Backtracking: The Early Years: Cooperstown’s Little League debuted in 1949

FILEAs seen in this advertisement from The Otsego Farmer of July 15, 1949, a short film, ‘Little League Baseball’ was shown. It was announced that evening that a Little League program would start in Cooperstown that summer.

A film “featurette,” shot in Cooperstown, turned out to be influential in starting Little League baseball in the village in 1949.

According to The Otsego Farmer of July 8, “On Wednesday evening, July 13, promptly at 9 o’clock, the stage of Smalley’s Theatre in Cooperstown will be the scene of a 16-millimeter print of the film featurette ‘Little League Baseball’ to the archives of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum by the United States Rubber Company, producers of the picture.

“The Cooperstown Central High School Band will be featured on the stage in several prize winning selections and invitations to be present have been issued to those boys who participated last winter in the filming of certain scenes for the picture which were ‘shot’ in Cooperstown’s famed baseball museum.”

The Farmer of July 15 then reported, “The film was given to the Hall of Fame by Charles J. Durban, advertising executive of the U.S. Rubber Company which sponsors ‘Little League’ baseball throughout the nation. It was accepted on behalf of the Hall of Fame by Walter R. Littell, its secretary.

“Mr. Durban stated that the company’s sponsorship of the program had no commercial tie-ins, that its intention was purely to stimulate interest in the game for boys in the age group from 8 to 12.”

A capacity audience was on hand for this ceremony, followed by the short film viewing, and the evening’s feature movie.

Lester G. Bursey, director of the Cooperstown playground, was called to the stage and was given six baseball bats from the Adirondack Bat Company of Dolgeville, for use by the playground boys.

“At the conclusion of the ceremonies, Mr. Yorke (master of ceremonies) announced that through the splendid cooperation of William C. Smalley, head of the Smalley Theatre chain, Cooperstown will soon have organized ‘Little League’ baseball. Mr. Smalley has informed local interested persons that he will underwrite the expense of a league here. Mr. Bursey, through his playground activities, has a nucleus of such a league, and stated Thursday morning that plans will soon be under way to get such a league under way in Cooperstown.”

The film was screened and it drew loud praise, especially when the local boys appeared. They included Raymond Smith, Vincent Mele, Bobby Johnson, Kenneth Haggerty, Ernest Bloomer, Joseph Violette, Billy Peters and Billy Clinton.

Lester “Red” Bursey wasted no time in getting Cooperstown’s Little League together. He had help from a committee of local businessmen.

“‘Make no mistake about these boys playing real baseball,’ said Director Bursey, ‘and I feel they can compete with any team in the country on an equal basis regardless of the size of the city. You must attend in order to believe what you see.’”

There were three teams in the inaugural season, including the Abners, Generals and Doubledays.

The first game was played on Monday, July 25, “when 300 fans turned out to watch the Abners eke out a 9-to-8 victory over the Generals” at Doubleday Field.

“Manager Joe Sapienza sent 12-year-old Ray Smith to the mound for the ‘Little Abners’ and Manager Gary McRorie of the Generals countered with Robby Clark.”

The Farmer of Aug. 19 told how the Abners won the league championship in another victory over the Generals. The teams had played enough games to be invited to a state tournament.

Readers of the Aug. 26 edition learned, “Cooperstown’s representative in the New York State ‘Little League’ baseball tournament was eliminated Thursday night … in an opening round game at Corning.

“The local aggregation skippered by Lester G. Bursey was defeated, 10 to 4, in the six-inning contest to Port Chester.”

Undaunted by the loss, plans were already underway to develop the Little League program on a bigger scale next year, as well as form another league for boys graduating from the Little League program.

On Tuesday: Sidney’s water was mighty fine in ’89.

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area before 1950. His Tuesday columns address local history 1950 and later.  If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at His website is His columns can be found at

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