UPSTATE N.Y. SPORTS LORE: Foster, Sanford and baseball with a Flair
If you attended school in either Gloversville or Mayfield between the 1960s and the 1990s, chances are you crossed paths with Physical Education instructors Jack Sanford or Tom Foster.
Both men grew up in Gloversville and were two of the most gifted athletes to come out of the Upstate New York area in the early 1950s.
Jack Sanford, a 1951 graduate of Gloversville High School, was the team’s leader on legendary Gloversville High School coach Duke Miller’s 1951 undefeated baseball team. After a very successful high school career in which he starred in football (one of the best passers in the Capital District), basketball (1950/51 captain of the Jack Kobuskie’s Reindeer Five) and baseball (drawing dozens of major league scouts to local high school games to recruit him), Sanford took his talents on to play college baseball. After one semester at Ithaca College in the fall of 1951, he transferred to Springfield College (Springfield, Mass.) for the spring 1952 semester. Because of the transfer, he was not allowed to pitch that season. However, he would make up for that lost season by winning the first six games of his rookie college season as a sophomore and compiled a 19-3 pitching record for Springfield over three seasons. This record was considered one of the best three-year records in all of college baseball and helped lead the Springfield team to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., in 1955.
During the summers, he and fellow Gloversville baseball star Joe Kobuskie (also on the Springfield team) played in Canada for the Maine-New Brunswick Team in Grand Falls, New Brunswick (a league similar to the Perfect Game League in which the Amsterdam Mohawks participate in each summer).
After graduating from Springfield College with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Health & Physical Education in the spring of 1955, he was signed to a professional baseball contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates by baseball Hall of Famer Branch Rickey (Rickey also signed Jackie Robinson to a contract in 1947). His first season was spent with the Williamsport Grays (Williamsport, Pa.) of the Eastern League, where he was a teammate of 18-year old prospect Bill Mazeroski. Mazeroski would go on the World Series fame with his walk off home run in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series against the New York Yankees and eventually be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001.
The 1956 campaign saw Sanford back at Williamsport where he was the teams pitching work horse, winning eight games, while appearing in 33 games (23 starts and 10 relief appearances). It was that same year that he married Williamsport native Diane Bixler. He was then signed by the St. Louis Cardinals organization in 1957 and pitched for the Jacksonville Braves (Jacksonville, Fla.) of the South Atlantic League that year.
In 1958, he split time with the New York White Roses (York, Pa.) of the Eastern League and then back in the Pirates organization with the Lincoln Chiefs of the Western League in Lincoln Nebraska. Calcium deposits on his pitching elbow caused him to leave baseball after the 1958 season.
The Sanfords returned to Upstate New York to start a family and Jack began his teaching career as a physical education teacher for the Speculator School District beginning in the fall of 1958 through 1962. While Speculator did not have sports teams of their own, he spent those years as an assistant coach for the Wells High School basketball team under Jack Belmont. Belmont was also a well-known baseball coach in the area, and Sanford spent his high school summers playing for Belmont’s semi-pro town teams. Sanford then took a position with the Mayfield School District in 1962 to teach, as well as coach.
There, he coached several boys and girls sports, including soccer, track, gymnastics, basketball and baseball.
During the summers, he and his family (children; Jack, Jeff, Mark and Mandy) returned to Diane’s hometown of Williamsport, Pa., where Jack served as the director of Little League International’s baseball camps and was known in the Little League circles nationally as an authority on pitching instruction.
According to Sanford, “I was recruited to get involved at Little League International by my Springfield College Professor of Kinesiology, Dr. Creighton J. Hale. Hale left Springfield to join that organization to promote player safety and eventually became the President and Chief Executive of Little League International.”
Hale is credited with bringing many safety measures to the game, including creating and patenting the hard-plastic full head batting helmet with interior padding and ear flaps that is now used at all levels of the game. In later years, Sanford would spend summers locally promoting and instructing camps for gymnastics, basketball and baseball, including the popular Tri-County Baseball Camps (with Roger Gifford & Craig Phillips) at Parkhurst Field in Gloversville each summer.
Tom Foster took a different route to the professional ranks by first taking a shot at football. At the age of 16, his pitching skills caught the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, who both offered him professional contracts. However, Foster’s mother Winifred forbid him from signing professionally until he graduated from high school. He left Gloversville High School in 1953 to attend New York Military Academy at Cornwall-on-the Hudson on a football scholarship to finish his high school studies. In addition to quarterbacking the football team to an undefeated season, he also excelled in baseball. He was voted the Academy’s 1954 MVP with an 18-2 pitching record (he pitched nearly every game that season) and continued to catch the interest of professional baseball scouts. He enrolled at St. Lawrence University in the fall of 1954, but never competed athletically because he was signed to a professional contract by the St. Louis Cardinals in August 1954. He would spend the next two seasons (1955-56) playing Class D level minor league baseball. In 1955, he pitched for the Johnson City Cardinals (Johnson City, Tenn.) in the Appalachian League and the Hamilton Cardinals (Hamilton, Ontario) in the Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League where he helped lead them to the league’s championship with a team record of 82-43. The 1956 campaign saw him split time with the Hazlehurst-Baxley Tigers (Hazlehurst, Ga.) of the Georgia State League, as well as the Dothan Cardinals (Dothan, Ala.) of the Alabama-Florida League. After the completion of the 1956 season, he voluntarily enlisted in the United States Army. When the base commander learned of his baseball talents while stationed at Fort Knox in Kentucky, he was recruited to play for the All-Army baseball team. They played 130 game seasons against other base teams across the country. The 1957 team was made up of 18 players, of which 16 had either played professionally, or would go on to play professionally including their first baseman Bill White. White would become a prominent figure in professional baseball as a long-time Major League player (1956, 1958-69), New York Yankee commentator (1971-88 with Phil Rizzuto and Bill Messer) and National League President (1989-94).
In White’s autobiography “Uppity: My Untold Stories About The Games People Play,” he talks about an incident during the 1957 season in which he was not allowed service when the team entered a diner after a game at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri because he was black. While most of the team stayed at the diner to eat, White talked with great respect about just a few players who stood by his side and left to go find a different place to eat with him, and Foster was one of those players.
According to Foster, “I remember the incident well. The owner pulled out a sawed-off shotgun on White and made him leave. A few of us refused to stay and left with White.”
Because of the lack of support from the entire team, White refused to play with them for the 1958 season. He did finish out the season and they played in the 1957 All-Army tournament against a team from Fort Carson in Colorado that included former Negro League player and future country-western star Charley Pride. Foster would finish out his military service in 1958 and had a 9-0 pitching record for the base team. That same season, he married his wife (Mary Saunders) and they started their family. He returned to professional baseball for one more season in 1959, back with the Dothan Cardinals in the Alabama-Florida League.
Having started a family (he and Mary would have seven children; Tom, Tim, Margie, Mary, Anne, Elizabeth and Rosanne) he decided to hang up his baseball spikes after the 1959 season and focus on obtaining his college education. In 1962 he graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Health & Physical Education from the State University of New York at Brockport and a Master’s Degree from Ithaca College in 1967. He initially went to work as a Physical Education instructor at the Waterford School District where he got his first taste of coaching, leading the varsity basketball team to the sectionals.
When Duke Miller retired in 1966 as the Gloversville Enlarged School District Physical Education director, long-time instructor Jim Bigsby took over his role. As part of that transition, Miller brought Foster back to Gloversville to fill Bigsby’s position as a physical education instructor at the Elementary School level and to coach JV football, basketball and baseball. Early in his teaching career, Foster joined Sanford in Williamsport during the summer to also teach pitching at the Little League International Baseball Camps.
In the early 1970s, Foster became involved with the F-M Flairs Gymnastics program when his daughters began to train as gymnasts.
According to his daughter, Margie Foster-Cunningham, who is currently the head gymnastics coach at Division I George Washington University, “while he previously knew nothing about the sport, he taught himself the fundamentals and applied the same principles that he himself did as an athlete to train us to be successful.”
He also called upon Sanford to help him coach. While Sanford did not have any children in the program, he agreed to help. Together, they took over the program and helped train hundreds of gymnasts to successfully compete at a high level, drawing the interest of major college gymnastic programs from across the country. Dozens of those athletes would go on to earn scholarships at the Division I college level, including Foster’s daughter, Margie, who was a five-time All-American at Division I Penn State and part of their 1980 national championship team. The F-M Flairs gymnastics program and it members will be the subject of future articles.
Today, at the age of 84, Sanford, who retired from teaching at Mayfield in 1999, resides in Mayfield with his wife Diane during the summer and in Florida each winter. Foster, now age 82 (retired from teaching in 1996), resides in Pecks Lake during the summer and in the Washington D.C. area each winter near three of his daughters. Both Sanford and Foster have been nominated for induction into the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame. They will be honored for both their professional playing careers, as well as their role in developing the areas female athletes into collegiate gymnasts. An induction ceremony will take place in May, and the date and location will be announced in the coming weeks.
Mike Hauser is the founder of the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame in Gloversville. If you have story ideas, old articles/photos or would like to nominate someone for the HOF, he can be reached through the organization’s website at www.fchof.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or at (518) 725-5565.