Not surprisingly, the Yankees Amsterdam farm team supplied the majors with the most talent.
Pitchers were a specialty, as they learned to contend with the very short--but high-- left field fence at Mohawk Mills Park.
In 1940 there was Frank "Spec" Shea (11-4; 3.94 ERA), who in 1949 would go 14-5 as a Yankee rookie, win the All-Star Game and two world series decisions against Brooklyn. Shea was signed off a Watertown semipro team by Paul Krichell, even though, he was underage. He was allowed to finish out the season, and on his 18th birthday he "officially" turned pro. His first assignment was Amsterdam. "I had a good record in that Collegiate League," he recalls. "You know, everyone was saying, "Oh, gee. He's a hot prospect--And the first game I pitched against Gloversville, and they jocked me real bad. They got eight runs in the first inning, and I couldn't get anybody out. I said, "Professional ball's real tough.... I better pack it up and go home."
"Eddie Sawyer was our manager, and he found out. I was over in the clubhouse packing and he sent someone over to get me and talk to me. He said 'You're not going no place,' and he explained all the things that could happen, you know. If you leave, you're going to get a blacklist from baseball, this and that. So I said, 'Well, alright. I don't know what I'm going to do though.'
"So the next time out I pitched against Gloversville on their home court, and I think it was a two-hitter I pitched and shut them out. And that got me on my way, but the first game I pitched I thought, 'Oh, gee! This is tough.' Like he [Sawyer] said to me after the game, 'Your rhythm, your coordination, was way off. You weren't pitching. You were just aiming and throwing.
"They had an agreement with me. If I stayed with the club until July 4th, I was going to get a bonus, and I'm sitting in the Hotel Amsterdam [that night] and Eddie Sawyer came down and he said 'I hope you get it because you've done a good job for us so far.' We're sitting there, and he come over and he said 'Did you hear anything yet?' I said, 'No. It's getting near 12 o'clock, and if I don't get it by then, I don't."
"So Krichell came walking down the stairs, and he come over and sat right across from us, and I said, "That's the guy, Ed. I don't know what he's going to do, but I'm going to wait till 12 o'clock, and if he don't say nothing then I'm going to bed.' So, Jesus, about five minutes to 12, he come walking over, and he said, 'Well, we're supposed to talk about a bonus here today.' And Sawyer says, 'Jeez, I hope you're gonna give the kid a bonus. He's helping the ball club, and this and that.' He [Krichell] says, '˜Well, he's coming along. He's got to improve and get a little better than that.' Jeez, the Yankees hated to give you anything at that time, so he finally said, 'We're going to take a chance. I'm gonna give him the bonus.' He gave me a check for $250. You're talking about a lot of money. Christ, you'd think it was a big deal!
"You know, it was a funny thing. I was up in Watertown, and the last game I pitched up there I pitched a no-hitter, and he [Krichell] came in to see me and says, 'Jesus, I suppose you think you did a helluva job." I said, 'Hey. If I can pitch a no-hitter against grammar school kids it would put a feather in my hat. I feel pretty proud of it!' He says, 'Ahhh. That team you pitched against has been on the road, travelling for two days. They didn't get no sleep last night, that's why!"
"They'd never give you no credit.
"That was the last game I pitched up there, and I came home, and I said, "Jeez, if they don't sign me, I'm going to sign with the Red Sox. But I wanted to play with the Yankees above all, you know, always talked about playing with them."
Shea wasn't exaggerating about Krichell denigrating his work. Back in the late '40s the old scout told the New York Mirror's Dan Parker in great detail how he signed Shea. First Krichell claimed to have had great difficulty in even seeing Spec pitch (no doubt, to cover his underage signing). Watertown, said Krichell, had "one of those glow worm lighting systems with the lights about eight feet off the ground," and on top of that the Collegians' opponent, the Mohawk Colored Giants, were two and one-half hours late in arriving and blitzed out of their minds.
"Between his [Shea's] blinding speed," the old scout continued, "the poor lighting system and the temporary blindness of the Giants, he struck out 22 men and allowed a few hits [oh, really!]. I lost no time in signing him to a Yankee contract after the game [do tell], which was over in jig time."
"Well, I'll tell you, I loved that town," Shea still says of Amsterdam. "That was a real nice town to play in. I lived in the Hotel Amsterdam, a dollar a night, and it worked out real good. In those days we were getting $85 a month. They had these different restaurants that had a meal ticket. They'd punch it out, and, Jesus, you'd have to add everything up what you ordered, so you wouldn't go over, because you were only allowed so much a week. I think a ticket used to cost $7.50, and, Christ, that had to last us a week. It was tough, I'll tell you, on $85 a month. By the time you pay for your food, your hotel, and your clothing and buy a newspaper and pay your dues at the clubhouse and buy sweat shirts and stuff that you had to have you'd be lucky if you could get by. In fact, I got $5 a week sent by my family to survive. You couldn't make it. I'll tell you it was a tough deal."
Vic Raschi was on the 1941 Amsterdam roster, going 10-6. His .667 major league lifetime percentage was one of the best ever. In 1949-50-51 "the Springfield Rifle" won 21 games each year, and in 1951 led the circuit in strikeouts. "My best pitch," he once contended modestly, "is anything the batter lines or pops up in the direction of Rizzuto."
"I would take the ball players up to my camp once a year and put on a feed for them," recalls Herb Shuttleworth. "They only made $80 or $100 a month. They lived on hot dogs and Cokes. Hot dogs and cokes. Some of these boys had never seen a camp, seen a lake. I remember Vic Raschi went on the lake in a rowboat. He didn't know how to row, but he sat in that boat for hours."
"I was just out of William and Mary College, and lived in the YMCA for $6 a week," said Raschi just before his death in 1988. "I got a meal ticket from some restaurant in town for $9 a week.... We travelled in a school bus. I think the only one who had a chance to lie down was the starting pitcher for the next day and he had the big wide open seat in the back of the bus."
"Vic Raschi," adds Spencer Fitzgerald, "was probably one of the nicest personalities. He was a wonderful guy to be around."
Also on the 1941 staff was lefthander Bill Kennedy, who would play for five big league clubs, and tall righthander Karl Drews, who'd hurl for four. Drews was killed at age 43 when a drunk driver mowed him down as he was signalling for help for his daughter's stalled car.
The same year Joe Page, the future Yankee relief star, spent two weeks with the Rugmakers. He didn't pitch for them, however. He was there being rehabilitated, and after a spell Spencer Fitzgerald got a call from George Weiss.
"Is Page still there?" Weiss inquired.
"Yeah, he's here," a puzzled Fitzgerald replied. "He goes down to the whirlpool at the Mill. Then he comes to the ballpark and works out. Yeah, he's here."
"Well, have him call his wife," Weiss growled, "he never told her where he was!"
Lew Burdette was also there in 1947 (9-10 but with a sparkling 2.82 ERA), and was the cream of the crop. The Nitro, West Virginia, native recorded a 203-144 major league record, pitching a no-hitter, and winning three games of the 1957 World Series against his old Yankee teammates, who must have not only regretted trading him away, but also having to throw $50,000 into the deal as well.
"He didn't have outstanding stuff," says long-time friend and fellow Rugmaker Bunny Mick, "but, man, he had courage he hadn't used yet. He was a great competitor."
"Lew Burdette," says Amsterdam alderman Paul Constantine, "used to spend his whole salary playing pinball across from the Mohican Market. He'd play for hours on those machines. Pinball was big then. What were they making? Thirty-five dollars a week? We'd feel sorry for him. We'd buy him meals."
"We knocked him all over the lot every day we played him," says pitcher Charley Baker of the Blue Jays, "I don't know [why]. He sure learned a lot, didn't he? Even I never had any trouble with him. I almost parked one on him in one of the  playoff games there, and I wasn't much of a hitter."
In 1949 righthander Bob Grim had a record for the Rugmakers that was, well, pretty grim, just 6 and 14 with a horrible 5.15 ERA. That wasn't much of a hint that in 1954 he would go 20-6 for the Yanks and be named A.L. Rookie of the Year.
Other major leaguer pitchers to wear a Rugmakers uniform were Mel Queen (1939), Herb Karpel (1946), Joe Murray (1946-47), and Danny McDevitt (1951).
There were some hitters on the squad too.
Kenny Sears, whose father was a N.L. umpire, had signed with Newark for a then princely $5,000 bonus. He could really hammer the ball, hitting .345, clubbing 11 homers (one travelled 490 feet), and driving in 41 runs in 48 games for the 1938 Ruggies. He continued to murder minor league pitching. In 1939 he was MVP of the Class B Piedmont League for the Norfolk Tars. "I saw him, he hit one off of home plate," says Emil Graff, "and he put one over the fence. Hit it on one bounce. When I say 'bounce,' I mean that curve ball bounced off of home plate, and he hit it over!"
Kenny became a Yankees backup catcher until he went into the Navy in World War II. The 1943 American League Red Book described him as " husky lad," and that was stretching politeness. "They took him to Florida," reminisces Spencer Fitzgerald, "and he always ate, you know. He could hit. They gave him enough money for meals, and after that they'd catch him in some diner!"
"I think he had the feeling that 'My old man's a big league umpire' and that opened all the gates for him," adds Perth's Graff. "I think the Yankees got fed up with him. He was a nice kid though."
"He was the guy who could eat the hamburgers," recalls Rugmakers pitcher "Duke" Farrington. "He could sure blast a baseball, but he was so big and chunky. When he got behind the plate he was a liability to you. You couldn't let him call the pitch. Christ, I'd shake my head all night, you know. I'd try to pitch to him. He was all spread out in back of the plate. He was anything but a help to the pitcher."
"He was a ladies' man," says Ed Rusik. "Sure, he went around in a big convertible, picking up the chicks."
"I was a big kid," confessed Sears as to why he became a catcher, "too fat to move."
In 1942 there was second baseman Allie Clark, one of the few big leaguers to have two pinch hits in one inning, turning the trick with Cleveland on May 30, 1948.
"Two days after he got here," recalls Spencer Fitzgerald, "he got homesick. Sitting by his locker, crying his eyes out. We had to give him car fare home. Three days later he was back though. Geez, you had to babysit them and everything."
Clark's teammates included outfielder-first baseman Joe Collins, who clubbed .341 for Amsterdam and .262 in ten years in the Bronx (he retired rather than accept a trade to the Phils), and Yankees catcher Bill "Moose" Drescher.
Amsterdam also featured outfielder Ford "Rocky" Garrison (1938), outfielder turned pitcher Vince Ventura (1939), first baseman Dick Kryhoski (1946), catcher Gus Triandos (1950), outfielder Zeke Bella (1951) and catcher John Blanchard (1951). Blanchard, who had trouble getting playing time under Casey Stengel (who even spiked him once), launched four consecutive homers for the Yankees in 1961. He wept when the Yanks traded him.
Triandos ("All I remember about Amsterdam is that it was Kirk Douglas' home town") was a veteran power hitter, Blanchard and Triandos illustrate the difference in attitudes ex-players can develop. The powerful Greek comments bitterly, "What I remember are the lies and the boos." Blanchard, who battled successfully against alcoholism and cancer, feels that "everything about it was special. I loved every minute of it."