Amsterdam was shocked one Sunday morning in January 1953 when city recreation superintendent Alex H. Isabel, 53, died suddenly of a heart attack at his Forest Avenue home.
Amsterdam at the time had a series of playgrounds, staffed in the summer by returning college students. There were sports in summer and winter. The city recreation department even sponsored a summer musical theater program headed by Bert DeRose.
The current revival of interest in Amsterdam recreation activities at the former Bacon school and the East End arts center is reminiscent of those days.
“He was never sick a day in his life,” recalled Isabel’s son, the late Gerard Isabel, some years ago. Alex nicknamed his son “Pup.”
The night before his death, Alex Isabel spoke at the St. Agnello Club, an Italian-American organization in the West End, where he spent a good part of his life.
As do many West Enders, the Isabels trace their roots to Pisciotta, a hilltop community near the Mediterranean Sea in the Campania region of Salerno province in southern Italy. Alex Isabel was born in Pisciotta and came to New York at age 6, where he lived on Little Italy’s Cherry Street before his family settled in Amsterdam.
Isabel’s athletic skills became apparent when he played baseball for Amsterdam High School before World War I, earning an offer from the New York Giants. Instead, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and suffered hearing loss while on the battleship USS Michigan.
After the war, Isabel finished high school and played baseball at St. Mary’s Institute. He married Anne Murphy in 1923, and they had three children.
Isabel played and coached baseball in the semi-professional leagues of the day. He pitched for the Gloversville-Johnstown Twin Cities and played and managed the Ticonderoga team in the Northern League in 1925 and 1926. He played baseball for teams including the Mohawk Mills Karnaks, Tonquas Tribe and the West End Athletic Club of Albany.
In 1940, he began coaching baseball at St. Mary’s Institute, adding basketball duties a year later.
Isabel became Amsterdam’s acting recreation superintendent in 1944 when Superintendent S. Joseph Golden was serving in the Navy. Golden returned but resigned shortly after the war. Isabel became superintendent in 1946.
He spearheaded improvements at city playgrounds and led local baseball teams into national tournaments. He made college possible for many youngsters and was lauded for his efforts in fighting juvenile delinquency by keeping youth busy with productive pursuits. He brought in drama teacher DeRose to begin the popular series of summer musicals.
Isabel was also a Brooklyn Dodgers scout and was still basketball and baseball coach at St. Mary’s Institute at the time of his death. As a scout for the Dodgers, Isabel scoured upstate New York and parts of New England and Canada. His best-known find was Johnny Podres of Witherbee, who was the winning pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the deciding Game 7 of the 1955 World Series against the New York Yankees.
The week Alex Isabel died, recreation activities halted in Amsterdam. His funeral Mass at St. Mary’s Church attracted a huge crowd of state and local dignitaries, a Brooklyn Dodgers delegation, St. Mary’s students and 115 boys from the Little League and Little-Bigger League.
Three years later, a Little League baseball field was dedicated in his honor, a field that still bears the Isabel family name on Upper Locust Avenue.
At the 1956 dedication of Alex Isabel Memorial Field, committee chairman Nicholas DeCross stated: “It is hoped that the boys who play on this field will pattern themselves after Alex and attempt to pass on to their boys what he tried to instill in those who played for him.”
Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach him at 346-6657 or firstname.lastname@example.org.