Old postcard image of Sheard Park looking north to south with an unpaved Furnace Street on the right.
As I get on in years, I’m often asked what factors accounted for my becoming the person I am. And surprisingly, given my legendary longwinded nature, the answer is five words. Music. Sports. Church. Little Falls. Previously, I wrote a piece for the great Little Falls Historical Society about my various musical experiences during the 1950’s. To briefly reiterate, my life would have been far different and experience-wise much poorer had it not been for Frank Peckay, Don Musella, Jim Buffan, Salvi Ferarro, Leo Potrikus and Anson Nocera. They created in me a love for music which resulted in, after countless hours of practice, my developing a sense of self-confidence- not only regarding what I could do with the horn, but in other areas of life as well. Getting told how good you are never grows old and often serves to inspire you to do better.
In several other articles published previously, I’ve mentioned the importance of my religious education at First Baptist in Little Falls. Specifically, the influence of Mary Thorne, hell- fire and brimstone preacher Fred’s saintly wife, who instilled in every student fortunate enough to be blessed by her teaching the importance of serving others, especially those less fortunate. Christian charity. Giving by doing. Live, not talk, the 10 Commandments and a world of happiness awaits you. Looking for a solution to the many problems affecting us today?
Then there were the sports.
During summers from 1950 through 1956, it was up in the morning, wolf down the Cheerios, race down to the park, that sliver of green separating Furnace St. and Furnace St. Extension. Bruddie Zysk, Dave Fitzgibbons, Ronnie Wyjad, the Balderston and Beasley brothers, Stash Zawtocki, Bobby Eberle, the Urichs, Bobby Mihevc, Fred LaFleur, Al Koziol and yours truly played baseball in the park or whiffle ball in Gabby Bielejec’s huge driveway-for hours. Hitting the roof of the several stall garage at its end being our sole objective. Lunch beckoned when City Hall’s fire whistle signaled it was noon. Then back to the park. Nothing like games of horseshoes in the shade to beat the heat. Games overseen by playground supervisor Tucker Shep. A popsicle break at Fredericka’s corner store also helped with the cool down. Supper from 5-6 PM then back (guess where?) to the park for more ball and that age-old “sport,” hide and seek. Streetlights on meant home for some well-earned shuteye. Autumn brought touch-football games after school and on Saturdays, while old man winter found us trying to avoid concussions (and advances by the opposite sex) on the skating rink at Monroe Street Field. And, who can forget sleigh-riding down Skinner Street, hell bent for leather, blindly crossing Furnace Street onto the park, miraculously avoiding getting hit by a car.
My first introduction to organized sports also took place in the park-the Playground Softball League-where, to our collective chagrin, we learned how to lose (e.g. Monroe Street beat us 33-13!). Then there was the Grasshopper Division of Little League (8-9 year-olds). In a photo in the Evening Times on Tuesday, August 12, 1952, there I was with other members of the Hornets and Beavers. Included was probably the best athlete of that half-decade (he moved later), Bobby (nee Brin) Glazier. He was joined by the Houck and Jantosciak brothers, Sammy Krchniak, Pete Day, Billy Ring, Jimbo Waltamath and Rog Kopp. My Little League experience was unforgettable. I played with Glazier on the VFW team coached by Pete Adamko and Bernie Potter-the green and gray. Bobby was the best pitcher-hitter in the league. I might have been tied for second with the Gaborza (Bielejec-never could get him out). Our arch- rivals were the “hated” Orioles. Most of their players were from the Southside (home of Restante’s). We squared off in the 1955 championship final. As the four-column write-up by Martin Cleary (sadly passed away March 15, aged 94) began-“The winner and still champion-that describes the VFW Little League team. The 1954 champs made it two in a row last night by beating the Southside Orioles, 9-8, in the most hectic struggle of the season.” Mario Checci’s nine had won 14 straight before we took three in a row (won the second half playoff and 2 out of 3 championship final.) My college buddy, the late Craig Loucks, relieved me after the red and white tied the game 5-5 after six. In an extra-inning still hard to believe, we scored four for a seeming insurmountable lead. But, it was sports, and how many leads are safe in any sport? The Southsiders came back to score 3 and, with two outs, had the bases loaded. As darkness fell, so did the last Oriole batter who, on a three-two pitch was called out on strikes by legendary umpire George Paulus. Off to the Kandyland and hot fudge sundaes went 14 ecstatic young boys.
My scrapbook contains clippings of our Church Street School Intramural Football League (one headline-Glazier-who else? Runs for 100 Yd. Touchdown) and grade school track meets (luckily, I didn’t run the same races as Bobby-actually won a few). The latter were supervised by the “walking door knob” Wilbur Crisp-Little Falls’ most famous gym teacher and coach. I’ll never forget an experience with him in first or second grade at Monroe Street School. A couple of kids were acting up. “Stop it or I’ll rip off your arm and beat you over the head with the bloody end!” No one ever acted up again. Wonder how that philosophy of discipline would work today? (Crisp coached my all-star basketball player Uncle Bob Van Slyke in 1943 and ’44.)
What was so great during those oh-so-formative years was the camaraderie, the fellowship developed among us kids.
Purely and simply and beautifully life was uncomplicated back then. We weren’t distracted by things like today’s cell phones with their countless games nor were we severely restricted by our parents from going anywhere beyond our yards. Our sole entertainment (many of us didn’t even have TVs) was ourselves. Those countless hours we spent together taught us the value of getting along, of respecting each other, warts and all, of learning how to cope with life’s ups and downs. When a bully showed up at the park, Gabby Bielejec took care of that problem. No counseling needed. We had each other’s back. Still do.
So, as you’ve read, sports played a huge part in shaping the person I became. Those halcyon days accounted for the success I had in baseball in the Babe Ruth League (thanks Pete Papaleo for teaching me the hook), pitching for Ed Kasner and the Purple and White (All-Iroquois League), and at Fredonia State (co-holder of strike out record-15). More importantly, they taught me the value of both team and hard work and perseverance. Finally, I owe so much in my life to the innumerable experiences I enjoyed growing up in the greatest little city on God’s earth – the Rock City – Little Falls, N.Y.
Ray Lenarcic is a member of the Little Falls Historical Society.