WILLIAMSPORT, PA. -- The Maynard Street field is gone. Skip Singley, searching in the rain for the site, remembers trains rattling by during games. That would put the diamond somewhere between the scattered foundries of Bethlehem Steel and a new Burger King that's sprouted by the railroad trestle. "It must have been right here," he says, slowing his big Chrysler. His Little League field has become a blacktop parking lot enclosed by chain link.
It was a wonder in its day, the grown men of the Maynard Little League remember wistfully. For years they'd played pickup games in schoolyards and vacant lots, with taped-together bats and balls that no one could afford to lose, and then Bethlehem Steel -- which employed many of their parents -- built them a real ballpark. "Oh, it was beautiful," says Butch Laurenson, the shortstop, a California gym teacher now. "Like a miniature big-league field, with a fence with advertising on it and everything."
The next season, as if to prove themselves worthy of it, the Maynard Little Leaguers won a new tournament dubbed the Little League World Series, even though only one of the competing teams came from outside Pennsylvania that first year. That was 40 years ago, 1947. The team picture taken as the champs clustered around their trophy shows scrawny 11- and 12-year-olds wearing dirtied wool uniforms and tired smiles.
This week the Maynard boys have come back, honored guests at the Little League World Series' 40th anniversary. The reunion took some effort: ailing Lou (Scrap Iron) Baity was advised by his doctor to forgo the trip from Los Angeles; nobody knew where to find slugger Tony Ingersoll, who'd gone four for four in that final game against Lock Haven.
But in the end, all 13 surviving players and their two coaches have made their way to the reunion; no one could bear to miss it. "It'll probably stick with me the rest of my life," Rusty Columbine, who played the outfield, says of their youthful triumph. "Something like that'll never happen to me again. I'm kinda proud of it."
They've returned to a now-international event that draws 40,000 spectators and ABC's "Wide World of Sports," that has sold out hotel rooms for 20 miles around. This rainy week Williamsport seems populated largely by small boys and weary parents. The host city is both proud and humbled; it shrank and suffered for years as its factories closed. The old neighborhood looks shabbier than the Little League heroes remember it, and Rusty Columbine's thinning hair is no longer red.
But over and over, as they pound one another's shoulders and embrace for their wives' cameras, the Maynard ballplayers tell themselves they haven't changed.
Thursday "Is that one of ours?" Charlie Scudder, the coach, is peering across the darkened room. He'd asked the boys to meet at the bar of the old Lycoming Hotel -- a little get-together before the official festivities the next morning -- but at 75 his eyes aren't so sharp and it's hard to pick out his once-wiry players from the middle-aged men drifting into the lounge.
It is one of his: Jimmy Sughrue, the second baseman in the final game, who's flown in from North Carolina. He pumps Scudder's hand, locks Skip Singley in a hug, introduces his wife, steps back appraisingly. "Well, we've all grown up a little, haven't we?" he grins.
It was Scudder and comanager Harry Berry, two steelworkers, who assembled the winning ensemble, choosing the star players from the four teams in the Maynard League. "We picked the best pitchers, and anyone else that could hit," Scudder says -- a sound principle of Little League Series play to this day.
But Williamsport is the kind of town, isolated among the Allegheny Mountains, that young people tend to leave. When Scudder began helping the Little League organization track down his Maynard champs, he found them scattered across Pennsylvania and as far away as California, Michigan and Virginia. Only two still live here; many have never seen one another as adults. Ed Jonas, the right fielder turned dairy farmer, and his wife Sally have been sitting unrecognized at the bar for half an hour.
When Ed overhears someone reminiscing about Scrap Iron Baity, though, he knows that these are his teammates. "He was a colored fellow," Scudder says of Lou Baity, one of his prouder discoveries. "He stood in center field and threw the ball clear over the backstop. I said, 'Did you ever pitch?' He said, 'No, sir.' I made him a pitcher. He had a real fast ball, but you never knew where it was going." In the era before helmets, Baity was an imposing psychological weapon.
Only in retrospect have the '47 champions thought about the remarkably polyglot nature of their ball team. Most are solidly middle class now -- a dentist, several teachers, a pipefitter -- but back then "we were mill kids, I guess you'd say," remembers Frank Wool. "Poor kids from hard-working, blue-collar families." Still, the mill kids played easily with the teachers' sons; the state cop's boy caught the pitches thrown by Scrap Iron, the toughest kid in the neighborhood.
In the very year that Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers to break the color barrier in the majors, the Maynard team fielded two black players and no one thought much about it. "As far as colored and white, I can't remember ever having a problem," Ed Jonas is saying to Skip Singley, who agrees. Blacks and whites went to the same schools, were in and out of each other's houses.
"Hell, when I look back at Williamsport, that era, it was idyllic," says Singley, standing next to Jonas at the bar. He has driven alone from suburban Philadelphia, where he works for IBM. Just weeks ago he lost his wife to cancer. "Those days are hard to come by now. That feeling of comfort and safety, that the world would never change. When I come back here, I still feel it. It hasn't changed."
"No, it hasn't," Jonas says quietly.
Friday The rain continues, causing consternation both at Little League headquarters (because the suspended semifinal between Taiwan and the Dominican Republic -- to determine which will face off against Irvine, Calif., in the final game -- will be delayed again) and in hotel rooms (because most parents have already taken their kids to the Little League Museum and there's not much else to do).
None of that matters much to the Maynard Midgets, as they were sometimes nicknamed; their weekend is devoted far more to the past than the present. In fact, the very young PR man at this welcoming breakfast draws blank looks when he talks about yesterday's game (the Dominicans and the Taiwanese played seven scoreless innings before the field got too dark) as the best he'd seen in a long time.
"The best game? No way, Steve," says the next speaker, the president of Little League Baseball Inc., smoothly putting things to rights. "That was 40 years ago." The Maynard Midgets cheer.
In truth, some of the fine points of that game have grown dim. Everyone remembers that Maynard played twice that steamy August day and that the really exciting game was the 2-1 semifinal victory over rival Newberry in the afternoon. Don Stover, now an ample Navy technician, pitched a 10-inning four-hitter. Jack Losch, whose bright green sports coat bears a jeweled pin signifying 28 years with General Motors, got the winning RBI. The men remember Losch's center field single, and one recalls Stover's tears of joy (he insists it was sweat) when he left the field.
Then there was barely time for a shower and a sandwich before they went back out to defeat Lock Haven, Pa., 16-7. Who got how many hits and who made what brilliant defensive play, whether catcher Bill Gallagher stole home and how many innings Buzzy Ungard pitched, those are fuzzy details. The victors were tired little boys; they posed for a team photo and went home to bed.
A photographer now proposes to recreate that portrait, with each player taking the same position around the selfsame trophy, borrowed from its display case in the Little League Museum. "You here, Rusty, and then you, Louie," directs Jack Losch, a shy kid who has somehow become the ex officio team captain. Maybe it's because, despite all the boyish dreams of playing in the majors, only Losch ever became a pro athlete, albeit briefly: He played one season with the Green Bay Packers before the Air Force called him to active duty. Now he maneuvers his teammates into position, joking that he's blinded by the glare from the balding pate of Don Stover, kneeling in front of him.
"Hey, you're looking fantastic," cajoles the photographer, clicking away. "Stay right there, guys ... Hey, I never thought you'd hold out this long."
The day is drenched in nostalgia. In the afternoon, while fans gather in the drizzle at the stadium to see Taiwan mop the muddy field with the Dominicans, the Maynard men drive out to Carl Stotz's place.
Stotz, 77, a founder of Little League only nine years before that inaugural World Series, remembers them well. For years he's been building and expanding a kind of back-yard shrine to house a collection of Little League memorabilia; he'd happily spend hours showing visitors every historic catcher's mask. Instead, the Maynard boys present a new addition to his museum: a baseball they've all signed. "Autographed by champions," Stotz says, looking pleased. No one had thought to do it 40 years ago.
At the evening banquet, in a hotel ballroom decorated with balloons, the tributes continue: a word from the mayor, congratulations from speakers Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer, a slide show. "Let's bring up the men of That Championship Season," says the master of ceremonies, finally.
The boutonniered Maynard Midgets and their coaches line up before the dais and face the applause, beaming. The plaques being distributed, with handshakes, feature two photographs: the 1947 team portrait and, surprisingly, the picture for which they'd lined up this morning. Jimmy Sughrue is blinking hard; Skip Singley's son claps his father's back.
"I feel wonderful," Ed Jonas says afterward, a bit dreamily. "This may even be greater than playing in the Series itself."
All day they have been groping to explain this curious feeling: Winning the World Series, exciting as it was then, has come to mean more to them now. The older they get, the more it matters.
Perhaps as Little Leaguers it seemed natural, unexceptional, that their hard work and fond hopes would be rewarded. Now they have experienced the bewildering complement of achievements, disappointments and tragedies common to any group of men past 50. Two have been widowed, several others divorced. One has had to stop drinking. One lost a home to a fire, another to a flood.
Bob Smith, the Maynard pitcher known as Smitty, stayed in Williamsport and ran the Sunoco station on High Street until he died nine years ago of cancer, leaving five children. His widow Norma stood with his teammates at the banquet to accept Smitty's plaque.
"You put it in perspective," Jack Losch says. "You say, 'Hey, we really started it all.' "
Saturday Clearing skies, at last. Fans by the busload and carful are converging on Lamade Stadium for the final game between the Northwood Little League from Irvine, Calif., and the Hua Lian Little League from Taiwan, here officially called Chinese Taipei. The first World Series drew 2,000 people, a huge crowd, the Maynard kids thought. Today 10,000 people fill the stands; another 25,000 or so set up blankets and lawn chairs on the slopes beyond the outfield fence.
In the dining hall nearby, the Maynard Little Leaguers draw names from a hat to see who will carry their banner when they walk onto the field for the Parade of Champions. Coach Scudder, it is decided, and Jimmy Sughrue and Rusty Columbine.
The Army Band from Fort Meade is playing Sousa and the fans are clapping in time as the team walks toward the staging area near the left field bleachers. "I feel young already," sings out Walter Dunston, a Philadelphia dentist. "I'm ready to grab a bat."
"We ought to run out one at a time," Tony Ingersoll suggests, only half joking.
"Run?" Scrap Iron Baity, who suffers from arthritis, looks doubtful. "Run?"
The announcer is calling the names of "the eight finest teams in the world," the regional champions that have come to Williamsport for the Series. Irvine, California. Saudi Arabia. Chesterfield, Indiana. Taiwan (which will go on to best the U.S. team, as Taiwan teams have 12 times in 20 years, this time by a lopsided score of 21-1). Morristown, Tennessee. Clumps of boys with banners head onto the field.
Suddenly it is Maynard's turn and the players step off smartly, three abreast, down the third base line.
It is a scene out of a 12-year-old's fantasies, the cheers from the home town crowd, the shutters clicking around them. No one has to remind them to smile. The Maynard champions pull off their matching baseball caps; bareheaded in the bright afternoon, they wave to their fans.