Lefty Grove Baseball League History


By Al Preston in 2006

The Norwalk Junior Chamber of Commerce started the Pre-Teen League in 1956.  With the help of the City Recreation Department, about twenty Jaycee members started with six teams.  They started playing on McGuan field while work was started on building a field on property belonging to the V.F.W. Post 2743.  The Jaycees ran the League in cooperation with the Rec. Director, Eli Joyce, through the 1960 season.  The response was so well received by boys ages nine thru twelve, that two more teams were added.

When the new V.F.W. field was officially opened on June 2, 1957, it was an “event”.  Mayor Louis Frey was master of ceremonies but the draw for some 500 spectators was Cleveland Indians immortal, Bob Feller.  Because of bad weather coming out of Chicago, the plane Bob Feller was piloting arrived three hours late.  The afternoon was still a success with all eight teams playing two innings each.  The mayor filled in, as one would expect."Close-up of Old Baseball Equipment" Photographic Print

The field was provided by Norwalk V.F.W. Post 2743 on land that was previously Keller Field, a minor league sized ball field with roofed grandstands and a concession stand underneath.  The field had an eight foot tall solid fence around the entire field.  Advertising was painted on the fence.  The complex was damaged extensively by a storm in the early fifties and was torn down.  The V.F.W. formed the Teener League in 1963 for boys over twelve when they were finished with Lefty Grove.  In 1979 it became part of the Lefty Grove League as the Teener Division.  The Teener field was built by the V.F.W. on land between Diamond No. 1 and the railroad tracks and is a full-sized ball field.

The Jaycees gave up running the League in 1960.  On May 8, 1962, it officially became the Lefty Grove Baseball League, Inc.  Hall of Famer Robert Moses (Lefty) Grove had retired to Norwalk so the new name was a natural.  While Lefty Grove was not active in the league, he was honored by our selection and attended our Awards Dinners and gave autographs to many of our youth.  He enjoyed visiting George Schild at the IGA store on Milan Avenue, where he spent many hours talking baseball and race horses with George.  It should be noticed that George was also very connected to Lefty Grove baseball.  Schild’s IGA store is the only sponsor to have continuously sponsored at least one team since the beginning.

 I am not sure how the first contact was made but in 1963 we began an exchange home All-Star game with Detroit’s Barney McCockey League.  McCoskey was a Detroit Tiger All-Star.  Later it was expanded to include both our Junior and Senior Divisions and the V.F.W. Teener team.  After the games we would meet at V.F.W. Post 5672 on Joy Road for a banquet.  When they came to Norwalk, many of them would come a day early and visit Cedar Point,  Our records show that one year, 32 cars left Norwalk for Detroit at 8:30 Sunday morning.  They were fun times but after the 1977 event we were forced to discontinue the series because we could not afford the banquets.  They had much more affluent sponsors in their neighborhood.

 In 1965 the League was expanded into two divisions.  The eleven and twelve year olds were in the Senior Division with eight teams on the new Diamond No.2, and the nine and ten year olds, with six teams, stayed on Diamond No. 1 as the Junior Division. 

The year 1973 was an eventful one with many changes.  The T-Ball Division, now called Bantam, was started for seven and eight year olds, with four teams.  It has grown considerably since, and is now our most popular division.

The Lefty Grove Auxiliary was started in 1973 and while it did not last a long time, it was very helpful with fund raisers, organizing and running our banquets, and distributing information to the parents.

Finances were a constant concern.  Fund raisers of all kinds were tried.  In the early days, Tag Day was held annually.  A small stringed badge reading “I support Lefty Grove Baseball” or something similar was handed out to anyone making a donation.  The players, in uniform, were stationed outside of various businesses about town with a cup and a supply of tags.  Over the years we also tried selling shampoo and different kinds of candy.  Do not sell chocolate in June or July.  We tried selling raffle tickets for many different prizes.  Bat-a-thons seemed to work as well as anything.  But a great deal of time and effort from a lot of people would always determine the success of the operation.  Big Chuck-Little John softball games were fun.

June 1973: Some parents did not understand the scoring and why their son was given a fielder’s choice instead of a hit.  The inexperience of the scorekeepers and their different opinions on what was a hit or an error, and other rules of scorekeeping were causing hard feelings among some parents.  The League felt that this was distracting from the purpose of the League.  It was decided we would no longer keep batting averages or have batting and home run champions.  It was a good decision.

With the growth of the League in the seventies, the need for more games required additional playing fields.  The City of Norwalk granted permission to use McGuan Field and the Norwalk School Board let us use Maplehurst for additional games.

In 1981 the Senior Division field was changed to an intermediate sized diamond with 75 foot basepaths and 54 feet from pitching rubber to home plate.

The eighties also brought about discussions and controversy over the admittance of girls into the League.  This debate between Board members, the City of Norwalk, and some parents, lasted a couple of years.  It ended with the start of the 1984 season when girls were included in the sign-up.

Always a concern was playing time for all youngsters.  Starting with the Bantam Division, in the early eighties, a required rotating batting order was started and also three innings in the field.  This meant that everyone on the team was in the batting order for the entire game.  The rotating batting order was later adopted for all divisions.

The League was very appreciative of the Board of Education and Norwalk City for allowing us to use their playing fields but there were drawbacks, including extra equipment, extra supervision, parking problems at Maplehurst, etc.  We began to look into other options.  With the generosity of the Medical Center doctors, who owned the land behind their building and adjacent to our Field No. 2, we were allowed to build Field No. 4, and the Bantam Division started using it for the 1988 season.  The Gas Company was also very generous in allowing spectators to use their parking lot and entrance off Milan Avenue.  Again, many people contributed in getting the field built, both Lefty Grove people, and non-Lefty Grove people.

In the early nineties, we had growing concerns about the property on which Field No. 4 had been built.  After much discussion the doctors agreed to lease the property to us for $10,000 a year.  However, it was not very long term.  Then in 1995 the entire Medical Center property was listed for sale.  We would lose Field No. 4 and part of Field No. 2.  After several meetings with the doctors, we were given the opportunity to purchase only the property that we needed, at a very reasonable price.  However, it was a long way from anything we could afford.  Friends of Norwalk youth came through again.  With the help of many people, we were able to obtain a grant from the Ernsthausen Foundation.  There was still a problem.  We could not own the property on our own because it was land locked.  (No access to the property without going over someone else’s property.)  The V.F.W. agreed to take title and give us a lease.  Now we not only had secure Field No. 4, but had room to build another field.  Planning for Field No. 5 started in 1996.

Ever since the sixties there have been discussions about traveling teams.  We have had traveling teams at different times over the last forty years.  Somehow they always seemed to last only a short while.  Around mid-1997 the talk again was about forming a traveling team and possibly joining the Sandusky Bay League.  Again there were many positive and negative positions.  We had a traveling team in 1998 and 1999, but discontinued after the 1999 season.  There always seems to be a problem with communicating and accountability.

Start of construction on Field No. 5 began in 1997 and on May 19, 1998, it was reported ready to play.  As always with any of our construction projects, there were many organizations, businesses, and individuals donating time and money to complete these projects.

For many, many years we used an ancient Allis-Chalmers tractor to work on the fields.  This tractor was owned by our benefactors, the V.F.W.  In 1999 we decided to try to raise enough funds to buy a new tractor.  Again with donations, fund raisers, and the help of many, a new tractor was in use by May 1999.  The money from the sale of the old tractor was donated by the V.F.W. toward the purchase of the new one.

The changing times seem to have had an affect on baseball interest by the older teenagers.  Different ideas have been tried to rekindle interest, but nothing seems to have worked very well.  We have changed the age grouping, invited players from surrounding towns, and in 2004 realigned the ages, dropping the “Teener Division” in favor of a Senior Division that has full uniforms and plays teams from surrounding towns at Field No. 3.  It is too soon to have a good evaluation but we are hopeful.

The spring of 2002 brought about the start of the new concession stand for the Ladies Auxiliary by the V.F.W. It is a little more centrally located and much nicer for the ladies.  It’s a pleasant improvement over the very old one.

With a tremendous amount of help from the V.F.W., plans got underway in Feb. 2004 for the construction of new and much larger restrooms.  There was a lot of “red tape” from state and local governments, but on May, 21, 2006, we had a ribbon-cutting ceremony.  We owe a “special thanks” for many hours of tedious work and planning on this project.

As I have mentioned many times in this fifty year highlight, the number of people, organizations, and businesses are too numerous to list in this short history.  I am going to try to list them separately, and not necessarily in any particular order.  I know that many names will be missed.  There are also probably some highlights that I have missed because of gaps in both records and my memory.  If you were ever on the Board of this League and I missed your name, I would very much like for you to give me, or any Board member, your name and approximate date you were connected with the league.

VOLUNTEERS INVOLVED

In fifty years the number of volunteers involved constitutes a very long list.  Because of lost records and lost memory, many names will be omitted.  I apologize.

The list must first start with the Junior Chamber of Commerce members who started the League in 1956.  I'm sure the whole membership was involved to some extent but I have only the publshed names available.  Not all managers and coaches organizing the eight teams over the first two years were Jaycees.  The following list was obtained from the Norwalk Reflector published lists and I have tried to put them in alphabetical order.

Charles Amato

Walter Hite

Ben Preston

Dale Berner

Morgan Jones

Roland Reed

Bob Berry

R. Jones

Dr. Robert Schillig

Rev. W.B. Dennison

Wayne Klein

Al Shankman

L. Farley

Ike Liedorff

Al Showalter

K. Flickinger

Tom McClain

R. Simon

Charles Furey

B. Marett

Bob Smetzer

Dr. Joseph Geoghan

Claud Matin, Jr.

Ken Spaar

Don Halter

K. Nickoli

Dick Temple

J. Hecker

Tom Paffenbargar

J. Ward

Ted Heller

L. Penfield

Bob Weidemann

Howard Hershey

Al Preston

 

Almost all of the above managed a team or helped coach during the first two years.  However, when we have close to 100 managers and coaches many years, it adds up to thousands in fifty years.  There were, however, a few who managed ten years or more, I hope that I don't miss anyone.  if I do, I apologize.  Most of the long term managers were also Board members.  I believe the leader, with almost thirty years managing several different teams, was Rudy Love.  Rudy spent many hours on Diamond #1 as a youth playing on a team and also neighborhood pick-up ball in the off season.  He was another of our former players who returned as an adult to help out.   

Very close behind and still going is our esteemed Commissioner, Scott Ford.  Mr. Ford will get more "press" as I go along.

The other individuals with ten of more years managing and coaching, were Jack Meyer, Don Cavello, and Al Preston.  There were many with between five and ten years managing.  They, for the most part, started when their child started playing and left when their child left.  I am sorry for the ones I might have missed.

Umpires are an essential part of the game and have to absorb a good deal of the heat that is generated in our "sport".  Until a few years ago, all umpires were volunteers just like all the rest of us, except scorekeepers.  Except for the youngsters that we attempted to train and a few valiant supporters of youth sports, most of our umpires were Board members and team managers from other divisions.  They ran from near professionals, like Austie Shadle, to other top notch people like John Borgia and Randy Herner.  I would guess we still get about the same amount of flak with paid umpires.  It's the nature of the game.

Over the years, the Fraternal and Veterans organizations have all be very supportive of the Lefty Grove League.  Without a doubt, Post #2743 of the V.F.W. has been our main supporter, from the use of their land to the use of their old A/C tractor, the use of their Hall for dinners, meetings, and sign-ups.  This includes the use of their parking lot, which many times meant that their own membership had difficulty parking.  They have helped us financially with various fund raisers and have us on their charitable donations list.  There is no question wee would not have been able to survive all these years without the V.F.W.  In addition we thank all the members of the other clubs that have sponsored teams and offered other support.  They have included the Lions, American Legion, Elk's, Eagles, I.O.O.F., Moose, K of C, and of course the Jaycees.

Another of Norwalk's great assets is the Ernsthausen Foundation.  It has given us the grants that allowed us to have Fields #4 and #5, and also helped us replace the old tractor that we use to maintain all of our fields.

A main-stay of our finances from the beginning has been our team sponsors.  Schild's I.G.A. has been with us the longest.  The Norwalk banks have been sponsors since the early days.  many of our long term sponsors have changed their name or changed ownership, like Bob Meyer, Sheller Globe, Bleiles, and Norwalk Vault. I can't name everyone but know that your participation is very much appreciated.  your name on a shirt may seem like a small thing, but believe me, many years from now there will be a lot of people around this country that will remember that, "I played for Balduff's, or Barman & Seitz, or Janesville, or Kenilee Lanes."  We all hope and work for the good memories the participation in the League will leave with our children.

The City of Norwalk and the many mayors over the years have given their support.  The help from the Park and Recreation Department, and the different Directors, has come to our rescue on many different occasions.  For many years when we were growing and before we had five fields, the use of McGuan Fields was our salvation.  There was a period of time when the city helped with mowing our fields, and in the very early years, more maintenance.

As for the individuals who were dedicated to the success of the League, I am sorry, because I know that I will overlook some.  In the early years, on that may not be so obvious was W.L.K.R.'s "Miss Kay" Kay Penrose was secretary for about ten years.  Another of our early officials was "Joe the Barber" Joe Vartorella.  He was instrumental in starting our series of games with the Barney McCoskey League in Detroit.  On alternate years we would send two All-Star teams to Detroit for games and a banquet at their V.F.W. hall.  The next year they would come to Norwalk.  Many of them would come early and visit Cedar Point on Saturday.  After several years we had to stop because we could not afford the cost of putting on the banquet.  They were from a more affluent neighborhood than we were.

Bill Baines was another Sixties member who umpired and had a calming effect.  He was very pleasant to work around.  it was Bill who first convinced me to become a Board member.  Like Lefty Grove, he was a former professional ball player, except he had to settle for the "Negro Leagues."  Of course Norwalk's Baines Park behind Wal-Mart is named in his honor.

Another Norwalk notable, who I don't recall having ever been on our Board, was never-the-less an important part of the League.  The "Dean of Umpires" in Norwalk, he did many of our games over many years.  He was "Mr. Hustle" making sure he was on top of the play.  He was also honored with Austie Shadle Drive leading to Baines Park.

Someone else who has been with the League on and off, mostly on, since the Jaycees started the League, is Ike Liedorff.  He has done about everything.  He managed, coached, umpired , and helped work on the fields.  However I believe he has been most valuable as the League Representative to the V.F.W. over the last twelve years.  Many times there has been misinformation between the two.  Ike has always been able to explain each side's view.  Ike is our go-to man and a trusted advisor.

I supposed I have to mention Al Preston also.  I became involved when my neighbor, Jaycee Walter Hite, became too bust as an attorney and asked my brother and me to help out.  I very quickly found that "help out'' meant managing the team.  I never regretted it.  My four children grew up with baseball because as it turned out, my wife, Leona Preston, became a scorekeeper and eventually League Secretary.  She was also a member of the Auxiliary when they were active.  I think she figured if she wanted to see me when the weather was decent, she had to go down to the field.  She let the trucks deliver shampoo and different candles to our house.  Our house was also the Board room.  I enjoyed getting the fields in the best shape possible with the tools available and then umpiring, and surprisingly, having very few problems.  Maybe having hearing difficulty helped.  Arthritis has slowed me down the past few years.  My knees have now been replaced, so who knows.

The position of President/Commissioner is not an enviable task.  It requires you to be very diplomatic, an arbitrator, a teacher, and sometimes, thick skinned.  The League has been very fortunate that almost all of our Commissioners have possessed most of those qualities.  Some certainly did not have all, but seemed to be the right person for that particular time in our history.  Some of our records were lost several years ago, I do not remember some of the names of the particulars.  There was Don Wurzel, Jim Kovacs, and Charles Wagner.  Al Miller started the seventies as President followed by Dave Hinckley who served for several years, although not consecutively.  Dave was another member who served in different offices, and another member whose family lived baseball for years.  His garage or basement was our equipment room.  Barb, his wife, was also very involved, by choice or not.  barb was once the President of the LGL Auxiliary. In 1984 he was voted Lifetime Membership on the LGL Board of Directors, joining Bill Baines and Al Preston.  A job relocation and then poor health made him give up active participation.  He passed away last year.  Over the last thirty years when David was not commissioner we had some top notch Commissioners.  All of our Commissioners after David were dedicated Lefty Grove people who are, for the most part, still active in other community and church activities.  We had Carl Schnellinger, Sam Giallombardo, Bill Smith, Dale Rafie for several years, Dave again, Tom Souter, and Joe Popovic.

In 1987 some kid school teacher who had been League secretary and around for a few years was somehow elected Commissioner.  I believe his name is SCOTT FORD.  What more can I say?  My above list of requirements for Commissioner is filled.  He has tried to give up the position many times but who can follow in his footsteps?  His big goal was to build new restrooms so he wouldn't have to work so hard to keep them clean.  We had a ribbon cutting ceremony recently.  Stick around anyway, Scott.  Besides being a great member of our Board, he also has managed a team for a very long time.  He is also a dedicated middle school teacher who has received many awards.  Deservedly so.

There have been several Board members over the last thirty years who have served ten or more years.  Bill Ball has been Secretary or Treasurer nineteen years, and was involved in the League before becoming a Board member.  He keeps a sharp eye on our spending.

Debbie Seaman has been on the Board as Media Coordinator or Advisor for seventeen years.  She has been a scorekeeper many nights a week and then rounds up scores and cash-box donations before leaving the fields after the games are over.  A quiet hero.

Former Mayor Brooks Hartman was Chief Scorekeeper and City Liaison for fourteen years while Park & Rec. Director Ken Leber has ten years on the Board replacing Bob Barnes.

Dale Rafie held a number of different positions on the Board in his fourteen years.  He was another parent who was active in the League prior to becoming a Board member.  He was a well respected Commissioner.

Another involved parent to come on the board is Ron McConegly.  He has fourteen years as Adviser and Field Coordinator.  You can see him each night wandering between the fields.

 Jack Meyer had over twenty years on the Board.  He was a real "Jack of all trades."  He was a long time manager and probably just as long as an umpire.  He was also Field Manager and was a driving force in the construction of Fields #4 and #5.  He worked a lot of hours over the years.

Bruce Kijowski is in his tenth year as Secretary.  He is the quiet one who is in charge of the "List."  He has to deal with all the contracts, and keep track of who is on which team.  He takes most of the parent calls, keeps the minutes of all meetings, and makes sure all Board members are kept up-to-date with what's going on.  An all year long job and he's good at it.

Only in his ninth year but has to be mentioned because of the amount of work he has accomplished in that time.  Any new construction you many have noticed in the last nine years, Mike was in the middle of it.  He has worked with Bob Zinn on many projects on the fields.  He has done the leg work of obtaining the necessary information for purchasing the tractors.  From the early planning of the new restrooms, Mike has suffered through the red tape that always seems to entangle projects like this.  I don't think anyone, including Scott, was more relieved to see the new restrooms completed thanks to Mike Krupp.  He is the one who gets the special "Thank You".

If your child came back from the concession stand and said, "Santa Claus just gave me my candy," you can bet that Bob Zinn was helping the Auxiliary.  That's where you will usually find him during games.  If you happen to drive by the fields in the afternoon, you're more likely to see him on that big green tractor going across the fields.  The managers don't know him as Santa Claus, because he does not treat our equipment like gifts.  Bob has been hard at work on the fields and keeping track of equipment for twenty-two years.  We can't thank Bob enough.

There are some current members with less than ten years, but they need to be mentioned.  Bob Bennet is Junior President and umpires many games.  John Schaechterle has been Senior President and trusted Advisor.  Jim Williams is currently Senior President and a dedicated worker and manager.  His wife Vickie is our Fund Raiser.  She is the driving force behind our fiftieth celebration, home run derby, and picture day.  Wanda Finch is our Administrative Assistant and has recently finished with all the tax reports for the IRS.  Involved and umpiring for many years is Ed Strobel, currently our Payroll Officer, (only scorekeepers and umpires are paid).  Steve Palmer is our Legal Advisor.  Mary Beth Dunham is our Chief Scorekeeper and has been a team manager for years.  New to the Board this year is Chris Stang, Bantam President and Scott Emerick, Advisor.

Over the years we have received merchandise and monetary donations from countless businesses, organizations, and individuals.  From dirt to paint, from pizza to diesel fuel, from Indians tickets to railroad ties.  Many of our supporters have passed away over the years and we have been remembered by their loved ones in the obituaries.  We are very grateful for the donations, but also proud that they thought enough of the League to remember us.  On behalf of all of the thousands of youths who have had the opportunity to participate, we thank all the people that didn't get mentioned in this short review.

We are grateful for it all, but it's the valuable time that so many people have given so that we could provide thousands of Norwalk youth with summer fun and, we hope, guidance on the road of life.  As I write this piece and reflect over the last fifty years, I see the large number of people in this city that provided opportunities for the youth, not only in the Lefty Grove League, but in other sports and other endeavors.  I believe Norwalk really is a "Kid's Place".

Let's try to keep it that way.

P.S.   To all the players, past and present, please remember all the people that worked to give you the chance to play.  Remember to take care of the equipment and facilities available to you.  You don't have to be a "Star" to appreciate this time in your life that your parents, and a great many other people are giving you.  Whether it be sports or education, EFFORT is the key.