Monday, February 22, 2021

Elmira Pioneers: What’s in a Name?

 By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist


Since professional baseball first began in Elmira in 1888, the local team has gone through a lot of names. They were the Babies, the Gladiators, the Jags, the Colonels, the Red Jackets, and the Red Wings. Most of the names didn’t last more than a few years. Only the Pioneers have stood the test of time.

1935 was quite the year for Elmira baseball. Since 1931, Elmira had been home to the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm team, the Elmira Red Wings, but, after a rough 1934 season, the Cardinals decided to sell. Desperate to keep professional baseball in the area, a group of local businessmen formed the Elmira Community Baseball Club to buy the team. Throughout the first quarter of the year, the club held a series of fundraisers including a bowling contest and ticketed dinners in order to pay the rent on Dunn Field and buy things like uniforms. Before they could buy new uniforms though, they would need a new team name.

On March 1, 1935, the Elmira Star-Gazette and Elmira Advertiser launched a naming contest which would run through March 15th. Participants could clip a contest coupon from the paper and send it in along with their name, address, and suggested team name. The names would be reviewed by the sports editors of the Star-Gazette and Advertiser, Edward Van Dyke and Glenn O. Sherwood, and the president of the Elmira Community Baseball Club, Arthur L. Hoffman. The winner would receive free season tickets. If anyone back in 1935 had been familiar with the Boaty McBoatface public naming fiasco of 2016, they would have known just how terrible an idea asking the public for names can be. 

Name contest coupon from Elmira Star-Gazette

 The naming process was contentious from the jump. The leaders behind the Elmira Community Baseball Club were also the folks behind the Arctic League charity. Quite a few people wanted to name the new team the Arctics in their honor, but the contest rules explicitly stated that anyone suggesting that name would be automatically disqualified. So many people wrote in to the papers complaining about it that finally Harry Lagonegro, treasurer of both the Elmira Community Baseball Club and the Arctic League, had to do an interview where he explained why. Apparently they didn’t want people mixing the two of them up. It was probably a good call.

The contest ended on March 15th and, on March 18th, the three-man naming committee made their fateful decision. For nearly 5 hours, Van Dyke, Sherwood, and Hoffman chain smoked their way through 8 cigars and 3 packs of cigarettes as they read through 632 letters with 977 name contest coupons.  Despite the Arctics having been disqualified as a name from the get-go, it was suggested by 972 different people. There were two votes for the Pioneers, and one fan suggested they name the team after Hoffman, Sherwood, and Van Dyke. Needless to say, they went with Pioneers. The name was announced the following evening at a celebratory banquet. 

Elmira Pioneers in the original team uniform, 1936

 Not everyone was happy about it. Almost immediately, a flame war erupted in the sports page editorial sections. Matt Richardson said the name sounded like a volunteer fire company. George McCann thought it was juvenile and insipid and lacked punch. According to him, more than a few of the attendees at the banquet where the name was revealed were just as dissatisfied. The editors of the sports pages fired back trying to justify their choice. Regardless of what the name’s opponents thought, the club directors had approved it and the uniforms had been ordered. The team would be the Elmira Pioneers and that was final.

And they have been since 1935, but there was a brief moment in 1995 when it looked like they might not. Clyde Smoll, then owner of the team, planned to move the team to Lowell, Massachusetts and take the Pioneers name with him. Bill Cummings, owner of new in-coming team, wanted to keep the name. Their lawyers went back and forth, trying to reach an arrangement. In the end, the county stepped in reaching an eleventh-hour deal in January 1996. The county would waive the $8,000 contract buy-out clause in the Dunn Field lease agreement if Smoll would just let the Pioneers name stay in Elmira. 

Now, 86 years after the name was chosen, the Pioneers are an Elmira institution.
Pandemic willing, we may even get to see them play again this year!

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