A small, isolated city in the Southern Tier of upstate New York, Elmira’s professional baseball history stretches back to 1888. The team joined the Double-A Eastern League in 1923, and spent most of the next fifty years there. With the city hit hard by the industrial Northeast’s economic woes of the 1970s, the Pioneers dropped down to the Single-A New York-Penn League in 1973. The affiliated club would eventually be a casualty of the ballpark boom of the 1990s, moving to a new stadium in Lowell, Mass., after the 1995 season.
At the same time, independent baseball had become an outgrowth of the renewed interest in the game. Looking to capture the success of the Northern League, which started in 1993, indy leagues exploded in 1995. The Northeast League was one of 11 leagues to begin the season (only 8 finished the year), and slogged through a shaky first campaign with six clubs in New York State.
After a mediocre first season, Newburgh Nighthawks owner Bill Cummings moved his club to Elmira’s now-vacant Dunn Field during the off-season. The team’s first hurdle occurred when the affiliated club’s ownership group was reluctant to let the new club use the trademarked Pioneers name; an alternate “Elmira Cougars” logo and identity had been developed when the prior regime relented at the last minute.
The new team’s most important asset was its ballpark, Dunn Field. A handsome 1930’s-era, 4,000-seat gem, the park was in excellent condition, with over $1 million invested in it by the City of Elmira in 1993 to meet National Association specs. In a downtrodden city that had lost 40% of its population since 1950, Dunn Field was a link to a more prosperous era, and Elmirans had a great amount of affection for and pride in the park. City fathers also recognized the importance of keeping professional baseball in Elmira: the Pioneers paid no rent at the ballpark, and, somewhat incredibly, actually received a subsidy from the City of Elmira that reached as high $50,000 per season during the independent team’s stay.
With former St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves stalwart Ken Oberkfell as the club’s manager, the “new” Pioneers went 31-41 in their first season in 1996, drawing a respectable 41,501. However, Cummings and the club’s other investors were unfamiliar with the Elmira market, and having lost a sizeable amount of money in their first year, the Pioneers nearly folded.
The club was rescued by the Ervins, a wealthy area family who purchased the team. Well-connected in the community, they immediately changed the club’s logo and got to work getting on board many of the sponsors and fans who lamented the loss of the affiliated Pioneers.
With fans starting to warm up to the independent club, attendance rose to 52,372 in 1997. On the field, despite an unspectacular 44-38 regular-season record, the Pioneers caught fire in the playoffs and won the league championship under veteran independent manager Dan Shwam, the club’s only pennant during its Northeast League tenure.
In 1998, the Pioneers were unable to recapture the previous year’s magic, and proffered a forgettable 32-51 campaign, with attendance virtually unchanged at 52,436. However, now at eight teams, the Northeast League was slowly gaining respectability among independent leagues.
At the same time, the Midwest-based Northern League had begun to explore markets in the Northeast. With the logistical and financial hassles that would inevitably arise with just a couple of teams far from the league’s main territory, the Northern instead merged with the Northeast League, creating a 16-team circuit that kept the “Northern League” name.
The two 8-team conferences only met for the midseason All-Star Game and the championship series, so it was more or less business as usual for the individual clubs. Unfortunately for the Ervins family, the Pioneers were still losing money, and the owners struggled with the realities of operating a team in Elmira, frequently ruminating during the off-seasons about whether they could continue to keep the club alive.
With only 90,000 people in Chemung County, and few other population centers nearby, potential corporate sponsorship for the team was limited. Furthermore, the nature of the area’s small, stagnant business community didn’t lend itself particularly well to sponsorship. Since everyone in town already knew exactly who and where they were to begin with, Elmira’s small businesses didn’t particularly feel the need to promote themselves with a fence sign or major ad campaign.
As far as fan support, the 1997 championship helped, as did division championships in 2000 and 2001, but the Pioneers struggled to convince fans of independent baseball’s merits, a common issue for many indy teams. The quality of play in the Northern League was certainly better than the New York-Penn League, and the team played to win, rather than to develop fans for a faraway Major League affiliate. Yet, the previous sixty years of seeing the likes of Jim Palmer, Earl Weaver, Wade Boggs, and Curt Schilling come through town had conditioned Pioneers fans to watch affiliated baseball.
The constant uncertainty surrounding the club’s future didn’t help, and fans and sponsors grew tired of frequent “Save the Pioneers” campaigns that tried to shore up the team’s limited resources.
Finally, prior to the 2002 season, the Ervins sold 51 percent of the club to Silex Corp., a Japanese ownership group led by former major-league pitchers Hideo Nomo, Hideki Irabu and Mac Suzuki. The new group bought the club with the intention of developing Japanese players in Elmira, and hopefully moving them to major-league organizations. With a limited number of Japanese players on the roster in 2002, the team put together its best season as an independent club, going 54-36, but lost in the first round of the playoffs. Patrick McKernan, the former assistant GM at Triple-A Albuquerque, had been hired as the Pioneers’ GM prior to the season, and the club’s attendance remained steady, in the 1,500 per game range. With the experienced McKernan running a tighter ship, the team lost the least amount of money in its independent history in 2003 (around $150,000).
Nevertheless, ownership’s enthusiasm for running the Pioneers was waning, and the club operated with a significantly reduced budget in 2004.
The experiment with Japanese players had been lackluster at best; players of any consequence were rarely sent to the team (only four Japanese players were in Elmira for 2004, and just two in 2005), and with a virtually nonexistent Asian population in Elmira, fans didn’t particularly identify with them anyway. Furthermore, the Pioneers had to deal with foreign players’ typical visa issues: not only could getting them into the country be problematic, but crossing the Canadian border was also a headache, meaning that the Japanese players were frequently left behind when the Pioneers went to powerhouse Quebec.
With former Detroit Tiger Greg Keagle, a native of neighboring Horseheads, as the club’s manager in 2004 and 2005, the bare-bones Pioneers trudged through two woeful seasons on the field, going 32-60 and 28-64, respectively. Ownership finally called it a day after the 2005 campaign, and the Pioneers transitioned to the amateur New York Collegiate League, where they remain today.