July 30 – Happy Birthday Gus Triandos

triandos2It it wasn’t for Yogi Berra, the most popular player in Rugmaker history probably never would have played for Amsterdam. Let me explain.

Yogi Berra became the full-time starting catcher for the New York Yankees in 1949 and remained in that position for a total of 12 seasons. He would become one of the top five catchers in baseball history, winning three MVP Awards and helping the Bronx Bombers win 10 Pennants and 7 World Series during his time as their starting receiver. But what he also did was create a stockpile of talented catching prospects in the Yankees’ farm system and today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant was one of them.

The Yankees signed Gus Triandos, a strapping Greek-American native of San Francisco, in 1948 when he was just 17 years old and before they knew Berra would become their behind-the-plate superstar. They assigned the youngster to their C-level club in Twin Falls, Idaho where Triandos smashed 18 home runs and averaged .323 in his first-ever season of professional ball. The next year he did even better, belting 26 home runs with a .307 average and showing great skill behind the plate. That got him pushed up to the A level of the Yankees’ farm system, where he started the 1950 season in Binghamton. That’s where he ran into the “Berra factor.” Two other catching prospects ended up on that year’s Binghamton roster, Lou Berberet and Hank Foiles and both would end up averaging over .300 that season. So when Triandos averaged just .048 in his first eight games with the club, instead of being patient with their young prospect, the organization demoted him back to C ball and gave him a bus ticket to Amsterdam.

He spent the balance of that 1950 season playing for the Rugmakers. He hit an amazing .363 and smashed 11 home runs in that half-season and impressed every baseball-lovng fan in Amsterdam with his shotgun arm and powerful swing. He also impressed the ladies of the Rug City.The 6′3″Triandos had Hollywood good looks and was built like a Greek God. The Recorder sports reporters covering the team nicknamed him “Gorgeous Gus”and the team’s female fans were disappointed that as a catcher, big Gus had to cover his handsome face with that big old catcher’s mask most of the time he was on the field. To top it all off, Triandos had a kind heart too. He was known to visit sick kids in both Amsterdam hospitals and was always willing to sign autographs. In addition to being the top vote getter on that year’s Can Am All Star team, Triandos ran away with that year’s “Most Popular Rugmaker” fan poll.

The only weakness Triandos had on a baseball field was his lack of fleetness afoot. Simply put, the guy was considered one of the slowest runners in Major League history. Despite that handicap, his strong hitting and outstanding defensive ability were clear indications that this guy would some day be a starting catcher on a big league team. But with Berra squatting behind the plate in the Bronx, it wouldn’t be for the Yankees.

New York brought Triandos up a first time in mid-August of the 1953 season. Casey Stengel got the then 22-year-old prospect into 18 games down the stretch and he hit his first and only home run as a Yankee. But he averaged just .157 and when the season was over so was his Yankee career, pretty much. He spent almost the entire ’54 season with the Yanks’ Double A club in Birmingham and that November, was included in a historic 17-player transaction with the Orioles that brought Bob Turley and Don Larsen to the Yankees.

It was the big break Triandos’ career needed. He was actually the starting first baseman on the 1955 Baltimore team and Hal Smith started behind the plate. He took over the starting catcher’s job during the 1956 season and remained in that role for the next seven years. He quickly established his reputation as one of the league’s best all-around receivers. He made three straight AL All Star teams and his 30-home runs in 1958 tied Berra’s record for most HRs by a catcher in a season. Though he was still obscured by the Yankee great’s shadow, he became a huge fan favorite in Baltimore, where they named a street after him.

Triandos gained lots of notoriety and sympathy for having to catch Hoyt Wilhelm’s fluttering knuckleball during the Hall-of-Famer’s four-plus seasons as an Oriole. Baltimore manager, Paul Richards designed and had made an over-sized catcher’s mitt to assist Triandos with the task. Though Wilhelm had some of his best big league seasons pitching to Triandos, including his only no-hitter, big Gus often said that catching the hurler’s signature pitch was the worst part of his career.

In 1962, Triandos was traded to the Detroit Tigers and a year later, Detroit sent him and pitcher Jim Bunning to the Phillies. It was there that he caught his second career no-hitter, when Bunning accomplished the feat in June of 1964 against the Mets. But Triandos had stopped hitting during his final few seasons in Baltimore and never again regained his stroke. He retired after the 1965 season and returned to his native California, where he started a mail delivery business. He died in his sleep, from heart failure in March of 2013 at the age of 82.

 

July 13 – Happy Birthday Ray Manarel

AmsterdamR58The first-ever Amsterdam Rugmaker team took the field at Mohawk Mills Park in 1938. They were managed by “Pepper” Martin. Not the “Wild Horse of the Osage” Pepper Martin from those great St. Louis Cardinal Gashouse Gang teams of the thirties. This was Admiral “Pepper” Martin, a career minor leaguer who became a player-manager in his thirties.

His 1938 Rugmaker team ran away with that year’s Can Am League regular season pennant on the strength of a superb starting rotation that included today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant, a big right hander from out near Rochester, NY named Ray Manarel. Born on July 13, 1915, he had been a baseball and basketball star in high school. The Yankees signed him a first time in 1936, while he was pitching for Brockport State Teachers College but Manarel asked for a release from his contract so he could accept an athletic scholarship to attend Clark University in Massachusetts.

After graduating from Clark, Manarel was convinced to give minor league ball a shot and he signed with the Sydney Mines, a Canadian team in the just formed six-team D-level Cape Breton-Colliery League. He had a sensational first season, going 9-3 with a microscopic ERA of 1.45. That earned him a new contract from the Yankees and promotion to Amsterdam.

That 1938 Rugmaker team went 79-40. Manarel was a huge reason why. He went 15-5 as part of the best starting rotation in the league that also included Duke Farrington (17-5) John Cahill (17-9) and Orin Baker (15-4). Manarel also often helped his own cause with his strong hitting. He averaged .294 for the Rugmakers that year, and belted 2 home runs.

The consensus of the entire Yankee organization was that Manarel was headed to an outstanding big league career with the parent club. Unfortunately, after compiling a 24-7 record during his first two seasons of professional ball, he suffered an arm injury and never again appeared in another game. Instead he became a history teacher in Massachusetts, served in the Navy during WWII and then became a professional management trainer for General Motors in Bristol, CT. He also served as a Yankee scout in the New England area for a number of years. He and his wife Virginia had two daughters and two sons, one of who, Charles, was killed in action during the Vietnam war. Manarel died in 2002 at the age of 86.

 

April 22 – Happy Birthday Tom Brownell

BrownellTomSo you’re at an Amsterdam clam bake and the guy pictured here walks up to you and says I’ll bet you $100 that I can throw 75 horseshoe ringers out of 100 tosses. Do you bet him? Heck if that happened to me, I’d probably have said let’s make it $200. Not any more! Not after researching this guy’s past.

Tom Brownell was the greatest horseshoe pitcher in the history of Amsterdam.He was born in Olean, NY on this date in 1923 and moved to this area when he was just a boy. He started pitching horseshoes when he was 14 and proved a quick study, winning the Fulton County Horseshoe Tournament that same year. He won his first New York State Championship in 1940, at the State Fair in Syracuse. He successfully defended that title the following year in Rochester and also went to work for GE, getting hired at the Schenectady main plant.

World War II interrupted both his GE and horseshoe careers. He went into the Army in 1943 and saw action in Europe. When he came home from service he stepped up his horseshoe competition level, competing in both the state and world championship tournaments. He went on to win five more New York State titles. His best performance at the World level  was an incredible third-place finish at the 1955 World Championships held in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom married Amsterdam native Shirley Palmieri on New Year’s Day in 1948 and their son Tom was born that December. The family lived in the lower East Main/Cranesville neighborhood of the city. In 1956, GE transferred him to their San Jose, California plant, where he became Manager of Drafting Documentation for the Company’s Nuclear Energy Division.

So how good was Tom with a horseshoe? During his best years, he averaged 75 ringers for every 100 shoes he pitched. In the 1955 State Tournament, he set a New York State record by throwing 30 ringers in 31 pitches for a percentage of 96.9%. So if it was Tom Brownell who approached you and me at that Amsterdam Clam Bake I was referring to up in the first paragraph, you’d be $100 poorer and I’d be a couple of C notes lighter myself.

Tom died in 1976 at the very young age of 53, one year after he was selected as one of just four people to go to South Africa to put on a horseshoe-pitching exhibition.

Two interesting side notes to today’s post; Tom Brownell was also an excellent kegler, competing in this City’s best bowling league back in the 1950’s, the old Carpet City Classic that used to roll at Tony Griffin’s Wilton Lanes. Like bowling, the secret to horseshoe pitching is replicating the exact same body motion and arm swing on each toss. The best bowler in the City back in the 1950’s was Jinx Brooks. In 1955, Jinx finished 12th in the New York State Horseshoe Tournament. He was eliminated by Tom Brownell.

 

April 21 – Happy Birthday Harrison Wilson Jr.

 

Harrison Wilson Jr.

My grandson Bradley started at quarterback for his Pop Warner football team in Fayetteville, NY and this coming fall, he will be trying out for his middle school’s modified football team. I asked Bradley to do me a favor some day. I asked him to make me the second Amsterdam native in history to have a grandson who was a winning quarterback in an NFL Super Bowl. You don’t think I’m putting too much pressure on the kid, do you?

In any event, the first Amsterdam-born grandfather of a Super-Bowl winning QB celebrates a birthday today. Here’s the background.

Russell Wilson quarterbacked the Seattle Seahawks to a 43-8 rout of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014. Russell Wilson is the great grandson of Harrison Wilson Sr. Harrison Sr. was the son of a slave. He moved to Amsterdam in the early 1900s and got a job working for a local builder named Thomas McGibbon. On April 21, 1925, Harrison’s wife Marguerite gave birth to Russell Wilson’s grandfather, who they named Harrison Wilson Jr. Harrison Jr. would grow up to become an outstanding student athlete at Wilbur Lynch High School. He starred on both the school’s football and basketball teams.

In January of 1943, as Harrison Jr.’s varsity basketball team was winning its way to a Class A Sectional title, a huge late afternoon fire engulfed a downtown Amsterdam building which was owned by McGibbon and housed the Empire Market on the first floor and a bowling alley on the second. When the roof of the building collapsed, two girl pinsetters working in the alley at the time, were trapped. Harrison Wilson Sr. with help from an unidentified second person rushed onto the scene and helped free them both. A grateful McGibbon would later respond to his long-time employee’s heroism by letting Wilson operate and keep all the revenues generated from a rather small parking lot the builder also owned in downtown Amsterdam.

After graduating from High School, Harrison Jr. enlisted in the Navy and served till the end of WWII. He then went to Kentucky State on the GI Bill, lettered in four varsity sports and graduated with a teaching degree. He later earned his doctorate from Indiana University. He would then become the highly successful basketball coach at Mississippi’s Jackson State, compiling a stellar 340-72 record during his 16-year career. He became President of Norfolk University in 1975.

In the mid 1990’s, the Amsterdam High School Marching Band was invited to play in the State of Virginia’s International Music Festival, which is still held annually in Norfolk. When Wilson heard his alma mater’s marching band was coming to town, he sprang into action. Norfolk State University has one of the great marching band programs in this country. Wilson arranged to have his school’s band do a clinic for the Marching Rams, providing the young musicians with valuable tips they could use when performing. Afterwards, Wilson had the college’s culinary staff prepare a full dinner for all of the Amsterdam students, their teachers and chaperones. One parent who made the trip told me that Wilson treated the band like royalty, commenting that there were even linen table cloths on the dining hall tables when the band sat down to its full-course meal. Wilson regaled the group with his fond memories of Amsterdam. It was evident to all who attended that day, how fond he was of his hometown. Wilson retired from Norfolk State 1997.

Just recently, Russell Wilson signed a new $141 million contract to continue  quarterbacking the Seattle Seahawks. I’m going out on the limb here and calling that deal the largest contract ever signed by a grandson of a native of Amsterdam, NY. Wait till I tell my grandson!

 

April 10 – Happy Birthday Tim Kolodziej

kolod

He was the first Amsterdam High School superstar athlete I can actually remember. I only got to see him play once or twice because I didn’t begin going to the games up at the Wilbur Lynch Gymnasium until the very tail end of his senior season. But I was an avid sports fan and I’d read every sports page of every newspaper I could get my hands on from the time I was six or seven years-old. One of those papers was the Recorder and I’d devour every line of the two or three pages of sports that would be included in each evening’s issue, from the “Art of Sports” columns written by my old neighbor, the great Art Hoefs, to every name and score that appeared in those nightly “Aces of the Alley” listings.

I remember not being able to pronounce his last name for the longest time. “K-O-L-O-D-Z-I-E-J;” how the hell did they expect a 7-year-old kid to sound that one out? But whenever an article reporting the results of a Hilltopper basketball game appeared, my eyes immediately went to the box score and specifically, the numbers alongside that name I could not pronounce. I’d do a similar thing with the Daily News. My Dad would bring one home every night and if it were baseball season, I’d go right to the Yankee box score and check Mickey Mantle’s numbers. That’s what being a young fan was like a half century ago if your parents weren’t into sports and didn’t take you to games. You waited for the paper, you looked at the box score and you reacted to the numbers that appeared alongside your favorite players.

Most of the time, the number in the column alongside Tim Kolodziej’s name would be something in the twenties. During his final year, in 1964 it got into the forties twice, (40 points versus New Rochelle and 42 points versus Johnstown) which remains even in the much faster paced game of today, a pretty spectacular achievement for any high school hoopster.

But what the box score couldn’t describe for me was the tremendous all-around game this guy had. He was six feet five inches tall, fast, and strong, could jump, had great basketball instincts and was also extremely smart. Art Hoefs would use the phrase “slashing and dashing” to characterize his amazing ability to drive into and through the lane at top speed and put the ball into the hole in a variety of ways.

The rest of this City was reading all those box scores along with me and hundreds were cramming into that glorious old pit of a gymnasium at the top of Brandt Place to watch this supremely gifted athlete lead some of the school’s best ever basketball teams to record-breaking win streaks and league championships. Kolodziej ended up “slashing and dashing” his way to an AHS record of 1,106 career points and a four-year-scholarship to play for Duke University. I even learned how to pronounce his last name. I’m trying to remember if his number “32” jersey and the game ball from his 42 point outburst against Johnstown are still being displayed in the trophy case up at the High School. If not, they should be.

Tim was one of three children born to Ed and Sally Kolodziej, who owned and operated the old Kuk’s Grill up on James Street. After graduating from Duke, he married the former Sandy Gallagher, also from Amsterdam. They now live in New Hampshire and are spelling their last name “K-O-L-O-J-A-Y.” Even a seven-year-old box score reader could have figured out how to pronounce that.

Another April 10 Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant never payed round ball but he did become famous for something else that was round.

November 16 – Happy Birthday George Liddy

 

liddy2Former Amsterdam Recorder Sports Editor Johnny Page loved one-time Amsterdam Rugmaker center fielder George Liddy. He’d often mention the Brooklyn-born ballplayer in the first paragraph of his weekly columns, pointing out a particular strength of the outfielder’s game. “George Liddy can run like a deer.” “The way George Liddy dances around when he gets on base drives opposing pitchers nuts.”

Liddy was one of very few players who started for the Rugmakers in two different seasons. He played 89 games and batted .313 for the 1949 club and then returned in 1950 and started every game for Manager, Mayo Smith’s team and averaged .317. He was mostly a singles hitter who could steal second for you, score runs by the bushel and cover lots of ground in that spacious Mohawk Mills Park center field. The reasons he probably got stuck in C-level ball for two straight years were his lack of power and a poor performance during a 2-week trial in B-ball during that ’49 season.

Unfortunately, after his very impressive second go-round with Amsterdam in 1950, Uncle Sam called him into service and he spent the next two years in the military. When he returned to civilian life he had one more decent season in C-level ball and then decided to hang up the spikes. He returned to Brooklyn, got married and then moved south to Florida where he went to work for a radio station that he would eventually own. In addition to being a good ballplayer, Liddy played a mean game of tennis and it was his love of that game and his close relationship with tennis champion Chris Evert’s dad that gave him the idea to…

You can read the rest of my story about this former Amsterdam Rugmaker in my new book “A Year’s Worth of Amsterdam Birthdays.” To order your copy, click here.

July 9 – Happy Birthday Jimmy Ludtka

Jimmy Ludtka shown during his Rugmaker days and at the time of his death in 2008
Jimmy Ludtka shown during his Rugmaker days and at the time of his death in 2008

Back in the 1950’s and ’60’s, long before the days of Cal Ripken and Derek Jeter, Major League shortstops were not expected to hit but they had to have great range in the field, strong arms and a vacuum cleaner for a glove. When the Yankees signed Jimmy Ludtka in 1950, it was said the 18-year-old Buffalo native had all three. That’s why Amsterdam baseball fans were excited to hear that today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant was headed to the Rugmakers for his first stop on what was hoped would be a quick climb to the big leagues, maybe even as Phil Rizzuto’s successor as Yankee shortstop some day.

Unfortunately, Ludtka reported…

You can read the rest of my story about this former Amsterdam Rugmaker in my new book “A Year’s Worth of Amsterdam Birthdays.” To order your copy, click here.

April 18 – Happy Birthday Vince Ventura

Ventura_VinceAmsterdam fans loved the Rugmaker’s Vince Ventura for a couple of real good reasons. First of all, in addition to being a solid pitcher for the 1939 team, posting a 10-4 record with an ERA of just 3.31, the multi-talented New York City native also filled in at third base for manager Eddie Sawyer’s ball club and averaged .309 at the plate that season.

The second reason Ventura was a popular figure in the Rug City was his Italian heritage…

You can read the rest of my story about this former Amsterdam Rugmaker in my new book “A Year’s Worth of Amsterdam Birthdays.” To order your copy, click here.

March 28 – Happy Birthday Vic Raschi

vicraschicard-thumb-200x278-2770671He was the very best Yankee to ever play for their Class C Canadian American League affiliate here in Amsterdam. In fact, between 1948 and 1953, Vic Raschi would be considered by many to be the best right-handed starting pitcher in all of baseball. On his Major League resume, he had put together three straight 21-win seasons and helped the Bronx Bombers capture a record five straight World Series  trophies.But back in the spring and summer of 1941, he was a shy 22-year-old member of the Rugmaker roster pitching in his first ever season of professional baseball. His full name was Victor John Angelo Raschi and he had been born to Italian immigrant parents on this date in 1918. As a high schooler, his blazing fastball had earned him a scholarship to the College of William & Mary, where he caught the attention of Yankee scouts who signed him and sent him to Amsterdam.

His Italian-American heritage and his impressive heater made him an instant favorite with Amsterdam fans…

You can read the rest of my story about this former Amsterdam Rugmaker and NY Yankee pitching great in my new book “A Year’s Worth of Amsterdam Birthdays.” To order your copy, click here.

March 23 – Happy Birthday T.J. Czeski

There have been some memorable quarterbacks who’ve played for Amsterdam Rugged Ram football teams over the years. I can remember as far back as Mike Krochina and Jerry Pepe from the mid 1960s. There was also the gifted Buddy Flesh, present day Yankee coach Gary Tuck and the very talented Frank Pozniak in the seventies. Dickie Peters was a solid signal caller for Amsterdam in the mid-eighties and more recently, guys like Chris Covell, Brendan Cudmore, and Matt Agresta carried on the tradition. My pick as the best AHS QB I ever saw play had been Brian Bonanno. He had all the weapons and was so good under pressure. He ran the offense for those great Justice Smith-led Amsterdam teams in the late 1980’s.

But then number 17 came along…

You can read the rest of my story about this talented Amsterdam athlete in my new book “A Year’s Worth of Amsterdam Birthdays.” To order your copy, click here.