YONKERS HOOT OWLS

 
by Kevin McCann
 

The Yonkers Hoot Owls were the Northeast League’s attempt to field a team in the New York metropolitan area for its inaugural 1995 season.

Adele Leone, a New York literary agent who wanted to bring pro baseball back to her adopted hometown, owned the team. Apparently she had little choice in the nickname given to it by the leaders of the Northeast League. “I don’t like it,” she said during a league meeting in November 1994. “It’s not Yonkers."

The unusual nickname was originally planned for a team in neighboring Mount Vernon, New York that never materialized. Not wanting to lose the name, Yonkers went from being the Blue Bandits to the Hoot Owls.

Leone pressed forward with the name and made preparations for the 1995 season. She personally paid for the installation of lights for night games and had the field sodded, a process that continued up until the end of the season. With limited parking available and that space within range of home runs balls, she paid for a shuttle service to bring fans in from another parking lot.

Paul Blair

Former Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees outfielder Paul Blair was named manager of the Hoot Owls. Randye Ringler was hired as general manager. Ringler had been the director of communications for the New York Mets before losing her job when the players went on strike in 1994 and the front office staff was cut back.

The city of Yonkers had a population of over 188,000 residents and seemed capable of supporting a professional baseball team. One of the team’s biggest supporters was Yonkers mayor Terence M. Zaleski. “The Hoot Owls will provide some exciting ball at affordable prices,” he said before the season began. “This is what baseball is all about.”

Unfortunately, local businesses weren’t as eager to support them. The team had a hard time selling advertisements for game programs and outfield signage. Fans who came to Fleming Field found no amenities to keep them coming back. It was essentially a recreational field – a softball field with a dirt infield and terrible seating – located in a city park. The grandstand consisted of bare concrete steps with no chairs or bleachers. The concession stand was a chuck wagon brought to the park for each game and the restroom facilities consisted of temporary Port-A-Johns. For a $6 general admission ticket, fans were given the comfort that only cold, hard concrete could provide and a last-place team to watch on the field.  

Fleming Field, home of the Hoot Owls
(Photo courtesy of Charlie's Big Baseball Parks)

The Hoot Owls began the season with a two-week road trip and held a 3-9 record when they played their home opener against the Sullivan County Mountain Lions on July 1. Two weeks later, they were in last place with a 6-18 record and 12 games behind the Albany-Colonie Diamond Dogs. Pete Bifone was their leading hitter, batting .391 (third-best in the league) with 15 runs batted in. Their pitching staff was ranked last in the circuit with a 4.86 ERA. Jim Nelson led the team with a 1-4 record and 2.15 ERA and three complete games.

The Hoot Owls never managed to escape the cellar over the next two months. Their team offense and pitching stayed at or near the bottom among the six teams. Injuries took their toll, but the club also fielded the youngest and least experienced players in the league, many of them from the surrounding area. “We are about development,” stressed GM Randye Ringler before the season began. But injuries prevented many from developing, which kept them from being scouted and their contracts being sold to major league clubs.

The team’s most popular player and only power hitter was outfielder Andrew Jemison, who batted .311 with eight home runs and 47 runs batted in. Pete Bifone batted .329 with 28 RBI and 13 stolen bases. Outfielder Vince Zarate played through pain most of the season, hitting .289 with 23 RBI and a club-best 15 stolen bases before it was found he had a detached hamstring.

There were few bright stars among the pitching staff. Jim Nelson, who started and relieved when needed, led the team with 41 strikeouts but touted a 3.78 ERA and 3-7 record. Chris Anastasi led the staff with his 4-9 record but allowed more than five runs per nine innings pitched.

Despite dismal attendance and a losing record, the Hoot Owls finished their schedule and ended the season with a 12-52 record and a .188 winning percentage. Their offense ranked last in the league with a collective .251 batting average and next-to-last in pitching (Sullivan County had the worst by six points) with a 5.41 earned-run average. The team also allowed the only forfeit loss in the league on June 30 to Mohawk Valley.

Leone described her financial losses as “considerable.” The team drew only 5,216 fans for 30 home games or an average of 174 per game. She cited the lack of support from local businesses and fans as the primary reasons for the team’s collapse. “We did all we could,” she remarked. The franchise relocated to Bangor, Maine for the 1996 season and was renamed the Blue Ox.

Adele Leone ended the disastrous season with a depleted bank account but her head held high. “I’m proud of what I’ve done,” she said. “I feel a civic sense of accomplishment.” Her team’s legacy would be the lights she had installed at Fleming Field. “I will be paying for the lights at Fleming Field for the next five years. When you see them, think of the Yonkers Hoot Owls.” 

She died four years later.

 
 
Sources
 

The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (Second Edition)

Baseball America 1996 Almanac

Rebel Baseball Review, 1995: July 2; July 8; July 15; July 22; July 29; Aug. 5; Sep. 23.

Sandomir, Richard. “Where to Listen for Sounds of Summer.” New York Times, November 7, 1994.

Slater, Chuck. “Playing for the Love of Baseball.” New York Times, July 2, 1995.

Slater, Chuck. “Baseball in Yonkers, Over and Out.” New York Times, September 3, 1995.

 
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