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Archive for Sunday, July 11, 2004

Love of game drives ‘Mr. Baseball’

July 11, 2004

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— Leo Pinckney has such a passionate love affair with baseball that in his presence you could almost hear the words: "Those whom God has joined together let no man put asunder."

He practically lives at Falcon Park.

"I never miss a game. I can't remember, but I don't think I ever have, unless I was at a funeral or something," Pinckney said, pondering the thought with a raspy laugh that punctuates just about everything he says.

At age 86, that's a lot of games. Too many to count. Certainly his wife, Chris, can vouch for the sterling attendance record of her husband, who has been a sports writer and editor for more than 60 years and also served as president of a professional baseball league for a decade.

"He wasn't home for 25 years," she said.

Chris? Baseball?

Baseball? Chris?

Tough call.

"She's been very understanding," Leo said. "She knows every night I'm going to the ballpark. I might take a night off for a special occasion."

Their 61st wedding anniversary in June didn't qualify. Too many hot dogs to cook and sell on opening day at the ballpark.

"I've gotta be here. She knows that," said Leo, who did manage to find the time to produce three sons and a daughter. "I just love baseball, and I love the people around baseball. I was named Mr. Baseball by the city, and that's what they all call me: Mr. Baseball."

Could their wedding vows have started: Mr. Baseball, do you take Chris...

"The only time she was a baseball fan was when I was president of the league and she was voted executive of the year," he said.

Leo Pinckney was born and raised in Auburn and owes his lifelong love affair with baseball to his father, George, who was an umpire and official scorer. An older brother Paul certainly was an influence. As sports editor of the hometown newspaper, The Citizen, Paul hired Leo to cover high school sports when he was a senior in 1936. Leo liked it so much he joined the paper the next year, then took over for 36 years after Paul left for a bigger job.

A career as a player never was an option for the man they used to call "Red" before his hair turned snow white. Softball became his game after high school.

"When I was hitting righthanded, all I hit was singles," said Leo, who didn't leave much of a mark as a first baseman. "Then they changed me over to lefthanded. I had more power, but I struck out more."

As did Auburn -- for much too long -- in its efforts to attract a professional baseball team and keep it. Although Abner Doubleday, the mythical inventor of the game, spent the early years of his life in this city of 28,000 about 25 miles west of Syracuse, Auburn was in and out of organized ball seven times in the early 1900s.

Then three locals -- businessman Ed Ward, Dr. Tom Stapleton and Mr. Baseball, of course -- took charge. They spearheaded a drive in 1957 to get an expansion franchise in the fledgling New York-Penn League and helped organize the Auburn Community Baseball Club in an effort to raise money.

"We had a drive and sold stock door-to-door for one dollar apiece," said Pinckney, who would end up serving as president for 28 years of what is believed to be the only community-owned minor league franchise in the country. "We got something like $5,800 in just a few days."

That was enough. All the city needed was a working agreement with a major league team. Leo and company decided to contact Lee MacPhail of the New York Yankees, who came north to find a 31-year-old ballpark that had been sitting idle for six years.

Falcon Park was in rough shape. The outfield was overgrown with trees, the fences were falling and the infield was a mess because it had been used as a racetrack for mini-cars.

MacPhail was oblivious to most of that, thanks to the early onset of winter. "We were very fortunate. The field was all covered with snow. They didn't see the track," Pinckney said.

MacPhail gave the OK and the Auburn Yankees were born. It didn't take long for citizens to get into the act. When Pinckney wrote about a "rock party" in his column, hundreds turned out to help clear stones from the field to get it in shape for the 1958 season.

"I'll never forget the night before opening night," Pinckney said. "We must have had a hundred guys out here picking up stones. Oh, the field was in terrible shape."

Pinckney has received impressive accolades in the twilight of his life for his longtime dedication to baseball: In 1993, the New York-Penn League named a division after him; in 1996, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the annual Hall of Fame game in Cooperstown because he had covered it for 50 consecutive years, or since its inception; in 1998 he was named "King of Baseball" at the sport's winter meetings.

Even though he claims he retired from the newspaper business in 1983, the year before he became president of the New York-Penn League, Pinckney still pens a weekly column for The Citizen.

Sorry, Chris, Thursday nights are taken, too.

"This guy's been doing that column for 60 years, and he's still doing it 52 weeks a year," current sports editor Chris Sciria said. "He's one of the happiest people in the world. What he has done to get baseball here and keep it by helping get a new ballpark (Falcon Park was renovated in 1995), you can't thank him enough."

The Citizen has tried, though. It has given a $2,000 scholarship in his name every year since he retired to the outstanding student-athlete in the county.

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