All-Time Top Ten Successful Two-Person Amsterdam Business Partnerships

Hill & Markes: Amsterdam, NY residents Amos Hill and Charlie Markes became partners in a candy, ice cream and ice cream cone distributorship in 1906. They dubbed the new business Hill & Markes and began making sales calls and deliveries by horse-drawn buggies and sleighs. Forty one years later Harry and Harriet Finkle purchased the company and expanded the product line to include school supplies, paper products, rental dishes and cutlery. The company was originally built and managed to serve the candy, sundries, toys and holiday decoration needs of small mom & pop grocery and convenience stores which used to dominate the northeast market until big-box stores moved in and discount priced those mom & pop’s into oblivion. Harry and Harriet’s son, Jeffrey Finkle; their daughter, Andrea Finkle Packer; and Andrea’s husband, Neal Packer joined the company in the 1970’s. These new generation owners recognized what was happening to the company’s traditional business model and fought back by diversifying their product lines and expanding their market. Today the company distributes janitorial supplies; foodservice disposables; industrial packaging; office supplies; ice cream toppings and supplies; and organic, gluten-free and vegan snacks and products to thousands of institutional and retail customers throughout New York State. The original horse and buggy have been replaced by a fleet of trucks that are loaded up daily at the firm’s gleaming new facility in the Town of Florida.

Mary and Belle’s Flower Shop: Mary Hutchinson and Belle Burrell opened up their little flower shop in a storefront at 123 East Main Street in 1944. They had plenty of competition at the time but Amsterdam back then had four seeds essential to success for new florists; plenty of churches, funeral parlors, cemeteries and people with jobs. The ladies worked hard to successfully find and retain new customers and by 1955 the business had grown successful enough to relocate to a bigger shop across the street. But it was probably the addition of Belle’s son Hugh Burrell to the store’s staff in 1957 that was the fertilizer to the shop’s dramatic growth into one of the most successful retail establishments in town. In addition to being a very good business manager, he became one of this community’s most active volunteers. When Urban Renewal forced the business to relocate 1980, Burrell chose a site on upper Market Street near the Amsterdam Memorial Hospital campus.

GO Oil: They had each run popular Amsterdam service stations back in the day when you only went to a service station to get gas or service your car and somebody actually waited on you. Frank Greco ran the very busy Market Hill Service Station at the site now occupied by Zanella’s automotive repair business. Jerry Ottati’s station was on the corner of West Main and Evelyn Street, opposite Russo’s Grill. The two men were friends who had grown up in Amsterdam’s West End and in the early 1970’s, they decided it was time to move up the retail gas business ladder and become distributors. They each kicked in the first letter of their last names to form GO Oil. They became the distributor of Mobil gasoline and oil products to a network of six Amsterdam gas stations, which included both their respective stations. Their timing couldn’t have been better. Within a few years, the Arab oil embargo had changed this nation’s gasoline business model forever. GO Oil’s sales and property leasing revenues increased rapidly. Greco continued on in the business until 1987 before selling out to Ottati. Jerry’s four sons now run the still thriving business.

Morrison and Putman: William Morrison opened a music store on the east side of lower Market Street in 1893. Thirteen years later, Morrison and his brother-in-law, Henry Putman became partners in the business and relocated the store to the then brand new Blood Building, across the street from its original location. For most of the following century, Morrison and Putman’s became Amsterdam’s go-to destination for musical instruments, music lessons, sheet music, records and stereo equipment. Paul Baker, the son of the treasurer of Mohawk Carpet Mills, purchased the store in 1948 and ran it extremely well until Urban Renewal forced him to relocate in 1970. Underscoring his commitment to his community, Baker became the first downtown business forced out of its home by Urban Renewal to rebuild within the city. He constructed a beautiful new state-of-the-art store at the corner of Division and Wall Streets. The business did well there for several years but eventually closed

Kaiser-Boswell Co: In 1917, two Amsterdam, NY sheet metal workers named Harry Boswell and Robert Kaiser began a sheet metal and heating business together at 5 Bridge Street, just over the northern end of the old river bridge, near Main Street. The firm became one of this regions most respected sources of all types of sheet metal, heating and air conditioning and roofing products for the balance of that century. The parlors and dining rooms of my late grandmother’s old duplex home in Amsterdam’s West End feature intricately designed tin ceilings that were manufactured and installed by Kaiser-Boswell and those ceilings are in as good a shape today as they were when they were installed over eighty years ago. The plant relocated to a modern one-story facility on the South Side of Bridge Street in 1967. Harry Boswell , the founder of the firm lived until 1966. Three of his grandsons then took over the operation. Kaiser Boswell went out of business in 2002.

Who are my five other choices for Amsterdam’s Top Ten Two-Person Business Partnerships? You’ll find out when my “Book of 50 Top Ten All-Time Amsterdam Lists,” is released later this year.

Once a month, I will be sending out a newsletter that includes a portion of the All Time Amsterdam Top Ten Lists I happen to be working on at the time. I will also use this monthly newsletter to announce the topics for upcoming Top Ten Lists and welcoming readers to put forth their own nominations for these compilations. If you’d like be included, please add your e-mail address here.

All Time Top Ten Greatest Athletes in Bishop Scully High School History

Having attended Amsterdam High School and not Bishop Scully, this has been a particularly difficult Top Ten List for me to complete. Fortunately, I’ve been able to receive some valuable assistance from Scully alumnae with intimate knowledge of which student athletes during their years at Scully deserved consideration for a spot on this list. Here’s my first five picks:

From its inception in 1966, Bishop Scully was a powerhouse in interscholastic sports. In fact, during that historic first year, the school’s varsity baseball, basketball and football teams all won their League Championships! The coach of all three of those teams was the one and only Francis “Dutch” Howlan and it was Howlan himself who designated Billy Whelly “the greatest all-around athlete I ever coached!” Dutch will get no argument from me. Whelly was an all-league running back and return man in football; a hard-hitting, slick fielding infielder in baseball and he scored over 700 points for Bishop Scully’s first two basketball teams, leading the Mohawks to a 37-6 record during that span.

Brian Niezgoda – Nicknamed “Nestor” this kid excelled at all three major sports during his days as a student athlete at the upper Church Street school but it was his four years carrying a football out of Scully’s backfield that made him a local legend. By the time he graduated he held the Section II records for scoring in a career, a single season and a single game. As a senior, Niezgoda rushed for 1,652 yards, scoring 27 touchdowns and 19 two-point conversions. It was the first time in Section II football history that a player had scored 200 points. This record stood for 14 years. Those 1,652 rushing yards were the standard in Section II for eight years. Niezgoda had also rushed for 1,285 yards, as a junior and again led Section II in scoring with 132 total points including 20 touchdowns. He was a pitcher in baseball and in basketball, he was the starting point guard on Scully’s outstanding 1980 team which won the Class B Section II championship. He went on to play one year of football at Alfred before suffering a career ending shoulder injury.

Cappy Wells was the first and only Bishop Scully basketball player to break the 1,000 career point mark when he reached that plateau during his senior season in 1974. He led all of Section II in scoring that year with 608 points and a lofty 29.3 points per game average. He was also a hard-running halfback on the Scully football team and made honorable mention on the Prep Football Magazine’s All American Team, also in his senior season. Those performances earned him a full sports scholarship to Colgate University, where Wells enjoyed a stellar career as a receiver.

Mike Skaradek was not very big physically but when he was on a pitchers mound or directing Scully’s offense on the basketball court he was big enough. One of the great southpaw pitchers in Amsterdam history, Skaradek seldom lost a decision and when Scully really needed an out, they’d put the ball in this guy’s hands. He only averaged about a dozen points per game as Scully’s varsity basketball point guard for two seasons but he made sure teammates like Bill Whelly, Hank Kelly, Mark Olbrycht and Joe Bialabok usually scored in double figures too.

Mike Wells was one of the most physically gifted athletes I’ve ever seen compete. He had great speed and strength and combined the two seamlessly during his years at Scully to star in both football and baseball. His best year on the gridiron was 1969 when he was runner-up for Recorder Player of the Year honors. Dutch Howlan rotated a lot of runners through his backfield that season but it was Wells who scored eight TDs to finish among area leaders in scoring. His forte however was as a kick returner. He was also a fleet footed outfielder on three Scully baseball teams, with a powerful arm and line drive producing bat.

Who are my five other choices for ten top athletes in Scull history? You’ll find out when my “Book of 50 Top Ten All-Time Amsterdam Lists,” is released later this year.

Once a month, I will be sending out a newsletter that includes a portion of the All Time Amsterdam Top Ten Lists I happen to be working on at the time. I will also use this monthly newsletter to announce the topics for upcoming Top Ten Lists and welcoming readers to put forth their own nominations for these compilations. If you’d like be included, please add your e-mail address here.

Amsterdam’s All-Time Top Ten Traditions

Tradition No. 7: Amsterdam’s Summertime Traditions

Riverlink Park Concerts: I firmly believe that some day Amsterdam will once again be considered a growing and thriving community. It is just a matter of time before enough unselfish people with vision and energy are all moving in the same direction, building and creating positive things that make a difference. When that happens, it will resurrect the community pride and spirit it takes to bring rebirth to this place. Paul Gavry and his Amsterdam Waterfront Foundation are examples of individuals already doing this. The program these folks have put together to provide free Saturday evening concerts down at this city’s Riverlink Park is one of the best things to happen in this city EVER! The AWF, working with the resources available to it, somehow brings incredible musical talent from all over this country to that canopied stage by the mighty Mohawk all summer long. It may not be SPAC but its working and its all ours! And guess what? The news of how great these concerts are, is spreading well beyond our community and the park is starting to fill up to capacity on those balmy beautiful Saturday summer evenings. And now that the pedestrian bridge has made getting to this venue a much more pleasant (but still very long) summer stroll, there really are very few nicer or more entertaining ways to spend a Saturday evening. Thanks to the AWF, Riverlink Park’s Summer Concert Series has become one of Amsterdam’s all-time great summer traditions.

Tradition No. 2: Amsterdam’s Winter time Traditions:

I. Snow Days

One of Amsterdam’s great winter traditions is truly a dichotomy when it comes to being loved by some and hated by others. Bad winter storms that occur on or just prior to weekday mornings have brought smiles to almost every Amsterdam school student for generations. Those same climatic events accompanied by the three words “school closed today” have been striking fear in the hearts of working parents with school-aged children for just as long. The best way to explain this is to simply relay the following story of the most memorable snow day in my life. It happened probably pretty close to fifty years ago. My Mom was working as a day-shift waitress at the time so if school was cancelled that meant my two older brothers and me were left home alone. Leaving Jerry, Matt and Mike in the same house back then was sort of like bringing together oxygen, heat and fuel. Disaster always seemed just a moment away.

Sure enough, it started when my brother Matt said something that my brother Jerry did not appreciate. They got into it pretty good and I was just trying to keep a safe distance. Before I know it, Jerry pushed or threw Matt onto the dining room table and we heard a loud “crack.” The collision had broken the table top off of its four legs but the damage wasn’t enough to stop the fight. They kept going at it and at some point Matt bull rushed Jerry and knocked him onto the couch in the living room. It was one of those 1960’s era modern style couches with four wooden legs that were each about four inches high. Sure enough, when Jerry landed on it, three of the four legs cracked off. At that point the shock of what they’d done must have sank in because my brothers suddenly stopped fighting and we all just looked at each other. We knew honesty was the best policy but we preferred a system in which we could delay the telling of the truth until it was absolutely inevitable. So instead of calling our mother at work and confessing what had occurred, we decided to try and hide the damage. While Matt and Jerry held up the top of the dining room table, I went around and repositioned the four broken legs back in place. Since the table had always been wobbly any way, our goal was just to get it standing on its own again while we figured out how we were going to break the news to our mother. We did the same thing with the three broken legs of the couch and pretty soon, everything looked normal. In fact, I think we may have even dusted and vacuumed the place.

When my Mom came home that afternoon, we made sure we were quiet and well behaved. Usually when she walked through the door after leaving us on our own her first words were something like “How did you guys do today? Any problems?” The three of us probably responded simultaneously “No Mom, everything was great!” Since it was winter, my Mom was wearing a heavy coat. She took it off and threw it over one of the dining room table chairs. Unfortunately she tossed it a bit too hard and when it hit the edge of the table, the reattached legs gave way and the table again collapsed. I still remember the look of shock on her face and my brother Jerry’s quick ad-lib, “Geeze Mom what did you do?” Probably feeling a bit faint from the prospect of having to buy a new dining room set, my Mom looked for a place to sit down and collect her thoughts. Unfortunately, she chose the living room couch as her destination. I started running to my room before her rump hit the cushion. I’ll never forget her scream when those three legs also gave way. My Mom hated snow days!

Tradition No. 3: Sunday Family Dinners:

In our Amsterdam family the Sunday routine consisted of going to the nine o’clock mass at St. Mike’s, purchasing the Sunday newspapers, and then heading over to our grandmother’s house to watch the TV Tournament Time bowling program, hosted by the popular local television weatherman, Howard Tupper. While Big John German or Skip Vigars was battling Joe Donato or Johnny Walthers in a televised three game match, my grandmother and aunts were busy as hell in the kitchen finishing the sauce they had begun cooking the evening before and preparing all the other components and courses that made up a Cinquanti family Sunday meal.

My father’s two sisters were physically large women and when the two of them and my grandmother were working in that same tiny kitchen there was no room for a fourth person to get in there. At noon, eleven of us gathered around a dining room table designed to seat a half–dozen to eat a three-course meal that began with homemade soup, either chicken with postine or Italian wedding, served piping hot. It could be a ninety-five degree day in August or a below freezing day in February, it didn’t matter. Hot homemade soup was always on the menu on Sunday’s at Gram’s house. My family loved to eat soup, not just because one of my aunts was a soup-making wizard but also because we were a clan that loved to slurp. When all of us got going on that soup at the same time, my grandmother’s 10’ x 12’ dining room sounded like the end of a drain cleaner demonstration. As soon as the soup bowls emptied, huge platters of the main course would start appearing on that table. There was always a platter containing five-dozen meatballs, enough so that every person at the table could have at least five. My Aunt made a delicious meatball, unlike any I’ve ever tasted before or since. Fortunately, both my mom and the woman I have been married to for over 40 years also made their own versions of a terrific tasting meatball. The result is that I have spent my entire life in meatball heaven! Along with the meatballs would come a platter containing 24 links of sweet Italian sausage purchased from Califano’s Market on the corner of Division and Clinton Streets. Alongside the sausage was the same number of braggiole, each still tied into tight little rolls with my grandmother’s white braggiole string. In our family, kids learned how to get a hot braggiole untied without burning your fingers long before we learned how to tie our shoes. Once all the meat was on the table the pasta would be served in my grandmother’s huge pasta bowl, which could have doubled as a backyard wading pool. Every week that gigantic bowl was filled with five pounds of P&R Pasta. It might be rigatoni, ziti, the little shells, spaghetti or my personal favorite, the accordion-shaped macaroni’s. The third and final course was always a tossed salad, which my aunt seasoned by hand, rubbing the olive oil, red wine vinegar and spices into each lettuce leaf, black pitted olive, home grown tomato and cucumber with her thrice-washed fingers. Strangely, the Cinquanti’s of Leonard Street always ate their salad as the final and not the first course.

I still remember the taste of every dish on that Sunday table and the sounds and voices that were as much a part of those family meals as the delicious food. There would always be arguing, sometimes loud and long, lot’s of neighborhood gossip often spoken in Italian and lots and lots of laughing. One of my uncles would always tear apart a paper napkin and convert it into eyebrows and a beard that he’d stick on his face. He’d also stand up after filling his belly to the brim, unbuckle his pants and pull them down in front of us all to “get some room to breathe” as he would explain it. “Give my baby another meatball, he’s a growing boy!” “Eat, please eat, there’s more in the kitchen!” “Finish your macaroni Jerry, it’s a sin to leave ziti on your dish!” “Who’s on Ed Sullivan tonight?” And while all this is going on, my sweet grandmother is sitting off to the side with a huge smile on her face watching her beloved family gorge themselves with all this delicious food she had helped make. On her lap was a little bowl with a few pieces of pasta and maybe half a meatball. She would eat more later, after she was sure there was enough food for everyone else.

Tradition No. 4: Amsterdam Parades

As long as Amsterdam, NY remains the home of the Amsterdam High School Marching Band and Majorettes and the Greater Amsterdam School District does a good job making sure those talented organizations have good quality leadership, instruction and resources, parades in this town will be worth attending. I don’t care how old you are, when you’re standing curbside on a parade day in and you hear that familiar drum cadence in the distance, you smile, you start feeling a sense of pride and you tell your kids or grandkids, “Here comes the Marching Rams”. Marching student musicians from our community’s high school have been one of this city’s most treasured assets since the late Gerald Barnell, the “Godfather” of the Amsterdam School District’s instrumental program started the ensemble in the 1930’s. This band has been winning national awards for excellence for the past half-century and they truly are the “Pride of Amsterdam”.

One of the things Amsterdam has lost that has hurt its parade tradition is our downtown shopping district. That section of East Main Street used to be the most popular parade route in town because it was straight, long and had plenty of parking. Disney World wasn’t the first place to figure out that a parade on Main Street was a great way to attract thousands of customers. Amsterdam’s downtown merchants understood and took advantage of that fact generations ago. The hours before and after one of this community’s downtown parades were amongst the busiest of the year for the stores, eateries and specialty shops that use to line the route.

The largest parade in Amsterdam history took place on Saturday, September 15, 1945. Dubbed the Victory parade, it celebrated the victory of the armed forces of the United States and its allies over the Axis Powers in World War II. Over 4,000 participants marched in the six-division formation including nineteen different marching bands led by the Amsterdam High School Band in division one. There was also a plethora of floats sponsored by several different Amsterdam organizations and employers including one from the Bigelow Sanford Company that featured a loom in actual operation producing an actual Army blanket, jut like the five and a half million the firm had supplied US troops during the just completed War. The parade commenced at 3:00 PM and took just over one hour and twenty minutes to pass a given point. Over 30,000 spectators lined the route, which began at the former Coessens Park on the eastern end of the city and ended at the corner of Division Street and Wall Street where the reviewing stand was set up on the steps of Amsterdam’s old post office building. Amsterdam native, Lieutenant Charles DeGraff, who had just returned stateside after 42 months of island fighting against the Japanese Army in the South Pacific, served as the parade’s Grand Marshall.

Some of the other great parades in Amsterdam history included the Amsterdam Sesquicentennial Parade held on July 5, 1954, in celebration of the 175th anniversary of Amsterdam’s incorporation as a village. It included ten divisions, thousands of spectators and unique little chapters of neighborhood based Rug City men and women who dubbed themselves Brothers of the Bush and Sisters of the Swish! This photo of that illustrious event, published in the July 6, 1954 edition of the Amsterdam Evening Recorder offers a classic view of what a major downtown Amsterdam parade looked like back in the day:

Another memorable Amsterdam parade took place in June of 1985, in celebration of Amsterdam’s 100th anniversary as a chartered city. Kirk Douglas, Amsterdam’s most famous citizen returned to his hometown to serve as Grand Marshall.

Amsterdam High School Homecoming parades deserve special mention here. They are an annual highlight of this community’s fall season. They begin in the residential section of upper Lindbergh Avenue and feature the award winning Marching Rams band and majorettes, four usually wonderfully creative floats constructed by members of the high school’s senior, junior, sophomore and freshmen classes and a string of sharply polished convertibles carrying the Homecoming Queen, King and their respective courts. The participants march down Lindbergh and into the eastern entrance of beautiful Lynch Stadium and then circle the football field. This yearly event serves as a constant reminder that Amsterdam’s best product and most valued asset are our children!

Tradition No 5: Amsterdam’s New Year’s Eve Celebrations

Amsterdamian’s still celebrate New Year’s Eve the same way they did back when I was a kid. You either attend a house party or you go out to a restaurant or club of some sort and celebrate in public. The difference between then and now was that thirty, forty and fifty years ago, Amsterdam offered a lot more options for your New Year’s Eve celebrating. It seemed as if every fraternal (i.e. Elks, Masons) religious (i.e. K of C, St. John’s, St. Agnello) veterans (i.e CWV, VFW, PAV) social (i.e. Century, Columbian) and ethnicity-based (i.e. PNA, ALC, Ukrainian Club) organization in Amsterdam, hosted catered New Years Eve parties in their club rooms, complete with noisemakers, open bar, and live music. The phrase “From 10 PM to ?” was a common element in each of their newspaper ads, signaling that the evening of fun would only end when you decided to go home, usually at dawn the next day.

Augmenting these closed group celebrations were the New Years Eve parties hosted at many of Amsterdam’s restaurants and bars. Several of these establishments brought in live music for the night, offered special menus and provided plenty of party hats and noisemakers. Going back to the 1930’s, Amsterdam had major hotels, the Warner, the Barnes, the Philip Schuler and the Conrad each offering Complete New Year’s Eve packages that included dinner, dancing and a room for the night. Decades later, the Holiday Inn would revive this total package concept at their new Market Street location.

As you might imagine, every band, combo and quartet both from in the city and from miles around would be working that night. For local musicians like Tony Brooks, Deanie Dale, Dusty Miller, Johnny Cole, Alex Amendola, Art Hoefs, Butch Robertshaw and every Polka Band on Reid Hill, New Years Eve was just another work day.

It was also the one night of the year that my Mom and Dad would actually dress up and go out on a real date. Me and my brothers would end up doing what the rest of Amsterdam did to celebrate. Go to a house party.

New Years Eve celebrations at my grandmother’s house are one of my favorite childhood memories. Talk about tight quarters, she lived in one side of a two story duplex in Amsterdam’s West End. There would be eleven of us crammed into her 12 x 10 living room that seated five. Instead of Carson Dailey or Ryan Seacrest on a 55 inch flat screen with stereo sound system, we’d watch and listen to Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians orchestra ring in the New Year on my gram’s 15″ black & white Philco. My Aunt Onnie would make fried dough with raisins (Italians called them azeepoolah) and dozens of sandwiches which she’d package in those tiny wax paper bags that were used before Seran wrap came along. Us kids would drink Shirley Temple’s out of the same bell-shaped green and black circled glasses she’d use for our Sunday night ice cream sodas in the summer. At midnight, she’d make us a genuine highball. Since I was only five or six year’s old, she’d only give me half a shot of Seagram’s 7 with my ginger ale! (I kid you not) The dining room in my Gram’s apartment was the same exact 12 x 10 size as the living room and it also contained the dreaded gas stove that used to heat the place. They’d keep that sucker so hot they would actually roast chestnuts on it. The temperature in the room would get so high, the grownup men would take their shirts off (in January!) At exactly midnight, my crazy Uncle would grab his shotgun and go out in the middle of Leonard Street in his long john’s to fire a salute to the New Year. We celebrated New Years exactly the same way for the first ten to twelve years of my life. The only thing that changed was that when I turned ten, my aunt would make my highball with a full shot of Seagram’s instead of half. It’s one of those great memories you store away and never ever forget. May your next New Year’s eve celebration be the best yet and may it usher in a year filled with good health, much love and good fortune (and at least one azeepoolah!)

Tradition No 9: Amsterdam’s Halloween Celebrations

Halloween in Amsterdam spawned three traditions that entertained an entire community, especially the Rug City’s young ones.

I Paintings on the Windows of Downtown Stores
Every October back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70’s, the Amsterdam Kiwanis Club sponsored a Halloween window painting contest for the youth of our community. Instead of soaping windows as a Trick-or-Treat prank, the Kiwanian’s awarded cash prizes to the teams of Rug City students whose plate glass backed depictions were judged to be prize-worthy. Over fifty different downtown merchants would participate in the event, donating one or more of their store’s display windows to serve as canvases for the amateur artists. Dozens upon dozens of kids would descend on Amsterdam’s downtown armed with paper sketches of what they were planning as their finished piece, wax pencils, paint brushes and jar upon jar of different color paints, heavy on the orange and black. Each sketch had to first be approved by the children’s art teacher. When all the windows were done, downtown would become very crowded with amateur art lovers who would walk the L-shaped outdoor Halloween gallery, which extended all the way from the corner of Market and Division to the Bargain City discount store on Main Street.  In 1962, the talented team of Louise LoBalbo, Sharon Pallotta, Stella Kohut and Agnes Boccio collaborated on the ghostly checker game that is pictured with this post, which appeared on the window of Morrison & Putman’s popular music store then still located on Market Street. The four young painters split a first prize of $10. Such a paltry sum is a clear indication that the kids who participated were in it for recognition more than money. How valuable was that recognition? A kid named Paul Tonko made the prize list at least a couple of times during his childhood and today he’s a US Congressman!

II The Annual Halloween Parade
Another Amsterdam Halloween tradition once sponsored by the Kiwanis Club is the annual Halloween parade. Every year for as long as I can remember, the kids of this city put on their costumes and head toward downtown to march past thousands of parents, grandparents and kids who were either a bit too old or thought they were a bit too cool to join the promenade of witches, ghosts, monsters and some of the most creative disguises many of us have ever seen. The Little Giants players and cheerleaders and all of Amsterdam’s various youth scouting organizations had it easy when it came to figuring out what to wear because they always marched together as groups dressed in their uniforms. All the other costumed marching participants were divided up by which school they attended. One of the highlights of each year’s parade and a custom still being practiced is the appearance of the Amsterdam High School Marching Band and Majorettes all dressed in their own costumes of choosing. I remember my own four kids marching in this parade and in fact have a vivid memory of myself as a youngster doing the same. The late ABC Newsman, Joe Spencer, his little brother Phil and I marched in the 1964 parade as the Spirit of 76. We won a pen set, but so did everyone else. The Amsterdam Elks Club took over sponsorship of the Parade in 2000 and have made sure it continues on as an Amsterdam tradition and they deserve the gratitude of our entire community for doing so.

III Trick or Treating
My own children still don’t believe this. When I was a kid in the late 1950s and early ’60’s, Amsterdam had three official nights of Trick or Treating. That’s right, Rug City youngsters would gobble down their suppers, put on their costumes, grab the brown paper grocery bags their Mom’s used to fold up and store on the back porch and spend the next four hours knocking on doors seeking full-sized Milky Ways, Hershey Bars, Almond Joys, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups etc. I repeat, home owners and apartment dwellers in every neighborhood of this city used to hand out full sized versions of these popular sweet treats not the little miniatures they do now, for three full nights. Of course those big bar versions were only a nickel back then and lot’s of people still gave us apples and the dreaded popcorn balls, but it did seem that it was a lot easier for everybody to get into the candy-giving spirit than it is now-days. The three-day span also gave kids the opportunity to scope out a trick-or-treating travel strategy to maximize both the volume and quality of stuff dropped into your bag. We used to do the flat streets of the West End the first night, the hills the second and then on the third, we’d attack the fringes of surrounding neighborhoods always making sure to revisit the places that gave us the best treats from the nights before.

Here’s a list of the Top Ten Amsterdam, NY traditions I’ll be addressing in my new book, which will be released later this year.

1. New Years Eve Celebrations
2. Winter Traditions
3. Sunday Family Dinners
4. Easter Traditions
5. Memorial Day Services
6. Amsterdam Parades
7. Church Festivals/PolkaFest
8. Summertime Traditions
9. Halloween Traditions
10, Christmas Traditions

Frank Derrico has shared with me his favorite memories of coaching ten special AHS Football teams. I will share some of those memories in the June issue of my free Amsterdam, NY Top Ten’s Newsletter. You can sign up for the newsletter here.




Memorial Day Means Something Special in Hometowns Everywhere…Including Amsterdam

Like all community’s in this great country, Amsterdam, NY has an abundance of heroes to remember and pay tribute to on this Memorial Day. I’ve written about many of them in my effort to document the personal histories of people from my hometown. When I write about these people, I actually picture in my head the homes they lived in, the schools they attended, the neighborhoods in which they grew up. In many cases, I personally know family members and friends they grew up with. I seldom am able to get the last sentence of these stories completed without tears welling in my eyes. Their bravery, character and patriotism is awe inspiring. While I will never glorify war I will also never forget and always honor these gallant human beings.

31713_Lynch_Michael_DOB_19482Michael Lynch was one of them. He ran into Bert DeRose in the parking lot of a local grocery store in 1968  and told his former principal and drama club advisor that he had just enlisted. At the time, Lynch was attending SUNY New Paltz and had a student deferment. He could have done what so many of his generation chose to do and completely avoided the situation that caused his death. Instead, explaining his just-made decision to DeRose,  he told his old mentor he just didn’t feel right knowing others his age were there in harms way and he was not. He became an Army medic in the 5th Infantry and was sent to Vietnam. On March 15, 1969, his mechanized unit was on patrol between Cu Chi and Tay Ninh, South Vietnam when, their convoy of Armored Patrol Carriers was ambushed by the enemy. When the two lead vehicles were hit with rocket-propelled grenades, this young hero from Amsterdam rushed to help and as he was bending down to assist a wounded soldier he was hit by small arms fire and killed.

cassetta2Frank Cassetta grew up on Mathias Avenue. He enlisted in the US Army in 1951 and was sent to fight in Korea the following year. Promoted to Master Sergeant while there, on December 23, 1952 he was one of the leaders of an assault force about to attack a heavily fortified enemy hill near Sataeri, a city situated just to the northern side of the present day border between North and South Korea. As the patrol was moving up a narrow valley to position itself for the attack, one of the soldiers tripped an explosive device, alerting the North Koreans of their location. Frank’s patrol came under intense fire and was greatly outnumbered. As the American soldiers scrambled, they triggered another booby trap and with enemy grenades and small arms fire pouring down on them from both sides of the valley, their situation became bleak. Though Frank had been wounded himself, he made two, not one, two perilous trips back into the field of fire to retrieve injured comrades and bring them to safe cover. He then returned to direct friendly fire against the enemy positions and realizing that additional support was essential, he volunteered to make his way back to contact reserve forces for assistance. While attempting to do so, he was mortally wounded by enemy machine gun fire. He got a Silver Star.

Makar.PhotoSo did Mike Makarowsky from Amsterdam’s Park Hill neighborhood. He was a member of Company G, Amsterdam’s hometown unit in the 105th Infantry of the 27th Division of the New York State National Guard. No Guard unit in the country faced any more danger in battle during WWII than this gallant Rug City fighting force. On June 21, 1944 Sergeant Makarowsky’s platoon had been pinned down by enemy fire while advancing through a field of sugar cane on the Island of Saipan. When one of the soldiers in his platoon was wounded and left lying in the open field of fire, Makarowsky and another of his men grabbed a stretcher from an abandoned ambulance and went and got him. They brought him back to the ambulance, which was under intense fire by the Japanese, and when Makarowsky’s efforts to start the vehicle were unsuccessful, he carried the wounded man to safety. Not too long after that rescue, Makarowsky became the first Amsterdam native to lose his life in the battle for Saipan when he was killed in a subsequent encounter with the enemy. In that encounter, Makarowsky’s commanding officer had been killed and he had taken over command of the group and was leading them “in defiance of all enemy action” when he was shot down. Three other Company G residents of Amsterdam lost their lives on Saipan. They were Sergeants Peter Sansen and Edward Golenbiewski and Private First Class Paul Sierotta. According to Tojo, the Japanese Prime Minister during WWII, losing Saipan was what lost the war for Japan. It was certainly one of the most important victories in the history of the US Military but it came at a huge cost to four families from Amsterdam, NY.


All Time Top Ten Amsterdam High School (boy’s) Basketball Players

Amsterdam’s boys’ basketball program has been in operation for over a century, since before World War I. There have been so many great players who wore the purple and gold that I found it extremely difficult to limit my all-time list section to just ten. But “10” is the premise of this blog and also the book that will follow so I had to make some very tough choices. Here are my FOUR middle-of-the-list selections. Later this weekend, I will reveal the entire Top Ten List of AHS boy’s Basketball Players in my free monthly newsletter. You can sign up for the newsletter here.

Mike Sollecito – I stopped attending Amsterdam High School basketball games after I graduated from the school in 1972. Then in 1977 or ’78 I kept reading about this kid Sollecito in the local paper. Since I had yet to see the inside of the gymnasium at the then two-year-old Amsterdam High School on Miami Avenue, I decided to call one of my buddies and check out both the gym and Sollecito. I don’t remember who Amsterdam played that evening or what the final score was, but I do remember Sollecito stopping and popping long distance jumpers. The kid could shoot and when he walked out of that AHS Gym in 1978 after his last high school game, he had amassed 1,221 points, taking over the career scoring title from Kolodziej. Keep in mind there was no three-point line in basketball back then because if there was, Sollecito might have set a record that would never be broken,

Dave Santos – Back in the late 1970’s, I used to play pick-up basketball games in the gym of the old Fort Johnson elementary school with a bunch of guys from Amsterdam. One of them was Dave Santos. He was about forty years old at the time but he still had game and I found out firsthand why former Recorder sports editor Bob Wischmeyer used to refer to him as “Deadly Dave”. The guy could pure shoot. Twenty years after he helped initiate the golden era of Amsterdam High School basketball with a soft touch fifteen foot jumper, he could still drill that same shot with uncanny accuracy. He played for the John Varsoke-coached Amsterdam varsity teams from 1956-58 and along wth that jump shot, he had mastered a change-of-pace drive to the basket that used to drive AHS opponents crazy. Santos averaged 20 points a game for that 1958 team and led the squad to a sterling 14-5 record. Add constant hustle and a very high on-court and classroom IQ and it becomes easy to understand how Santos went on to become the all-time leading scorer and an honors student in engineering at Union College. He was one of the finest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know and cancer ended his life way too soon.

Donnie Safran – Johnny Varsoke made the Amsterdam High School All-Time basketball team for the first half of the Twentieth Century as a player and he also was the head Varsity coach of the program for the first 15 years of that Century’s second half. So when he told the Amsterdam Recorder that he rated Donnie Safran as one of the best players he’d ever coached, that’s what I call a ringing endorsement. After seeing limited Varsity action as a sophomore, Safran cracked Amsterdam’s starting lineup as a Junior in 1958 and averaged 15 points a game. He and seniors Dave Santos and Bill Hojohn formed a dynamic trio of scorers who led that ’58 team to a 14-5 record in the very tough Class A circuit. Safran then really came into his own the following year. He scored at a 21 point per game clip, made all the area all-star teams and despite losing both Santos and Hojohn, helped Varsoke’s 1959 ball club finish with a 13-4 record. A superb all-around athlete, Safran was also the star shortstop on the AHS Varsity baseball team and he accepted a scholarship from Mississippi Southern University to play both sports.

Tony Torani – By 1966, I had become a fanatic fan of AHS basketball, never missing a home game. The team was still called the Hilltoppers back then and they played their games in the always-too-warm gymnasium of Wilbur Lynch High School. Tony Torani was a junior that year, playing his second season of varsity ball and he had all the tools. He had averaged nearly 15 points per game starting for head coach Tony Greco during his sophomore season and then matched that number again as a junior. Back before anybody even knew what a double-double was in basketball, Torani’s solid 6’4″ frame helped him reach double figures in rebounds every game as well. A bookend forward named Erik Johnson had joined the varsity that year and he and Torani along with center John Favorito formed an Amsterdam front line that could hold its own against any team in the Capital District. The following year, Johnson and Torani averaged 40 points and a couple dozen rebounds a game and were joined in the starting lineup by an exciting pair of sophomores named Buddy Flesh and Thom Safran, who was Donnie Safran’s little brother. Torani just missed the 1,000 career point plateau for AHS. He spent his first two years of college putting together double-double’s for Junior College of Albany and then transferred to Plattsburgh as a junior and became the leading scorer and rebounder for the Cardinals.

Remember, I’ve got six more selections to unveil and a bench full of honorable mentions to add to this list and I will include them all in the May edition of my free Amsterdam Top Ten newsletter. It will be distributed this weekend. You can sign up for the newsletter here.

Coach Bob Noto’s All-Time Top Ten List of Amsterdam High School Baseball Players

Bob Noto Sr. has been competing with, watching or coaching Amsterdam High School baseball players since the early 1970’s, when he himself was a member of one of the great AHS teams responsible for Brian Mee’s historic 53-game winning streak. I put my fellow Amsterdam West End native on the spot recently by asking him to name his Top Ten AHS Baseball Players. After pulling his hair out for a few weeks he came up with the following group. I too had the pleasure of watching most of these guys play the game and would put this group up against any other in AHS history. Thank you Coach Noto for sharing these gifted memories: (I’ve included the even number picks from Coach Noto’s Top Ten below. The other five, including Bob’s top pick will appear in my new Amsterdam All-Time Top Ten’s book to be released later this year.)

Oops! A few days after this post appeared Bob Noto e-mailed me to tell me he made a glaring omission from this list. As soon as he mentioned the name, I agreed that he had. Mike Tuman was the best all-around athlete in the Amsterdam High School Class of 1971. He was also one of the most unselfish, no-ego star athletes in the history of Amsterdam High School. He could have played any position on the AHS Football team and made all-league. Ditto for baseball but Brian Mee made the right call by putting him behind the plate. He was in my estimation one of the top three catchers in AHS history, right up there with Cliff Schwenke and Costa Lazarou. Tuman was so good behind the plate that his backup was Gary Tuck, a defensive catching wizard who went on to teach several big league all-star receivers how to become better catchers. The only time Tuck caught was when Tuman was pitching and Mike also happened to be the best pitcher on the Rams as well! Tuman went on to have a great career at U Penn but instead of taking a shot at the minors, ended up becoming a dentist instead!

 2. Dennis Kaczor – Another former AHS Teammate of Noto’s, Kaczor was an amazing all-around baseball player who could hit, run, field any position and pitch with the best of them. He went 8-0 on the mound during Amsterdam’s 23-0 1974 season.

 4. Sean Whitty – Another former AHS catcher, Noto coached Whitty and put him on this list because of his power-hitting capability, calling the kid the best hitting catcher he could remember.

 6. Joe Hage – Another old teammate of Noto’s, Hage was a great all-around player with excellent speed and good power at the plate. He was also an outstanding tailback for the AHS football team. He ended up playing minor league baseball for a spell.

 8. Thom Safran – Like his 3-sport teammate Flesh, Safran was extremely gifted when it came to sports. He was a smooth fielding shortstop and a very good hitter. He put together three great seasons of varsity baseball for Brian Mee from 1968-1970. His older brother Donnie was also an outstanding AHS shortstop a decade earlier.

  10. Mark Haver – A smart, dandy-fielding second baseman with a really good bat. Haver’s AHS teams won his last 40 games as a varsity player. This photo shows the smile on Mark’s face on the day he and the rest of the Rams ended the 5-year-long Suburban Council’s hold on the Section II Baseball championship on June 6, 1973 by beating Shenendehowa 6-5!

Once a month, I send out a newsletter that includes a portion of the All Time Amsterdam Top Ten Lists I happen to be working on at the time. I will also use this monthly newsletter to announce the topics for upcoming Top Ten Lists and welcoming readers to put forth their own nominations for these compilations. If you’d like be included, please add your e-mail address here.

Ten of Amsterdam’s All-Time Most Beautiful Singing Voices

Who better to ask to select Amsterdam’s all-time most beautiful singing voices than the woman who taught voice and directed the Amsterdam High School’s choral programs for close to three decades! Patricia Valiante told me she found this to be a very challenging assignment but not because of a shortage of Amsterdamian’s with gifted singing voices. Her problem was limiting the list to just ten. So she reached out to two other friends who have had their ears tuned to beautiful music in Amsterdam for even longer than she has, Bert DeRose and Peg Lazarou. I thank them all. Today in this post I present three of  the voices on Pattie’s list in the category of Pop-Broadway-Jazz. My upcoming book will include the entire list:

Arlene Fontana Born in 1936, as a student at Amsterdam High School she participated in a number of variety shows directed by Bert DeRose. In 1949, she appeared on the WRGB TV show Teenage Barn, where she attracted regional attention. She worked on a radio theatre series at local station WCSS., and did summer stock at the Malden Bridge Playhouse. When she graduated from AHS in 1954 she was offered a contract to perform at the Millers Shell Lounge in Miami. She sang at nightclubs throughout the United States and Cuba. In the late 1950’s she had a hit record of the song Easy and I’m in Love. She appeared in the Broadway productions of No, No Nanette and The Ritz. She was the character Linda Low in the musical Flower Drum Song and played that signature song I Enjoy Being a Girl a record 1,972 times. In addition to Broadway, she appeared on TV on the Ed Sullivan Show, Merv Griffin, The Tonight Show, and Mike Douglass. She acted in the Soap Operas Another World and Loving. Fontana died in 1990.

Sue Dunning Matthews A 1971 graduate of Amsterdam High School, as a student Dunning-Matthews showed much musical promise as a singer in the chorus, as a female lead in the high school musicals and as a soloist with the high school jazz band as well as other bands in the area. After she graduated, her life and career took her to the Washington DC area. She became a well known Jazz singer releasing her first album, Love Dances in 1991; her second, When You’re Around in 1993; and a third, One at a Time in 2002. She sings with a Maryland based group called Guys and Dolls. She also recorded an album of Irish pop songs, and has been a featured artist with several different ensembles and at several special musical events and venues. Dunning-Matthews continues to perform in the Maryland area.

Kyle Brown- Originally from Broadalbin, Kyle started singing and performing as a child. He was the lead character Amahl in the opera Amahl and the Night Visitor. From there his life took him to the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music, and then to the stage. He has been in many off-Broadway and touring companies, most recently he has appeared on Broadway in An American in Paris and is presently on Broadway in Anastasia the Musical.

Who were Pattie Valiante’s seven other choices ? You’ll find out when my “Book of 50 Top Ten All-Time Amsterdam Lists,” is released later this year.

Once a month, I will be sending out a newsletter that includes a portion of the All Time Amsterdam Top Ten Lists I happen to be working on at the time. I will also use this monthly newsletter to announce the topics for upcoming Top Ten Lists and welcoming readers to put forth their own nominations for these compilations. If you’d like be included, please add your e-mail address here.

Amsterdam’s All-Time Top Ten Greatest Baseball Players

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.



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.

Amsterdam’s All-Time Top Ten Most Elected Mayors

Who should be considered the most popular Mayor in history, the one who serves the longest or the one who gets reelected the most times? Compounding the issue is also the fact that Amsterdam’s Mayoral term has swung back and forth between two-and four-years since 1900 and there was even a time that term limits prevented reelection efforts in the first place. So I chose to rank Amsterdam’s Mayors since 1900 by the number of times the voters gave them a majority of votes, straight and simple. I created the following gallery to give readers a peak of my top ten. In my upcoming book, I include profile’s of each Mayor on my list, including the opponents they beat to make it:

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I will write about five of these ten former Amsterdam mayors in the May issue of the free Amsterdam Top Ten monthly newsletter. If you are not yet on the newsletter’s distribution list, you can sign up for here.