A prankster-playing athlete who found
himself running for office — and winning
Buster Major was a remarkable character, a private person who spent much of his adult life as a public servant, five terms as mayor of the village of Solvay, NY.
He was a star athlete, first at Solvay High School and later at Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse. He played basketball, but his best sports were football and baseball. From the newspaper clippings I've read, my father came across as a high school version of Jim Brown. He was a running back who was bigger than most of the linemen he played against. And like Brown did at Syracuse, my father kicked extra points. There was even a mention in a Syracuse newspaper of a game in which Buster Major dropkicked a field goal.
After leaving CBA in 1924 he received a scholarship at Dean Academy in Franklin, Massachusetts. While playing at CBA he had been scouted by Chick Meehan, then the head football coach at Syracuse University. Meehan left Syracuse to become the football coach at New York University in 1925. Buster's plan was to play football at Dean Academy in 1924, then attend NYU and play for Meehan there, but a knee injury sidelined him at Dean, and afterward he was considered damaged goods.
His ultimate dream was being a major league pitcher, but he was not as effective after his knee injury, though continued to spend summers pitching, perhaps too much. He often pitched two games on the same day, for different teams in leagues where he might be playing under another name. That was never the case on two of his teams — the Solvay Tigers and the Major All-Stars (comprised mostly of Major cousins from Skaneateles).
BUSTER MAJOR also was a prankster whose antics inspired a comic strip character (below) in a Solvay Process Company publication. Like many pranksters, Buster Major loved to perform. Sometimes he did it on stage, along with other Solvay residents in the annual minstrel shows produced by St. Cecilia's Church. However, he did it most successfully during his 1949 mayoralty campaign. He campaigned almost playfully, believing he didn't have a chance of winning, but his style proved popular. Most memorable were his song parodies, especially the campaign song he wrote to the tune of The Missouri Waltz, chosen because Missourian Harry S. Truman had pulled a stunning upset the year earlier in defeating Thomas Dewey for president. (See the Buster Major Election Songbook, below.)
Buster sang those songs at the several rallies — i.e., free beer, everybody! — that the Democrats held at various clubs. Buster and his running mates were perhaps the first Syracuse-area candidates to use television, buying time for (I believe) two programs in 1949. He won the election, and two years later was re-elected by a convincing margin. (See his election results, below.) Onondaga County was — probably still is — overwhelmingly Republican. So Buster quickly became the county's most successful Democrat. The party wanted him to run for Congress, but he declined. He did, however, make a bid for the State Assembly, but lost.
Being mayor of Solvay was a part-time job. His full-time job for many years was at the Solvay Process Company. For the 12 years he was mayor he was busy for at least part of almost every weeknight. He made it a point to attend every wake in the village and several in nearby communities.
HE WAS an avid sports fan who attended almost every Syracuse University football home game for many years. My favorite memory was when he rushed to the field after a game in order to intercept a player for a remarkable performance. I don't recall the opponent or the score, but the game was during that period of the 1950s when colleges briefly returned to one-platoon football. The player on the receiving end of Buster's handshake was Ted Kukowski, a center and linebacker who seemed to be in on every tackle.
Buster also was a huge boxing fan, which is why my childhood Christmas gifts included boxing gloves and a punching bag. Occasionally he met with his political cronies at our house. The meetings always adjourned in time to catch a televised fight.
As much as he enjoyed the spotlight, he may have been just as happy alone. He looked forward to our vacations and being able to escape for hours to go fishing by himself. (See Sandy Pond.)
WHEN IT CAME to food he was notoriously fussy. He wanted his hot meals super hot. Not spicy. Hot! He also ate his food quickly. His jaw moved over cooked food the way a person in bare feet would move over hot coals. So while our family was together when dinner started, there was one member missing before the meal ended.
Buster's love of fish got him through the meatless Fridays that were part of Catholic life for many years. However, he preferred meat. So as a late-night person, Buster could be found in the kitchen at the stroke of midnight (sometimes a minute or two earlier) making himself a ham sandwich to eat while watching Jack Paar, then later Johnny Carson.
He had strong opinions, but seldom tried to force them on his children. He did, however, enjoy a good argument, particularly about politics. For a politician, he was refreshingly candid, though his remarks sometimes resulted in a lecture from his wife, Helen, who always waited until they were alone before she delivered it.
He started smoking when he was in high school. Chesterfields was his cigarette of choice. His smoking convinced me not to use cigarettes because I thought they were the cause of his persistent cough, though he claimed it was due to a bout of bronchitis while he was growing up. (He probably was correct; I've had the same cough since I had bronchial pneumonia in my early 30s.) He finally kicked the smoking habit, though his method was unusual.
As a St. Cecilia's parishioner, he came to appreciate Rev. Carl Denti, who may be listed in the Guinness Book of Records for saying the world's fastest mass. So when, as mayor, Buster was introduced to a priest who had recently been assigned to the church, he greeted him with, "Pleased to meet you, Father McCarthy . . . you know, your masses run a bit long."
BUSTER'S PATERNAL grandparents were William Major and Mary Anne O'Neil, who married in Ireland in 1865, connecting the Major family with the famous O'Neil clan and The Legend of the Red Hand. The couple emigrated to the United States shortly thereafter and settled in Skaneateles, NY.
Buster's father was John W. Major (1870-1940), one of 10 children of William and Mary Anne Major. His mother was Rose McLaughlin (1872-1943), one of four children of John and Mary (Casey) McLaughlin. John W. Major also was an avid Democrat who was involved in politics at a local level. He served two terms as trustee in the village of Solvay (1910-14).
Buster married Helen Smolinski in 1929 and for most of their life together they lived at 104 Russet Lane. They had two children, John Stanley Major (1938- ) and Mary Elizabeth Major Chard (1943- ).
Buster Major, then a Solvay Process welder, appeared occasionally as a cartoon character in Solvay Safety News, a company publication. This strip, by J Cloonan, is from October 1945:
Nicknames are on my mind, having spent spent several weeks researching baseball players to update and greatly expand a feature I removed from this website a few years ago. It seemed nicknames were in the news last season (2018) when the major leagues had have certain players on every team select nicknames that would be spelled out on the backs of the their jerseys.
As I recall, that project was a farce, in part because the nicknames were so feeble, and because people shouldn't be allowed to choose their own nicknames. These are given by family and friends, and often by people who dislike the person being nicknamed. People are allowed to select what I call "starter nicknames."
Example: My parents named me John, but from the get-go called me "Jackie." About the time I entered elementary school, I told them "Jackie" was too baby-ish; I insisted on being called "Jack." Most folks complied. However, I was interrogated by my fourth grade teacher.
"I know your name is John," she said. "Why do you call yourself Jack?"
I thought she was joking, but apparently she didn't consider Jack a nickname for John, but she reluctantly began calling me Jack in class.
My real nicknames were something else, and I had several over the years. Because my college roommates considered me the sloppiest person they'd ever met, they called me "Neatness." And when I began having dinner at a restaurant that served Coca-Cola in six-ounce bottles, I'd order two at a time, which earned me another nickname: "Couple of Cokes."
My most enduring nickname was given me by a neighbor, Daniel "Red" Mathews. I was about 10 years old at the time; Red was probably 16. Perhaps he'd just read O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi," and didn't realize the word was pronounced with a soft "g", or perhaps he was tailoring the word for me. He greeted me in his driveway where a bunch of us were about to play basketball, and said, "I've got your nickname — 'Magi,' " but he pronounced it MAG-eye.
It stuck for years, though calling me "Magi" Major seemed redundant, so I was simply "Magi."
WHILE I READ about old-time baseball players — and how three guys named Harold lost their first names, becoming Pie Traynor, Pete Reiser and Pee Wee Reese — I wondered again how my father wound up being called "Buster." It seemed logical the nickname had something to do with sports, because my father was a bruiser in high school, bigger than most of his classmates and a fullback on the football team. I imagined that when he was a toddler, people would look at him as say, "He's a buster!"
But whenever I asked how he got the name, he'd simply answer, "Buster Brown."
When I was a boy, I considered Buster Brown the name of a shoe. Certainly my father couldn’t have been nicknamed after the girly-looking kid featured — wihis dog — in the shoe company’s label. The company's radio commercials featured the voice of a child actor who made popular the phrase, "I'm Buster Brown, I live in a shoe. That's my dog, Tige, he lives there too!"
I became aware of a line of Buster Brown clothes for young boys, outfits that seemed designed for a 17th century prince. My image of Buster Brown certainly didn't fit my image of my father. Whoever dubbed my father "Buster" must have been very cruel indeed.
Only recently did I become aware of the Buster Brown comic strip that began in 1902, the year before my father was born. I learned that, despite his Lord Fauntleroy appearance, Buster Brown was a bit of a smartass who enjoyed playing practical jokes, and always had a quick excuse for his behavior.
Suddenly, it made sense, because my father was a bit of a smartass who enjoyed playing practical jokes.
MY FATHER remained “Buster” his entire life. His given name was Stanley, so there were people who called him that. Occasionally he was called “Stan,” but mostly it was “Buster.” When he entered politics, newspapers often identified him as Stanley “Buster” Major. Which gets me to a handy thing about nicknames — how they help differentiate between two people with the same given name. My father had a cousin named Stanley, who became a Syracuse dentist. If he had a nickname, I didn’t know it. To anyone confused by the two Majors named Stanley, I’d say my father was “Buster”, the other one was the dentist.
I just as curious about why my grandparents named my father Stanley, an unusual name for our family. My Major ancestors came from Ireland. My grandfather, John W. Major, married Rose McLaughlin, daughter of another Irish immigrant. The Majors and McLaughlins who settled in Skaneateles, New York, where my grandparents met, were big on the names William, John, Charles and Edward for boys; Margaret, Mary and Elizabeth for girls.
My grandparents had six children, but used only two of those names — William and Margaret — which were turned into obvious nicknames, Billy and Maggie.
My grandparents had two other boys, two other daughters. The first born, a son, was named Emmet Leo Major, who died of diphtheria when he was 12. This is just a guess, but I believe his middle name was Leo because he was born during the reign of Pope Leo XIII. My guess is Emmet was in honor of an Irish patriot named Robert Emmet, who was executed in 1803, but was the subject of a play that was performed in Central New York in the 1890s. (Emmet Major was born in 1894.)
I can't find anyone named Stanley who was important either in the church or in Ireland in the early 1900s, but find it odd that those two Stanley Majors were born in 1902 and 1903. The Stanley who became a dentist had a middle name that began with J — I'm guess it stood for John — but my father's middle name was Ernest, also unusual for our family; perhaps unique.
In addition to Margaret ("Maggie"), my aunts names were Lola and Irene. Well, Lola, it turned out, was actually named Viola, but she was always Aunt Lola to me, and the name fit. Lola was brash and enjoyed exchanging wisecracks with my father. Her first husband drowned during one of his trips across Lake Ontario, carrying booze he'd picked up in Canada during prohibition.
My other Major aunt was named Irene, who had no nickname that I recall. I don't know of any other Irene in the family.
MY MOTHER overruled my father when he wanted to name me Stanley. She didn't like the name, and may have realized I'd get stuck with the nickname "Little Buster." So my parents compromised on John Stanley Major, the John honoring my paternal grandfather.
There was one fairly interesting nickname story in my family. It involved two of my father's cousins, Floyd and Lloyd Major, who were twins. Floyd was born with black hair, Lloyd's hair was red. Thus Floyd became "Blackie," and Lloyd became "Red."
Which gets me back to what started it all — baseball player nicknames. Once upon a time there were twins name Emerson and Elmer Hawley born in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. They were identical twins, so identical that the only way their parents could tell them apart was to tie a pink ribbon around the hair of one, a blue ribbon round the hair of the other. They called Emerson "Pink," ad Elmer "Blue."
The boys grew up to love baseball. "Pink" was a pitcher, "Blue" a catcher. "Pink" Hawley made it to the major leagues, and won 167 games from 1892 to 1901, pitching for St. Louis, Pittsburgh, New York and Cincinnati of the National League, and Milwaukee in the American League's first season. He had a few very good seasons, but had a few bad ones, finishing his career with 179 losses. It has been written that "Blue" got as far as the minor leagues,, but there's no evidence he ever played professional ball.
Many other tales of baseball nicknames and several baseball player names that didnt need nicknames to be interesting begin elsewhere.
|Buster Major's Solvay election results:
||Louis Valletta: 492
||John Degan: 1,653
||John Degan: 1,780
||John Degan: 1,615
||Norman James: 1,563
||Robert Mancabelli: 1,506
||Kenneth Dack: 1,493
||Edward Kinsella: 2,257
Quick! Start up the donkeymobile!
Solvay Democrats knew how to attract attention in an era that loved silly stunts. Mayor Buster Major and village trustee John Nozynski got media coverage for riding a donkey-drawn wagon through Solvay streets during their 1951 re-election campaign. The photograph, by Louis Raczkowski, is from the Syracuse Herald-Journal, once Central New York's leading newspaper.
In the background, right-to-left, are Al Nowakowski, the campaign manager; Gerald Blair, chairman of Solvay's Democratic party and Judge Donald Salvetti, who didn't face re-election until 1953.
Republicans couldn't counter this stunt. The circus wasn't in town and the Burnet Park Zoo was a mess, so no elephants were available.
Nowakowski was an energetic, often creative fellow. His donkey stunt may seem corny, but thanks to his urging, the Solvay Democrats were the first Onondaga County politicians to use television to reach voters – not through commercials, but through 30-minute programs in which candidates introduced themselves and explained their goals and accomplishments.
My father, usually an engaging fellow at home in front of an audience, was intimidated by television, but eventually managed at least one comfortable, Buster Major smile on camera. He was much more at ease during the political rallies when he'd perform his songs.
|– JACK MAJOR
Buster Major's Songbook
Buster Major sang his way to the Solvay mayor's office in 1949, initially treating the campaign as a lark because he thought he had little chance of winning.
During the campaign there were several everyone's-invited Democrat Party rallies at the Tyrol Club and other halls in the village. Buster preferred singing to making speeches and quickly discovered his audience felt the same way.
They also seemed to relate to the lyrics, which Buster had written to popular songs of the day. The first song, to Missouri Waltz, was the favorite. The lines about snow and plows had an impact because village elections take place in March and the campaign was waged during the worst winter weather.
Here's the Buster Major Songbook.
Tune: East Side, West Side
East side, west side, everywhere you go,
People are fall in holes in the streets,
It's costing the village dough.
And when you are out riding,
The holes make you bob up and down,
And there isn't any good pavement
In the sidewalks of our town.
Tune: Mule Train
Let's get going over hill and vale,
This is the year we must not fail,
Vote for Grube! Vote for Ted!
Vote for Friedli! Get along mule train!
The emblem of our party,
The Democrats are humming,
If we don't win tomorrow,
We might as well be slumming,
Get along, mule train!
Vote for Grube, etc.
Oh, the opposition's bragging,
For them they say it's sunny,
While we have all the good will,
They've got all the money,
Get along, mule train!
Vote for Grube, etc.
They say they'll fix the highways,
But we all have our fears,
They never made an effort
In the last fourteen years,
Get along, mule train!
Vote for Grube, etc.
Oh, listen all you voters,
To get back all your losses,
Save the Solvay village,
From the party bosses,
Get along, mule train!
Vote for Grube! Vote for Ted!
Vote for Friedli! Get along, mule train!
Tune: Missouri Waltz
Fourteen years ago,
The Solvay village board was won
By Republicans, so let's review
The work they've done.
In winter the sidewalks
Are covered with snow,
The plows block your driveway
Wherever they go.
The streets are full of holes,
The sidewalks cracked away,
Soon they'll disappear,
Almost any day.
So let's stop all static,
And vote Democratic
On Election Day
Because Solvay was predominately Italian, Buster also made it a point – throughout his political career – to include an Italian favorite, singing as much of it as he could, which took him about this far:
Oi Marie, Oi Marie,
quanto suonno che perdo pe'te
abbracciato nu poco cu te!
Oi Marie, Oi Marie.
Tune: Loverly Bunch of Coconuts
We've got a terrible bunch of village streets,
All of them are full of holes and cracks,
Big holes, small holes, some as deep as a well,
To avoid 'em you jump
And fall on your rump,
They'll get you sure as hell.
So why not do something about it,
When you are voting on Election Day,
Throw the wreckers out,
Then we all can shout,
Singing roller bowler ball, a penny a pitch