League's birthday a time for nostalgia

Veterans, newcomers gather in Roland Park

April 22, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The baseball boys, some nearing 60, came out to play yesterday, looking swell, like a piece of Americana in Roland Park.

Marching in a parade led by a vintage fire engine, a reunion of players led the way to their past, to the place where their league began on the Gilman School grounds.

It was the spring of 1952, and there were 115 players in the "Midget" League, later to be called Little League, in a city at the height of its industrial might.

It claims it is the oldest Little League in Baltimore and one of the oldest in continuous operation in the country. So that called for a celebration yesterday, as grown-ups watched the April ritual take place on these fields for the 50th year in a row.

The party included Mayor Martin O'Malley; Louise and Charlie Macsherry, longtime league devotees; and David Mock, one of the first coaches and the only founding father present. Not to mention players, past and present, from teams called Comets, Shamrocks, Toppers, Bearcats and Bulldozers, some of whom played ball after a picnic lunch of hot dogs.

David Novak, league commissioner, presented Irish music lover O'Malley with a metallic-green electric guitar.

O'Malley, addressing the crowd of 350, proclaimed an official city salute of the half-century mark and surveyed the faces. "This is a virtual who's who of Baltimore," he said, adding jokingly: "I could get a lot of business done here."

The scene was like "real life in miniature," Novak told the audience, crediting the phrase to Bryn Mawr School senior Anna Himmelrich, a league alumna. Himmelrich, who now helps coach a team and is headed for Harvard University, chose the league as a topic for a class exercise.

Tom Peace, a Lutherville resident, reflected on his seasons from 1957 to 1962: "I coached my kid's team. It established a sense of service. The stuff that lingers helps define who I am."

Boys who lived in North Baltimore -- from Hampden to Homeland -- competed in the league in the 1950s, a national phenomenon that helped shape post-war culture in America. In the White House at the time, Dwight D. Eisenhower presided over a peaceful era. The New York Yankees were World Series champions in 1952.

In Maryland, Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin was governor and Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. was mayor of Baltimore. Both men came to the first opening day.

Flipping through the league's programs of past decades is a journey through social history, given away by haircuts and breakthroughs. In 1975, the first girl joined the league. Now, about 50 of the league's 350 players are girls, officials estimated.

Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger was one of those boys in the first decade. Yesterday, he saw a Bulldozers teammate, Charlie Slaughter, which brought back one of his worst experiences: "I broke his mother's nose with a hard foul," Ruppersberger explained, adding that she had to be rushed unconscious to the emergency room.

For at least a few, yesterday was a wistful look back: "It was a sense of community. People took care of each other, before we were separated by concrete roads, malls, and county lines," said John Snead, one of the original players.

The league secretary since the early 1970s, Louise Macsherry, said she was "in a state of shock" after Novak managed a surprise dedication of a renovated diamond, finding it named Macsherry Field when she cut the ribbon. Her husband, Charlie, was in tears. All seven of the couple's grown children witnessed the honor.

Jacqueline Carrera said that for a working mother of three, the league preserves continuity and community in the first year of a new century: "This is so critical to families."

The 17-year-old Himmelrich summed up yesterday's nostalgia fest: "It's always been a part of spring. I live in Roland Park, and it's part of the neighborhood."

Ruth Snead of Homeland said of the men who were her son's boyhood friends and fellow players: "I knew them when they were boys, and now they're all gray-haired gentlemen."

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