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June 8, 2013

Oneonta's Mr. Baseball

Sam Nader's influence on America's pastime unrivaled locally

By Mark Simonson Contributing Writer
The Daily Star

---- — The title “Mr. Baseball” in Oneonta doesn’t get tossed around lightly like a Frisbee. It’s more like a manhole cover, as those who have earned the title didn’t just hope for good luck to bring or keep baseball in Oneonta. They used determination and hard work to achieve that goal.

Ask longtime local residents or newcomers to Oneonta who are some former “Mr. Baseball” titleholders, and chances are likely they won’t tell you such names as Francis Marx, Charles Bowdish or Dorr Hickey. While those names were iconic for their era of the early 20th century, they just aren’t as recognizable today, much like silent movie or early “talkies” stars.

Who most people would refer to as “Mr. Baseball” in Oneonta’s modern era is Albert “Sam” Nader. Certainly there are some newcomers to the scene and others who have made some key assists in keeping professional baseball in Oneonta, but those newcomers consider Mr. Nader to be the sole titleholder of this era.

Nader, former Oneonta mayor, said he felt that the city needed something to be proud of in the 1960s. At that time, with the railroad industry starting to decline in Oneonta, and the Vietnam War escalating and causing a lot of unrest across the country, he said, the community needed a boost in morale.

“Professional baseball would be Oneonta’s flag to fly,” Nader said. Sure enough, a New York-Penn League franchise was brought to Oneonta in April 1966. Professional baseball had been missing from Oneonta in 1951, after the Canadian-American League folded.

That 1966 season was a one and only for a Boston Red Sox affiliation with Oneonta. After that season, Nader was told Oneonta could choose another franchise, either the Tigers, Phillies or Yankees. The Yankees was an easy choice, but Nader made sure that if the franchise was going to be sold again, local people would be given first dibs on buying into it. 

The NY-P League then offered Oneonta the chance to buy the franchise. Nader got on the phone and asked 10 potential investors if they wanted to buy the team, at $1,000 per person, forming the Oneonta Athletic Corp. Nader cautioned each investor, “It was accepting a right to lose money.” Nader didn’t have to do much arm twisting. Among those 10 initial investors was a longtime friend, Sidney Levine.

The Yankee affiliation lasted 32 seasons with many NY-P championships brought to Oneonta. Although the departure was difficult, even for Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, Nader said the exodus was professional and amicable. Along came the Detroit Tiger affiliation for another 11 seasons. Sam Nader and Sidney Levine, both looking to retire, sold the team in 2008, and the new owners decided to relocate the Tigers to Norwich, Conn., in 2010.

While the NY-P era was over in Oneonta, Mayor Richard P. Miller was determined to bring quality baseball to Oneonta, and succeeded in securing a franchise from Saratoga Springs in the New York Collegiate Baseball League. This development league, funded by Major League Baseball, gives college players who haven’t signed a professional contract an opportunity to develop their skills at a higher level of play, gain experience with wood bats, and be evaluated by baseball scouts looking for new talent. The new team was named the Oneonta Outlaws.

In 2012 the team switched to the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League.

While Oneonta had a strong, positive relationship with the new owners, Keith Rogers and Dan Scaring, local investors had the opportunity after the 2012 season to purchase the franchise. It was announced in December that lifetime Oneonta resident and businessman Gary Laing became the new owner. Steve Pindar, a native Oneontan, remained the franchise president of operations/general manager, and another lifetime Oneonta resident, Joe Hughes, became the new head coach. Rounding out the team partnership is Michael Getman, a lawyer. The new nonprofit organization was formed, the Oneonta Outlaws Baseball Club, Inc.

Once again, following a tradition of Albert “Sam” Nader, the Oneonta Outlaws are completely owned and operated by local people.

As coach of the Oneonta High School Yellowjackets, Joe Hughes and team brought home a New York state high school championship trophy in 2012. At a ceremony at Damaschke Field in July, Hughes was named “Mr. Baseball.”

“I haven’t accepted that position,” Hughes said, “because in my mind there is only one ‘Mr. Baseball’ and that is Mr. Nader. It’s nice recognition, but to me when I think of baseball in Oneonta, I think of Sam Nader.”

As far as what Nader has meant to baseball in Oneonta, Hughes said, “more than 40 years of family entertainment, watching America’s game in a beautiful, historic park, and seeing many players move on to Major League careers. It’s an immeasurable contribution to the community.”

Hughes said he is thrilled to be a part of the Outlaws club.

“Part of my desire to be here is to keep the legacy of summer baseball alive in Oneonta,” he added. 

Laing, new Outlaws owner, said he is also excited with what’s ahead for this season and also considers Sam Nader to be a modern-day icon of baseball in Oneonta.

“When I was a kid I used to shag baseballs at Damaschke Field,” Laing recalled. “A few of us would make a little money or get hot dogs and soda each summer, thanks to Sam Nader. It was a great thing to just be there.”

“Sam kept baseball in Oneonta,” Laing said, “and I now know from experience that it is not cheap. It’s a huge investment of not only money, but time. I’m glad I was given the opportunity, and being from Oneonta it makes me feel better than you can possibly imagine of continuing what Sam Nader started,” Laing concluded of baseball in the modern era. 

Laing also noted that longtime familiar names in Oneonta baseball’s past, Nick Lambros and Bob Zeh, have been incredibly valuable in getting this PGCBL franchise ready for the 2013 season.

With local ownership and management in hand, Hughes said three local OHS players or alumni will be in the regular lineups this summer, with Sean Getman, Mike Caulkins and Chris Pindar. Good quality players from excellent college programs have been recruited, Hughes added.

Opening night is Saturday at Damaschke Field.