Albert "Sam" Nader, former Oneonta mayor and an integral part of bringing professional baseball to the city, has died, his family confirmed Tuesday. He was 101.
THE EARLY YEARS OF GROWING UP
Albert “Sam” Nader was born in Oneonta on July 8, 1919. He was one of six children.
Sam Nader’s young parents, Elias Andrew and Rose Rajah left from a small village in the mountains near Beirut, Lebanon in the middle of August 1909, looking for a better life in America. The Naders weren’t alone in eventually settling in Oneonta from the same Lebanese village, as the Wakin and Koury families left on the same ship that year.
It took a bit longer for the Naders to get to America, Sam said in an audio interview in 2007 with Alan Donovan and produced by Mark Simonson for the former Oneonta WUOW Public Radio. Sam’s father couldn’t pass a required eye exam to continue to America while on a stop in France. Instead the couple went to stay with a cousin in Brazil for two years before Elias could pass the eye exam.
“They got to Ellis Island on Aug. 13, 1911,” Sam Nader said. “My father had another cousin, David Nader, who was here at the time, and he was assured a job on the railroad,” the Delaware & Hudson. Elias was a section gang worker. The work was labor intensive, installing and replacing railroad ties and tracks along the road. Rose got a job at a silk mill in Oneonta. Many Lebanese families came to the city to work in two silk mills.
Sam recalled that while growing up, his father felt that a high school education was enough and it would be sufficient for getting a job. Both his parents never had a chance to go to school. “My mother pushed for education,” Sam said. While growing up, Sam and his siblings spoke English while the parents spoke Lebanese around the house, so both parents and children learned new languages.
The Nader family lived in what Sam called the “beehive.” It was a large rental building, built by the D&H for railroad families on West Broadway, where Scavo’s Body Shop is today. There was no central heating. “We had a pot bellied stove for heat, and we burned old railroad ties my father brought home from work,” Sam said. Coal was also used. “We never bought coal. The railroad car men and workers would push enough off the sides of coal cars for us to use, since we lived right next to the tracks. We’d go out and pick it up.”
There were times Sam recalled that there were identification “handles” to his and other immigrant families’ last names, whether they were Lebanese, Italian, Polish or Russian, and that they were made fun of by other children. Families near the railroad yards were the laborers, while those uptown, north beyond the Main Street viaduct were the shopkeepers, railroad executives and bosses.
“That’s why they called this the ‘Lower Deck,’” Sam recalled. “We stuck together when someone gave us a hard time. We were a League of Nations down here.”
Life wasn’t always tough for Nader and his friends, who played together in the Sixth Ward neighborhoods. Something the neighborhood kids looked forward to each Saturday was going to the movies “uptown” at the Palace Theatre, which was once found where Community Bank is today, at the corner of Main Street and Ford Avenue.
“Ten cents,” Sam remembered. “We’d go see the cowboy movies. We’d go around noon. My father gave us 15 cents for candy or popcorn. But before we went, we had to pick a pail of coal and bring it to the house.”
SAM NADER’S YEARS IN HIGH SCHOOL, COLLEGE AND WORLD WAR II
As his youth grew into the high school years, Sam loved to play sandlot baseball in the summer, playing when he could. Helping out with the family income and saving for college meant the play had to wait while he worked in the summers.
Caddying at the Oneonta Country Club was a fairly common job for youngsters during the Great Depression years.
“I caddied and learned how to play golf,” Sam said. “I started caddying the last year it was a nine-hole course. The golf pro was James Simpson. The first guy I caddied for was Dorr Hickey,” a prominent Oneonta businessman and one-time mayor. “Those people were very, very good to us. They had a sense of social responsibility long before the word was frequently used. If we caddied nine holes we got 25 cents, and invariably they gave us a ten-cent tip.
“There weren’t too many golfers back then. It was for the rich people. We used to wait by the diner, what is Nick’s today, Bob & Dan’s then, and the golfers would meet us there and give us a ride to the country club.”
Sam Nader was able to finish high school in 1938 as the next World War was escalating. He went to Hartwick College for a year, and played semi-professional baseball for one summer.
“It was the Southern New York League. I played for the Bainbridge team and made $10 a game. I was a pitcher and an outfielder. The manager told me about Bates College, and I wanted to go there because speech was a must. I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. Bates gave as much money in scholarships for their debating team as they did for sports teams. I got a scholarship there for baseball as well, so I transferred from Hartwick.” Bates College is in Lewiston, Maine.
Although Sam had the scholarships, he worked several jobs while studying and completed one year. On the summer break he returned to Oneonta and decided to seek work. His brother had gotten a job at the Scintilla Magneto Division of Bendix Aviation in Sidney, known today as Amphenol. After several attempts Sam also got a job there as an inspector, making 35 cents an hour.
"Then World War II came. I was assigned to various jobs to subcontractors to Scintilla. I kept getting deferments, but then got drafted into the Army. I never went back to Bates and I had two full years of college.”
Sam joined the 29th Infantry Division and went to the Battle of the Bulge.
“I was a machine gunner and I was never so cold in my life,” recalling one of the coldest winters ever in Europe. “I came home after V-E Day for a recuperation furlough. I learned later that our division was going to be on the first wave of invasion of Japan, but while I was home, V-J Day came. They dropped the bomb. I think I was the first one in church,” giving thanks that he wasn’t going to Japan after all.
After the war, Sam returned to Oneonta and soon met who he called the “love of my life,” Alice House, soon to become Alice House Nader.
“She tolerated me,” Sam quipped, “while I ran for public office and got into baseball operations. I married my best friend’s sister, referring to LeRoy “Sonny” House. The family lived at Colliscroft, the mansion found on state Route 28 south of the city. Sam recalled going to see Alice’s father, also named LeRoy, a prominent Oneonta physician, to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Sam was asked by Dr. House if he could support his daughter the way she is accustomed to, and Sam said “I’m going to work like hell to make it happen.”
“She raised the kids,” Sam said of Alice. “I was always busy with activities, eking out a living and taking care of my baseball and politics. We were married April 17, 1954.” The reception was held at Colliscroft.
SAM NADER ENTERED POLITICS
At one point in 1949, Sam was doing the public address work for the Oneonta Red Sox, then a team in the Canadian American League, and was also a member of the team’s board of directors. As a Republican, Sam was approached by Joseph Molinari, an Oneonta attorney who was running for state Supreme Court justice. “He came down to our house and asked my brother to be a chairman of the Sixth Ward Republican party, and for me to run as city alderman. The ward was dominated by Democratic residents. My opponent was Myron Brazier, who was very well liked, but I went from house to house and I won.” Sam was elected three times.
“I wanted to run for mayor, but I first ran for city assessor and was elected twice. When I did run for mayor I sought the Republican nomination, and the party gave me the nomination but really didn’t work with me, saying they couldn’t get me ‘past the railroad tracks,’” which was the northern boundary of the Sixth Ward. Sam lost in the primary.
Sam tried again in 1961 and couldn’t get the nomination by the Republicans. “So I formed my own party,” he said. Sam got to know Dr. Alexander Carson, prominent Oneonta physician and public servant, who had been mayor of the city during the 1940s — and a Democrat. The Democrats didn’t have a candidate, and Sam decided to call his party the “Good Government Party.” Carson asked Sam if he’d accept the Democratic nomination, which he did.
“The party didn’t matter to me, it was the individual,” Sam said. “On a local level, party doesn’t mean a thing.”
The first race for mayor against John K. Dunn was close. “I won by 19 votes,” Sam said. “That was after a recall when I led by 13 votes.” He got about 90 percent of the vote in the Sixth Ward, but also proved that he could “get past the railroad tracks.”
In the second race for mayor, Sam was nominated by both parties at first, but Roger Hughes, a former mayor, decided to run again for the office, and was nominated by the Republican party. Sam won that race handily. Sam and Roger Hughes were good friends over the years, as Sam had campaigned for him during the 1950s.
Sam Nader had the first ever four-year term as mayor of Oneonta. “One of the best things I accomplished was getting the airport built, in my opinion. If you were going to do well in the 20th century, you sure needed an airport in a city.” The airport was dedicated in September 1966. It was named in his honor in 2018.
“During my administration there was the expansion of the State University College, which meant extension of water lines, sewers and streets. There was a program called the Accelerated Public Works Program, started by President Kennedy. I established a Capital Budget Planning Commission, which was required for funding by the federal program. The City of Oneonta got more money out of that program than did any city in New York except for Rochester, Buffalo, Yonkers and Syracuse.
“We extended Bugbee Road, made the streets wider going to both colleges and made the corner of West and Center safer,” commonly known at the time as “Crash Corner.”
“In honor of my administration we expanded our parks. We brought in new industry. Corning, Gladding and Custom Electronics came in during my administration. We always pushed for the expressway,” today’s Interstate 88, “and they pretty much established the route it was going to take during the second term. That also helped get in motion some flood control measures for the Sixth Ward.
“One of the things I advocated for was housing for the elderly,” Nader said. “I established a Housing Authority, and that brought about Nader Towers,” completed a few years after he left office.
“We started urban renewal, which was very controversial then and still is now, but it was needed because buildings were deteriorated. We got projects started,” which were completed after his terms in office, “such as the parking garage. We had a pretty upbeat administration.”
Nader had thoughts of running for other offices after his two terms as Oneonta mayor, such as state Assemblyman. “But I had to feed my family, and I’d become director of purchasing for the Bendix Corp. in Sidney, which was a pretty darn good job, and very time consuming. I would’ve had to take a leave of absence, and no assurance if I lost the race, to get the job back.” So he played it safe, part of his 42-year career at Bendix.
“I started at 35 cents an hour and ended up as director of purchasing.”
SAM NADER BECAME KNOWN AS MR. BASEBALL
One other accomplishment in Sam’s years as mayor was getting professional baseball back in Oneonta, a quality of life that had been absent in the city since 1952.
“Not only did I love baseball,” Sam recalled, “but you’ll remember the 60s as a time of protests against this or that in cities, and felt that the best thing we could have is a flag to fly; something we could be proud of. In the old days, communities would be proud of their bands, football teams, whatever it was, there was pride in the communities. I thought baseball would be a good instrument to bring back this loyalty and an inspiration for this community.
“So wherever there were two people talking about professional baseball and if there was any chance of getting a team, I was one of them.
“We started with the Red Sox,” in the 1966 New York-Penn League season. “They were a team in Wellsville, and they were unhappy there. I had established a good relationship with Vince McNamara, who was the president of the league. I’d told him I wanted a team for Oneonta. So one day he called me and said the Red Sox were unhappy, and if you’re really interested, we could probably do something.”
At a league meeting in 1965 Sam took his city attorney and the city’s chamber of commerce president and found out what was required to bring the Wellsville team to Oneonta. “We already had a good relationship with the Red Sox, having been in the Canadian American League,” a league which folded in 1952.
The Red Sox affiliation lasted only one season, because the New York-Penn League became a short-season league in 1967, playing 76 games instead of the previous 132. Sam got a phone call from league officials in December 1966 to tell him the Red Sox wouldn’t be back. As a consolation, the league told Sam that he could have an affiliation with either the Cincinnati Reds, Kansas City Royals or the New York Yankees.
“I was a Yankee fan all of my life,” Sam said, making the decision an easy one. That relationship lasted until 1998.
“It was extremely difficult to see the Yankees leave. Mayor Rudy Giuliani wanted to have a team on Staten Island and in the boroughs, and the Yankees wanted to appease the mayor. The Yankees approached me to go with the team to Staten Island, but at my age, and Sid Levine’s age, we decided not to. And, if professional baseball left Oneonta, it wouldn’t be back because we’re such a small market. We wanted to keep a team here, and we approached Mr. (George) Steinbrenner about the possibility of having two Yankee teams in the league, and while he was willing, the league frowned upon it.”
Oneonta kept a team in the New York-Penn League, affiliated with the Detroit Tigers from 1999 until the end of the 2009 season. Under new ownership the team was swiftly moved to Norwich, Conn. in time for the start of the 2010 season. Sam Nader and Sid Levine, remaining members of the Oneonta Athletic Corporation, sold the team to a New York City attorney in 2008.
Sam reflected in 2007 on the positive side of baseball in the modern era in Oneonta. He wasn’t sure at the time how much longer a team could last, because the last few had been “red ink years,” but he had plenty of good memories during the 42 year run he was involved with the Red Sox, Yankees and Tigers.
“We probably had almost 100 players who made it to the majors,” Nader said of player development starting in Oneonta and moving up the ladder. “Don Mattingly, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Curtis Granderson, and even one Football Hall of Famer, John Elway, who was here one summer. We had Buck Showalter and Mike Ferraro who started here as managers.” Sam said George Steinbrenner thought that a player “had it made” if they got started in Oneonta.
The relationship with Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was notable. Nader said Steinbrenner had a great affection for Oneonta, visiting many times during the Yankee years in this city.
“Yes, he was a controversial guy,” Sam said of Mr. Steinbrenner, “but he’s a very compassionate man, a great believer in loyalty and in communities. I call him George. He told me I could call him George. He always told me I was crazy that didn’t sell beer at games, but I didn’t want to sell it. I guess he was right.”
Sam Nader was always closely involved with the young Yankee and Tiger players coming to Oneonta. “I told them we have a great tradition here. We’ve seen Major League players come through, and some Hall of Famers. We ask that you behave in our community as you would in your own community. Don’t embarrass us. Most of you aren’t going to make it; about one out of eight are going to make it. When you leave here, leave with a pleasant memory, and if you go on, always remember us, because we’ll remember you fondly.”
As for baseball in general through Sam Nader’s years, he said the good experience was always his intent.
“I hope that we fulfilled our goal to provide good entertainment in a good family atmosphere to our fans as something they can remember, and remember fondly.”
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This interview can be listened to in its entirety by visiting http://libguides.oneonta.edu/conversations