In Amsterdam’s rich and highly coveted sports history, baseball has always held a special place in the hearts of generations of Rug City sports fans. Names like Alex Isabel, Jack Tracy, the Amsterdam Rugmakers, Brian Mee and most recently Brian Spagnola and his Amsterdam Mohawks have ensured that if you live in this upstate community, at any point in your life you will have had the opportunity to watch gifted hitters hit, gifted pitchers pitch and gifted teams compete. One of the great joys I’ve experienced in the process of writing about the history of this place has been learning more about the great baseball players who have lived among us. In putting together the following compilation, I’ve automatically assumed that an appearance at the big league level of the sport automatically qualified an individual for inclusion and a spot above those who never made it to the big show. Therefore, four of my first five choices are former big leaguers
1. Roger Bowman – This Amsterdam native grew up on Meadow Street and in the early 1940’s he was the star pitcher of the legendary Amsterdam High School team that won 40 straight games for head coach Jack Tracy. Bowman was a left-hander who had a blazing fastball, an impressive curve and amazing control for a high school-aged hurler. In the prestigious All-American Amateur Baseball Tournament of 1945 held in Johnstown, PA, Bowman struck out 70 batters in his three starts to lead Amsterdam to a championship. In the title game of that tourney, he put together a two-hit shut out with 24 K’s! He decided to attend Colgate and on a wintery morning there, Bowman slipped while running to catch a bus and jammed his left shoulder. He was never again able to pitch without a sore arm and the injury turned his fastball from blazing to just above average. But even with the bum shoulder. Bowman was still good enough to earn a contract with the New York Giants. By his second year in the organization, he became one of their top pitching prospects, when he put together a 17-win season for New York’s B-level farm club in Trenton. He followed that up with three successive double-digit victory seasons in the high minors while the local Recorder newspaper faithfully reported his progress to his proud hometown. He got his first big league experience with two 1949 late-season starts against the Reds and Braves. The first big league hitter he faced was the Reds’ All Star third baseman Grady Hamner, who he retired on a groundout. He made it through four innings in his first start but just two his next and would spend the entire 1950 season back in the minors. By the time the 1951 Giants’ spring training camp opened, Bowman was 23-years-old with four straight solid seasons of minor league pitching on his resume and ready to pitch his way onto New York Manager Leo Durocher’s big league staff. He did just that with a solid spring performance and made the Opening Day roster. But after he lost his first two starts in April that year, he was demoted to the bullpen. Then on May 5, 1951 Bowman earned his first-ever big league victory with a scoreless five-inning relief performance against the Pirates. Just five days later, he got his first and only win as a Major League starting pitcher when he gave up only one run in a six-inning stint against the Cardinals in the Polo Grounds. All of Amsterdam celebrated the good news. Unfortunately, that would also turn out to be Bowman’s last big league victory. By the middle of June, he had walked 22 batters in just 26 innings and that lack of control had helped his ERA grow to over six runs per game and got him demoted back to the minors. Though he’d never pitch for New York again, its important to keep in mind that the 1951 Giant team he did pitch for had to win 98 games to catch the Dodgers for first place on the last day of the season. Without either of Bowman’s two wins, there’s no playoff between the two teams to decide the Pennant and Bobby Thomson never gets a chance to hit his “Shot heard round the World!” The Giants released Bowman in 1953 and the Pirates picked him up and gave him two more chances to pitch in the big leagues in 1953 and 55. He saw plenty of action in that ’53 campaign, appearing in 30 games for a terrible Pittsburgh team that would finish that season with a 50-104 record and in last place.Then in 1954, the Pirates sent him to their Hollywood affiliate in the Pacific Coast League where Bowman had the greatest season of his professional career, winning 22 games. That got him one more shot with the Pirates in 1955, but he could not take advantage of it. His career as a Major League pitcher ended in May of 1955. Bowman would end up settling in California with his wife Pat and one daughter and open a custom furniture upholstery shop in Los Angeles. He died there on July 21, 1997 at the age of 69.
2. Jack “Wobby” Hammond – Had the distinction of being the very first Amsterdam-born big league player. In 1939, three decades after he graduated from AHS, Recorder sports editor Jack Minnoch still called Hammond the greatest baseball player in Amsterdam school history”. He was born in the Rug City in 1891 and was a superb athlete for Amsterdam High School, starring in both basketball and baseball. He was certainly good enough at each sport to letter in both when he played for Colgate University, where he captained the Varsity basketball team in his 1914 senior season.He started playing minor league ball in 1909. By 1915, he was ready for his shot at the big leagues. The Cleveland Indians invited Hammond to their1915 spring training camp, where he made enough of an impression to make the team’s Opening Day roster as Cleveland’s backup second baseman. His first big league appearance took place on April 15th of that year, when he was inserted as a pinch runner. His first hit came eight days later in Cleveland versus the same Tigers when Hammond singled off the very tough Detroit southpaw Harry Coveleski, who would go on to win 27 games during that 1915 season. The Indians were not very good that year, finishing the season in next-to-last place. Hammond finished his season playing in Birmingham, AL. In his 91 plate appearances for Cleveland he had managed only 18 hits and his .214 batting average had got him demoted back to the minors. It would take the Amsterdam native seven long years to make it back to the Majors. During those seven seasons he played both professional baseball and basketball, the latter in the New York State League that used to compete back then. In 1920, he accepted his alma mater’s offer to become Colgate’s Athletic Director. But he still had the bug to play pro baseball and from 1919-1921, he not only put together the three best minor league seasons of his career for the Pittsfield Hillies in the Eastern League, he also managed the ball club to the 1921 Eastern League title while averaging .351 as the team’s starting second baseman.That performance earned him another shot with the 1922 Cleveland Indians, who were then being managed by the Hall of Fame outfielder, Tris Speaker. His first chance to play a regular season game for Speaker would become Hammond’s only chance and it ended with a bizarre incident. According to an article in the April 25, 1922 edition of the Utica Post Dispatch, Speaker had inserted Hammond in a game at second base after his starter was spiked and couldn’t continue. He did fine at the plate, singling and scoring a run in four at bats that afternoon but he made two errors in the field, dropping two throws. According to this article, Hammond actually laughed when he dropped each of the throws. After the second time it happened, Speaker took him out of the game and after the game, the Indians released him. Less than a month later, Hammond became a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He spent two months as a utility infielder with the Bucs, getting three hits and scoring three runs in eleven at bats. He played his last big league game on June 16, 1922. He was 31 years old. Hammond spent one more year playing ball for the Kansas City Blues in the American Association, considered one of the top leagues in the country. After averaging .300 for that team he hung up the spikes for good. He ended up settling in Kenosha, Wisconsin where he put his Colgate education to great use, enjoying a long career as a chemist. Hammond died in Kenosha, on March 4, 1942 at the age of 51.
3. Steve Kuczek – Born in 1924, he was one of five brothers who played and excelled at baseball for Jack Tracy-coached AHS varsity teams. His dad worked as a machine repairman in the Mohawk Carpet mills. After completing his own superlative high school baseball career in 1942, he went right into the Army. Discharged after the war, he took advantage of the GI Bill and like his older brother Eddie, went to college at Colgate University and played baseball for Raider coach Eppy Barnes, captaining the team in 1949. That summer he got a tryout with the Braves who signed the then 24-year-old infielder and sent him to their Class A Eastern League team in Hartford, CT. That club’s roster was loaded with infielders and when it became clear Kuczek was not going to get playing time, the Braves reassigned him to their B-level farm team in Pawtucket, RI. The Amsterdam native took over the starting shortstop position there and led the team to a league Pennant. On September 8, 1949, the Braves called Kuczek up to the big leagues. He sat on the bench for three full weeks watching veteran shortstop Alvin Dark play his position while the Braves, who had won the 1948 NL Pennant, were eliminated from repeating that title in ’49. That year the Dodgers and Cardinals were battling for the top spot and on September 29th the Dodgers came to Boston for a double header. It was a rainy dreary day but with one game separating Brooklyn from first place St. Louis and just four left to play, the Umpires were determined to get both games in. That determination was most likely the reason Kuczek got his name in the record books. Brooklyn won the first game and then the weather got even worse. The field was a mud bowl and if not for the ramifications the second game had on the Pennant race it surely would have been cancelled. The Boston players were none to thrilled with the decision to play it however and made sure to express their displeasure quite vocally. In the bottom of the fifth inning, Braves’ shortstop Connie Ryan decided to get real cute and wore a raincoat while warming up in the on-deck circle. His creative protest did not please the home plate umpire who promptly ejected Ryan from the game. The Braves skipper, Johnny Cooney looked down his bench and decided it was a perfect time to give his raw rookie shortstop from Amsterdam, NY his first Major League plate appearance. Kuczek grabbed a bat and after a few quick practice swings approached the plate to face Brooklyn’s monster ace Don Newcombe, who up until that point had held Boston’s offense scoreless, yielding just three harmless singles. With a runner on first the right hand hitting Kuczek went with a pitch and lined it down the right field line for a double but the runner in front of him did not score, instead stopping at third. Both that runner and Kuczek were then stranded when Newcombe struck out the next three hitters and since that ended the fifth inning and the game was then official, the Umpires immediately stopped the contest, awarding the victory to the Dodgers. The following spring, Kuczek was invited to the Braves’ spring training camp in Bradenton, Florida. He found himself third on the depth chart for he team’s shortstop position and got very few chances to prove he belonged on the big league roster. By then Kuczek was already 25-years-old, still young for most people but ancient for a shortstop with only one at bat on his big league resume. When the same thing happened to him in 1951 following a solid .301 season with Class A Binghamton, he decided it was time to switch careers. He had married Amsterdam native Clara Pikul in 1947. They settled in Schenectady, where Steve accepted a technical position with the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory. They raised five more ‘Kuczek’s.” Steve lived to be 85 years old passing away in November of 2010.
4. Jacob “Bugs” Reisigl – Born in Brooklyn, NY on December 12, 1887, Reisigl grew up to become a very talented baseball pitcher. How talented? When he was 21 years old, this right-hander signed a contract to pitch for the New Haven Black Crows, a Class B level minor league ball club that used to compete in the old Connecticut State League. He won 46 games during his first three seasons there including a 20 – 14 record in 1911 that caught the attention of the Cleveland Indians, then being called the Cleveland Naps. They signed Reisigl to a contract at the tail end of their 1911 season and gave him a start and a relief appearance before season’s end. He ended up with an 0-1 record for the big league club and a 6.23 ERA and even though he went back to New Haven and posted a 21-9 record the following year, Reisigl would never again wear a major league uniform. He did go on to pitch several more seasons in the minors, finishing his career with a 102-93 lifetime record before quitting professional ball in 1916. Reisigl ended up in Amsterdam in 1922, when he took a job as a lineman for the local power company. When he wasn’t climbing poles and running wire, he pitched for several local teams including the Bigelow Weavers, an Amsterdam-based semi pro club sponsored by the Bigelow Sanford Rug Mills. He married Amsterdam native Louise Reuss in 1934. They had three children, a daughter and two sons. Louise died in 1943 and three years later Reisigl married Margaret Hyatt, a widow with three children of her own. When he couldn’t play baseball any more, Reisigl helped others enjoy the game, especially the youth of this city. For many years he was Amsterdam’s busiest umpire, calling balls and strikes for both Babe Ruth and Wee Men’s leagues for many years. He was also a big fan of the Amsterdam Rugmakers minor league team that used to play in the city and he was one of the organizers of a booster club created to promote the team and the game of baseball throughout the community. He passed away in 1957.
5. Steve Kuk – I used to tend bar on Sunday afternoons at an Amsterdam watering hole on Market Street. One of my favorite customers was a guy named Eddie Fitzgerald, who was one of Amsterdam’s all-time great baseball enthusiasts. He’d never have more than two beers on a visit but we’d watch three or four innings of a Yankee game together and we’d talk about Amsterdam baseball. Eddie had been playing, coaching and watching the best baseball players in this town compete since the early 1920’s and he used to always tell me that the city’s greatest baseball player ever was Steve Kuk. Kuk had played for Jack Tracy’s varsity nine at Amsterdam High School in the late 1920’s and early ’30s. He was a superb hitter, a wizard defensively as both an infielder and outfielder and a lights out pitcher for Tracy during his AHS career. He then went on to Colgate, where he lettered in the three major sports and made All-American in baseball. Kuk signed a contract with the New York baseball Giants in 1935 and spent the next seven seasons trying to break through the logjam of outstanding talent that organization had accumulated at all levels of its minor league organization. He almost did, putting together three straight 20-homer seasons at one point before service in World War II disrupted his path. He retired as a player in 1945. He had blasted 106 homers, collected over 1,100 hits and averaged .282 during his eleven seasons of professional ball. Kuk then tried coaching and managing in the minors but found his niche and national acclaim as a coach at private prep schools first in New Jersey and then Connecticut. Amsterdam has had several families who have produced multiple great athletes but the Kuk bloodline has to be right up there near the very top of the list. Steve, his brother John and is nephew John Jr. all played minor league ball and the Mom of all-time AHS basketball great Tim Kolodziej was also a Kuk.
I will finish this list of the Top Ten All-Time Greatest Amsterdam 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.