On a summer day in 1954, a group of young boys gathered for a game of sandlot baseball, just as they did nearly every day. As they threw the ball around, ordinarily challenging each other, a peculiar blue Chevrolet pick-up truck rolled toward the field off Route 7.
A 19-year-old man by the name of Bill Black stepped out, approaching the unorganized group of boys. Black recently moved to town and, even from the road, could sense their will to play.
“I know you love baseball. What would you think about playing Little League?” Duane Rouse recalls Black asking him and his soon-to-be teammates.
Without hesitation, a collective “yes” sent things spiraling forward. And the rest, they said, is history.
Today’s ball game
More than 60 years have passed, but the lessons “Bill’s boys” learned, the friendships they gained and their respect for the now 82-year-old Black have not faltered.
A group of over 20 of Bill’s boys, all decked in royal blue caps emblazoned with a large yellow “M,” gathered at Milton Little League’s Opening Day last Saturday to honor its founder by dedicating the field to him.
Black, unaware of the impending honor, was among them, seated next to his wife, Marilyn. The couple returned early from their annual winter stay in Florida just days earlier. Black, though, wasn’t quite sure why.
He looked on as players and their coaches trickled down Park Place and onto the Bombardier Park diamond, kicking off the 2017 season in celebration. Parents lined the road, waving and cheering, as did Bill’s boys, watching as another generation of ball players took to the field.
Out in left field, the top of the scoreboard was covered in a tarp, its new namesake – and the reason for Black’s early return – not yet revealed.
Once unveiled, it wasn’t long before the new and old generations collided, youngsters approaching the men with hats and baseballs in hand, requesting both photo and autographs.
The boys and girls — and parents, too — looked wide-eyed at Black, excited to be in the presence of the man some call a legend. His former players were no exception to the fame, either.
“It’s important that the kids understand the history and know what they represent when they put on a uniform,” Little League board member and event organizer Jessica Groeling said.
Back in the heyday
“It was a magical day,” Rouse announced to the crowd, reminiscing back to the summer of 1954.
Black moved to Milton from Burlington, where he was involved with the city’s Little League. When he arrived, he said he felt sorry for the kids he saw attempting to learn the ins and outs of the game without guidance.
So, he approached the boys, they spread the word at school, and within days, a group of about 25 were ready to play. The first year involved a lot of practice and few games, Rouse recalled. They learned the fundamentals, and even built a sliding pit to adhere to the right tactics.
Black reached out to his contacts in Burlington and other surrounding towns to organize scrimmages. The boys gained talent, knowledge and friends.
To this day, many of the players said their best buddies came from not only the Milton league, but from playing teams in Colchester, Burlington, Fairfax and beyond.
“It certainly was a fun time,” former player John Mayville said.
Milton Arrowhead Little League officially came to fruition soon after. In the coming years, Black would be drafted into the Army, leaving his boys to another coach in the meantime.
Realizing Black was only 19 at the time is a little crazy, Mayville admitted. Even so, Black was a father figure to them.
He’d give them rides to and from practices and take them to the creemee stand after games. To raise money for the team, they’d hop out of the back of his pick-up and knock on doors for donations.
Soon enough, they had enough money for a couple bats and some uniforms.
With “Yankees” slapped across their chests, some have remained fans of the New York team ever since.
These memories of the “magical movement” from sandlot to Little League and Black’s positive influence will remain forever, Rouse said last Saturday.
“And for that, we will always love you,” he continued, reading off a plaque presented to Black.
Former player Erwin Devino gifted his coach a scrapbook laced with black and white photos, newspaper clippings, a letter of his detailed speech to the crowd and the Little League pledge.
In Milton, the number “1” uniform will also be retired in Black’s honor.
Nationwide, the honor comes at a time when participation in Little League is down. According to Groeling, however, registration in Milton is up about 15 players over last year.
“Thank you for everything,” Black said to the crowd through a shaky voice. “Little League is where it’s at. You have more fun playing ball than anything else. It’ll stay with you all your life.”
Always a coach, Black imparted his words of wisdom just moments after the new sign above the scoreboard was finally unveiled: Bill Black Field.
Black was left in awe. Minutes later, the renowned phrase every ball player itches to hear came surging through the speakers.