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This 60th Anniversary Is Actually “Diamond”

Sixty years ago this spring, Westport Little League was born.

Four teams — the Bombers, Hornets, Jets and Rockets — competed in that inaugural season.

And if you think I had to do scholarly research to unearth that fact, think again.  I talked to half a dozen men who played Westport Little League in 1951.  All are now in their 70s — but all reeled off those 4 teams’ names as if they were back at Green’s Farms Elementary School field, hitting and fielding and yelling “heybatterbatter!” and having the time of their lives.

In an era of Little League baseball and softball, Babe Ruth, Sandy Koufax, PAL football and cheerleading, WSA soccer, youth lacrosse, rowing clubs, and just about every other sport for kids except Australian Rules football, it’s easy to forget the impact of that initial Little League season.

It was the 1st youth sports league of any kind in Westport.

“We had real uniforms, umpires, coaches, base paths and a pitcher’s mound,” AJ “Red” Izzo recalls.  “Before that, we just played in the back yard.”

Playing “real” baseball made quite an impact.  Six decades later the players remember not just the team names, but plenty of other ridiculous random relevant details.

“Jeff Strauss hit the 1st home run,” Jack Mitchell notes.

“The coaches all lived on Old Hill Road, for some reason” Bud Frey adds.  He reels off 3 of their names:  Henry Dietrich, Harrison Schevelson, Bob Getty.

Bud was just 10 years old that 1st season.  He played on the Rockets, and got 3 hits in one game.  They were his only hits all year, though — and they came in the final game of the season.

Bud spent the next 2 years with the Jets.  “I never knew why I was traded,” he says.

A team from the early years: the 1956 Bombers. Front row (from left): Doug Jacobs, Bob Entigar, Buddy Matthews, Jerry Williams, Bill Deegan, David Ohanian, Bob Rogers. Middle row: Jim Stewart, Jerry Melillo, Dick Sutphen, Bob Rowlands, Ted See, Carl Gajdosik, George Karfiol. Rear: Bill Deegan, Jack Rogers, Vern Matthews. (Photo courtesy of Bill Deegan)

Geoff Lavaty was new to Westport — and baseball.  “I’d come from the Bronx,” he says.  “I played stickball.  I wasn’t sure if I could adapt.”

He did.  Like nearly every other 10-, 11- or 12-year-old boy in town, he leaped at the chance to play real baseball, with real (parent) coaches.

Little League drew boys from the 3 elementary schools —  Bedford, Green’s Farms and Saugatuck — together for the 1st time.  It created lifelong friendships, and lasting memories.  It set Jack Mitchell and Red Izzo on a path to become baseball captains at Staples, 6 years later.

Tomorrow, Westport Little League — in 2011 a much larger organization with majors, minors, other divisions, girls and its very own fields — hosts championship games.  No special events will mark the 60th anniversary.

But league officials are quietly proud to have outlasted other cultural icons, including Davy Crockett caps, hula hoops, the frug, disco, 8-tracks and Pong.

“Parents who played Westport Little League now watch their own kids — and grandchildren — play,” says baseball official Carl McNair.

“They still love to talk about the championship game, the home runs, the victories and beat-downs.

“But whatever the subject, they all have smiles on their faces.   The overall wins and losses fade into the distant past, while the joy of playing America’s pastime is timeless.”

Play ball!

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