Sunday’s LL championship game brings back fond memories
When California hero Nick Pratto was interviewed by ABC Sports right after driving in the game-winning run for Huntington Beach, he said something that really rang true. “I’ll never forget this moment.”
He’s right. He’ll never forget that so-called “thrill of victory” even when he’s a senior citizen 50 years from now. Pratto was batting in the bottom of the sixth inning with the score tied 1-1, the bases loaded and two outs. He ripped a single to center to give his team a 2-1 victory over Hamamatsu City, Japan.
Moments after the wild celebration, tournament officials at Williamsport, Pa. brought out a huge banner that read 2011 Little League World Champions.
I was watching the last couple of innings on television and remember that banner vividly when our 1954 Little League team posed for photos in front of it after beating Colton, Calif. 7-5 at the very same location.
I dragged out my scrapbook that was put together by the Schenectady (N.Y.) Gazette and presented to each member of my 1954 team. Sure enough, the only thing changed on the two banners was the date, 2011 instead of 1954.
Even though 57 years have passed since our Little League team from Schenectady accomplished the same feat as those youngsters from Huntington Beach, many of the rules have been altered.
Back in 1954, if your team lost in the district, sectional, regional or national tournaments, you went home. Today, all of the levels are double-elimination. There also is a limit on how many pitches can be thrown by the starter and how often a reliever may work in a game.
There are courtesy runners, re-entry rules and explicit verbiage in today’s rules so that every player on the roster gets an at-bat.
I played shortstop on the Schenectady team and also was a pitcher during the regular season. But between me and second baseman Joey Loudis, we pitched only a combined one-inning during the entire 10 games that we played.
The reason was our two pitchers, Billy Masucci and Billy Connors—dubbed by the local press as “The Twin Bills”– had pitched a combined six shutouts including a no-hitter each. And there were no restrictions about the number of pitches or anything else and our team NEVER trailed in any game, even at Williamsport.
We earned out trip to Williamsport by beating a real cocky team from Sound View (Bronx) 6-0 who had sent their baseball uniform measurements to Williamsport the week of the Regional tournament in anticipation of representing New York State.
After that regional win we were feted at a banquet in Albany, the site of the Regional Tournament, and received congratulatory telegrams from Stan Musial, Stan Hack, Pee Wee Reese, Ralph Kiner, Casey Stengel and Leo Durocher. Hall of Famer Al Simmons was the Master of Ceremonies at the banquet.
Our manager, Mike Maietta, wanted the team to fly to Williamsport, but he didn’t like to fly and said he would meet us there. We unanimously voted to ride the bus the 500 or so miles with our manager, so that’s what happened.
We arrived in Williamsport as the favorites to win the World Series, based on the fact Schenectady made it all the way to the championship game in 1953, only to lose 1-0 to Birmingham, Alabama.
The other seven teams to earn a berth in the 1954 World Series were Lakeland, Florida, Colton, California, Hampton-Wythe, Virginia, Melrose Park, Illinois, Galveston, Texas, Masontown, Pennsylvania and Needham, Massachusetts.
Maietta vowed that his 1954 team wasn’t going to lose to a team with a fire-balling pitcher, so he brought a pair of 15-year old hard-throwers to pitch batting practice against our team.
Sure enough, our first-round opponent at Williamsport was Lakeland, Fla. whose star hitter and pitcher was an over-sized kid named John Powell, who went by the nickname “Boog”. Ten years later Powell was the star slugger for the Baltimore Orioles.
Anyhow, his blazing fastball that helped get his team to Williamsport didn’t look so tough to us and before the echo of the National Anthem stopped, Schenectady had jumped out to an 11-0 lead and went on to win 14-0. Our base running, which impressed the national sportswriters covering the event, totally confused Lakeland.
There’s a photo in my scrapbook, taken by United Press Telephoto, of yours truly hook-sliding safely into third base after going from first to third on a single, that got national attention.
Our semifinal opponent was Masontown, which meant that nearly all 10,000 fans attending this game would be rooting against us. We entered the sixth inning with a comfortable 5-1 lead when their big guy blasted a two-run homer.
But Schenectady managed to hang on for a 5-3 win which punched our ticket to the championship game against Colton, which beat Melrose Park 8-1.
We had a day off before the final game on a Friday and the tournament officials had a big field day planned for all of the young baseball players. But Maietta sternly suggested that we hang around our dormitory at Lycoming College instead of participating in the sack races and events like that.
It was lucky he did because Colton’s star player Kenny Hubbs broke his toe doing one of the fun events.
Despite the broken toe, Hubbs played and cracked a home run in the championship game. But Schenectady jumped off to 5-0 lead in the first two innings and hung on to win the World Championship 7-5. The game was broadcast nationwide on the radio by Mel Allen, the voice of the New York Yankees.
We came back home to a hero’s welcome, rode to City Hall on fire trucks and received the key to the city from the mayor and city councilmen.
Then came the dozens of banquets sponsored by organizations from Rotary and Kiwanis to the Sons of Italy and the Polish National Alliance.
Each player received a personal letter of congratulations from Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, a resolution of congratulations from the City of Schenectady gifts like bicycles, radios, watches, gift certificates, trophies and other assorted gifts.
The team was the guest of honor of Major League Baseball at the 1954 World Series between the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians and our team captain Jimmy Barbieri, who is the only person in the world to have played on a Little League World Championship team and a major league world championship team (1965 Los Angeles Dodgers), threw out the first ball.
Our team was on the Today Show with Dave Garroway, who is a native of Schenectady, was the subject of a color takeout in Collier’s magazine and a lengthy article in Sports Illustrated magazine. There also was a book written by Schenectady native Marty Ralbovsky—“Destiny’s Darlings”—the name given to our team by Mel Allen.
So when Huntington Beach’s 12-year old hero Nick Pratto said he will never forget becoming a Little League World Champion, he meant it. That long ride for him has just begun.
KWICKIES…By the time this Korner hits the street, the rumor going around Monday that West Orange-Stark’s blue-chip all-state candidate Justin Thomas will be 20 years old in September and too old to play high school football this fall will probably be confirmed. It is also rumored that Thomas has agreed to play his college football at the University of Utah and may be able to enroll for the Spring Semester.
Congratulations to grand-daughter Josie McGlohn for being our first grandchild to graduate from college. Josie and her husband Ryan McGlohn both received B.S Degrees in nursing at the University of Alaska-Anchorage last week.
I don’t make a habit of predicting how an NFL team will do from the exhibition games, but the Houston Texans look so much more polished than most teams, it’s not even funny. If they can continue to dominate teams in the regular season like they have in the three exhibitions, they should enjoy their best season to date.
There still are some openings for this weekend’s 54-hole Labor Day Tournament at Sunset Grove Country Club in Orange. Anyone wanting to play in the three day tourney or the two-day senior division should contact Pro Jeff Cooper at (409) 883-9454.
JUST BETWEEN US…For the half-century that I’ve been covering and attending high school football games, there’s one thing that has NEVER changed. Whenever an Orange area team crosses the Neches River to play in Jefferson County, they have been on the short end of a game official’s decision more times than not that has resulted in a loss in a close game. It happened to West Orange-Stark Friday night when a Nederland player rolled into the end zone after hitting the turf before the goal line and was credited with the two-point conversion that gave Nederland the 21-20 “win”.