Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Early Years of Professional Baseball in Schenectady

Photograph of the 1895 Schenectady team -- Schenectady's first professional baseball team. Image from Frank Keetz Professional Baseball Collection. 

"Professional ball in any city is one of the characteristics of a live, progressive people and is a desirable acquisition to any place, and of the best means of advertising a town. It furnishes an animating entertainment to people who are bored by the hot summer months ... it relieves you of that tired and weary feeling and puts you in good humor with yourself."
- Evening Star, between 1899 and 1900 baseball seasons.

The origins of professional baseball in Schenectady came about during the winter of 1894-1895. On January 25, 1895, the Evening Star reported that a Schenectady team would be established to play in the New York State League. Manager P.M. "Hawker" Shea led the team throughout the season. The team had an overall 24-26 record when the State League folded, coming in fourth place out of the eight teams in the league. Despite a so-so record, enthusiasm ran high in Schenectady for the city's first professional baseball team; chants such as "Who are we? Who are we? Rooters from Sche-nec-ta-dy!" rang in the air during games.

During 1896, 1897, and 1898, Schenectady did not have a professional team. In 1899, the decision was made to again form a team. Unfortunately, that decision came in the spring, shortly before the season was to begin, and when most of the good players were already signed to other teams. The local team came in last place that year, with a record of 29 wins and 77 losses, earning the epithet "Schenectady the Booby." The team fared better over the next few years, again ranking in the mid-range of the league. In the seasons of 1900, 1901, and 1902, the team started the season strong, but fumbled later in the season. In 1901, a new ballpark was established for the team. Island Park, as it was known, was on Van Slyck Island (later Iroquois Island) in the Mohawk River. Prior to 1901, the team had played on Driving Park, located in what is now the Hamilton Hill neighborhood. The Schenectady team was known by a few nicknames, such as the Dorps, the Electrics, and the Frog Alley Bunch.

A baseball crowd at Island Park, around the turn of the century. Image from Frank Keetz Professional Baseball Collection. 

The 1903 season was to be the peak of the turn-of-the-century years of professional baseball in Schenectady. Facing fears that the team might disappear, team owners organized a new association of supporters, and managerial duties were handed off to Ben Ellis, a minor league veteran and a player on the Schenectady team in the 1902 season. "There is not a fan in the State League who has not a warm feeling for Ben Ellis and his associates," wrote Sporting News. The roster of players was all experienced players; the most popular player was Fred "Old Reliable" Betts, who played for three and a half seasons with the team. None of the men on the 1903 team were locals.

In the 1903 season, Schenectady won its opening game. The scrappy team played an exciting season, often coming from behind to beat their opponents in the final innings of the game. A number of players on the team were also injured during the season. Schenectadians rallied around their team, which they thought of as "courageous," "crippled and overworked;" its players who "displayed grit" deserved the public's "credit and support." A fund was established for injured Schenectady players, and benefit amateur ballgames and concerts were held to raise money for the fund. As the season came to a close, crowds of 2,000 people at Island Park watched the home team win the season's final games, against Johnstown. Schenectady narrowly won the State League championship that year, with a record of 80 wins and 52 losses. As Schenectady won its final game, cheers could be heard in downtown Schenectady and in Scotia. A celebratory parade and fireworks preceded a banquet held for the team at the Hotel Vendome on State Street.

Cover of April 9, 1904 issue of Sporting Life, showing the New York State League Champions. Image from Frank Keetz Professional Baseball Collection. 

Despite the thrill of winning the pennant, the owners of the Schenectady team had still lost money in the 1903 season. The next season, the team simply unraveled. In beginning the 1904 season, the team's best pitchers, Del Mason and Arthur Goodwin, had left the team. The team played poorly, attendance at games was low, and the owners continued to lose money. Following losses at a July 4th doubleheader, and with the team already at 19 wins and 34 losses, the team's owners abruptly terminated the Schenectady franchise. It was transferred to the State League, where it was picked up by Scranton, Pennsylvania, as the first out-of-state New York State League team. The team ended in seventh place that year, with a record of 40-85. There would be no professional baseball team in Schenectady again until an all-African-American team, the Mohawk Giants, was established in 1913.

To learn more about the early years of professional baseball in Schenectady, join us for a lecture by Frank Keetz this Saturday, April 12. Details are below.

Professional Baseball in Schenectady, 1895-1904: A Fascinating Footnote in Local History 

Presented by Frank Keetz

Date: Saturday, April 12, 2014

Time: 2:00 p.m.

Location: Schenectady County Historical Society, 32 Washington Avenue, Schenectady, NY 12305

Admission: $5.00; Free for members of the Schenectady County Historical Society.

Frank Keetz has written several publications about sports in the Schenectady area, including They, Too, Were ‘Boys of Summer:’ A Case Study of the Schenectady Blue Jays in the Eastern League 1951-1957, Class ‘C’ Baseball: A Case Study of the Schenectady Blue Jays in the Canadian-American League 1946-1950, and The Mohawk Colored Giants of Schenectady.

For more information, please contact Librarian Melissa Tacke at 518-374-0263, option 3, or by email at The Schenectady County Historical Society is wheelchair accessible, with off-street parking behind the building and overflow parking next door at the YWCA.

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