ALBANY — A Roberto Clemente toss from where Albany’s Clinton and Central avenues intersect lies the last living vestige of baseball’s pioneer era.
The Albany Twilight League celebrated its 85th anniversary last year, officially recognizing its establishment in 1931. And, not a Great Depression or World War has ever had it skip a beat.
That fact has earned it the distinction of being the longest running amateur baseball league in continuous competition. Older than the Cape Cod League, whose records go no further than 1946 despite its founding in 1885. Older, too, than the Shenandoah Valley Baseball League that started play in Virginia in 1897, but folded in the early 1920s before starting back up again later in the decade. (We’ll come back to that later.)
At the Recreation Bowling alleys on Howard Street, a group of baseball men, that included Hall of Famer Johnny Evers, met to finalize the details on what would become the Twilight League.
George Elwell is credited with the idea that essentially called for unifying the city’s prominent semi-professional baseball teams and players. To do that, he needed help.
In the decades leading to the Twilight League, the Capital District was a hotbed for amateur and semi-professional baseball. Baseball Magazine published a brief auto-biographical piece on Evers in 1911, where he wrote, “During the summer evenings after working hours, baseball came before supper, and every available spot was the scene of some sort of a game. During the day time, when the older boys and men were at work the kids had full swing on the roughly laid out diamonds. When it came to Sunday or a holiday, baseball games, and good ones, too, were as numerous on the fields and vacant lots… as bathers at a seaside resort on a hot day.”
Evers wrote of his hometown of South Troy, but the same could be said about Albany, too. Contests at parks long since gone were advertised in the paper each day. Many of the teams were industrial teams, sponsored by local businesses, ran by the same local business. The D&H Generals (Delaware & Hudson Railway), the Ostranders (local dairy distributor) and the New York Centrals (railroad) were among the most notable. Results from each of their games would headline along with those from the National and American leagues, making hometown heroes out of Matty Fitzgerald, Ed Phelps, Meldon Wolfgang and Mickey Devine — a handful of names among a longer list of players who moved on to the professional ranks.
Jim Ronin is not on that list of professional players, but his influence upon local baseball was near absolute. Among the aforementioned teams was his Ronin All Stars of the late 1910s. The charismatic man was able to persuade the best talent to play on his teams. Perhaps it was his love for the game, of which Knickerbocker News sports columnist Charles Young wrote, drove a young Ronin to walk several country miles to play in his native Whitehall. Or, it likely started once he walked onto a ball field, after moving to Albany to pursue a businessman’s life, and developed a reputation as a fair and passionate player. Regardless, while he walked the streets of the city, Ronin developed many friendships. Young would take to calling him, “the father of semi-pro baseball.”
It’s hard to believe, but semi-pro baseball rivaled the popularity of the professional game at the turn of the 20th century. Major League owners were notably cheap, as so revealed in the Black Sox scandal of the 1919 World Series. So, talented baseball players would not necessarily leave home to play for the Major Leagues, especially when they could earn more money through joint incomes between day jobs and time on the field. Baseball historian Bill Kerwin wrote how Albany native Cy Seymour earned $1,000 a month just to play semi-pro ball in Plattsburgh in 1896. In comparison, the Detroit Tigers paid eventual Hall of Famer, Ty Cobb an annual salary of $1,500 in his rookie season of 1906. (Seymour ultimately went on to a professional career where he continues to be the career leader in batting average for the Cincinnati Reds.) Major League baseball nearly disbanded in favor of semi-professional ball.
As Major League teams struggled during the height of World War I, there was discussion of replacing the National and American leagues with a semi-professional circuit in 1918. Such teams playing at the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field would bring in the much needed ticket revenue to help pay the rent. The money was there, and that was the case for Albany, too. The inland port city, at the mouth of the Erie Canal, helped the Capital City grow to the tenth largest metropolis in the Union. In 1923, Albany could boast having the wealthiest community based on the size of the average bank deposit account — three times larger than the next U.S. city. The “National Pastime” was popular with both the Everyday Joe and with business. Semi-professional baseball carried weight.
Ronin was named along with Fitzgerald, Phelps and Evers as among the league’s first officers. Together, Elwell garnered enough interest to form the Twilight League.
“I can’t remember any other loop of that type before it,” Joe Tholl told Bob McNamara of the Knickerbocker News in 1959. Troll was league president from 1932 to 1947, seeing the vagabond league move into Bleecker after playing its games throughout the city.
The term “twilight league” is not exclusive to Albany. A 1920 Variety article references the popularity of “twilight” baseball starting in Philadelphia, but falling out of favor in New York and New Jersey where industrial semi-pro leagues remained popular. Nonetheless, the name referred more to the time of day in which games were to be played, in the summer when players could take advantage of the late-setting sun.
Elwell’s initial concept more than tripled the size of today’s eight-team league. It involved four tiers divided by age: the midgets, minors, majors and seniors. Baseball players from 8 to adult were enrolled. The league is exclusively adult in today’s competition. Its original structure, however, has since carried over to Little League Baseball. The youth league uses a similar structure, and caps it’s oldest player at age 12, the same threshold established for Ewell’s midget division.
“We had the cream of the area to draw from,” said Tholl, recalling games that would draw thousands of fans in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The competition, he said, would rival that of Class A or AA minor league ballplayers. “I remember fellows used to come from miles around to play. Of course, they were well rewarded. Sponsors and fans were mighty proud of their team in those days.”
Today, those associated with the league share a different story.
“The thing I feel sorry about today is the players don’t get the big crowds that the other players got years ago,” said Barrett, who remembers watching the games with his father in the early ‘50s. His family lived just across the street from the stadium. But, technology and urban decay have since pulled the crowds away. “You’ve got TV, Internet, air conditioning, and a crime ridden neighborhood,” he said. “And, that hurts.”
The Twilight League has called Bleecker Stadium home since 1937. It maintains the look and feel of the that time. The field house next door still has men and women’s entrance ways etched into the stone above opposing doors. At each cardinal point of the stadium, iron and stone gates reveal the secrets of their past. Fans would receive their tickets from box office windows, now cemented over. From a higher vantage point, one can still make out the bowl that once served Albany as a water reservoir. Over the years, many tenants called it home, from local high schools and colleges, to the Metro Maulers semi-pro football team, to even the Oakland Athletic’s Double-A affiliate in 1982. Now, it’s down to the Twilight League, but their access to its longtime home has since been limited.
Albany’s recent financial woes have been well documented in local newspapers. Kathy Sheehan took on a difficult task in succeeding five-term mayor Gerry Jennings after he decided not to seek another term. Soon after she was sworn in as the Capital City’s 75th mayor, the public learned the city had to stop footing
the bill for things. Everything was assessed and nothing was sacred. Albany’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade nearly fell victim and would not have happened if parade organizers didn’t pay. In addition to the Twilight League’s rent, the league no longer was allowed access to the field on weekends. The city can’t afford the manpower to maintain it. In turn, some of the teams play outside of Bleecker. Some games are played in Waterford. Others, if the rent is paid, are played on the Bob Bellizzi Field at the foot of 787.
“They’re never going to float the city on the Twilight League,” said Barrett. “I always saw it, and I think previous administrations saw it as a partnership. The volunteers would produce a league of high quality baseball that was free to the public, the city’s part of it was to provide the field. That was the partnership that existed until the new administration.”
To the city’s credit, new lights were installed in 2014 with the help of a $200,000 grant, said Barrett.
The Twilight League’s lineage to Albany’s history makes it a local gem, but it no longer enjoys the financial support it once had. Author Jim Collins detailed the inner-workings of the Cape Cod League in his 2002 book, “The Last Best League.” Both leagues are similar in concept, catering to collegiate talent and both boasting a rich and detailed history. The Cape Cod League, which is also a non-profit organization like the Twilight League, has an enormous network of community support. Its financial backers include the likes of Coca-Cola, Baseball Americana, Franklin, Rawlings and Major League Baseball, among several more national and regional corporations that help fund annual expenses of more than $600,000. Each team is required to raise an additional $100,000 to $400,000 each year.
That’s where the comparisons end.
“The fact they’ve gone into their 85th (year) is remarkable,” said Thomas Yovine, former manager and league official. “They’ve managed to overcome every hurdle thrown their way, and they continue to march.” Just how long the league has been marching along may be more impressive than has been thought.
Twilight League records go back to 1931, a date even Tholl repeated in 1959. But, The Albany Evening News reported details of the league in its May 3, 1927 edition, revealing the names of league officers, managers and team captains under a headline “Albany Twilight League to Open Baseball Season Week of May 16.” Articles appear in subsequent editions reporting on game results. When presented with the article, the league historian appeared amazed. Barrett said the only explaination would be that the Twilight League reorganized at some point. Regardless the league’s claim to oldest amateur baseball league in continuous competition remains strong, keeping the league’s proud legacy alive.
The late Thomas Whalen, before his years as mayor of Albany, played ball in the Twilight League. Barrett said he spoke with the late mayor’s son after the family discovered his uniform.“It gave him great pleasure,” he said. “I did run into Mrs. Whalen [later], and she said she remembered, when they were dating, how she’d come up to Bleecker Stadium to watch him play.”