SCHENECTADY – Wally Habel could always say he had something in common with Babe Ruth: They both hit home runs in Albany’s Hawkins Stadium.
While he spent much of his life as a school teacher, coach and administrator, and also served as a Baptist minister later in life, Habel played professional baseball for five seasons, the last two as a member of the Schenectady Blue Jays during the 1953 and ‘54 season. A native of Geneva who spent much of his early life in Scotia before returning to Geneva for high school, Habel passed away Saturday at the age of 90. He was living in Glenville with his wife, Jacqueline, and had attended a meeting of the Schenectady Ole Timers Baseball Club last Thursday before suddenly falling ill.
“I shook his hand on Thursday never thinking that was going to be the last time I saw him,” said Don Blaha, a former basketball and baseball standout at both Mont Pleasant High and New York University. “He was a great guy. Very religious and very caring. If he heard someone wasn’t feeling well or struggling with something, he’d send a letter or get a hold them. He was that kind of guy.”
A Major League prospect when he was 18 playing with the Schenectady Red Birds, a top semi-pro team, Habel was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies, the Blue Jays’ parent team, in July of 1949, just a month after graduating from Geneva High School. He played with the Phillies’ Class D team in Carbonale, Pennsylvania in 1950, the Class C team in Salina, Kansas in 1951 and then the Class B team in Terra Haute, Indiana in 1952. He was then elevated to the Eastern League and the Blue Jays in 1953, often an important stepping stone to the Major Leagues, and was the team’s starting second baseman for two years, batting .264 and .249.
When local author and baseball historian Frank Keetz sat down to talk to Habel 30 years ago now about his memories of playing with the Schenectady Blue Jays, he immediately realized he had found gold.
“He gave me all kinds of good stories, and we often ended up sitting and talking for two or three hours,” remembered Keetz, who produced ‘They, Too, Were Boys of Summer: A Case Study of the Schenectady Blue Jays in the Eastern League. 1951-1957.’ “He helped me a lot with the book.”
Keetz’s work, one of five books he’s produced on local baseball, came out in 1993, long after the Blue Jays and the Eastern League had left Schenectady, and nearly four decades after Habel had decided to call it quits on a Major League Baseball career.
“His plan was always to retire in five years if he didn’t make it to the majors in that time,” said his son, Eric Habel, who lives in Ballston. “I believe he was on the Phillies’ 40-man roster in September the year he retired and probably due to move up to Triple A for the next season. But he broke his wrist, which was a setback, and got married to my mom right after the 1954 season ended in Schenectady. I think the injury plus the desire to settle into family life were big factors in his retirement from baseball.”
While both of Wally Habel’s parents grew up in Schenectady, his father, Henry Habel, a minister, moved his family a couple of times within the upstate New York region. Soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Henry Habel joined the U.S. Army as a chaplain and during that time his family moved in with relatives in Scotia. While the Habel’s moved back to Geneva after the war as Wally was entering high school, it was during his time in Schenectady County that he began excelling at baseball.
“It was during those junior high years at Scotia that he really developed as a ball player,” said Eric Habel. “He’d talk about riding the trolley to play in various leagues at Central Park, often against older guys.”
When Habel earned a spot on the Blue Jays in 1953 he was billed as the team’s first player to actually hail from Schenectady County. To help celebrate their “local boy,” team owners put together “Wally Habel Night” at McNearney Stadium on June 25, 1953. Habel, who had been hit on the wrist by a pitch the night before against the Scranton Miners, did not play that day, but was honored during a pre-game ceremony and received various gifts, including a traveling bag, camera and a sum of money from the Rotterdam Kiwanis and Rotterdam Businessman’s Association.
“Playing professional baseball back then a player could get a lot of perks,” said Keetz. “Wally told me how he was able to go down to Philadelphia and buy a car down there because he was with the Phillies for a great price, and then drive it back home to Schenectady.”
While he wasn’t a power hitter – he only hit three home runs in his two years with the Blue Jays – Habel did help his club to a 9-2 win over the Albany Senators on May 31, 1953, hitting a grand slam home run at Hawkins Stadium. Back in July of 1938, Ruth also hit a homer there playing in an exhibition game.
“He had a lot of highlights in his career,” said Keetz, who said Habel was originally a shortstop before the Phillies organization switched him to second base. “He told me about hitting a double off the wall to win a game, how that was a great memory, and there were other great moments. He was a good player. He didn’t have to worry about competition from black players at that time, but there were only 16 Major League teams back then and there are 30 now. So getting a spot on a major league team was very competitive.”
It was during the 1954 season that Habel met his future wife and invited her out on a date; to a Blue Jays game. It didn’t go well, at least that’s what Habel initially thought.
“He told me how he popped out his first time up, popped out his second time up, and then grounded out his third time up,” remembered Keetz. “Oh-for-three. He was down in the dumps. A terrible night. But then he saw Jackie after the game and she was all excited. ‘You hit the ball all three times,’ she said. I guess she didn’t know much about baseball way back then,”
But instead of playing another year of baseball in 1955, Habel went back to Syracuse University and finished up his four-year degree there. He also got his master’s degree from Syracuse in 1959 and then began his teaching/coaching career. After starting out in the Syracuse area, he served as principal of the Schoharie Central School District from 1970-79 and superintendent of the Gilbertsville Central School just south of Syracuse from 1979-86.
He was ordained as a bi-vocational minister by the Capital Area Baptist Association in 1979, and served as a chaplain each spring at the Minnesota Twins training facility in Fort Myers, Florida from 1979-2004.
“He was very proud of his work with the Twins and would talk about that a lot,” said Blaha. “He and Jackie were inseparable and they would always come to our club meetings together. We’re going to miss him.”
Habel’s funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Daly Funeral Home on McClellan St. in Schenectady. Interment will be in Park View Cemetery on Fehr Avenue.