Notably Norwich: Rich history of city’s Little League to be topic of new book
Years ago, playing Little League Baseball was as much a part of growing up in Norwich as summer days at the playground, riding our bikes or drinking from a garden hose.
The city had at least two choices for youth baseball when I was a boy: Little League on one of the three fields at its beautiful complex on Otrobando Avenue or on one of the three baseball diamonds provided then by Saints Peter & Paul Church on its sprawling campus off Elizabeth Street.
Norwich Little League was larger and more established than Saints Peter & Paul, but both leagues provided decades of fun baseball competition for boys from grammar school to high school age. The dads and others, like the late Bob Barnes, John Winters and early Little League board members such as President Frank Riley; Aubrey Brown, former executive director of the Norwich Housing Authority; and legendary Norwich Free Academy basketball coach Howard Dickenman, put in countless hours of work, but they got a lot of pleasure out of it, too.
Now, many years later, local historian, author and publisher Ken Keeley is researching, compiling information and preparing to write his 13th book, this one on the rich history of Norwich Little League from 1950 to 1975. For Keeley, former owner/operator of Franklin Impressions printing and graphic design, this latest project, "The History of the Norwich Little League and Farm System, 1950-1975," is a labor of love.
Most days, he can be found at the Otis Library going through dusty, bound back issues of the old Norwich Bulletin and recording his findings in painstaking detail. He admits, the research is "slow going," but if you've read any or all of Ken's other 12 local history books, you know the finished product will be well worth the wait. The book, which will launch in September, will be an ideal gift for anyone who played, coached, volunteered or even just watched Norwich Little League games. The book will cost $25 (plus $8 if you purchase it by mail), and there will be plenty of time to buy it before the holidays - a bonus for guys like me who save their holiday shopping until the last day.
Among the players who made the league's first all-star team was Lou Carignan, future son-in-law of major leaguer Lefty Dugas of Taftville, who played big league baseball from 1930-1934. Lou's grandson, Andrew, an All-State pitcher for Norwich Free Academy, would go on to pitch for NCAA powerhouse North Carolina, then professionally for the Oakland A's in 2011 and 2012.
On the topic of keeping it in the family, Ken closely follows the baseball accomplishments of his two grandsons. Griffin Pontbriant, who pitched for NFA, was a freshman hurler for the Eastern Connecticut State University Warriors, who won the NCAA Division III National Championship this year. Griffin's younger brother, Dominic Pontbriant, is also a pitcher, who plays in the 16-and-under league for the Connecticut Crush (which, at this writing, was competing for the league championship). Their proud grandfather is usually in the stands to root them on.
Keeley, who played Little League in the 1960s at Hamilton Avenue, Fitzgerald Field and the former Norwich Tech field off New London Turnpike, speaks passionately about the league's history that is included in his upcoming book.
"In each year (of the book), I cover the Little League American and National divisions, also, the Senior Little League American and National, also, the All-Stars of each section," he said. "Right now, I am using (former Norwich Bulletin sportswriter) Brian Willet's stories of each game. Boy, did they cover these games back then. Brings back a lot of memories."
One such memory is from 1966 when a young Billy Wendt pitched a one-hit shutout in the Senior National Division, then two games later, pitched a no-hitter. Wendt is better remembered in these parts for his basketball prowess at NFA, where he was a first-team All-State guard as a senior in the 1968-69 season. That season, he averaged about 25 points per game, and that was before shots of at least 19.75 feet counted for three points as they do today. As Wendt's Little League performance projected, he would go on to greatness as a baseball player as well for NFA. I remember him hitting a home run off New London High School ace Tom Amanti, who would pitch later for Providence College. The line drive was hit so hard that it had cleared the leftfield fence at Morgan Park before most people even saw it.
Another great memory from around the same period was when Dino Malogrides and other savvy Norwich businessmen thought to apply to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a program loan that, at that time, paid to convert former farmland to other business use. The federal loan was approved, and in 1966, a sparkling new complex - one of only a few three-field complexes in the entire state - was dedicated. In the years that followed, thousands of players would compete and hone their baseball skills at Otrobando Avenue.
There are many more heartwarming stories like this in Ken Keeley's upcoming book, which, like all his others will be a fascinating read for anyone who has ever lived, worked or played in Norwich. The community owes him a debt of gratitude for keeping local history alive.
Bill Stanley, a former vice president at L+M Hospital, grew up in Norwich.