This article was written by Mark Kanter
This article was published in The National Pastime: From Swampoodle to South Philly (Philadelphia, 2013)
There have been a number of baseball pennants and world championships in the Philadelphia and nearby New Jersey area over the last 120 years. However, participating in baseball championships is not confined to the professional rung. Amateur boys and girls play for the Little League World Series. By the 1950s, Little League had sprung up all over the United States. In particular, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania were fertile ground. Eighteen teams from communities within 65 miles of Philadelphia have played in the Little League World Series. Five of those teams won the championship.
There have been a number of baseball pennants and world championships in the Philadelphia and nearby New Jersey area over the last 120 years. The Phillies have participated in seven world championships, the A’s won nine pennants and participated in eight world championships, and the Philadelphia Stars won the 1934 Negro National League championship. However, participating in baseball championships is not confined to the professional rung. Amateur boys and girls play for the Little League World Series. Boys began play in 1947 and girls in 1974. Former LL players include President George W. Bush, vice presidents Dan Quayle and Joe Biden, Basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as well as major-league baseball players Dusty Baker, Lloyd McClendon, Boog Powell, and Mike Schmidt among many others. Little League Baseball has become part of the fabric of America.[fn]http://www.littleleague.org/Little_League_Online.htm. Accessed December 27, 2012.[/fn]
By the 1950s, Little League had sprung up all over the United States. In particular, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania were fertile ground. Eighteen teams from communities within 65 miles of Philadelphia have played in the Little League World Series. Five of those teams won the championship.
Early on, the Little League World Series, held each year in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, had more of a local flavor. Many of the participating teams were from locations that were relatively close to Williamsport. By 1960, Berlin, Germany was added as it had sons of troops stationed nearby. By the mid 1960s, it included teams from Asia, most notably Japan and Taiwan. In 2012, a team from Uganda, Africa, which was spurred on by Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, appeared in the Little League World Series. As the Series has grown over the past 65 years, participating teams travel from almost all over the world to compete in this highly competitive tournament.
The Philadelphia area has had five communities win the Little League World Series: Hammonton, New Jersey in 1949; Morrisville, Pennsylvania, in 1955; Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1960; Lakewood, New Jersey, in 1975; and Toms Rivers, New Jersey, in 1998.
Hammonton, New Jersey, was incorporated in 1866 and is referred to as the Blueberry capital of the world, though other towns in the US also claim that moniker. The Hammonton team was made up of kids who just played ball all the time. “We basically lived on the ball field in those days. You would wake up in the morning and go right to the field, because there wasn’t much else for you to do,” said Sidney Norcross, 72, of Winslow Township in Camden County. “To us, this was just another chance to play ball.”[fn]Robert Spahr, “Hammonton 1949 / They Were Champions,” Press of Atlantic City, July 19, 2009.[/fn] The team used pitcher Joe DiGiacomo as often as possible. Because he would frequently pitch in consecutive games, Little League changed the rule: A player would no longer be allowed to pitch in consecutive games. DiGiacomo would later pitch in the Cubs organization in Iowa.
Morrisville, Pennsylvania won the Little League World Series in 1955. Morrisville is an old town that sits on the Delaware River, about 30 miles north of Philadelphia, across from Trenton, New Jersey. At one time, Morrisville was considered to be so important that it fell two votes short of becoming the capital of the United States. It is an old established community that served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War, in December of 1776. Morrisville won the Series against Merchantville, New Jersey on a walk-off home run—Rich Cominski’s leadoff homer in the bottom of the seventh, which was the first extra inning of the game. One player from that team, Dick Hart, played in the Milwaukee Braves organization before becoming a professional football player, playing guard for the Philadelphia Eagles.[fn]http://www.scenicbuckscounty.com/MorrisvilleNotables/MorrisvilleNotables.html. Accessed September 3, 2012.[/fn] Billy Hunter, the recent National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) head, was one of the star players for Merchantville (Delaware County). In fact, he was their star pitcher, who could not pitch more than six innings in that game. His replacement gave up the home run to Cominski.[fn]Jonathan Abrams, “From Patty Hearst to David Stern Billy Hunter’s Long, Strange Career,” http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/6808187/from-pattyhearst-david-stern, July 27, 2011. Accessed October 12, 2012.[/fn]
Five years later, in 1960, Levittown became the next and most recent team from Pennsylvania to win the Little League World Series. Although Morrisville and Levittown are separated by five years and a mere five miles, they are polar opposites in terms of community history. Levittown did not even exist a decade earlier, whereas Morrisville had been in existence for more than 200 years.
By 1960, at a mere eight years old, Levittown was ready to enter the “big time” in Williamsport. It was the brainchild of the Levitt family who understood that World War II veterans, just out of college, and workers at the new steel mill in Fairless Hills needed inexpensive housing. Levittown, which saw its first family move in in 1952 and would grow to 70,000 people by 1957, was just the thing that young people in the burgeoning 1950s needed and desired. Many buyers of these houses were living in cramped apartments and/or with extended family in Philadelphia, Trenton, and New York City. Many were young married couples with growing families, making up for the war’s lost time. There were three Little Leagues in Levittown in 1960. It boasted a high level of baseball competition due to the many 11–13-year-old boys—the first wave of baby boomers—some of them good enough to make the Levittown American Little League All-Star Squad.
The two top players were pitchers Joe Mormello and Julian Kalkstein. Mormello’s father had played under the name of Joe Martin in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Mormello went to Rider College, hurt his knee, and never played again. But, he struck out 16 Fort Worth batters while tossing a no-hitter in the Little League World Series championship game on August 27, 1960. He also hit a home run in the game[fn]Dick Dougherty, “Pitchers Prove to Be Hitters Too, in Little League Play,” Bristol Courier and Levittown Times, August 29, 1960.[/fn] while leading the team to a 5 –0 victory.[fn]Dick Dougherty, “Levittown Sitting On Top Of LL World, Mormello’s ‘Magic’ No
Hits Ft. Worth In Series Final,” Bristol Courier and Levittown Times, August 29, 1960.[/fn] Mormello became a chiropractor in Levittown, where he still practices. After becoming the winning pitcher in the Eastern Regional tournament, Julian Kalkstein was congratulated by Bob Feller.[fn]“Nice Going, Pal,” Bristol Courier and Levittown Times, August 29, 1960.[/fn] Known as Jules Kalkstein, he went on to become a lawyer for the City of New York.
A crowd of approximately 25,000 welcomed the victorious team on Sunday evening, August 28, 1960, at the Levittown Shopping Center.[fn]“Over 25,000 Hail Little League World Champs in ‘Welcome Home’,” Levittown Times, August 29, 1960.[/fn] The author visited that shopping center numerous times throughout his formative years, and his father’s department store provided an advertisement congratulating the team on its victory.[fn]“Congratulations, Little ‘Champs’” Kanter’s Mill & Pond St., Bristol, PA., Bristol Courier and Levittown Times, August 29, 1960.[/fn] To this day, Levittown’s championship is still remembered through team photographs that can be seen in various restaurants throughout the community.
Lakewood, New Jersey is 65 miles away from Philadelphia. Former major-league baseball players Dick Estelle and Mookie Wilson, as well as current Los Angeles Dodgers part owner Stan Kasten, were born there. Lakewood won the championship in 1975, the year that the Little League did not allow any team from the Far East to participate in the championship. This was in response to the teams from the Far East winning the previous seven of eight World Series. Because of unfavorable reactions, international teams were allowed back into competition in 1976.
None of the players became major leaguers, but Dion Lowe, a pitcher and the best hitter on the squad, played in the Phillies organization.
Toms River is situated 58 miles east of Philadelphia, and was known as Dover Township when it was established in 1768. The 1998 Little League World Series championship team was led by winning pitcher Todd Frazier, who hit a home run in the decisive game. Until 2011, no major leaguer had played for any of the Philadelphia area teams that won the Little League World Series. But, all of that changed when Frazier got called up by the Cincinnati Reds in the summer of 2011. He competed for the 2012 National League Rookie of the Year Award playing both first and third base for the 2012 National League Central winners.
Eleven other Philadelphia-area teams have participated in the Little League World Series. Some of these teams have participated a number of times, including: Hammonton, New Jersey; Delaware Township (Merchantville), New Jersey; Levittown, Pennsylvania; and Toms Rivers, New Jersey. The other communities include: Upper Darby, Pennsylvania; Hamilton Square, New Jersey; Newtown Square, Pennsylvania; Wilmington, Delaware; and Newtown, Pennsylvania.
Hammonton, New Jersey participated in the first two Little League World Series tournaments, in 1947 and 1948, before winning in 1949. Fred Shapiro, pitching for the Delaware Township team in 1956, threw the first perfect game in Little League World Series against Colton, California in a semifinal game. Levittown, in 1961, lost in the first round to El Cajon, California, the eventual champion.[fn]“Champs, Little League World Series, 1947-1981,” Williamson Daily News, June 22, 1982.[/fn]
In 1992, the team from Hamilton Square—adjacent to Trenton, 35 miles from Philadelphia—beat Lake Charles, Louisiana in the first night game in Little League World Series history. Night games allowed for more contests to be played—each team in the tournament would now play at least three games.[fn]“BASEBALL; Little League Lights On; Jersey Wins,” New York Times, August 25, 1992.[/fn] Then they lost to Long Beach, California, which was managed by Jeff Burroughs. Jeff’s son Sean was the star of the team and pitched a completegame shutout against Hamilton Square, to win the game 1–0.[fn]“BASEBALL; Dream Ends For New Jersey Little Leaguers,” New York Times,
August 28, 1992.[/fn] Long Beach went on to be credited with the World Series win when the Zamboanga City, Philippines team was disqualified due age related improprieties. Sean later played for the Padres, Rays, Diamondbacks, and Twins over seven big-league seasons.
Toms River, New Jersey played in three of the five LLWS tournaments from 1995–99. In 1995, the team participated in the pool play round before the semifinals. They lost two out of three games and were eliminated from the World Series. Jeff Frazier, who played for the Tigers in 2010, played in this tournament. In 1999, Toms River lost in the semifinal round to Phenix City, Alabama. Colby Rasmus played for Phenix City, which lost in the final game to Japan.
Wilmington, Delaware, in 2003, Newtown, Pennsylvania, in 2005, and Toms Rivers, in 2010, all lost in the pool play round and were eliminated from the tournament.
In 1956, Sports Illustrated’s Jimmy Jemial interviewed members of the Little League World Series teams. Upper Darby, Pennsylvania and Delaware Township, New Jersey participated in the World Series, and two players from each team were interviewed: Jimmy McGlynn and Dick Costello from Upper Darby and Wilbur Robinson and Fred Shapiro from Delaware Township. When asked about their life ambitions they all suggested that they wanted to keep playing baseball and go to college. McGlynn seemed to be very serious as he said that he wanted to study mechanical engineering. Costello wanted to have fun, and that there was time before he had to think about what he wanted to do after college. Shapiro, the perfectgame pitcher, wanted to work with the “brain machines.” The author assumes that this means computers. Robinson wanted to study business administration.[fn]Jimmy Jemail, “The Question: As A Little League Champion, What Is The Height Of Your Ambition? (asked At The Little League Championship Finals In Williamsport, Pa.),” Sports Illustrated, October 1, 1956.[/fn]
Newtown Square, situated 25 miles from Philadelphia, finished third in the 1967 World Series, losing, 4–1, to the eventual champion West Tokyo, Japan. The team did beat Linares, Nuevo León, 2–1, in the consolation game to grab third place.[fn]http://www.littleleague.org/series/history/year/1967.htm. Accessed February 12, 2013.[/fn]
Early on, the Little League World Series did have a number of participating teams from the host state and New Jersey. Specifically, the 1940s, 50s, and 60’s were fertile for local teams. However, the Little League World Series soon became “big time” and now hosts teams from many parts of the world. This did not stop teams close to Philadelphia from participating, they just had to compete with the rest of the world. New Jersey did make a comeback in the 1990s as it played a prominent role in World Series competition.
MARK KANTER grew up in Bristol, PA where he became a life-long Philadelphia Phillies fan. He got the itch while watching the last few outs of Jim Bunning’s perfect game on Father’s Day in 1964. He has written several articles for SABR’s “Baseball Research Journal” and was the editor for Boston SABR 2002 Convention Publication. He has won a number of national SABR Trivia Contests since 1997. He and his wife, Lynne, who is also a great baseball fan in her own right, live in the idyllic seaside community of Portsmouth, RI.
Danny Adler. “Levittown Becomes a National Sports Champion.” PhillyBurbs.com, June 24, 2012.
“Levittown Snares Little League Title.” Associated Press, Reading Eagle, August 28, 1960.
Malcolm Moran. “Baseball; The Game That Is Forever Young.” New York Times, May 6, 1990.