|60 Years of Raritan Little League Baseball
|June 7th 1952 was a special day in Raritan. There was much excitement around town as a new youth baseball league called “Little League” would play its first game. The day began with a parade through town that ended at the newly built kid’s baseball field at Frelinghuysen Park on Sherman Avenue. The league was started by several local men led by Steve Del Rocco and Ed Minetti.
|Steve Del Rocco and Ed Minetti
Led the effort to start Little League
|To understand why this new youth baseball program was greeted with such enthusiasm one must look at the history of baseball in Raritan. Baseball had been the favorite sport of boys in Raritan for decades, but they played on their own without any formal league or adult supervision. The baseball fields in Raritan at the time were too small or poorly situated. There was the Mill Field located in front of the Raritan Woolen Mills where the Post Office is now. At the Mill Field, foul balls often landed on Somerset Street. And the church next door often complained that the un-supervised kids made too much noise. Another field known as the Lutheran Field was North of 202 facing Anderson Street. At the Lutheran Field, well hit balls would travel across 202 – and were still in play - so the outfielders had to be careful so as not to be hit by a passing car. There was also a makeshift field on First Ave. where Lab Corp is now. Here the right fielder played in the street and had to be on the alert for any cars that might be coming. The centerfielder, who played against the railroad tracks, was safe from cars, but had to be alert for any trains coming down the tracks. Baseball was also played in the streets, vacant lots, and Dukes Park.
|June 1952 marked the end of playing ball on makeshift fields as Raritan now had of an official youth baseball league that would be played on a real baseball field with coaches and umpires. When the town had first decided to start a baseball program, they set out to link up with a new youth baseball organization that was simply called “Little League”. Recreation director Steve Del Rocco and Ed Minetti drove out to the Little League headquarters in Williamsport, PA, to learn what the standards and regulations were. It was important to do this as this new “Little League” had some good guidelines that appeared to work well. The “Little League” began with one league in 1939 and had spread countrywide by 1949. Every town wanted to be a part of it. Locally, Somerville, Bridgewater, and Manville had begun their own Little League programs in the early fifties.
The original site selected by Raritan for the official “Little League” field was on Sherman Avenue. It was on a large block of land that had been donated to the town by the Frelinghuysen family in the 1940s – thus it would be named Frelinghuysen Park. While the donated land was an empty lot, it was not initially suited for baseball. Back in 1948, a few recent high school graduates including John Pacifico, saw that the lot was large enough to avoid the imperfections (and dangers) that the other fields had. These enterprising young men used shovels, picks, and axes and turned the western part of the lot into a baseball field. Today, this field is known as Steve Del Rocco field. In 1952, when the town officials decided to make an official “Little League” field, they chose to create a it next to the existing adult field as this area had become established as a ball park site.
|When this first “Little League” was being established in Raritan, numerous local businesses and individuals donated to get it off the ground. The cinder blocks needed to build the first dug outs were donated by local builder Henry Condo. The labor to turn these cinder blocks into dugouts was donated by Nick Albanese Sr. whose son was to play in the first league. According to Steve Del Rocco, when they needed bats, balls, and catcher’s equipment, a donation from a local business or person could always be found. Even the umpires - who were often yelled at – were all volunteers. One columnist from a local newspaper praised Raritan saying “just five men set out to raise the necessary funds and in a few days they had what they needed.” This was indeed the era of The Greatest Generation. As result of all the local support, there was no charge to play in the early years of the Raritan Little League.
On opening day in 1952 many residents came out to the inaugural opening league game. Ceremonies were held before the game at the field. Father Joe Miller of St. Bernard’s Church (then on Somerset St. in Raritan) offered up a prayer. Raritan mayor Rocky Miele threw out the first pitch. Recreation director Steve Del Rocco announced that some local businesses were offering rewards to the players. Two local barbers were offering free haircuts to any home run hitters. For doubles and triples a player would receive a free pass to the movies. (As the season got underway, the prizes would be changed to free ice cream for a home run - more fun than a haircut - and Delucia’s chipped in a free pizza, a value of 60 cents then, for a triple. )
|At 2 PM that day first Raritan Little League game would begin when the Red Sox played the Dodgers. In the first inning of that first game, Tony Orlando (grandson of tavern owner of the same name) delighted the crowd when he hit a home run over the left field fence. The Dodgers eventually beat the Red Sox by a score of 9-2. Walter Dembiec was the winning pitcher for the Dodgers – he also hit two doubles.
As the first season developed, the Dodgers established themselves as the premiere team in the league. They won their first 13 games and eventually ended with a 16-2 record. The other three teams each finished several games below .500. The Dodgers were led by league MVP Tony Orlando who pitched and played shortstop. Catcher Al Martin was also a standout. Bob Lauyer was an excellent all-around player who pitched and played centerfield. Another young player, Walter Dembiec played short stop and also pitched. Walter, two years later in 1954, would be the league MVP.
Players recall that it was a real thrill to play in an official league after so many years of un-official games. In the first few years there were no full baseball uniforms given to the boys, but it did not matter to these kids. Al Capetta, of the 1952 Dodgers, recalls that they were thrilled just to get a team baseball hat and team T-Shirt.
Even with the official baseball league the boys still could not get enough baseball. Ralph Cusati, league MVP in 1953, said “We ate, slept, and drank baseball. When we weren't playing little league games, we played ball on our own.” Walter Dembiec added that while he played in the league, often our pickup games were just as competitive and intense. In those days, boys right after school would put their glove on their bike and hurry over to the baseball field to get their spot in that day’s pickup game. Some boys, knowing that they would play for hours, packed a sandwich to tide them over until dinn er.
|Ralph Cusati was MVP in 1953
Can he still throw the fast one?
|At the end of the 1952 season, a Little League baseball tournament was held between the towns of Raritan, Somerville, Bridgewater, and Manville. Each town put forth their All-Star team to play in a round robin where each team played each other twice. The players recall how competitive this tournament between the best from each town was. One of the games was a very special treat to the players as it was played under the lights at Brooks Field in Somerville. The Raritan All Stars finished second in the tournament with a 3-3 record. The Somerville team would win this tournament with a 6-0 record.
The first year of Little League was a big success. It was common for a game to have over a hundred people in attendance. The local newspapers printed the box scores and standings and wrote articles about the games.
Many of these early Raritan baseball players still live locally today. Guy Izzo, Jim Sibilia, Al Capetta, Ralph Cusati, Buddy DeLucia, Allie DeLucia and many others are still in town. The 1956, the Little League MVP was Bob Andreychak - who today is the “assistant” Recreation Director in Raritan. Today’s Recreation Director, Rich Bartolucci, also played in the Raritan Little League in the early years.
|Bob Andreychak, today's assistant Recreation Director,
was Little League MVP in 1956
|This first Little League was the beginning of a youth baseball programs in Raritan. After a couple years, a 13-15 year old baseball league was added. Many years later, a T-Ball league was added for kids younger than the Little League age. Over the decades the program grew. John Pacifico, who was Recreation Chairman 1978-1988, described the Raritan baseball program during his tenure as “A Thriving Operation.” He further said “there were leagues for various age levels from pre Little League, Little League, Pony League, and Senior League. Each league had around 6 teams. “ Unfortunately, this year the Raritan baseball program has only one team in each age group. They now play in a league with other surrounding towns that also only have one or two teams. Kids now have so many other activities that baseball is no longer dominate.
|John Pacifico with Major League Player Jeff Torberg
Jeff Torberg was guest speaker at the 1979 Annual Award's Banquet
|For this article, the author had the opportunity to bring together for a photo six men who had played (or coached) in those early days of Little League. They are mostly around 70 years old. On the day of the photo, the men arrived and greeted each other with much excitement. Old baseball stories easily came to mind. As we waited for the last guy to show up, some baseball bats were brought out for the photo. When these old timers picked up the bats a certain look came into their eye. Several moved away from the group and crouched into a baseball stance and gave it a hard practice swing. I could tell that these guys had once indeed been ball players. Good players too. All of them had been all stars, two were once the league MVP, and one, Guy Izzo, still holds the home run record. They played in an era when there were few entertainment mediums, so the ones that they had they were passionate about. In the 1950s, baseball was called the National Pastime for a reason. As we line up for the photo I see cheerful and grateful guys, as for this one moment they are again 10-12 years old, hanging with same guys on the same field they once played.
|These Gentlemen were once Little League Players & Coaches
Bob Andreychak, Al Capetta, Ralph Cusati, Guy Izzo, Nick Albanese, John Pacifico & John Gentile
|One of the biggest stories from the early days of Raritan Little League happened in the 1954 season. A player on the Giants, Guy Izzo, who today owns Gaetano’s Hair Salon in Raritan, hit 21 home runs in 21 games. That record has not been challenged to this day. The local papers followed his tallies and people came out to see this young slugger. Legend has it that one Raritan homeowner whose house was just over the left field fence at the Little League field boarded up his windows to avoid being hit with another Izzo blast. Guy would bat .750 that year (probably another record ?) and also led the league with a pitching record of 7 – 2. However, Guy Izzo was snubbed when it came to the MVP award. It went to Walter Dembiec of the Dodgers. The debate on who should have been the MVP in Raritan’s 1954 Little League continues to this day. Guy Izzo maintains “How could I have not been the MVP? I hit 21 home runs and batted .750. ” However, Walter Dembiec, (who batted .521, 6 home runs, 6-2 pitching) who today lives in Hilton Head, South Carolina, when interviewed for this article said that “it was the tournament after the season that Guy and I played in that set me apart from Guy. And that is probably why I was the MVP.” And Walter Dembiec, who often pitched, added “Guy Izzo hit many home runs that year, but none were off of me.”
|A Few Assorted Photos
|Articles From 1952 - The First Season