Frank Keetz says he would have been a fan of any professional baseball team in the Capital Region, but the fact that the Schenectady Blue Jays were a farm team of the Philadelphia Phillies was a pretty nice coincidence.
A Philadelphia native, a Schenectady resident and a retired high school history teacher who taught at Shaker High and Bethlehem Central, Keetz has been a baseball fan all of his life. Since moving to the Capital Region in 1963 has become an expert on the history of pro baseball in Schenectady and the surrounding area.
He has written five books on the subject, including “Class C Baseball: A Case Study of the Schenectady Blue Jays in the Canadian-American League 1946-1950,” and “They, Too, Were Boys of Summer: A Case Study of the Schenectady Blue Jays in the Eastern League, 1951-57.” Keetz wrote the first book in 1988, the second in 1993, and also produced a work on Schenectady’s black baseball team, “The Mohawk Colored Giants of Schenectady,” in 1999.
This Saturday at the Schenectady County Historical Society, he will give a presentation titled “The Schenectady Blue Jays, 1946-1957.”
‘The Schenectady Blue Jays, 1946-1957’
WHAT: A talk by baseball historian Frank Keetz
WHERE: Schenectady County Historical Society, 32 Washington Ave., Schenectady
WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $5 for nonmembers
MORE INFO: 374-0263 or www.schenectadyhistory.net
Q: Who were the Schenectady Blue Jays?
A: After World War II, the Phillies came to Schenectady and thought it would be a good place to have a minor league team. They made a few inquires with local banks, and eventually the McNearney brothers, who were partners in the beer business, became owners and built a stadium. There was no tax money involved or anything like that. They built it themselves, and there was no organized opposition, no environmental groups or anything like that. The team played its first half of the 1946 season at Central Park, but at midseason they moved into the new park. When it was completed they had room for 4,500 fans. They changed the name to McNearney Stadium, but it never really stuck. People just kept on calling it The Stadium, and it’s where the Stadium Golf Course is today.
Q: What was the difference between the Can-Am League and the Eastern League?
A: The Canadian-American League was a Class C league, and the towns were relatively small, like Pittsfield, Amsterdam, Gloversville and Oneonta. There were also two teams up in Canada, which meant long bus rides. When the Blue Jays moved up to the Eastern League in 1951, they played teams from larger cities, like Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Elmira, Hartford and Albany. The Eastern League was a Class A league, so on the average there were much better players in the Eastern League.
Q: Did the Blue Jays and the Albany Senators make for a good rivalry?
A: In my opinion, the sportswriters tried to create a rivalry between the Blue Jays and the Senators, but I don’t think it ever really happened. The fans didn’t heckle each other or the players or that type of thing just didn’t seem to happen. The real natural growth rivalry was between Schenectady and Amsterdam in the Can-Am League. There’d be 500 to 600 people from Amsterdam when their team played the Blue Jays in Schenectady, and while there was no huge brawl or anything like that, there was plenty of betting and things would get pretty lively.
Q: Who did you talk to when you were doing research for your books on the Blue Jays?
A: I tracked down as many old ballplayers as I could, and I also talked to batboys and all kinds of people who went to the games. The McNearneys, Pete and Jim, had a feud after two years, and Pete took the beer business and Jim took the baseball team. They never spoke to each other for the rest of their lives. One made a good decision and the other made a bad decision. I talked to some family members, two daughters, and they went into all of that. They didn’t hide anything.
Q: Why did the Blue Jays eventually fold?
A: Eventually, things just fizzled out. There were people who faithfully supported the team right to the end, but there wasn’t enough of them. They were obviously very popular for the first three or four years, and then attendance started to decline for a number of reasons, and the exact same thing was happening in Albany and other minor league towns around the country. What happened here happened in California, in Texas, in Minnesota. The world was changing.
Q: Who were some of the team’s best players?
A: In their 12 years here, the Blue Jays developed about 30 to 35 players who made it to the majors, but most of them only made it for a few weeks or a month or two. The most famous is probably Tommy Lasorda, but Eddie Kasko was another one, and he ended up playing 10 or 11 years in the majors and became vice president of the Boston Red Sox.
Q: Did the team have some great moments?
A: They won a pennant and the playoffs in the Can-Am League and they won a pennant and the playoffs in the Eastern League in 1956. The most memorable game was probably when Lasorda struck out 25 batters in a 15-inning game, and then also hit a double to drive in a run and win the game. When he was managing the Dodgers he had a picture from that game on his desk. He was very proud of it.
Q: How many managers did the Blue Jays have?
A: In their 12 years, they had seven managers. One was Lee Riley, Pat Riley’s father, and the other guy who was here for a few years was Dick Carter. Riley had a minor league career as a player, and then started managing in the Phillies’ farm system. He managed in quite a few different places, but then the Phillies let him go. He had a store in Scotia for a while and then he became a custodian at Bishop Gibbons and the baseball coach until he died of a heart attack [in 1970].
Q: What was it like playing minor league baseball in Schenectady in the 1950s?
A: That’s what I’m going to try to get across during my talk. Half of the games were on the road, so they lived in hotels much of the time, and when they were in Schenectady they lived in homes where people were happy to have boarders. Some of them also lived at the YMCA, and the Lubrants, John and his wife, Sophie, ran a diner on Albany Street. They were big supporters of the team and the players would hang out there and some lived there upstairs until they found a place to go. Riley and Carter were both given automobiles to drive while they were managing. There were good stories. Some of the players turned into successful businessmen and some became ministers and school teachers. But there were also some sad, horrible stories. Some of them were nasty individuals, and some became drunken bums.
Q: Are you still a baseball fan?
A: We had two teams in Philadelphia when I was a boy, so I was a Phillies’ fan and an A’s fan. I kind of outgrew that, and if I had moved to Wisconsin or Georgia I would have done the same thing and started studying the history of baseball in those places. I still follow baseball and I’m a fan, but I really don’t have a team that I root for. I like the history of the game.
Q: When did you start looking into the history of Schenectady’s black baseball team, the Mohawk Giants?
A: There wasn’t much publicity on them, but I started realizing as I was checking into the history of the Blue Jays that there was another team called the Mohawk Giants, and that this guy named [Buck] Ewing was a great player. In the back of my mind I was always thinking, ‘I’m going to write a book on them, too.’ It was the hardest to do because there was the least material. But I told myself, ‘I’m not going to just do the white guys.’ I just had to save the Giants for last because it was the hardest book to write. There really wasn’t a lot of material on them.
Q: What did you do with your baseball collection?
A: I accumulated quite a bit of stuff over the years, and I could have sold it and made some money, but I felt like it really belongs in Schenectady. I checked with the people at the county library first, and they suggested the [Schenectady County] Historical Society, so I donated it to them where they can take better care of it.