Richard Szlosek: The boys of Northampton’s summer, 1952
NORTHAMPTON — A year ago the Gazette published a special supplement on the 60th anniversary of Little League baseball in Northampton. I was happy to participate in that and purchased an ad, but ever since I have had a nagging feeling that it was an insufficient tribute to the impact Little League had on our city.
Before its inception, youth baseball in Northampton was neighborhood guys in pickup games behind neighborhood schools. Baseballs were taped, gloves were shared and there wasn’t an adult in sight. With the league’s arrival there were suddenly men from Florence and Leeds willing to coach boys from all over town, including the “belt” section where I lived.
Your teammates were no longer from right next door but from every electoral ward in town. The players’ sense of community was greatly expanded and so too was the community’s awareness of what a well-run youth program could add to the quality of life for the entire citizenry.
The first year of Little League in Northampton left a very strong impression on all involved. Permit me to wax nostalgic for a bit.
In 1952, Harry Truman was president, the Korean War was being waged and Stu Miller, the first Northamptonite to make the major leagues, was a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals. In January that year I began to hear rumors that Little League baseball was coming to Northampton. Sure enough, the Gazette soon confirmed that the city had been awarded a franchise that permitted a six-team league with the proviso it expand to eight teams the next year. The six sponsors were the Elks, the Eagles, Rahars, Pro Brush, Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola.
I couldn’t wait. I filled out an application, went to the tryouts and soon I was on the Pepsi team. I remember well our final practice at Maines Field before the first game, when the team was driven to the old Annunciation Church parish hall and the boxes with our uniforms were waiting for us. The Pepsi uniforms had maroon lettering and I was number 12. What a great feeling it was to put on a real baseball suit.
The first Little League field, now long gone, was adjacent to Kearney Field behind the high school. For opening day the league had planned a Sunday triple header but it got rained out. Pepsi’s first game was scheduled for the following Wednesday against the Eagles and it was decided the postponed inaugural ceremonies would take place before our game. Someone sang the national anthem with the high school band and postmaster “Chick” Murphy announced the lineups over a public address system to a large crowd.
I was the third baseman, Paul Garvey the shortstop and our pitcher was Ron Duclos. We beat the Eagles and both Duclos and I hit homeruns. I was sure we were the best team in the league, but then we proceeded to lose eight in a row. We eventually went on a winning streak but wound up the season with a 9-10 record.
The highlight of the season for me was the first all-star team. Every Little League franchise would form a team composed of its best players and compete for the right to make it to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. Fourteen of us were chosen for the team and the sectional tournament was scheduled for our home field. Our first game was against Westfield and we beat them 10-4 with Bruce Grinnell pitching a solid game.
Next up was Great Barrington, which had all ready beaten two other teams. They loved to get on base and run. I was the second baseman and we were aware of their strategy. The first runner on base for them took off for second. Catcher Pete Jezyk threw a perfect strike to me and the runner was out. They tried it a second time and we got him, too. We had beaten them at their own game. Joe McGrath pitched a great game and Joe Mayeski and I hit home runs and we won 5-2.
We were the sectional champs and ready to play a Pittsfield team for the western Massachusetts title. The city was very excited and you could hear people whispering “Williamsport.” There was a huge crowd the evening of the game and the city provided extra bleachers, which were packed with fans along both foul lines.
Alas, our season ended quickly, as we lost 6-1. But in a sense, because of the great memories, it has never ended for me. I was lucky enough to be on that team and share the excitement. I was also fortunate enough to win the first league batting title. But gosh, was it really more than 60 years ago? The memories are as vivid for me as though they happened last summer, and I bet for everyone else involved also. Happy 61th birthday, Little League.
Richard Szlosek is a retired attorney and lifelong resident of Northampton.