Every now and then our region gets a visit from basketball show teams such as the Harlem Globetrotters. In recent years, no one can say he saw NBA-caliber teams play in Oneonta. In late 1948 and in early 1953, however, Oneonta could boast of watching both levels of basketball talent play on what was their premier hometown court.
The Oneonta Athletic Club, according to Oneonta Star sports editor Steve Shields, was “newly organized” in 1948 and apparently was out to make an impression on the community.
A few eyebrows were probably raised when it was reported on Friday, Dec. 3, that the Syracuse Nationals of the National Basketball League would play an exhibition game on Dec. 8 against the Glens Falls Commodores of the New York State League at Oneonta’s state armory. The NYSL was a short-lived professional league in the late 1940s. Other nearby teams included Utica, Mohawk and Gloversville.
For Syracuse, this was its last season in the NBL, as it joined the National Basketball Association in 1949. Newcomers to the team when it visited Oneonta were Al Cervi and Dolph Schayes.
The Glens Falls team had some Oneonta influence. George (Zeke) Zelie was a mainstay of the Hartwick College cagers in 1947-48. Steve Salata, an Oneonta Red Sox catcher was formerly “prominent in New England professional cage circles before he became a pro baseballer.”
Not only did the OAC organize and promote this event, several members suited up and played a warm-up contest before the big show. The Walton American Legion quintet downed Oneonta, 44-39.
Nearly 800 attended the 9 p.m. feature. As described the next morning in the Star, “When the ball sailed toward the Commodores hoop, more often than not it was plucked out of the air by the court giants of the Nationals, Ed Peterson or Adolph Schayes, and hustled back down the boards.” This duo was six-foot-nine and six-foot-seven, respectively. The Nats won, 77-64.
Shortly after Oneontans turned their calendars to January 1953, word came of another notable basketball event.
“In what is regarded as the outstanding basketball event here in several years,” the Star reported on Saturday, Jan. 3, “the world-famed Renaissance team will meet the St. Louis Bombers on January 17 in the State Armory. This announcement was made last night by Capt. Bruce Shearer, commanding officer of Company G.”
Staff Sgt. Mel Crosby, longtime Oneontan and basketball referee, arranged the contest. The New York Rens, as they were often called, was a professional team having toured since the mid-1920s. The Bombers were a one-time member of the NBA but still toured frequently.
The main Saturday night armory event got a late start because of freezing rain that made road conditions hazardous, causing the delayed arrival by both teams.
Nevertheless more than 1,000 fans turned out. A warm-up contest featured two teams from what was then the Susquehanna Valley League. The first place Otego team faced Nick’s Sinclair of Oneonta. Sinclair was then a popular brand of gasoline and there were several of their filling stations in our area. Interestingly the same Steve Salata who played for Glens Falls in 1948 was back, this time on the Nick’s Sinclair team. Nick’s beat Otego, 63-60.
Of the main event the Star said, “The ‘Rens’ and the Bombers provided the crowd with a display of topflight basketball, but as the great Negro team (Rens) passed and shot its way to a 94-83 triumph, it displayed some of the finest and most intricate pass work ever seen on the Armory court.”
This weekend: Getting from here to there was challenging in Oneonta in the late months of 1888.
Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.