Elmira brings history to the PGCBL

NOTE: In early November, 2010, Perfect Game USA announced it would become more involved with summer collegiate baseball by partnering in the formation of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League.

The PGCBL will open its inaugural season with eight clubs located in upstate New York that were former members of the New York Collegiate League. The PGCBL will have teams in Albany, Amsterdam, Cooperstown, Elmira, Glen Falls, Mohawk Valley, Newark and Watertown, and Perfect Game will also use venues in those communities to stage regional showcase events and tournaments.

The league will be open to players already at a four-year college or a junior college as well as recent high school graduates. Its schedule will run from early June through early August.

A series of articles featuring the eight communities that will host PGCBL organizations will be posted at in the coming weeks.

The first sixth in the series features the Elmira Pioneers:

The city of Elmira, N.Y., sits in south-central New York, not more than a few miles north of the Pennsylvania state line.

The community of just more than 30,000 residents boasts a long and rich history that goes back nearly to the years of the American Revolutionary War, and gained infamy as the site of Civil War prisoner of war camp – dubbed “Hellmira” by its inmates – that at its peak in 1864-65 held more than 12,000 Confederate soldiers.

On the brighter side, Elmira has always been a big sports town and is currently home to minor league hockey (the Elmira Jackals of the East Coast Hockey League), minor league basketball (the Elmira Bulldogs of the Eastern Basketball Alliance), four golf courses and three bowling alleys.

But nothing comes close to matching the city’s love and steadfast embrace of the great game of baseball.

Ball clubs wearing the name “Elmira” have played in three different stadiums within the city limits almost non-stop since 1888. There have been town teams, professional teams and, most recently, collegiate summer league teams.

The Elmira Pioneers are carrying on this long and storied tradition as a charter member of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League after spending the last five years as a member of the New York Collegiate Baseball League. The PGCBL kicks off its inaugural season in early June.

“We are very excited about becoming one of the original members of the PGCBL,” Pioneers team president Jeff Kunion said the day the new league’s formation was announced. “We wanted to play a better level of baseball, competing against players from the best schools in the country. We also wanted to bring more games to Dunn Field. That was not going to be possible if we remained in the NYCBL.”

Kunion told Perfect Game the Pioneers thrived the last five seasons in the NYCBL, and the community welcomed the collegiate, wood bat, game. The Pioneers won a league championship in 2007 and division titles in 2007 and ’09, and did it in front of fairly large crowds.

“This is a real good baseball town,” Kunion said. “It’s really the right size for a collegiate-level team. We average about 1,200 fans a game that are coming out looking for a good night’s entertainment.”

The Pioneers play at historic Dunn Field, which opened in 1939. The first two ballparks in town were Maple Avenue Driving Park and Recreation Park, and Dunn Field was built on the site of Recreation Park after the latter burned down in 1938. Dunn Field has seating for about 4,400 fans and the team’s official slogan for 2011 is “Have Even More Fun at the Dunn!”

According to several online sources, the Pioneers name was first used for an Elmira club in 1900 when the team joined the New York State League. Previous teams were known as the Colonels and Gladiators and in the early 1900s there were the Red Jackets and the Red Wings.

Between 1932 and 1972, the club enjoyed professional affiliations with the St. Louis Cardinals, Brooklyn Dodgers, Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles, San Diego Padres, Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians.

In 1973, the Pioneers became the New York-Penn League affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, and team was renamed the Elmira Red Sox the next year. It was known as the Pioneer-Red Sox in 1977-78, but became known exclusively as the Pioneers again 1979.

The Red Sox ended their affiliation in 1992. The Pioneers hooked up with the Florida Marlins for a couple of years, played in the Northeast League, the Northern League and Can-Am League between 1996 and 2005 and joined the NYCBL in 2006.

That’s a lot of baseball stretched over a lot of years, and the history is filled with memorable moments and equally memorable characters.

In 1951, then-player Don Zimmer exchanged wedding vows with his wife in a ceremony at home plate t Dunn Field. Earl Weaver was the Pioneers’ manager from 1962-65 before moving on to a Hall of Fame career as the skipper of the Orioles. Lou Piniella once hit three home runs in a game wearing a Pioneers’ uniform.

Other “notable” players and coaches who spent time in Elmira include – according to online sources – Davey Johnson, Don Baylor, Jim Palmer, Wade Boggs, Oil Can Boyd, Mike Greenwell, Curt Schilling and Eric Wedge.

More history promises to be made in Elmira as the PGCBL attracts many of the best collegiate players in the country. The 2011 Pioneers and head coach Dan Shwam have already received commitments from Adam Davis and Dan Roland from highly regarded St. John’s University.

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