Recalling the Schaefer Brewers Basketball Team

I recently read fellow Times-Union blogger Eric Medved’s piece on the new professional basketball team that will begin play at the Armory this spring, the Albany Legends of the IBL.  In reading the article, I noticed a small synopsis of Albany’s pro basketball history, which read like this:

In the 1970’s, the Schaefer Brewers travelled around playing games throughout the northeast, even playing against such notable players as Dr. J and Ernie ‘D’.

Well, Eric’s on the right track, so let me take a moment and fill you in on the story of the Schaefer Brewers.

It’s the summer of 1965, and a few men sat in a Schenectady restaurant, the Annex Steakhouse, grumbling over the absence of any professsional sports teams in the Capital District.

At one point, someone said Barry Kramer had retired from the NBA’s New York Knicks, returning to law school. Kramer had been a local high school star, a two-time All-American at Linton High School. After a successful college career at New York University, he signed with the San Francisco Warriors of the NBA. And now he was leaving the NBA, for no other reason than to finish his degree and become a lawyer.
If a basketball team could be built around Barry Kramer, the men surmised, Schenectady would have a basketball team capable of playing with the best semiprofessional talent in the Northeast.

From this dinner an idea, and later a team, was born.

Although Kramer started the season with the Warriors, he was later traded to the New York Knicks, as he told me in a 1991 interview. “In 1965, I had received a new contract from the Knicks, and I decided I was going to go to law school. I went to law school and I did not go back, so I was placed at that time on their ‘retired’ list. The then general manager of the Knicks was a guy named Eddie Donovan.

“He says, ‘Come on down here,’ he thought I was negotiating with him.

“And I said ‘No, I’m not gonna come.’

“Those days, you didn’t make a lot of money. I was a first round draft pick – I was the eighth pick of the draft overall, and I made $13,500.00 in 1964. In 1965, with the Knicks, they sent me a contract I believe for $15,500.00, which would have been my second year. I didn’t go back, and I went to law school instead. He thought I was negotiating, he says, ‘Get down here.’

“I said, ‘No, I’m going to go to school.’

“He says, ‘Why would you do that?’

“I said, ‘Well, it’s something I want to do.’ The point was that I didn’t go back, and so they had to place me on their retired list.”

With ownership from Al DeSantis, the sports editor for the Schenectady Union-Star, and initial sponsorship from Wedekind Motors, Barry Kramer’s Wedekind Pros was born.  The team included several local coaches who still had game, including Bill Telasky, Dave Bleau, Armand Reo and Joe Geiger.

On November 21, 1965, Bishop Gibbons High School was filled to capacity as a new basketball team faced off against the Boston Cristy’s, a semiprofessional basketball team from Massachusetts headed by former Holy Cross star Togo Palazzi.  And the home team started off with a bang.  The Wedekinds beat the Cristy’s, 143-135, leading from the tipoff to the final buzzer, thanks in no small part to a 47-point performance by Barry Kramer.

And the Wedekind Pros had their first win.

Barry Kramer recalls the teams they faced in those early days. “We’d play teams that were like ourselves from Connecticut. We played Eastern League teams, there was the Eastern Professional Basketball League, Wilkes-Barre Barons, Sunbury Mercuries, Trenton Colonials, on and on and on. We played those teams on some of their off-days, but we played teams that were show teams, but also played serious, like the Harlem Wizards, they would come up and plays us serious basketball, they had a lot of talent from New York City and that surrounding area. And then, at the end of the year, we always played the best college players in the country … We were filling our schedule with Eastern League teams, Harlem Wizards teams, other semi-pro teams from around the area, even playing All-Star teams of coaches from surrounding areas, anybody who wanted to play us, we played, and then at the end of the year, we got the really good talent coming in, which were the college players who had graduated.”

Some of those matchups became legendary during the Pros’ existence. No season would be complete without at least two appearances by the Utica Wreckers, the Connecticut Explorers or the Harlem Wizards.

The Harlem Wizards were a Globetrotters clone that warmed up the crowd before Knicks games. The Wizards would use choreographed shooting tricks and comedy to a crowd ready for Willis Reed and Dave DeBusschre. But when the Wizards played on the road, they played to win.

The Wizards-Wedekinds rivalry began on December 12, 1965, with a 4:00 game at Catholic Central High School and an 8:15 matchup at Bishop Gibbons that same evening. The Wizards won the first game, 106-104, when Wizard Frankie Townsend sank a miracle shot in the closing seconds, giving the Schenectady squad their first loss. The Wedekinds beat Harlem in the second game, 113-108, ending the Harlem Wizards’ 50-game winning streak. In the rivalry, Barry Kramer now had a scoring opponent in high-shooting forward Tony Jackson, who scored 45 points in the second game of the doubleheader. Jackson was held in such regard by the Wedekinds that when Kramer sprained his ankle in December 1965, Jackson was hired as a backup for a couple of games.

In their first season, the Wedekinds cost many other teams their winning records. Before a packed house at Bishop Gibbons in January 1966, the Wedekinds stopped the Philadelphia All-Pros’ 12-game winning streak with a 183-140 win. They beat the Fort Wayne Jets, 150-128 in January 1966, handing the Jets their first loss in 29 games.
By now their games were a regular staple on radio station WSNY. Their games were filmed by television stations WRGB and WMHT. Within three months, the Wedekind Pros were the talk of local sports. Dave Bleau remembers those early years and those large crowds. “The first two years, you couldn’t get a ticket unless you got it early. To give somebody a ticket you were doing them a favor.”

“I didn’t realize whether people would come until we started playing,” Barry Kramer recalled. “We had to go to bigger quarters, Catholic Central, Linton, Mechanicville, and we still packed the places.”

The Wedekinds were so successful that another promoter, Rocco DeMarco, built his own semipro team with the specific intention of joining the Eastern Professional Basketball League. DeMarco’s team, the Bodnar 88’s, had two ex-Wedekinds on the squad, Bill Stanley and Tom Hannon, as well as LeVern Tart and Larry Jones, two former EBL players who each averaged 40 points in games against the Wedekinds. They secured Christian Brothers Academy as their home court, and played their first game against the Scranton All-Stars on March 14, 1966.

The Scranton team left Pennsylvania in two cars – and drove right into a heavy snowstorm. One of the cars was still skidding up the Northway when the Bodnars took the court; the other car broke down at the border. 30 minutes after the announced start of the game, five Scranton players stepped onto the court, the only five whose car braved the snowstorm.

Nobody realized until the game started that the Christian Brothers Academy gymnasium clock was set for 8-minute quarters, the standard quarter length for high school games, and had to be reset four minutes into each quarter. The snowstorm that kept half the Scranton squad away also kept many basketball fans away. Even with all those distractions, the Bodnars were lucky to edge the Scranton All-Stars, 149-145.
The Bodnars then lost their next three games over a two-month span, and even with better weather, their crowds got smaller and smaller. Any hope of an Albany franchise in a pro league would have to wait another fifteen years.

By now the Wedekinds were winding up their first season, and they ended it with a surprise. Dave Bing, on his way to NBA immortality, brought a group of Syracuse University graduating seniors to Schenectady to play the Wedekinds. One week later, a squad of Michigan college graduates, led by Cazzie Russell, split two games with the Wedekinds. During the last month of the Wedekinds’ season, Dave Bing became a Wedekind, averaging 23 points per game. During the final game of the season, the teams put five All-Americans on the Linton High court – Barry Kramer and Dave Bing for the Wedekinds, Cazzie Russell for the All-Stars.

The Wedekinds ended their initial season with a 21-9 record, beating the Boston Cristy’s twice, taking four of five from the Connecticut Explorers, and winning two of the five games they played against the Harlem Wizards, the only two games the Wizards lost all year. Their maiden season was a success.

By 1967, sponsorship was secured by the Schaefer Brewing Company, who at the time had a brewery in Albany and sponsored everything from harness racing to the Albany Twilight League.  So now the team would be known as the Schaefer Brewers – or sometimes as the Tri-City Brewers.

By 1969, however, the team was breaking up. Bill Telasky was the basketball coach at Christian Brothers Academy, and later joined another basketball quintet, the Albany Pros (also known as the Orangemen). Barry Kramer joined the ABA’s New York Nets for a few games, returned home to Schenectady, wrote a basketball column for the Knickerbocker News, and continued his law practice. And Armand Reo retired.

But the Brewers kept on going. Dave Bleau took up the scoring mantle, and was joined by Eastern League All-Stars Phil Schoff and Harthorne Wingo.  The Brewers also spread out from the Schenectady area, playing games in Utica, Gloversville, Johnstown, the Mohawk Valley, wherever they could find competition.

That when they came across the Utica Champlin Tire Wreckers. “They were tough,” remembered Dave Bleau. “They were very physical, we had a lot of good games with them. We went up there to play them as well as down here. The most outstanding game probably was the one where we were behind by 32 or 33 starting the fourth quarter, and we beat them in overtime. It was the year Barry sat out, he didn’t play. So it had to be about ’70, ’71. That game was particularly memorable to me because even in overtime, we were behind, we were down 1 with I think about 7 seconds to go, we took the ball, I made a jump shot from behind half-court with a second to go to win the game. And after being down 33 in the fourth quarter, that’s quite a win.”

Kramer recalled the Brewers’ toughest opponents of the day.  “The Utica Wreckers had enough name recognition here locally to draw from. And they were good. They were good, in fact, later on, I played with some of the players, Phil Schoff, who later played for the Brewers, he was such a good player, so that was one team, the Harlem Wizards came and played a lot of comedy games, so when the Harlem Wizards came and played us serious basketball, with fellows like Tony Jackson, who had been an All-American at St. John’s, and fellows before your time, but Harthorne Wingo, who later played for the Knicks, and they had talent, people came to see that because they knew how talented the Harlem Wizards were, and that would be a very competitive game. But the best was saved for last when we played the college All-Americans. That was awesome because for me, a guy who kind of missed playing in the NBA and playing with the best, it gave me another chance at them, so for me it was great.”

By the way, those end-of-the-season all-star games were a special treat for hoops fans.  College seniors who had used up their eligibility could now set up all-star squads and play against professional teams, which is why players like Julius Irving, Jimmie Walker, Dave Bing and Jim Boeheim could actually play against town teams like the Schaefer Brewers.  Even Connie Hawkins, who was stuck in a professional sports limbo due to his being blackballed from the NBA, picked up a few dollars playing both against – and with – the Brewers in the late 1960’s.

For the 1971-1972 season, the Brewers became part of the New York State Professional Basketball League (“NYSPBL”), along with the Troy Hedley 88’s, the Finger Lakes Flashes (later Pros) of Auburn, and their old nemesis, the Utica Wreckers. This new league was designed to display the talent of these teams that had survived for so long without a league.

In the lineup with Barry Kramer for this iteration of the Brewers was Tom Chapin, a Plattsburgh State star who formerly was the only Caucasian to ever play for the Harlem Wizards. Chapin, whose brother was popular folk singer Harry Chapin, stayed with the Brewers for four months, acting as the perfect scoring complement to Barry Kramer. Chapin later found recognition off the basketball court, hosting such diverse television shows as “Make a Wish” and “National Geographic Explorer.”

But on February 8, 1972, the NYSPBL folded. The Times-Union reported that the league voted to disband two months into its inaugural season. All four teams, including the Brewers, were losing money, and it became too expensive to sign the latest former NBA player in an effort to win games. Although the league disbanded on February 8, the league decided that February 2, 1972 would be considered the final day of the NYSPBL. This meant that the 4-2 Schaefer Brewers had the best league record.

That was also the final year the Brewers ever took the court.  Town teams were on the wane, and for all the successes the Brewers/Wedekinds had, they were only a town team – providing local semiprofessional entertainment for the fans.