Back in the August 13th, 1997 issue of the Town Crier, Sports Editor Jamie Pote did a feature story and ran pictures of the four Major League Teams from the 1954 Wilmington Little League season, which was in its second year.
Since then, thanks to the Rotary Club and Wilmington's Town Library republishing all old Town Crier issues, we have been able to dig up a lot more information about the original season of 1953.
Below is a combination of the original story from 1997, as well as new information from the 1953 and '54 seasons.
In the year 1954, you could buy a cup of coffee and a piece of pie for a quarter. You could buy a brand new baseball glove for six bucks and a brand new Buick Car for $2,500. During those days under then United States President Dwight Eisenhower, the Korean War was coming to an end, Rock-and-Roll was being introduced and Willie Mays was the star Major League Baseball player who all Americans adored.
And for the town of Wilmington, 1954 was the second year in which Little League Baseball was played back on the fields of the Town Common.
Due to inflation, inventions and a totally different way of living, you couldn't get a baseball glove for six bucks – a decent one today would cost in the $200 range. Had it not been for the many volunteers, Wilmington Little League would not be in its seventh decade and celebrating year No. 66 officially this year.
Today, Wilmington Little League has six baseball divisions (Rookie, A, AAA, Majors, 50/70 for 13-year-olds and Seniors for 14-16 year olds), four softball divisions (U8, U10, U12 and U14) as well as several summer programs with approximately 500 kids playing ball. The majority of those ballplayers have their own bats, batting gloves, cleats and wrist bands. In 1954, with half the number of teams and players, you were lucky to have a sweatshirt underneath your uniform, nevermind have your own batting gloves.
"We would have to pass the hat during games to buy baseballs," said Jack Cushing, back in 1997. Cushing was a catcher and outfielder on the Yankees team that season. "The sponsors bought our uniforms."
The first WLL season began in 1953. The Major League Division played its games Monday through Friday and the Minor Division played all day on Saturdays. All of the games were played at the Town Common. At the far end of the Common today on the Middlesex Ave side right in front of the red house, used to lie home plate. The batters would hit towards where the old WHS stood. That field was just a big old dust bowl.
The league was formerly introduced to the town of Wilmington on April, 7, 1953 as part of "Little League Night" held in the high school cafeteria. Over 500 people showed up that night. Children ages 8-to-13 could register for the season, while two movies were shown including "Play Ball" and "Swing King". The chairman of the evening was Lawrence Cushing, the former WHS Athletic Director, and he was assisted by Ed Curtis. Also on hand were Superintendent of Schools Clifford Good, WLL President, Meyer Weinberg and William Crosby, one of the founding people of the Woburn Little League, who was a guest speaker.
The league would be separated into a Major League Division and a Minor League Division. The four Major League teams would be called the Weiberg's Tigers, Chisholm's Indians, Gildart's Yankees and Cain's Red Sox as each team was sponsored with a cost of $250 per team.
The minor league teams were called the Braves, Giants, Dodgers and Oilers and were sponsored by the Boosters, Rotary Club, Coombs Furniture and Louie's Oil. Wilmington Builders and Supply Company also donated to the league.
Like Cushing said, the sponsors bought the uniforms and then the hat was passed around during games to pay for additional costs, mostly baseballs, thus there was no registration fee for the players. During the LL Night, adults were able to become league members and that group donated a total of $161 that evening before adding another $96 later on, which also helped defray the costs of the league.
Later in the month, it was announced that the managers of the Major League teams would include: Jim Kelly and Karl Powers with the Red Sox; Bucky Backman and Bill Chisholm with the Yankees; Leo O'Connell and John Ritchie with the Tigers; and George Shepard and Bob Baker with the Indians.
On May 7th, at the D.A.V., the league held its 'auction night'. That's when each of the managers were given a certain amount of points and could bid on players. Each of the four teams were given 24 players, but once practices started the teams would be cut down to 15 each, and the remaining 36 players, along with children who registered late, would be assigned to the minor league teams.
Each of the teams then selected the 24 players, who would be cut down to 15.
The 24 players for the Yankees included: Carl Page, William Hunnefeld, Robert Etsell, Caton Monterio, Art Boudreau, Paul Kierstead, Clyde McKaba, Wayne Pearson, Warner Allen, Richard Hersom, Robert Kerr, Edward Downs, William Ethier, Don Norton, Albert Penney, William Wybert, Joseph Peters, Richard Simard, Guy Miculizzi, Dan Gillis, James Rodney, Leo Melvin, James Pilcher and Kenny Strickland.
The Red Sox players included: Joseph Casey, Edward Casey, Warren Cormier, William Thompson, Jim Melzar, Paul Ryan, James Ross, Joseph Beaton, John Tobey, Fred Corbett, Peter Corbett, Charles White, Jack Walden, Paul Lynch, George Cain, Mal LeDoux, William Lambert, Brian Phillips, Kevin Benson, Jon Meads, James Tragle, William Rochefort, Robert Blanchard and William Strickland.
The Tigers players included: William Fay, Richard McKenna, Art Chisholm, James Willis, Walter Geswell, John McCabe, Joe Deegan, John Lewis, Anthony DelTorto, John Harrington, James Stack, Edward Cuoco, Don Smalley, Robert Lee, Ed Doucette, Richard Mottoli, Dan Tautges, Donald Weed, David Fuller, William Nolan, Robert Parker, George Szadis and Thomas Fuller.
The Indians players included: Dan Bemis, James MacMullen, Clifford Knight, Charles Fuller, Stanley Ashdown (another uncle of mine), Richard Snodgren, Robert Ahearn, Meil McCormack, Hugh McCormack, Richard Froton, James Donahue, Charles Ingalis, Charles McDonald, Francis Munroe, Robert Hannoford, Ralph Grassia, Thomas Mullen, John Curtis, Edward Curtis, Edward Palino, Daniel Gouveau, Robert Wetherless and Lawrence Chisholm.
On May 31, 1953, Wilmington Little League set forth. There was a parade that started at 2 pm, which included local firemen and policemen, as well as the league's president, league officials, sponsors, managers, umpires and most of all, players. They walked from Weinberg's to the Town Square to the Wilmington Town Common where they raised the American Flag. The chairman of the Wilmington Board of Selectmen Charles Black threw out the first pitch.
After the parade would be a doubleheader of games with the Indians taking on the Red Sox, and the Yankees battling the Tigers.
Most of the players had rubber cleats and gloves with webbings. Back then, there was no such thing as a 'batter's helmet', instead was two "plastic airmuffs" that went over a player's hat. There no was electronic scoreboard either – the score was kept on a chalkboard, which stood over the center field fence. The field was set up by employees of the town with a fence, bleachers and a backstop.
This writer's grandfather Roy Hersom, contributed with a lot of the construction, including building the concession stand at the common. Prior to that, he helped build a solid bench/fence which replaced the old snowfence.
"I remember we would put the fence on a flatbed and it was stored at Roy (Hersom's) house down on Roberts Estates during the winter," said the late Ritchie back in the 1997 story.
Coca-Cola sponsored the scoreboard. Also, the Claud-Gelotte Company sponsored $2,500 for movie equipment so the first games would be recorded in color and the recordings were under the supervision of Gordon Blackmeer of Reading.
When the parade ended, the first two games of WLL were played before 1,200 fans. The concession stand pulled in $200 — which was more than the opening days of Tewksbury, Billerica and Chelmsford — which included going through 30 cases of soda and 150 pounds of hot dogs. A terrific group of volunteers including Yvonne Allen, George Cushing, Mrs. Fuller, Mrs. Bliss, Mrs Sell, this writer's grandmother Pearl Hersom, Mary Sottile, Mrs. Slater, Mrs. Harper and Mrs. Tautges, while, George Spanos and Ronald Shaw were both tremendous helps.
On the field, the Yankees defeated the Tigers, 5-2. Carl Page and Al Penney had big triples for the Yankees, who also received help thanks to a handful of errors by the Tigers' fielders. Joe Peters was the winning pitcher. He gave up two runs in the first two innings before throwing shut out ball the rest of the way.
In the other games, the Indians crushed the Red Sox, 13-0, as Clifford Knight tossed a two-hit shut out. Bill Thompson and Bill Lambert split the pitching for the Red Sox. Knights and Danny Bemis had big doubles on the winning side.
Later in the season, the league's standings were published in the Town Crier and the Yankees were the dominating team with a 10-1 record, followed by the Red Sox at 5-5, Tigers at 5-6 and Indians at 1-9.
In '54, it was the Tigers who finished in first place, ahead of the Yankees. That year, the coaches were Ritchie with the Tigers, while Bob Baker with the Indians, Joe Gilligan and Cliff Waters were the coaches of the Red Sox, and Bucky Backman and Bob Peters were at the helm of the Yankees.
Ritchie remembered that the Tigers had a five or six-game winning streak during the season, beating and overcoming the Yankees. He added that the Tigers were loaded with pitchers. Tony DelTorto, the biggest 12-year-old in the league said Ritchie, and John McCabe, were two of the top pitchers in the entire league.
"Tony DelTorto was a fastball pitcher, problem was, any pitch was as likely to fly over the backstop as be in the strike zone," recalled Fay. "I was always glad I didn't have to hit against him."
If you ask others, there was a lot of talent spread out through the four teams, not just the Tigers.
"There was some great talent back then," said Cushing, back in the '97 story. "That was when players like Ricky Froton and (a year later) Jeff Williamson began their days and many talented players followed."
Froton, back in '97, was asked about his memories of playing during those days.
"I remember I was pitching against the Tigers. I struck out all 18 batters who faced me. I walked one and didn't give up a hit. I walked Kevin Fields — he then stole second, stole third and scored on a wild pitch. We lost that game, 1-0.
Froton, Fields and Williamson ended up being a terrific trip at WHS years later, helping the '61 and '62 teams make deep playoff runs.
Besides Froton, DelTorto and McCabe as some of the front line pitchers, there were many other outstanding ball players in both '53 and '54 including Eddie Casey of the Sox, Jimmy Melzar, Rick DiMilo, Joe Beaton, former WHS Principal Eddie Woods, as well as the late Dick Hersom, the uncle to this writer.
Fay was also an excellent hitter, which included belting four home runs during that '53 season.
"One (home run) I remember was a fly ball that came down and stuck between two of the fence pickets," he said. "When the outfielder went to grab it, it fell over for a home run and it was loudly protested by the other team's coach."
After the completion of the regular season in '53, a "tournament team" was put together and the leading hitters included Dick McKenna of the Tigers (.568), Carl Paige of the Yankees (.553), Joe Peters of the Yankees (.538), Fay (.521) and Warren Cormier of the Red Sox (.520).
"In 1960, I was on the first WHS (league) championship baseball team," said Bob Gage, a member of the Yankees squad in 1954, who came back and coached the White Sox team for decades. "And a lot of those guys on that (1960) team were great players in that (1954) little league season. Guys like Froton, Melzar, DiMilo, Woods, Casey and Beaton were all excellent ballplayers. Back then, none of the other high school teams ever won. The football team wasn't winning and neither was the basketball team, or any of the other teams. We were the first team really who ever won anything."
The first minor league game of 1953 was held with the Giants leading the Braves, 18-17 and the game was called after five innings due to darkness. Some of the top minor league players from that season included Edward Elliott, Bob Peters, Ralph Zwicker, Ralph Knight, Bill Stickney and John Goves.
FAST FORWARD TO THE PRESENT
A lot has changed since those early days of the league. Back then kids didn't pay to play and today the cost is about $100 per child. No longer are the games held at the Town Common – now it's Rotary Park. Nowadays, it's the parents who buy the uniforms through the league registration fees. Back then, it was wooden bats on a dusty field with small gloves, rubber cleats, plastic earmuffs to protect your head and 60 kids (from the Major League Division) who would do anything to get on the field any chance they could. Today, it's aluminum bats on a beautiful grass/stonedust field with the best glove, hat, cleats, batting gloves and protective helmets that money can buy for kids, who sometimes lack the desire to play and would rather stay in and play video games.
Even though a lot has changed in the past 66 years of WLL, a lot has stayed the same. Still, there are plenty of talented ballplayers. Yesterday was the likes of McKenna and Page, then it was Steve Hanifan, Andy Parr and Jason Bere, then David Rappoli and Billy Sinopoli, and then Jackson Gillis and Peter Daley.
"Easily the greatest pitching performance I ever saw there was our final playoff game in 2009 or 2010. It was game three of the finals and the game went nine innings. Jackson Gillis and Peter Daley pitched six innings each," said Brian Kane, the longtime manager of the Major League Orioles. "The game finished in a scoreless tie. The pitchers combined for 42 strikeouts in the game and there were only three combined hits. Probably hasn't been a bigger crowd at a game since."
And more importantly, the league still survives year after year because of its countless volunteers – guys like Gage, Tommy Southmayd, Kane, Joby Szymanski, Tom Sheehan, Bill Wallace and Bill Harrison who managed against each other in the Major Leagues for years and decades. Kane is still coaching the Orioles today, after starting as an assistant coach in 1987 and becoming the head coach in 1990.
Thanks to all of the league presidents, board directors, coaches, assistant coaches, concession stand workers and moms and dads who volunteered for countless different jobs over the years — the countless number of volunteers each and every year over 66 years — there would be no fun and no youth baseball league here in town.