I had been working full-time at a local daily newspaper for no more than 3-4 months when a happy gentleman wandered into the office.
He came up to my desk, extended his hand, and said “Hi P.J., Sam Nader. Here’s the schedule for the Oneonta Tigers for this season.”
That was in March or April of 2004. At that point, Sam would have been a spry 84 years old. His 85th birthday would come a few months later.
The schedule though? Hand written.
This is the way Sam had always done it. A hand-written schedule, boxed off with the days like a calendar. A few scribbles and the such, but pretty much a clean-cut piece of baseball nostalgia – something you won’t see anymore, that’s for sure.
And even at the lowest levels of the minor leagues, it’s usually not the owner of the franchise hand-delivering the schedule. But that was Sam. And that was how things had always been done.
We chatted for a few moments and he said he looked forward to working with me during the upcoming season.
He then left, got in his car and headed home. Little did I realize that Sam would be somebody I would not only deal with for the next five-plus seasons of New York-Penn League baseball in Oneonta, but he would also become a friend and somebody I would grow to admire more than most I’ve come across.
When I was first hired full-time at The Daily Star in January 2004, I was told “You do realize this position includes the Oneonta Tigers, right?”
This was a bad thing?
It seems, in the past, this beat wasn’t the most desirable. And, to an extent, I could understand that. It’s short-season Single A baseball, running from late June to early September. The players are newer to the professional ranks and it’s a grind in the summer, when small-town newspaper people (who live on local high school sports) could get a breather and prep for the upcoming fall season.
For me, it was glorious.
I had always had a goal of covering professional baseball, and I had the chance to do that for six seasons. For all but one of those seasons, Sam was the owner of the team. And until the day they sold the team, he and the only other living partner of the original group to buy the franchise did things old-school. By that I mean, Sam would still take the nightly draw out in a small metal lock box, wander to his car, and head home.
It’s not like there was any chance somebody would try and wrestle that away from Sam – people were always watching out for him.
Sam turned 100 on July 8 of this year.
He’s not as spry as he once was, of course, but he’s still sharp as a tack. I stopped and visited with Sam for two-plus hours in the late spring and enjoyed a great conversation about life and baseball.
His memory is impeccable. He still has a great sense of humor, humility, and hospitality.
Safe to say, he’s still Sam.
At one point during our conversation, Sam turned to his aide and asked her to grab a guest book from a drawer. She handed him one and he waved it off, noting that wasn’t the one. Get the other one, he said. So she did.
Once in possession of it, Sam had a wide smile on his face. He opened and then handed me the book and said to look at it.
On the page were signatures from Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. You see, they had visited Sam at his house many years ago. That shouldn’t shock people who know Sam, though, as his connection to the New York Yankees goes deep and covers decades of baseball.
Sam, Sid Levine and a small ownership group brought professional baseball back to Oneonta in 1966. The first year, the Red Sox were the affiliation. The following year, Oneonta became the Yankees, forging a decades-long relationship with the most storied franchise in Major League Baseball. That relationship ran through the 1998 season. Oneonta shared the league championship that year, the last time a NY-Penn champion would hail from the City of the Hills.
Even the Boss – George Steinbrenner – had a great relationship with Sam, stopping in Oneonta a few times. Sam also still wears a World Series ring given to him by Steinbrenner after one of the Yankees’ World Series victories (though I’m not sure which year it is from).
Many well-known Yankees have come through or started their careers with Oneonta, including players like Don Mattingly, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Willie McGhee, Jorge Posada and NFL Hall of Famer John Elway. Buck Showalter managed the O-Yanks for two seasons. Other greats have been here in the early days for barnstorming games or other public relations-type events.
The Yankees left after the 1998 season, heading to Staten Island for a new stadium. Oneonta then began an eight-year relationship with the Detroit Tigers.
The history between the Yankees and Oneonta can’t be ignored, however. Teams won 12 championships (sharing that 1998 crown with Auburn) during the Yankees’ tenure in Oneonta. And despite a NY-Penn team no longer being in Oneonta, the 12 championships is still the most in league history.
The next highest? Auburn with eight.
The summer of 2008 was tough. Rumblings of Sam and Sid selling the team were becoming more and more widespread.
This is something nobody ever thought would happen. They had turned down major offers in the past because keeping baseball in Oneonta was very important to them.
But, in the landscape of baseball today, it’s harder and harder for locally owned “mom and pop” sort of ownership, especially when you don’t draw. And unfortunately, Oneonta didn’t draw well. The team was one of only a few throughout minor league baseball that didn’t sell beer.
When you went to Damaschke Field, it was for baseball, not all the glitz that modern baseball gives, especially at the minor league level.
This was tough professionally, as well, as everybody was keeping quiet. Myself, and other members of the newspaper staff, tapped into every source we could. Nobody would say anything. Even Sam, who usually would be as up front as anybody, wasn’t saying a thing.
Something was up and it was a sad time.
The sale came a few days shy of Sam’s 89th birthday. Sid was 95 at the time. It took a bit of work, but we did get the “scoop” the night before the news conference. It took some prodding and pushing, but somebody close to the team finally gave up some info to me, with the understanding that they couldn’t be on the record, but that I knew what to do with the information. Whispers had been out there. We had stories pointing to different things already, but this was confirmation.
The only people who knew that source was that person, and my boss. We’ll leave it that way, too. But it was somebody who grew to trust me and he knew how important it was for us to be the ones to have the story.
The next day, the conference took force and the news was widespread. It took place in one of the new locker rooms at Damaschke Field. Following the season, the new ownership held meet-and-greet sessions with local businesses and media. They wanted to stay, they said. A two-year agreement to stay was so they could work on something more long-term.
Eventually, the sale was announced. Sam and Sid were there. The new ownership was there. Baseball would stay in Oneonta for at least two more seasons, and hopefully well beyond that, the new group said.
During the news conference, Sam and Sid noted how it was hard, but they weren’t getting any younger and it was time to let it go. The feeling in the room was sadness, and people knew this was probably the hardest decision Sam ever had to make.
The two handled it with dignity and class, a lesson that would have been good for the new group to watch and try and emulate.
The promises new ownership made weren’t followed, though. There was only one more season of professional baseball in Oneonta as the new ownership group and management talked out of both sides of their mouth, telling people one thing and all the while not actually doing what they claimed they were doing.
Following the 2009 season, they packed up and moved to Norwich, Connecticut.
Professional baseball would be gone from Oneonta following the 2009 season, but the legacy Sam Nader had in Oneonta wouldn’t leave or fade.
The gentleman that is Sam Nader isn’t lost on those who know him. He served as Mayor of Oneonta in the 1960s and has been a respected resident and businessman throughout his life.
He greets people with a smile and a firm handshake and always has a story to tell.
Until Sid died at age 99 in 2012, Sam was still visiting him almost daily. The friendship the two had was a strong bond.
One time, after I was out of newspapers, I stopped to visit Sam with a colleague at the paper. Sam took us to his basement which is a virtual shrine to the game of baseball.
Autographs, photos, trophies and more are on display. Oneonta is lucky to still call Sam an upstanding citizen of the community.
Sam was a heck of a golfer, too. I was supposed to go with him and some others who have worked with him for years, but it never happened. It’s probably not a bad thing as he was still scoring well in those days – stories told to me said he shot his age when he was 84.
It was rare for me to shoot 84 in my 30s, let alone when I am hopefully 84.
Sam was inducted into the New York-Pennsylvania League Hall of Fame in 2013, the second class for the Hall. He went in with a crew of people who left indelible marks on the league – including the league founder, three league presidents, and Nader.
The playoff championship trophy in the NY-Penn is named after his late wife, Alice. The mark of the Nader name will be part of the NY-Penn League for many years.
That should tell you something about who Sam is, and what sort of impact he’s had.
Sam’s reach goes well beyond Oneonta. I’ve told this story many times and it still blows my mind.
It was the summer of 2009 and I was still in the newspaper industry. Besides the Oneonta Tigers, part of the baseball beat was covering the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a piece that I truly loved.
The Hall was holding the first Hall of Fame Classic, an old-timer’s game to replace the now defunct Hall of Fame Game. This is something I called for in a column when the Hall of Fame Game was canceled, and I was pumped to see it take place.
Especially, considering who was going to start the game – Hall of Famer Bob Feller. Yes, that Feller. The one who was then in his 80s. I was told by my boss to get some sort of story with Feller. Along the way, I learned a lot about respect and patience.
See, Feller did interviews one at a time. You waited in line for your turn. When I walked up, Feller was speaking to somebody he obviously knew as they were reminiscing and enjoying the chat. I wasn’t worried as I was second in line and was enjoying the situation,
It seems the reporter in front of me didn’t have the same patience as he tried to interrupt, was then scolded by Feller, and told to leave as he would not be speaking to him. The reporter left, flustered and red-faced. I stood there with my eyes open a bit more, but didn’t say a word. The person who Feller was speaking with then said he’d be going and pointed to me and said you have a patient reporter waiting.
When the seat next to him was open, Feller looked at me, patted the seat as an invitation to sit and looked at me, shook my hand, and said “What’s your name and where are you from?”
I told him my name, the newspaper and said “Oneonta.”
With a bit of a gleam in his eye and a small smile on his face, Feller looked at me and said “Oneonta… How’s Nader?”
And like that, Feller and I got into a 10-minute conversation about Sam, and about how long the two had known one another. I barely got any questions about the game, and soon I was on my way with a unique story.
It worked well, though, as Feller pitched to three batters and when he was done, he met with reporters in the runway at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown. Everybody seemed to be in awe as Feller scanned the group and not one person flinched. He looked at me, pointed and said “You… young fella – ask a question.”
So I did. And he answered with some humor, but when he was done, he looked back at me and said “And tell Nader I said hello.”
Baseball still remains in Oneonta, though in the form of a collegiate wood bat league team. They’ve won two championships since starting in 2010, following a championship lineage started in Oneonta by Nader, Levine and that ownership group.
In July, the weekend after Sam’s birthday, the Outlaws hosted the celebration of Sam, as well as the 1969 Oneonta Yankees, a team that won the NY-Penn Championship 50 years ago.
Several members of that team, as well as other years came for the celebration of Sam. There were local political dignitaries, as well as the outgoing president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
And what a perfect day.
Blue skies dotted with a few clouds. It was perfect for baseball. And there sat Sam, front and center at home plate and people echoed words, gave proclamations, and honored a man who had given so much to the City of Oneonta, as well as to baseball. There were a lot of faces in the crowd, too, who might normally not be at an Outlaws game – folks who came out to celebrate Sam and be part of this event.
Sam smiled and watched and it looked as though he was in a place he always belonged – a baseball field. He shook hands, had photos taken with many, shared memories and hugs with those on the field. At the end, a big birthday cake was wheeled on the field and the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to him.
It was a fitting celebration for a man who has given so much to Oneonta, baseball, and so many people over his century on Earth.
A great day, for a great man.
Thank you, Sam, for being a man with steadfast convictions, honor, and for being a friend – to so many. It’s my hope that everybody who came back to celebrate this man has showed the impact he’s had on many lives.
When the celebration was over and Sam left the field, a game started soon after. Just as it should be – baseball on a perfect summer night in Oneonta.
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