By Paul Post
Phil Kahn played a big role in John Smoltz’s path to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
When Smoltz, a Glens Falls Tigers minor league pitcher, was traded to the Atlanta Braves, Kahn – the team’s assistant general manager – drove him to the airport in Albany, N.Y.
“I’ve often joked that if I hadn’t gotten him there, the Braves wouldn’t have won 14 straight division titles,” Kahn said.
Now Kahn can also say he helped Smoltz make it to Cooperstown. The 1996 National League Cy Young Award winner and eight-time All-Star was inducted to the Hall of Fame on July 26 with fellow hurlers Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson, and second baseman Craig Biggio.
“It’s terrific,” Kahn said. “We have a long and storied history of baseball in the Glens Falls region. To have a player make it to the Hall of Fame is a tremendous honor.”
Smoltz is the first and likely only former Glens Falls minor leaguer to reach Cooperstown. Many future big leaguers came through Glens Falls when the city hosted a Double A Eastern League franchise beginning with the White Sox (1980-85), followed by three seasons as a Tigers affiliate (1986-88) and one more (1993) when the Cardinals had a team there in the short-season New York-Penn League.
However, no one comes close to matching Smoltz’s major league credentials.
Of course, Kahn’s memorabilia collection is highlighted by several unique items from Smoltz’s minor league days as a Tigers pitching prospect.
He has balls from all three Tigers seasons autographed by every member of each team. Then there’s the team photo, sponsored by McKenzie hot dogs, which shows Smoltz with his fellow Glens Falls players.
But Kahn’s most prized possession is the 1987 Christmas card the Tigers front office got from the entire Smoltz family. The front shows the 20-year-old Smoltz, with a full head of hair, accompanied by his sister, Bernadette; brother, Mike; and parents, John Sr. and Mary.
On the back, Mrs. Smoltz wrote, “Thank you for taking care of our son during his stay with the Glens Falls Tigers. Wish everyone a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year – The Smoltzes.”
Long-time baseball fan Bonnie George of Glens Falls has a minor league card autographed by Smoltz. “I remember when he used to go to Booster Club meetings at the Hibernian hall,” she said. “He was a nice guy.”
However, no one – including Smoltz’s parents – could have envisioned how far he would go.
In 1987, his one season in Glens Falls, the Lansing, Mich., native was struggling with a last-place team in his second year of pro ball.
The parent Detroit Tigers were in need of a veteran pitcher to bolster their starting rotation for a pennant stretch run. So on Aug. 12, they dealt Smoltz to the Braves for Doyle Alexander, who went 9-0 the rest of the way to help Detroit reach the postseason.
“John was very disappointed,” Kahn said. “He was a Michigan boy. His dream was to pitch for the Tigers. His stats didn’t show it (4-10, 5.68 ERA), but he had wonderful stuff.”
The plus side of the deal for Smoltz is that he moved right up to Triple-A Richmond with the Braves. Only a year later, he made his big league debut at age 21, on July 23, 1988, against the Mets. It was the start of a career that would see him become the only pitcher in major league history with both 200 wins and 150 saves.
As fate would have it, the trade turned out to be one of the most lopsided deals ever made. The Tigers reached the playoffs in 1987, but were eliminated by the eventual World Champion Minnesota Twins in the American League Championship Series.
Atlanta, meanwhile, had one of the worst teams in baseball. But Smoltz became a cornerstone in the Braves’ resurgence, which saw them win 14 straight division titles, five pennants and the 1995 World Series.
“There were scouts at all of our games in Glens Falls,” Kahn said. “They didn’t share with us who they were scouting.”
Smoltz and fellow Atlanta hurlers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, both of whom joined the Hall of Fame last year, formed one of the greatest pitching trios ever assembled. Smoltz racked up 213 career wins, a total that would have been much higher if not for his four seasons as a closer, including 2002 when he recorded 55 saves and was named NL Reliever of the Year.
He had 3,084 career strikeouts and amassed a postseason record of 15-4 with a 2.67 ERA and 199 strikeouts in 209 innings.
Kahn recalled an incident that reflects Smoltz’s competitive drive.
One time, avid fan and Glens Falls Booster Club member Nick Marschhauser threw a team picnic for the Tigers at his home in nearby Moreau, N.Y.
“It was pretty laid back, but there was Smoltz competing extremely hard in a pickup game of basketball,” Kahn said. “I’ll never forget that. He was a really nice guy. I’m thrilled for him. We can say we knew him when.”
Co-owners Frank Schafer and Richard Stanley were the partners responsible for bringing minor league baseball to Glens Falls in the first place. Engineers, they both had very successful careers at a large Procter & Gamble plant in Staten Island, but decided to buy a minor league franchise, almost as a hobby.
“Dick walked into my first-floor office one morning and said, ‘What do you say we buy a ball team?’ ” Schafer recalled.
“I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ ”
But they went ahead anyway.
“The minor leagues were considered dead back then,” Schafer said. “There were six teams in the Eastern League. We were in it for fun and hopefully to stay out of the poorhouse, which we almost got into. We worked for a large corporation unparalleled in ethics, and the way to run a business.
“You couldn’t have found two guys less prepared to deal with politics and small business,” he said. “That was something we couldn’t even imagine.”
They scoured upstate New York’s Capital District surrounding Albany, the state capital, for a place to put the team. There was no suitable location in Troy, Schafer’s hometown, and when a deal fell through in Schenectady, the City of Glens Falls stepped up to the plate.
Literally, there were only weeks to go before the season began.
“There was a tree growing out behind shortstop,” Stanley said. “There was no outfield fence, nothing. Out beyond center field was a Quonset hut-type building that we turned into locker rooms.”
Bleachers were installed, but the field didn’t have lights, a situation unheard of today at even the lowest minor league levels. The team would be affiliated with the Chicago White Sox, whose front office was doubtful.
“Who’s going to come? You’ll be playing all day games,” they said.
“So what?” Stanley responded. “So do the Cubs.”
Somehow, it all came together and a sell-out crowd welcomed minor league baseball to Glens Falls on opening day.
“It was close to a miracle,” Schafer said. “I think we still hold the record as the smallest city ever to have a Double-A team, at least in the Eastern League.”
The White Sox had quite a few notable players that went on to big league careers, including Greg Walker, current Chicago White Sox Executive Vice President Kenny Williams and Ron Kittle, whose prodigious home runs that cleared rooftops beyond the left field fence, are still the stuff of legend among long-time fans. In 1983, Kittle helped the Chicago White Sox win an American League West Division title, and he was named AL Rookie of the Year.
Doug Drabek, who pitched for the Glens Falls White Sox, later won the NL Cy Young Award with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Glens Falls was also a proving ground for front office personnel. A young White Sox executive, Dave Dombrowski, was just cutting his teeth in a promising career in pro baseball.
Dombrowski would go on to build the expansion Florida Marlins into 1997 World Series champions. He is now president, CEO and general manager of the Detroit Tigers.
Smoltz wasn’t the most impressive Detroit prospect to play in Glens Falls. The 1988 team won the Eastern League’s regular season championship and had future major leaguers such as third baseman Doug Strange, catcher Chris Hoiles and pitcher Kevin Ritz.
But someone in the Braves’ scouting department deserves considerable credit for realizing Smoltz’s potential and talent.
“He had mediocre numbers, but everyone knew he would make it,” Stanley said.
Stanley and Schafer moved the franchise to London, Ontario, after the 1988 campaign in Glens Falls. They still have a minority interest in the Yankees’ Double-A, Eastern League franchise in Trenton, N.J.
Schafer accumulated a considerable memorabilia collection of his own with numerous programs, scorecards and yearbooks. One of the most colorful highlights is a distinctive orange-and-black Glens Falls Tigers pennant.
Minor league baseball has changed considerably since Smoltz played in Glens Falls. The Eastern League has doubled in size to 12 teams, and ballparks such as East Field are considered grossly inadequate by today’s standards.
Quite simply, major league teams demand the best conditions possible for high-priced prospects.
Regions Field, a new Double-A stadium in Birmingham, Ala., cost more than $64 million, with state-of-the-art modern amenities.
“I think Trenton’s ballpark, which cost $20 million to build 20 years ago, is beautiful,” Schafer said. “Even they’re getting bigger and fancier; air-conditioned batting cages. Unreal. Dick and I have watched the cost of franchises go from $50,000 to $20 million.”
Stanley’s interest in baseball is focused overseas now. A decade ago, he brought Little League baseball to Uganda. In 2012, Uganda was the first African team to reach the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
Glens Falls hasn’t had a pro franchise for more than a decade when the independent Adirondack Lumberjacks ceased play. However, the game is still alive and well there, with the Glens Falls Dragons, one of 10 teams in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League.
The era of small-town, minor league baseball will likely never return, at least not at the Double-A level, two steps below the big leagues. However, Schafer says he would do it all over again, just for the fond memories, no matter the cost.
“We had a lot of fun,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier.”
Paul Post is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.