travel here in Mendham, a travel agency that had, what we would consider today,  a very unique value proposition:  

PAT: I would escort the tours to Europe. At that time, my first cousin was a beefeater at the Tower of London, and we were able to have dinner in the tower, which was not the norm.

I caught up with Pat in the Weichert Offices, at 21 West Main Street. It’s actually where Serrano Travel first set up shop, before the realtors took it over. 

PAT: In 1976, this was my office. In that room over there. And this was Weichert. In the back was a doctor and in the back was the Observer Tribune paper.

Pat, was, and IS, a very well-connected Mendhamite. As her business grew, so did her interest in the town’s economic success. 

PAT: And so I decided to start the Mendham Business Association. And I got a couple of people here uptown in Mendham Borough, and we met at the library…And it was like 1995. 

Then one day, a man came to Pat’s office.

PAT: Jimmy Gunther

Yes, Jimmy Gunther. You know what, you go ahead and tell the story Pat. 

PAT: Back then, this was in middle nineties was casual then. People would come in to sit down and tell me about their daughter had a baby, or they had a problem with their foot. They weren't buying travel. We were just chit chatting. And he came in. Jimmy Gunther was born and grew up in Mendham, and his father owned the first Chevrolet dealership, Gunter Motors. And Jimmy came in because he had gone to Gettysburg and found out that Abner Doubleday had lived in Mendham. All his life, he had never heard that. And he wanted to talk to the Business Association. 

Jimmy was looking for Pat’s help. He wanted to change the name of the ball field on Mountain Avenue, just off main street, to Doubleday Field, in honor of the General who had lived in Mendham. Pat agreed to get behind the plan, and then took things a step further and organized Mendham Borough’s first Doubleday Day in the spring of 1995. 

PAT: We had the Doubleday Day, and we decided to let people know that a man who never had anything against him, no crimes, nothing at all, just simple man, lived in town.

Since then, Mendham Borough has maintained close ties with both Abner Doubleday and his connection to baseball. In 2015, the Mendham Business Association added on to the welcome sign along Route 24, claiming Mendham as the home of Abner Doubleday.

PAT: And it does say father of modern baseball, because that's a controversial subject in some places. It's okay with us.

KATIE: Because it's a legend?

PAT: Yeah

For Pat Serrano and many others, it doesn’t matter if Abner Doubleday, really is the founder of modern baseball. It’s the story that gets told about him. But is any part of that story true? Maybe Abner didn’t invent baseball, but I don’t know, maybe he liked it a bunch?

My producer Katie scoured the archives of the Mendham Borough Library for any reference to Doubleday and his affiliation with baseball. Deep in the bowels of the library…well, technically behind a door in a storage room in the basement…is a slim file containing old newspaper clippings from the Doubleday era. Now this is the late 1800s. Katie pulls out a fraying sepia toned article dated Jan 20th, 1893. 

Katie: So this is sort of like his obituary. Does it say anything about him being the founder of baseball?

JERRY: Well, no, it won't, because this was 25 years before that myth was created. So he had nothing whatsoever to do with baseball in his life.

J.B. Manheim, or Jerry Mannheim, is the author of several novels of historical fiction. A few of them actually take place in Mendham. His 2022 book Doubleday Doubletake, is a fascinating story set against the backdrop of the real Doubleday baseball myth. And, while Jerry’s stories may be fiction, he’s done a ton of research on the real story of Doubleday to support his work. 

JERRY: He was a civil war hero. He mapped the Everglades in the Miami area for the military. He fought Apaches in Texas. He had a patent on the cable cars out in San Francisco, when he was assigned out there for a time. He wrote books in English and French. So he was an active fellow. But there was never anything that anyone found in any record pertaining to baseball

KATIE: Yeah, I'm just trying to see… they don't even say “known fan of baseball.”

On another frayed document in the folder, Jerry reads from a New York Times article from 

JERRY: September 1 1929. Boy, it's a good thing it wasn't a couple of months later. It was 90 years ago, while playing the English game of rounders, widely held to be the forerunner of baseball, that Doubleday, who was then 20, conceived the idea of a new game. The idea came to him on an early September day, and he lost no time in marking out a diamond with a stick. Next, young Doubleday proceeded to block out the diagram on paper. He showed the plan to his friends, and they then started to play the game through which thousands of men now earn their living in the United States.

Which sounds so specific, right? How is it that there is no mention of baseball in Doubleday’s obituary, but thirty years later the New York Times is proclaiming him the founder of the game?

According to Jerry and other Doubleday myth busters, it was planted, decades after the Civil War General was dead, by a man named Spalding. Yep, just like the baseball bat. 

It’s a story that deserves much more time than we can give it here - check out Jerry’s book if you want the fuller picture. But essentially, Spalding, a shrewd sporting goods magnate, was under pressure to make baseball “America’s pastime.” It had evolved from the British game of rounders, which, in the early 20th century, didn’t really reflect the ethos of Teddy Roosevelt’s America. Spalding needed to give baseball a uniquely American origin story. 

JERRY: So they spun up the answer of Doubleday. And Doubleday had a number of virtues in that regard. He was the kind of person who you would want to have invented baseball. This was a General with a statue at Gettysburg, buried at Arlington, buried as a war hero. He was a writer. He was an intellectual of some note at the time. Somebody like that had to invent baseball. But the other advantage of choosing Doubleday if you were going to create a myth of origin for baseball was that he'd been dead for 20 years when they did it. So he couldn't talk back and say, I never heard of the game, or I never played the game, or I never did that.

And that’s kind of the allure. You have a national hero who made material contributions to the country and society - and a controversy? A myth? Surrounding this guy? Put it on a sign!

So for me at least, the mystery of the Doubleday sign was nearly solved. I just had one last question. How did Doubleday end up in Mendham? Of course, Pat Serrano knew the answer to that.

PAT: He used to visit a civil war general who lived in Bernardsville, and he and his wife loved the area. So they left San Francisco and came to Mendham.

Ahh, so it all comes full circle. It’s nice to know that a Civil War hero, disputed father of baseball, and me, Ryan Ross, have similar taste in hometowns.

And speaking of hometowns, now I have something I can tell my kids when they get the very question that I always got growing up in Bakersfield, California (which was the carrot capital of the world.)

“Where are you from, Ella?” “I’m from Mendham, N.J. Home of Abner Doubleday!”

Next week on Hometown History, what do Mendham’s Blue Ribbon Schools and international high school curriculum have to do with 17th century puritans? We travel back to when this town was founded and discover the genesis of Mendham’s stellar reputation in education.  

This episode was written and produced by Ryan Ross and Katie Feather. It was mixed and edited by Katie Feather. Our theme music is La Danse Timide by Howard Harper-Barnes.  Special thanks to Pat Serrano, Bill Peroncik and Weichert Realty, the Mendham Borough Library, and Jerry Mannheim. Check out Mannheim’s book, Doubleday Doubletake, and other titles from his series “The Deadball Files”, published by Sunbury Press. Show Art photography by Branden Moore.


Pat Serrano at the Weichert Realty office / Photo by Katie Feather

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Hometown History: Mendham, NJ
Hometown History: Mendham
Drive west of Morristown NJ about 15 minutes, and you'll see an iconic sign highlighting a rich regional and national history. This podcast tells the story of how one New Jersey town evolved since its start in the 1740s, survived through the civil war and prohibition, housed national heroes, excelled in education, and has proven resilient through a series of curious schisms.