Amsterdam’s All-Time Top Ten Most Famous Rugmaker Ballplayers

Since my hometown is Amsterdam, NY and I’m a passionate long- time fan of the New York Yankees, its only natural that I have a strong interest in the history of a now-defunct minor league franchise known as the Amsterdam Rugmakers. The team was the Yankees’ affiliate in the Class C Canadian-American League from 1938 until 1951. They were immediately successful, winning their league’s pennant during the first two years of their existence and the Can-Am playoff Championship in their third. Several Rugmaker players made it to the big leagues and a few enjoyed great successes at that level. Here are are five of the ten who did. I will share the top five in my new book; 50 All Time Amsterdam Top Ten Lists is released later this year.

6. Frank “Spec” Shea – This native of Naugatuck, Connecticut spent his first season of organized ball in Amsterdam, playing for the Rugmakers and living in the old Amsterdam Hotel. The year was 1940. He had been signed by the Yankees after pitching impressively in a 1939 collegiate summer league following his senior year in high school. The guy who signed him was the legendary Yankee super scout, Paul Krichell, who also signed Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Phil Rizzuto and Whitey Ford. His real name was Francis Joseph O’Shea but he had dropped the “O” when he played in that summer league, much to his Dad’s consternation. In an interview of Shea, which appears in the excellent book entitled “Baseball’s Canadian-Amsterdam League,” written by Rug City native David Pietrusza, the pitcher explained how he almost packed his bags and went home after his first start for Amsterdam against Gloversville. The young right-hander described how he had been shelled in that appearance and was actually filling his suitcase back at the hotel ready to catch a bus home, when Amsterdam manager, Eddie Sawyer showed up and convinced him to stay. The next time he faced Gloversville, Shea threw a two-hit shutout against them. Shea finished his 1940 Rugmaker season with an 11-4 record. He spent the next two years climbing up New York’s minor league ladder and the three after that serving his country in WWII. He then went 15-5 for the Yankee’s Triple-A team in Oakland, finally making the big club in 1947. Spec went 14-5 as a rookie for the Yankees and won the AL All Star game plus beat the Dodgers twice in the 1947 World Series. He would have been AL Rookie of the Year as well but back then only one player in all of baseball got that award and Shea finished behind Jackie Robinson. Yankee announcer Mel Allen gave him the nickname the “Naugatuck Nugget.” Spec than hurt his arm the following season and never again achieved the level of success he had during his first year in pinstripes and was finally traded to the Senators in 1952. After leaving the game, Shea returned to his hometown where for the next couple of decades he served as Naugatuck’s director of recreation. He also helped Robert Redford learn how to throw a baseball for the Hollywood star’s role as Roy Hobbs in the movie “The Natural.” Spec Shea died in 2001 at the age of 81.

7. Johnny Blanchard – How many third string big league catchers have hit 21 home runs in a season? That’s exactly what this Minneapolis native did in 1961, while playing behind both Elston Howard and Yogi Berra. In the 1961 World Series Blanchard blasted two home runs against the Cincinnati Reds in just ten total at-bats. He had been a three sport all-star in high school and could have attended the University of Minnesota on a basketball scholarship, but chose to play baseball instead. The Yankees gave him a $50,000 bonus to sign with them in 1951, which at the time was a huge amount of money. Having been an outfielder during his high school days, Blanchard entered a Yankee organization loaded with outfielders at every level. Since they gave him so much money to sign, New York decided to start him near the top, in triple A ball with their Kansas City affiliate. When he struggled there he was demoted to single A Binghamton, where he played even worse. It was right about this time that the Yankees got the idea to convert him to catcher, and that conversion began when Blanchard was again demoted during his first season in the minors, this time to the Class C Amsterdam Rugmakers. Blanchard did not want to be here and played that way for manager Frank Novosel, averaging just .204 during his short nine-game stint with the local team. But he also belted three home runs in those nine games and the following season he would hit 30 more round-trippers for the Yankee farm team in Joplin, Missouri and continue his transformation to catching and his journey to the Bronx. Meanwhile, that 1951 Rugmaker Can-Am League team he played for was the last one to ever play here in Amsterdam.

8. Mayo Smith – After achieving great success during their first years in Amsterdam, the Rugmaker’s ceased operations during the WWII years and when play resumed in 1946, the franchise struggled to regain their pre-war winning ways. They hit bottom in 1948, finishing in seventh place with a 57-80 record, setting a franchise record for most losses in a season. It was decided that a managerial change was in order. At the time, Jim Turner, the former Yankee relief pitcher and future Yankee pitching coach was managing a minor league team in Portland. His starting center fielder on that team was a 33-year-old native Floridian who had failed to stick in his one trial as a big leaguer. His name was Mayo Smith and Turner recommended him to the Yankees for the Rugmakers’ job. Seeing a chance to save some money by employing a player/manager, Smith was hired and spent two years managing and playing outfield for Amsterdam. After a 67-71 fifth place finish in 1949, Smith’s 1950 Rugmakers got back into the playoffs with a 72- 65 fourth place finish and advanced to but lost in the finals. Smith was rewarded with a promotion to the Yankee’s Class B Piedmont League affiliate in Norfolk, VA. He managed that team to two straight league championships and then got promoted again, this time to the Yankee Class A Southern League affiliate in Birmingham, AL, where his team advanced to the league championship finals (but lost) in his first season at the helm. Suddenly, Smith was being mentioned as the potential successor for Yankee legend Casey Stengel. In fact, the “Ol’ Perfessor” himself told reporters that Smith was the most impressive coach he encountered during New York’s spring training camps and he predicted great things for Smith’s future. Stengel was right. In 1955 Smith got his first big league managerial position with the Philadelphia Phillies. He did a solid job with a pretty mediocre ball club for three-and-a-half seasons. After getting let go by the Phillies midway through the 1958 season he was hired to manage the Reds in ’59. After lasting just a half-year in Cincinnati, Smith left managing to return to the Yankees as a scout. Actually, he became the team’s first ever-super scout. Major League Baseball had just instituted its inter-league trading period. Previously, if a team in one league wanted to trade a player to a team in the other league, that player would have to clear waivers within his own league first. The Yankees gave Smith the responsibility of scouting all NL teams and in that capacity he became a well-known fixture at all of the senior circuit’s ballparks. Smith remained in that role for six years until he was hired to manage the Detroit Tigers. He managed his 1968 team to a World Series win over the Cardinals. Smith’s decision to play outfielder Mickey Stanley at shortstop during that Fall Classic so he could keep both Stanley’s and Al Kaline’s bat in the lineup, was praised for years afterwards by the baseball press. Smith remained the Tiger manager through the 1970 season. He died in 1977, a victim of a heart attack.

9. Eddie Sawyer – Talk about a tough employer, even though the Rugmakers had captured the 1938 Can Am League Pennant during their first season in Amsterdam, that team’s skipper, Admiral Martin was told his services were no longer needed. It seems Martin did not have good communication skills with the new generation of ballplayers the Yankee organization was trying to develop in Amsterdam. So Martin was out and the job of field boss was going to a 27-year-old outfielder with a masters’ degree in biology and physiology from Cornell and a bachelors’ degree from Ithaca College, where he taught biology and phys. ed. in the offseason. His name was Eddie Sawyer and he would become the first Amsterdam Rugmaker skipper to go on to manage in a big league World Series. Sawyer had signed a contract to play for the Yankees in 1934 at the pretty advanced age of 23. New York assigned him to their B-level affiliate in Norfolk, where he averaged an impressive .361 his first year. He kept topping the .300 mark all the way up the ladder to Triple A ball but the problem was Sawyer was a singles hitter and considered too old to be a top tier big league prospect. So after the 1938 season, Sawyer asked the Yanks to try him as a player manager and they took him up on his offer and made Amsterdam his first assignment in that dual role. When Krichell told Recorder Sports Editor Jack Minnoch the Yankees were replacing Admiral Martin with Sawyer he made sure to point out that the new skipper “is a fellow with a likeable personality who has proven he can get along with people.” And get along he did. He led the team to a 79-49 record and the 1939 Canadian American League pennant. He made his own managing job easier because as a player on that same squad he averaged .369, drove in 103 runs and even poked 16 home runs. Needless to say, Sawyer became real popular with Rugmaker fans real fast that summer. He returned to the helm of the local team in 1940, and though Amsterdam fell to third place in the Pennant race that season, Sawyer led them to victory in the postseason playoffs. He had certainly earned a promotion and in 1941 the Yanks moved him up to B-level Norfolk and the following year to their Eastern League A-level affiliate in Binghamton. That’s when the Philadelphia Phillies organization swooped in and stole him from New York. After four more years  of managing in the minors he got the call to take over as skipper of the parent club in 1948. Three years later, Sawyer was managing the 1950 Philadelphia team to an NL Pennant. He than took his famous “Whiz Kids” team to that year’s World Series against the mighty Yankees. Philadelphia lost but in the process, Sawyer had quickly become one of the most highly respected managers in the game. Unfortunately for him, that 1950 season would be Sawyer’s last winning season as a big league skipper. The Phillies would fire him at midseason in 1952 and then rehire him in 1958, again at midseason, when he would replace Mayo Smith. Ironically, Smith was the second Rugmaker manager to become a skipper in the big leagues, the second to manage in a Fall Classic and the first and only ex- Amsterdam field boss to win a World Series, with Detroit in 1968. Sawyer passed away in 1997 at the age of 87.

10. Alfred “Allie” Clark – The Yankees signed Clark right out of his South Amboy, New Jersey High School in 1941 and sent him to the D-level affiliate in Easton, Pennsylvania. He tore up the pitching in that Eastern Shore League, averaging a robust .325 after 70 games, which earned him a promotion to C-level ball and a bus-ticket to Amsterdam for the final 20 games of the Rugmakers’ 1941 season. He treated Can-Am league pitchers even worse. In 76 at bats he collected 28 hits for a torrid .368 batting average. Amsterdam fans quickly realized this six-foot tall second baseman was just passing through the Rug City on his way to a big league career. He kept moving up the minor league ladder until 1943, when he went into service and then a year after he returned to baseball in 1946 he finally made it to the big leagues. He got into 24 games for the 1947 New York Yankees and batted a stellar .373, which earned him a spot on Manager Bucky Harris’s World Series roster. In what must have been the biggest thrill of his career, he pinch-hit for Yogi Berra in the seventh game against Brooklyn and drove in a huge run. That would be his final appearance in a Yankee uniform. That December, he was traded to Cleveland. Clark’s big league career lasted seven seasons. His lifetime batting average was a respectable .262. He was one of just 28 Rugmaker players who made it to the big leagues. He died in 2012.

I will finish this list of Most Famous Amsterdam Rugmaker Ballplayers  in time to get them in my upcoming book which is scheduled for release later this year. In the meantime, make sure you subscribe to my free monthly Amsterdam Top Ten Newsletter for previews and reveals of more Amsterdam Top Ten Lists. You can sign up for the newsletter here.

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