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Southeastern Connecticut lost one its baseball pioneers Saturday when Lou Ernst passed away at his daughters' home in Coconut Creek, Fla.
He was 86.
Ernst founded the Niantic American Legion baseball program and spent 50 years as one of its leaders, including a 40-year period (1959-99) as a manager and coach. Ernst, who split time between his Waterford and Florida homes for many years, was the dean of Legion baseball in the area. And when Legion baseball was at its most popular, Ernst was right at the heart of it.
"Any success we ever had was based on the Niantic model,'' said Jim O'Neill, who managed New London from 1968-93 along with Hank Cormier.
"They were the model for a lot of programs,'' O'Neill said. "Frankly, when we started we just wanted to be as good as Niantic and I'm not sure we ever thought we would get there.''
Jesse Long played for Niantic and Ernst - his uncle - from 1979-83. And being his nephew, and one of Niantic's top players, didn't cut Long any favors.
"My last year there was a scrimmage game in Moosup,'' Long said. "I got a flat tire on (Interstate) 395 and didn't make it to the game. This was before cell phones, so he thought I was blowing the game off. He was contemplating throwing me off the team.
"There was a commitment you had to make. He expected a lot, but he gave you a lot. When you traveled you wore a shirt and tie. You had a bag with your number on it. You were presentable wherever you went.''
Ernst lived in Miami Lakes, near the Baltimore Orioles' former spring training facility, and brought a major league feel to Niantic.
"Our pinstripes were the exact ones major leaguers wore back then,'' said Long.
Sarge Pasqualini coached with Ernst from 1984-93, serving as Niantic's head coach the last two seasons.
"He brought class to the program. He was a stickler for the little things,'' said Pasqualini. "He was gruff but he had a big heart. None of the Niantic kids ever went without.''
New London went on to set the benchmark for Legion baseball in the area, winning state titles from 1985-87 and advancing to the American Legion World Series in 1985 and 86. But New London's biggest rival then was still Niantic.
"I remember a reporter asking me after we won a game at the World Series if it was our biggest win,'' said O'Neill. "I told him that any win over Niantic was our biggest win of the year.''
It took almost 10 years for New London to get a Waterford player, back when the two programs battled over them.
"And there was a good reason,'' said O'Neill. "He ran such a good program. He was really organized. We became famous for playing a lot of games, but he had done that before us.''
"He was the one to start travel ball, if you ask me,'' said Long.
Niantic's top finish under Ernst came in 1972 when it lost to North Haven in the state championship game. But Niantic won numerous zone titles and sent four players to the major leagues.
"Lou took great pains in the expansion of AAU and Babe Ruth,'' said Pasqualini. "He saw it was hurting the Legion programs long before anybody else.
"It was diluting the talent and ruining what Legion baseball was.''
After wanting to mirror Ernst, then beat him, O'Neill settled on a third thing.
"We started as enemies and ended as fast friends. I don't think I've ever come full circle with a person like that,'' O'Neill said. "He took care of my parents when they were in Florida. He was very generous to me.''