Although Jim Bouton won 21 games for the 1963 New York Yankees, he is better known as the controversial author of the tell-all baseball classic, Ball Four. John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball, selected the closing line of Ball Four as “the most famous in baseball literature.”
“You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”
More than 50 years later, long forgotten Sampo Little League Field on Knoxville Street in Bay Park still maintains a firm grip on Dave Merchant.
“There was no grass on any of these fields – pretty tough stuff – and before games and practices, we would go around the infield and pick up glove-fulls of rocks. Some of the Dads would drag the infields before games with a section of chain link fence towed behind a truck. Then either one of the coaches or sometimes one of the kids would water down the infield and run the chalk lines down the first and third baselines. I used to love doing that stuff and thought the field looks so cool when it was freshly chalked and watered before a game,” Merchant said.
Just like a major league ballplayer, Dave still remembers his only home run from the early 1960s. He hit it off Steve Moore, a neighborhood stud. Real ballplayers never forget something as important as their first home run.
Bruce Kleege also remembers hitting a home run at Sampo, but can’t recall who served his gopher ball.
Tom and Bob Mulvaney, twin sons of PCL Padres president Jim Mulvaney, have a favorite Little League story from 1961 that was picked up by the Associated Press and New York Times.
“We faced the Yankees, who were in first place,” explained Tom. “We were behind 8 to 6… in the bottom of the last inning. We loaded the bases, two outs… I came to bat…. my identical twin brother Bob was coaching third base. Scott Lindstrom was pitching.”
“I swung late, but hit the ball over the first baseman’s head slicing just inside the right field foul line. Three runs score as I slide into third base. Giants Win! Our team rushes onto the field, picks up twin brother Bob and carry him off the field.”
Bob laughed and added, “I do have a distant memory as a 12-year-old in 1961 of having problems trying to find a practice field. Our coach, Mr. McLain, and our assistant coach, Mr. Layton, decided that we would construct our own practice field and proceeded to do just that. It was located about one mile from Sampo Field in Tecolote Canyon.”
Tom then rattled off the names of over twenty kids who played at Sampo and the coaches of all six teams.
“Mr. Sampo had a construction company and, as I remember, lived right by the field. On reflection, he was quite generous to let the league use the property,” he said.
Bob remembered the Jones brothers were on the Giants. “Their father was a local doctor and their mother was a former professional women’s baseball player during World War II.”
“At the end of the season, the Clairemont Leagues would have a playoff to crown the Clairemont champion,” said Tom. “All teams participated: Hilltop, North Clairemont, Tecolote (Sampo Field) and Balboa.”
Kevin Fountain, Director of Media Relations for Little League Baseball in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, wrote, “Unfortunately, we do not have the record on how long each of those leagues were chartered, however, in 1957, all of Clairemont established the Clairemont Hilltoppers, a league that is still active today.”
Balboa Little League on Mt. Acadia Boulevard is all but forgotten, but it remained active into the new millennium. As Clairemont aged, the league had to disband because of a lack of players.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were Little League ballfields at “The Square” near Merrimac Avenue in North Claremont. They are not forgotten by Mark Nickell and his friends.
As the shopping center grew, the league moved to Mt. Etna and later Hickman Field on Clairemont Mesa near 805. Mark shared a photo of his North Clairemont Little League team from the 1960s and his friend, Marc Wilson, recalls watching Terry Turner throw a no-hitter at the Clairemont Square field.
Mark followed with self-depreciating humor, “I remember going hitless in my minor league season.” There must have been some big league arms in the North Clairemont Little League.
Larry Fandel is nostalgic. “My biggest memory is that spectators could park their cars along the first or third base lines. When there was a good play or a home run, the place would go wild with a cacophony of horns blaring. But sadly, drive-in baseball has gone the way of the drive in-theater.”
Larry has another memory, perhaps shared by other former Little Leaguers. “Sorry, I really don’t remember much about baseball other than chowing down on at least a million sunflower seeds and Pixie Stix from the Snack Shack after the game. Obviously I wasn’t destined for the majors.”
Raymond Frey’s observation is more bitter than sweet. “My manager, after someone made an error, threw his hat on the ground and proceeded to stomp on it. Even at that age, I remember thinking he was such a dork for doing that.”
Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Lemon had a similar thought. “Baseball was made for kids, and grown-ups only screw it up.”
The mystery ball park that nobody seems to remember was located near the top of the grade on Clairemont Drive below “The Quad.” Its exact location was probably the site of Cerro Pueblo Senior Apartments at 2835 Clairemont Drive. It is believed when Claremont’s original Little League diamond could not handle all of the parking, the league moved to Sampo Field in the late 1950s.
Clairemont simply swallowed all of these ballfields. The players are now grandfathers. But for all of their golden memories, how many kids stood in right field waiting to turn 12 so they wouldn’t have to play baseball for their fathers again?
Times change and baseball’s grip on kids has changed, too.
Bob Uecker retired from major league baseball with a career .200 batting average. The beloved Milwaukee Brewers broadcaster has this Little League memory: “The biggest thrill a ballplayer can have is when your son takes after you. That happened when my Bobby was in his championship Little League game. He really showed me something. Struck out three times. Made an error that lost the game. Parents were throwing things at our car and swearing at us as we drove off. Gosh, I was proud.”
Click here for a couple more whimsical Little League stories by Bill Swank