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NY-Penn League hits huge milestone: 75th anniversary

New York-Penn League 75th

Friday is a big day: it’s the 75th anniversary of the NY-Penn League, which launched in the 1939 season. We’re so happy to be working with the league on a history project — and here’s the first installment.

Pro baseball in 1939 was a thriving industry, with some 41 affiliated leagues ranging from Class AA to Class D and an independent Mexican League engaged in the business of baseball. Everyone wanted pro ball, and with teams in virtually every state in the continental United States, baseball was truly the National Pastime.

That desire was felt in upstate New York, Pennsylvania and Ontario, where town leaders and newspaper editors were eager to see pro baseball in their area. In those days, it wasn’t difficult to put together a league: with considerably looser MLB affiliations and no limit on the number of teams or league, it was a matter of completing the paperwork and submitting the application.The circuit launched in 1939 as the Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York (PONY) League after representatives from area cities met with Rochester Red Wings president Oliver French, the Buffalo Bisons’ Steve O’Neill, and local newspapers about the prospects of forming a new Class D league. These were boom times for Minor League Baseball: three more leagues would launch in 1940.

Most of the cities in that first PONY League lineup — Batavia, New York; Bradford, Pennsylvania; Olean, New York; Hamilton, Ontario; Jamestown, New York; and Niagara Falls, New York – had hosted professional baseball in the past, mostly under the Interstate League banner in 1905-1908/1914-1916. (In fact, when the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues commissioned a history of the game on its 50th anniversary, the Interstate League was listed as a predecessor league.) With ballparks and ownership groups in place, the PONY League officially came into existence as a full-season Class D Minor League on March 8, 1939, led by President Robert Stedler. It was a fairly compact league, with Hamilton to the northeast, Jamestown to the west, Bradford to the south, Batavia to the west and Niagara Falls and Olean between.

That first 1939 campaign was a success, with the Olean Oilers, led by future major leaguer Stan Rojek at shortstop and future Brooklyn Dodgers coach Jake Pitler in the dugout, capturing a pennant by five games over the Hamilton Red Wings. It was an auspicious start for the circuit, which drew 267,212 fans that season.

1941 Jamestown Falcons
1941 Jamestown Falcons.

Since that strong start, the PONY League/NY-Penn League can lay claim to being the oldest continuously operated Class A league in professional baseball. And one thing has remained the same over those 75 years: it’s been a place where tomorrow’s stars begin their professional careers. From Stan Rojek in that initial 1939 season to today’s stars — Evan Longoria, Josh Hamilton, Andrew McCutchen – over 2,700 alumni have ended up in the majors.

Olean Oilers
The Olean Oilers at Bradner Stadium.

Here’s a look at the league by era:

1939-1956: The PONY League Days. The Class D PONY League was a stable, full-season circuit. In this era, Bradford, Wellsville (New York) and Hornell (New York) were mainstays and fielded teams during most seasons, while teams from Batavia and Olean were present every season during this period. Unlike most minor leagues, the PONY League did not shut down during World War II, and as a result a lot of talented players – like future Yankee and Padres broadcaster Jerry Coleman, future Hall of Famer Nellie Fox, and future Dodger star Ralph Branca – were signed as teenagers to pro contracts and sent to the PONY League to begin their careers. The fate of the league mirrors the rise and contraction of Minor League Baseball: a prosperous era comes to an end on May 28, 1956 when the owners of the Hamilton Red Wings and Bradford Yankees disband their teams.

Members of the 1961 Hamilton Red Wing
Members of the 1961 Hamilton Red Wings.

1957-1966: The New York-Pennsylvania League Emerges. With the loss of the Hamilton, Ontario team, the league goes through a rebranding as the New York-Pennsylvania League, with teams in Batavia, Corning (New York), Elmira (New York), Erie (Pennsylvania), Hornell (New York), Olean, and Wellsville. Other cities entering the league in this period include Auburn and Geneva. In 1963 Minor League Baseball restructures and the NY-Penn League is reclassified as a Class A circuit, as Class B, C and D classifications are eliminated. Plenty of talent still flows through the league: in 1966, Amos Otis (curiously playing first base for the Oneonta Red Sox, despite making his name as a major leaguer as a fleet center fielder with the Kansas City Royals), Cito Gaston (outfielder, Batavia Trojans), and Jerry Koosman (pitcher, Auburn Mets) all made the NY-Penn postseason all-star team.

1967-2000: NY-Penn League Goes Short Season. In another MiLB shakeup, the NY-Penn League adopts the current short-season format currently in place, with the 130-game season reduced to 79. The league’s opening is designed to accommodate players chosen in the amateur draft. It’s also a time of expansion for the league, which goes from six teams in 1976 to 10 teams in 1977. The future of the league can be seen in team moves at the end of this period, with the Lowell Spinners beginning play in 1996: Owner Drew Weber began a prosperous reign of season-long sellouts. To show how this league changed in this period: in 1967 the Auburn Mets led the league in season attendance with 26,991. By 1996 the leading team at the gate, the Erie SeaWolves, drew 187,894 fans.

2000-present: Major Markets, Major Expansion. The NY-Penn League was focused on smaller markets during most of its history, but that changed with the addition of the Staten Island Yankees (1999), Brooklyn Cyclones (2000), Cal Ripken, Jr.’s Aberdeen IronBirds (2001), and Tri-City ValleyCats (2002) to the circuit. Along the way facilities and fan amenities were upgraded. As Minor League Baseball prospered during this period, so did the NY-Penn League, with attendance rising and a total of 1,602,543 fans at league ballparks in 2013.

As the NY-Penn League thrives, there’s still a strong connection to its roots: Travis Sick, Batavia MuckDogs GM, reported that a fan was present at the first NY-Penn League game in Batavia and maintains her family’s season ticket. For any professional league, it doesn’t get better than that.

We’ll be presenting stories on the NY-Penn League history weekly. In addition, we’ll soon be publishing a history of the NY-Penn League in book form. Watch this space for detais.


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