INSTANT REPLAY: Traded at 12...
Getting traded is a fact of life for athletes. I learned that early on because I was traded at the tender age of 12.
That’s just one of the many memories I have of the early days of Little League baseball on the North Shore back in the 1950s.
And with the 2011 Canadian Little League majors (ages 11-12) championships set to start on Saturday at good, old (but newly renovated) Chris Zuehlke Memorial Park, tucked in behind Kinsmen Stadium, this is the perfect opportunity to recall those heady pre-teen days of yesteryear.
That was long before the field then known as Jaycee Park got the Zuehlke name in 1976, in fact long before the park was configured as it is today. To put it in perspective, it was even before Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock sent rock and roll on its way.
Home plate was originally where the present right field foul pole is located, so the field’s line from home through centre field faced southeast instead of the current southwest. There wasn’t even an outfield fence the first year. And there was no infield dirt. It was all grass until 1953 when legendary groundskeeper Bill Hoopfer and other parents dug out the baselines. They never knew it but when no one was looking a couple of other eager 11-year-old players and I used the shovels we discovered had been left lying around to dig out much of the area between second base and third.
North Vancouver was granted an official Little League franchise 60 years ago in 1951 and operated its first league in 1952 as the North Van Jaycee Little League (now North Van Central) with four teams, all named for the sponsoring service clubs: Jaycees, Elks, Legion and Kiwanis.
There were only three other Little Leagues in B.C. in 1952: Little Mountain (the first permanent Little League outside the U.S. in 1951 when it was called Vancouver Jaycee Little League), which served all of Vancouver with its National and American leagues; and New Westminster. Capilano had a quasi-Little League in 1952 before becoming officially affiliated with Little League Baseball Inc. in 1953.
I didn’t play in 1952 because I was afraid of getting hit by a pitched ball. I was 10 then and the possibility of getting clunked in the ribs or the head by a fastball from 12-year-olds Norm Strandebo or Jim O’Toole did not appeal to me.
By 1953, Strandebo (the starting pitcher for the league’s first all-star team) and O’Toole (who pitched the league’s first no-hitter) were too old, so I was ready to play.
A fifth team was organized, sponsored by Rotary. I was their 5’0”, 90-pound shortstop and batted second in the lineup behind 2B Eddie Dilks. Dale Wentland and Don Herbert, who rotated between the pitcher’s mound and centre field, were the meat of the order along with catcher Barry Sullivan. Other regulars were 1B Ron Renville, 3B Bill Wilcox, LF Mike Hughs and RF Duke Fairbrother. The roster also included Ross Hultman, Mike Lamusse, Brian MacDonald, Roy McKinlay and Brent Wilcox. The manager was Hec MacDonald, the coach Earle Wilcox.
My first time at bat, I struck out against Kiwanis’ nasty lefthanded fireballer Dave Empey. Yes, that’s the same Dave Empey who gained considerable respect and a measure of fame as the 1993-2001 manager of the B.C. Premier League’s North Shore Twins during the time he coached Ryan Dempster, Simon Pond and Chris Mears, all of whom went on to play in the major leagues.
I’m not certain if I actually recall striking out against Empey but I did keep detailed records (linescores, batting orders, statistics) in little green notebooks which I still have and which helped immensely in writing today’s column. I do remember my first hit, a double to right centre off Empey later in that game.
Another hurler I faced with good success was the Legion’s Harry Jerome, a pretty fair chucker who eventually gave up pitching to be one of the world’s all-time great sprinters.
Ray Wickland, who would win the Bobby Gaul Award in 1963 as UBC’s top graduating athlete, led the league with four homers.
But the next year, 1954, I found myself traded to Kiwanis. Sort of.
Little League was expanding rapidly. West Vancouver now had a league. Another circuit, called North Van Rotary, was formed that season to play out of Jaycee Park with three new teams (Nelsons, Imperials and MacFarlanes) plus the Rotary club. As I was in the Jaycee League’s boundary, I was sent packing to Kiwanis.
In retrospect, it was a good thing I didn’t have a no-trade contract or else I never would have played for the Kiwanis team pictured above, winners of the Jaycee League with a 14-3 record. At 5’4” and 114 pounds, I played 1B and hit .700 (28 for 40). Well, anyway, that’s what it says in my green book.
Ian Dixon, a lifelong friend and the first North Shore Little Leaguer to make it to pro ball, played 2B. Teammate Bryan Lemanski hit six homers to lead the league. I never hit any, though I once hit a line shot to left centre field that struck the top two inches of the white picket fence that surrounded the outfield and only got a single.
The home run target – especially for left-handed power hitters like Terry Dunn whose right-handed slants also produced three no-hitters for Imperials in 1954 – was the high brown fence, well beyond the lower picket fence in right field, which encircled the entire Confederation Park (now Kinsmen Stadium) site.
It all seems so long ago now, which of course it is. Yet it seems like just yesterday too.
This is episode 427 from Len Corben’s treasure chest of stories and photos – from the great events and the quirky – that bring to life the North Shore’s rich sports history.