City That Would Have Been Cooperstown
If only Abner Doubleday had stayed put.
“We could have been Cooperstown,” Auburn city Councilman Tim Lattimore said. “It would have been nice if we caught the Hall of Fame.”
Doubleday, the alleged inventor of the game of baseball, spent the early years of his life here amid the rolling farms near the Finger Lakes. But he moved away too soon to suit local baseball fans.
So while Cooperstown’s name is synonymous with baseball, Auburn’s claim to fame became something most people would sooner forget: home of the electric chair, where William Kemmler became the first person in the world to die by electrocution 100 years ago.
And while the state prison dominates the local economy, Auburn remains Doubleday’s kind of town. It is home to the only city-owned, minor league baseball team in America -- the Auburn Astros of the Class A New York-Penn League.
The professional baseball roots of Auburn, a city of 32,000 some 25 miles west of Syracuse, date back to the late 1930s and the old Canadian-American League. The city has been in and out of organized ball seven times since the turn of the century. In 1957, three locals -- businessman Ed Ward, Dr. Tom Stapleton, and Leo Pinckney, sports editor of the Auburn Citizen -- spearheaded a drive to get an expansion franchise in the New York-Penn League.
The trio helped organize the Auburn Community Baseball Club in an effort to raise money.
“We started a stock drive and went house to house,” Pinckney said. “We got something like $5,800 in just a few days.”
That was enough. Then all the city needed was a working agreement with a major league team. Stapleton and company decided to contact Lee MacPhail of the New York Yankees, and he made the trip north on Dec. 19, 1957.
The team would play in Falcon Park, already 31 years old and in rough shape after sitting idle for six years. The outfield was overgrown with trees, the fences were falling and the infield was a mess because it had been used as a racetrack for mini-cars. However, MacPhail was oblivious to much of that, thanks to the harsh upstate winter.
“I’ve often wondered what they thought of us that day,” Stapleton said. “I remember that all the while I kept saying to myself, ‘Thank God the infield is covered with snow.”’
MacPhail gave the OK and the community-owned Auburn Yankees were born. It didn’t take long for everybody to get into the act. When Pinckney wrote about a “rock party” in his column, hundreds turned out to help clear stones from the field. Volunteers and the city worked to get the field in shape for the 1958 season.
Still, doubters remained.
“The first organizational meeting was held in my living room,” said 74-year-old Vince Klein, the team’s vice chairman and treasurer. “Some didn’t seem to think that pro ball would go in Auburn. They figured we’d be lucky if we lasted a year.”
Volunteers, with a helping hand from the city, have kept the team in business ever since, through affiliations with the Yankees, Mets, Twins, Phillies and Astros.
“We’ve always been a community-owned organization because we couldn’t afford to pay anybody,” said Klein, who pays his own way to major-league baseball’s annual meetings if team funds are low. More than once he’s taken out personal loans to pay off some of the team’s debt. “The board of directors is the backbone of the organization.”
That board has 47 unpaid members and includes lawyers, politicians, executives and an assortment of other professional and blue-collar workers. They do it all -- hawk programs, pour sodas and beer, take tickets, sell hot dogs -- at some of the cheapest prices in baseball.
Box seats, for instance, cost $3. Beer goes for $1, and hot dogs -- maybe the best in baseball -- sell for $1.25.
Without the board there would be no team.
“They all dedicate themselves to baseball here,” general manager John Graham said. “It’s something you see in Little League, but not in minor-league baseball. Locals take in the players here. That’s a dying trend. They feed them, they mother them.”
Bill McNabb and his wife have been doing it for nine years.
“We don’t have any children of our own, and these kids come in and by the time they leave they call us mom and dad,” said McNabb, president of the Astros’ booster club.