July 27, 2017

Rose Park boasts proud baseball heritage

Rose Park boasts proud baseball heritage Rose Park boasts proud baseball heritage Rose Park boasts proud baseball heritage Rose Park boasts proud baseball heritage Rose Park boasts proud baseball heritage
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By The West View

by Charlotte Fife-Jepperson

Rose Park has been known for its strong little league baseball program since 1955. That’s when “the classy new little league park” was established within Riverside Park, which has been home to little league baseball ever since. (The Salt Lake Tribune, July 23, 1955.)  

Over those 60-plus years, scores of local families have participated in Rose Park Baseball. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there were so many boys involved that Riverside Park housed two little leagues – Rose Park Boys League and Rose Park Country Club League. The two leagues enjoyed spirited competition.

“It seemed like everybody played baseball when we were young,” said Neil Youngberg, who joined some of his former Rose Park teammates - Wayne Murakami, Richard Schoepp, Mike Walsh, and Dean “Buzz” Kraus - as they gathered in July at Riverside Park to talk about old times.

This group of old-timers reminisced about their experiences on the 1963 Rose Park All-star team, which ended up taking 4th place in the Little League World Series. Richard Schoepp held open the score sheet for the game against Rose Park Country Club that sent their team to the State Tournament. “This was when I got my first kiss,” said Schoepp. “In the sixth inning, I hit a homerun off of Don Malin to win the game, and Candi Morelli ran out and kissed me.” “Malin, who was a really good pitcher, still gets upset about that; it was a big deal.” said Youngberg.

Little league baseball was a big deal, and it still is today. During baseball season – roughly April through August – parents and coaches volunteer so much time to run the league, they practically live at the park.

During a separate interview, Rose Park resident Lamonte Johnson, who coached for 15 years in the Rose Park Country Club league, told stories of how families used to pitch in to prepare the field. “Back in the 60s, the fields were not maintained by the city,” said Johnson. “There were a bunch of weeds in the all-dirt infields. Everyone would bring their lawn mowers, push brooms, sand and wheelbarrows, and donate their work.”

Johnson said that over the years the leagues have produced some great teams that were usually among the top three or four teams at State. He gave most of the credit to “diligent” coaches, like Clyde Hollins, Al Sedgley, Hank Vadnais, Ralph Mendenhall, Lynn Boshard and Burt Hardy.

Johnson also belongs in the diligent coach category. After his four boys graduated from the league he promised his neighbor, Andy Fleck, who was seriously ill at the time, that he would keep coaching until Fleck’s son, Mike, got through the league. He kept his promise and coached until Mike turned 12 years old.

Another former little leaguer, Tom Dickerson, reminisced about the “sterling” coaches who were involved in the league – “coaches like Ralph Erskine, and John and Ross Caputo, who were legends from their own time.” And there were some who were a little rough around the edges, like Chub Lewis, a hard man who was all about winning. “He made men out of those boys. All these coaches put their lives into baseball and into the kids,” said Dickerson.

Back in the day, league organizers got creative with their fundraising. Johnson told about the time that Terry Nish, a local stock car racer involved in attempting land speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats, challenged a guy, who was a former Mr. America, to an arm wrestle. They sold tickets to it, and Nish won the contest! 

As they do today, local businesses financially sponsored teams. Back the 60s, some of the sponsors included: Rose Park Lions Club, Mint Cafe, Continental Bank, American Oil, Neils Pro, Gibbons & Reed, and Harmony Floors.

Today, some of the same businesses are still sponsoring teams. Rose Park Lions and Neils Pro have been there from the start. Other businesses, such as Trophy Corner, Chubby’s, Red Iguana, Ron Case Roofing, M-1 Plumbing, Sports Imaging, Affordable Portables, Ace’s Disposal and Boss Graphics have stepped up to provide support.

Under the leadership of President Jerry Valdez, the league has made some changes in recent years: they pulled out of the Cal Ripken League a year ago, because they felt that Cal Ripken focused too much on capturing state and regional titles. They are now part of an organization called Little League Baseball.

“We felt that was the best decision for our community, especially with the demographics here, “ said Valdez. “Only 10 percent of kids in the league become All-stars. I care just as much about the other 90 percent of kids who need something positive to keep them out of trouble, off the streets. I was one of those kids that benefitted from sports,” he said.

The Rose Park Baseball board expanded to add a T-ball division for kids ages 3 to 6. And next year they plan to add a 13 to 16-year-old division that would feed directly into the West High Baseball program. They are also now participating in RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), a program under the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Foundation that helps small leagues in lower-income urban neighborhoods.

Valdez and his wife, Andrea, have been involved with the league for five years. Valdez took over as president three years ago. It has been a huge undertaking, as it is for every president. But this year has been particularly difficult due to a lack of support from parents and conflicts between parents and coaches, said Valdez.

It is an age-old problem. Lamonte Johnson described an incident during the early 70s where a mother tried to hit a coach over the head with a chair after he took her kid out of the game.

Despite the tempers that sometimes flare and the conflicts that inevitably arise, the group of old-timers who played back in the 60s all agreed that the best part of their Rose Park baseball days involve the friendships they made and the example of coaches and parents who dedicated countless hours on the field, in the snack stand and in the score booth.

“Those were good years to be a kid in Rose Park,” said Buzz Kraus, as his former teammates nodded their heads in agreement.

The West View wants to thank all those who have volunteered with Rose Park baseball leagues over the years. You have helped youth enjoy their childhood and learn about life, while experiencing the great sport of baseball.