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City’s first pro ball team documented

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Dave Stoodley can still remember the day as an 11-year-old when his father, Kent, took him to his first pro baseball game in Watertown in 1949.

He was enthralled with the game, and the atmosphere at the old Watertown Fairgrounds, and has carried his love for the game into his later years.

Now, after years of research, Stoodley has published a book on the first Watertown professional baseball franchise and the league in which it played. Titled “Chronicle of the Watertown Athletics and the Border Baseball League,” it traces the roots of the former city professional team and minor league since its inception in 1945 to their demise in 1951.

Stoodley, who lives in Adams Center, said he had thought about putting a book together like this for a long time. “I wanted a permanent record of the team and the league. There’s plenty of information out there, but it’s in so many different places,’’ he said.

During his quest to tell the history of the franchise and the league, Stoodley spent countless hours in the city libraries of Watertown, Ogdensburg and Geneva, plus Ottawa and Kingston, Ontario. He also visited the libraries at the Watertown Daily Times and the Ogdensburg Journal, scouring thousands of articles and pictures for his book.

“I actually started at the Flower Library microfilm and got every box score of every game in the league history,’’ Stoodley said. “I also made contact with people at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and they provided some information on the league that was quite helpful.’’

For people who do not remember the days of professional baseball following the end of World War II, Stoodley tells the story on a year-by-year basis. The book is loaded with pictures of players, teams and venues, many of which were made available from the Times archives. It also includes box scores, team and league statistics and assorted other material he put together from various sources.

The league was the brainchild of minor league commissioner William G. Bramham and the Reverend Harold J. Martin, who was then pastor at St. Raphael’s Catholic Church in Heuvelton and was a keen observer of the national pastime.

Representatives at the initial meeting at the church rectory came from Ogdensburg, Watertown and Auburn in New York, along with Kingston in Ontario and Granby and Sherbrooke in Quebec.

The Class C Border League became a reality at a meeting at the Hotel Woodruff in Watertown in January 1946 when it was officially approved by the National Association of Professional Baseball League.

Syracuse businessman and promoter James Doyle owned and operated the Watertown franchise, called the Athletics. John G. Ward of Ogdensburg was the first and only president of the new league.

Back then, Stoodley said, the lower minor leagues were classified according to city population. “Class D was up to 25,000, Class C to 30,000 and B to 35,000,” he said. “You had to have four rookies on each team, and no more than seven players with three years or more of experience.”

Granby and Sherbrooke withdrew, citing financial losses, after the first season when attendance was a little over 238,000. In January, 1947, Ottawa and Geneva were officially welcomed into the Border League fold, and league attendance climbed to 386,000 as the schedule increased from 120 to 130 games.

Stoodley said that after the war, professional baseball players were “looking for jobs anywhere they could find them. Pay was about $30-$50 per week, with the better players making $55. The level of play was pretty good because most of the players had at least some experience.”

In the first season, Watertown drew 43,769 fans, according to Stoodley’s statistics. That was second behind Kingston with 50,397. The Athletics then beat Kingston four games to three in the championship series.

Among the stars of the first-year Athletics was Fred Gerken, a native of St. Louis who was acquired from AAA Louisville of the American Association. He was a left-handed pitcher, as well as a good-hitting first baseman and outfielder.

Gerken, who went on to win league MVP honors in 1947 and 1948, played 17 minor league seasons, including the last seven at the AAA level.

He was one of the few players who stayed in the city after his playing days were over, and is perhaps better known for his golfing prowess, as well as that of sons Gary and Dave and daughter Lanie.

On Sept. 19, 1947, the day after 4,000 fans saw a playoff game at the Watertown Fairgrounds, a fire destroyed the grandstand. The city and team considered building a new park at the site of the now Northland Plaza, but eventually decided to stay at the fairgrounds site.

In December of 1947, Doyle signed former major league pitcher Bob Shawkey to manage the Athletics. Shawkey won 196 games from 1912-30 for the Philadelphia Athletics and New York Yankees.

“To get a name player like that to manage in the league was huge,’’ Stoodley said. “After that, the league and team continued to get quality players from all over. Jim Doyle had a lot of connections around the country.”

Ogdensburg won the playoff title over Watertown in the 1948 season as attendance increased again to 351,912.

The Athletics were purchased by Watertown Sports, Inc. in 1949. Clyde Graves was elected president of the team.

The league then saw attendance dive in 1950. The loss of one of the anchor cities, Ottawa, to the International League in 1951, commenced the death knell for the Border League.

“Ultimately, TV and losing one of the anchor teams made it impossible for the league to continue,” Stoodley said. “Even the four original teams (Watertown, Ogdensburg, Auburn and Kingston) decided it was fruitless to continue.”

The book, costing $10, is available at the Times Courtesy Desk. It is also on hand at the Flower Memorial Library.

He’s had 300 copies printed.

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