Remembering 'Hat' and Waterford's Babe Ruth dynasty
The year was 1980. Jimmy Carter was president, the United States population was 226,504,825, PAC-MAN hit arcades, and Luke and Laura ruled daytime TV while everyone wondered "who shot JR." It was the same year that CNN launched its 24-hour news network, the computer modem was invented, John Lennon was assassinated, and a regional dynasty known as Waterford Babe Ruth Baseball was born.
Technically, the first of the 14 Babe Ruth State Baseball Championships began the year before, when the 13-year-old All-Stars steamrolled the competition to bring home that first piece of championship hardware — but it was 1980 when the fun really began.
Rewind your brain and return with me to a time when game lineups were made on the back of a Big Boy restaurant napkin and Coach's shirt pockets might display an Electric Boat ID badge. Full time pipefitters/part-time baseball managers puffed religiously on their Marlboros, clumsily attempting to hit fungos to awaiting infielders while the cool moms, sporting acid-washed jeans, flipped burgers in the concession stand and the not-so-cool dads, donning their Members Only jackets, insisted whitewall tires on their '78 Oldsmobile Cutlasses were still hip.
Baseball in the little town of Waterford was about to explode. The Waterford Babe Ruth Complex is a beautiful oasis built in the shadows of the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant, and now it became a divided battleground for a town whose loyalties were split in two. 1980 was the year the league's hierarchy made a controversial decision to split the All-Star team into two squads, the Waterford Americans and the Waterford Nationals. On paper, the Nationals and the Americans were pretty equal but the Americans had a secret weapon, a house-painter turned baseball Picasso, manager, Harold "Hat" Fengar.
"Hat," a short, robust, loud, long-winded, hilarious lightning rod, possessed a remarkable ability to communicate with the kids as if they were adults. He created an environment of winning, simultaneously adhering to the idea that baseball was supposed to be fun – and, believe me, it was about to get downright electric.
At the time, before the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) became the dominating influence in youth sports, Babe Ruth League Baseball was the next step a young player would take after leaving Little League behind — and the bigger, more physically demanding dimensions would oftentimes swallow up young athletes who would eventually surrender themselves to other outlets like soccer, piano lessons, or maybe a part-time summer job. Babe Ruth separated the (soon-to-be) men from the less gifted boys.
In other words, Babe Ruth Baseball was a big deal — and to be named to a Babe Ruth All-Star team was very big indeed.
The Waterford Americans went 14-4 in the magical month of August playing fast and loose, and the more we won, the more notoriety and attention we received — stuff like front-page photos day after day in the newspapers, WNLC 1510 broadcast the games live on the radio and you can be sure if there had been an Internet in 1980, we would have gone viral. We were rock stars! We even had groupies!
Our journey ended in Williston, North Dakot. Officially, we came in fourth, beating Downers Groove, Ill., and Austin, Texas, but losing to a juggernaut from Rotterdam, N.Y., who beat us up both times we played and bounced us out of the series.
Months later, The Day's Bob Nauta, in the paper’s year-end round-up of highlights Dec. 26, wrote, "Waterford Babe Ruth (who else?) tops the 1980 poll.”
Hat Fengar perfectly summed up our adventure in that article, saying, "I think of the team's accomplishments every day. I reflect on it, as I'm sure we all do — the other coaches, the kids themselves, the parents, all of us. I think that as time goes, the kids are finally realizing just what they did accomplish. Representing the Town of Waterford was a thrill."
Its been 40 years since that amazing summer and it's inconceivable to imagine going on that miraculous journey with any other players or any other coach. "Hat" was a perfect fit for an imperfect team at a time when baseball was simply pure joy. Hat died last week, but will be forever be remembered as an original architect of the Waterford Babe Ruth dynasty, complete with 14 state championships and an incredible six appearances in the World Series.
Thank you, Hat. Rest in peace.
Lee Elci is the morning host for 94.9 News Now radio, a station that provides “Stimulating Talk” with a conservative bent.
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