New London was one of the final four teams in the Senior Little League World Series in 1962.
The thing is, the team was not just there — they almost won the whole thing.
In the first game at Williamsport, Pa., they were leading the eventual winner, West Hempstead, N.Y., 2-1 going into the final inning when the New Yorkers scored two runs to win 3-2.
The New London team had ripped through all their Ohio challengers — Huron, Cleveland Collingwood, Ashtabula and Chesapeake — to win the Ohio Little League championship. Then they bumped off teams from Indiana and Missouri to win the regional championship.
That put them — from all the thousands of Little League teams in the world at that time — in the Senior Little League World Series. And they were just one out away from playing for the world championship.
What a great team.
And here’s the part that gets me: just one year earlier, I had been playing baseball with all of them.
Oh, they were all better than me, no doubt about it. But, still … I was playing with what turned out to be some of the best young ballplayers in the country.
I don’t know why it has taken more than 50 years for this reality to come home to me. But Larry Neel is at the bottom of it. His dad, Doyle Neel, was the manager of that legendary Little League team. And his brother, Dave, was one of the team’s star players.
Larry and I chat occasionally after our workouts at the Ernsthausen rec center. He told me about his amazing father who just celebrated the 80th anniversary of his high school graduation. Imagine that: 80 years out of high school! He’s 98.
That led us to the subject of New London baseball. Larry started throwing out names from the 1962 team — Bill Ferber, Eddie Moman, Larry Walton, Dean Campbell, Dave Neel — and I lit up like a light bulb. I know all those guys! I played ball with them. Every one of the pitchers on that team had struck me out multiple times. They were all the kind of players I knew I would never be.
But I didn’t know they were destined to be finalists in the Little League World — World! — Series. Wow.
My days with them were spent in New London’s so-called “pony” league. I guess that’s the level you went to when you could no longer play Little League after age 12. Whatever, New London accepted a bunch of us Wakeman kids into their league.
The wonderful Pete Motolik was our manager. And when they had the player pony league “draft” he selected mostly Wakeman kids. He traded any New London kids we had — including some really good ones like Mike Randleman, eventual World Series starting right fielder — to other teams for their Wakeman players. This was so we could hold our practices at home and only have to drive to New London for our games.
You guessed it: The other teams had us for lunch. But we got some great memories. And we got to know some of the individuals who have become part of New London folklore.
I collided with Larry Walton trying to tag him at the plate after one of my wild pitches. We laughed about it the rest of the season. And I still lament his unfortunate death in Vietnam.
It was satisfying to learn that I was not the only one who couldn’t hit Kevin Geiger. A year after he was fanning me, he was doing the same thing in Williamsport.
And Steve Cooke, who looked like a man to us even before he was in high school, was a power hitter. In one dicey situation when I was pitching and Steve Cooke was batting, Pete — knowing that I was one bases-clearing pitch from disaster — came out from the dugout and told me to throw sidearm to young Mr. Cooke.
“I’ve never really thrown sidearm,” was approximately what I said. “I’m not really sure I can control it.”
“Perfect,” said Pete. “At least it will get him back off the plate.”
I don’t remember any really remarkable result from that experiment. But at least I didn’t hit the kid. And he, too, went on to play in the Little League World Series.
I didn’t know it then, but I should have been honored to share the field with all of them.
And as the Little League World Series gets under way this week, I will have a warm spot in my heart for New London’s most amazing boys of summer.
Jim Busek is a free-lance writer who lives in Norwalk. He can be reached via e-mail at jimbusek@ hotmail.com.