Aussie baseball icon continues to give back
21 August 2015
Among the highly-credentialed coaching group and support staff entrusted with delivering the Major League Baseball Australian Academy Program (MLBAAP) in its fifteenth year is a man who by any measure long ago achieved legendary status in the sport.
Australian and Queensland Baseball Hall-of-Famer Kevin Crazy Cantwell represented two states over many years – as a player and coach - along the way winning a Claxton Shield Helms Award, suiting up for national teams and more recently providing impetus for the development of Masters baseball.
Stamping his emphatic indelible mark as one of our genuine characters of the game, Kevin Cantwell is a valued and much-loved resource at the Academy as a mentor, adviser and confidante to our emerging young players.
Now 81 years of age, Kevin Crazy Cantwell did it all in a remarkable baseball career spanning sixteen years as a New South Wales Claxton Shield player and manager before he moved north to coach Queensland for three years in the mid-seventies.
Actively involved in the game ever since, Cantwell has been a friend and an inspiration to generations of baseball players who has – if anything – ramped up his commitment to what he describes as “the greatest game on earth”.
His start in baseball was fortuitous – both for him and for the clubs and teams for which he played.
“I played rugby league in Sydney when I was a kid,” Kevin Cantwell told Australian Baseball Alumni in a riveting interview this week. “I didn’t know anything about baseball.”
“All that changed after I had a bad accident. I broke both of my legs and an arm. I was told I would never play sport again.”
“While I was recovering I was often wheeled down to the Petersham Oval for outings – to watch the baseball. I suppose that is where it all began,” he said, “even though the game was totally unfamiliar to me.”
“A gentleman named John McLean got me involved at the Petersham/Leichardt club and then later at a Nestles Chocolates team where I pretty quickly found myself playing against grown men while I was still a teenager.”
“I remember my first at bat against an American pitcher who was throwing curve balls. I had no idea. I went away and practised, practised and practised.”
Even from an early age, Cantwell – who also played grade cricket in Sydney - developed a reputation as a hard-nosed catcher who would never take a backward step onfield.
“I learned plenty of early lessons as a 16 year-old playing A Grade,” he said. “I was once knocked out in a rundown play – through not protecting myself properly. My coach at the time said it served me right. He said I should never give an opposition team a break by going soft on them.”
“That message stayed with me. I came to realise that it was almost like you needed two personalities to be a baseball player – one for on the field, one for off the field. I have to admit that some of my on-field antics were theatre – especially if not much exciting was happening in a game. Some of them weren’t.”
“Over the years I was spat on and had umbrellas thrown at me,” Cantwell recalls, with what probably reflects only a hint of hyperbole. “But when the game was over I would be first to have a beer and a chat with the opposition.”
His early commitment to practise hard and often paid off, as it tends to do in sport if the effort is accompanied by some natural talent and a preparedness to learn.
Developing in a few short years as an outstanding club baseballer, Cantwell earned interstate selection and went on to become a regular Claxton Shield representative from the late fifties into the early seventies – including Helms Award honours at Bannister Park Brisbane in 1963 – before a subsequent stint as New South Wales team manager.
“One of my more vivid memories – it might have been my first interstate game – was playing for New South Wales against Victoria at the old Albert Park ground. They had some mighty players – like Norm Tyshing, Don Deeble, Norm Winfield and plenty of others,” he said. “The Vics were always tough, but so was South Australia in those days.”
Kevin "Crazy" Cantwell and friends
Queensland Baseball Hall of Fame
While New South Wales will understandably claim Cantwell as one their own - which of course he was, during a long and distinguished career – he has for the last forty years lived in Queensland, where his contribution to the sport has continued to be outstanding, recognised by his being named to the Baseball Australia Hall of Fame when it was created in 2005.
“I had a bit of a falling out with New South Wales selectors in the mid-seventies,” he said, “especially when they wanted me to give up playing and concentrate on the coaching. I had my own ideas on how the game should be played. Some people wanted us to be like the Japanese – short ball, that sort of stuff – whereas I felt that because we were bigger and physically stronger we should play a different style of game.”
“When I was approached to go to Queensland I jumped at the offer. I started at All-Stars, who played on what was really just a paddock. There was no mound. It was like going back to when I started playing as a kid.”
“As Queensland coach I had to start all over again with a new bunch of players. There was some outstanding talent there, though the players needed more confidence in themselves.”
Some of those very players went on to an involvement with Masters baseball, an area in which Cantwell has been associated since the early nineties with the establishment of the Interport Crocodiles, who dominated tournaments around the land – including the 1994 World Masters Games and multiple appearances at the Alice Springs Masters.
Widely regarded as the “father” of mature-aged baseball in Queensland, Kevin Cantwell reflects fondly upon the good times that Masters has delivered to him and plenty of others.
“I ran into Russell Edwards and Choppa (John Pate) at the Academy just this week,” he said. “They are long-time players with the Golddiggers, who we had some ding dong Masters battles with over the years. All of us still remember the occasion when Ian Chappell hit his first career home run in a final at the World Masters Games back in 1994.”
Although he is concerned that costs, work and family commitments are making it harder for people to go to events such as the Alice Springs Masters and World Masters Games, Cantwell has stayed closely involved with the activity.
“I was asked to do some coaching for an Interport Masters team starting in B Grade of the Tamworth Baseball Carnival around ten years ago. We started in B Grade, won it and we were sent to A Grade,” he said.
“Interport still goes down there to play. And along the way we run baseball clinics to help get the game out into the community. We have done that since the Interport team started.”
“We take a lot of younger blokes on board these days. And we are still playing as Interport, out of respect for Bill Toomey, who passed away a while ago. Bill sponsored our team for years and he was such a well-respected person around the country.”
Kevin Cantwell has a clear grasp of the merits of Masters baseball.
“You get to catch up with your mates and you make a lot of new mates,” he said. “You know what they say – birds of a feather stick together.”
“I have had a fantastic time being involved with and against good blokes – which they all are.”
These are sentiments shared by many, including aforementioned opponent Russell Edwards.
“Crazy was one of those blokes that you hated on the field when you played against him, but loved off the field,” Edwards said. “He is one of the most competitive men that I ever played against and his love of the game is still evident to this day. He has probably forgotten more about the game than most will ever learn, and it is terrific to see him involved with our stars of the future at the Academy.”
“There are very few people that I would rather have a beer with while discussing our great game than Kevin Cantwell.”
While harbouring fond memories of his own experiences in Australian baseball, Cantwell is ever looking forward to the next generations in the sport. He has been associated with the MLBAAP Academy since its early years and he greatly enjoys his role as a mentor and confidante to our emerging young players.
“I was invited to be involved with the program and I just love it,” he said.
“Unless they have seen it first-hand, people don’t understand what a wonderful thing this Academy is. A representative (Chris Haydock) from Major League Baseball was out here this time and he was very impressed. He said it was the best of its type around.”
“People need to see the amazing work that is being done in organising the Academy and they need to appreciate how much thought and organisation has gone into it over the years. People like Jon Deeble, Phil Dale, Glenn Williams and Graeme Lloyd – just to name a few – have been fantastic.”
“And the quality of the players going through is first-class,” he said. “For these games against Canada, the kids have been making Major League plays. Great pitching, good hitting. There are some real prospects among them.”
Cantwell is clear, however, on what he believes is vitally important for Australian baseball to become stronger, for our national teams to enjoy greater success and for more of our young players to earn opportunities at the highest levels here and overseas.
“The kids need more game time at this level to really develop,” he said. “Canada played something like 54 games prior to coming out here. Our kids played none prior to this series.”
Pressed further about how Australian baseball is travelling - including the Australian Baseball League – Kevin Cantwell is very well-placed to comment on the relative state of the game.
“In my day we played in winter conditions, on rough surfaces. The standard of grounds and play has improved 5000 per cent, no doubt about that. The quality of baseball is far higher and kids have far more opportunities. But in a lot of areas the game has not improved as much as it might have.”
“We really need to take notice of knowledgeable people in the sport and we need to appoint experienced people in all areas,” Cantwell said. “At the same time, we have to look after our volunteers. We would be buggered if we didn’t have them around clubs, helping out with catering, administration, grounds and all the other things that need doing.”
“It was a tragedy that we lost Craig Shipley to Australian baseball. He is a great bloke who is so well respected around the world and wanted to help out. We need people like that.”
“One of the real challenges is raising money and getting sponsorship for the sport. The days are gone when clubs could raise a few dollars by running raffles, a few special efforts and things like that. It is much harder now. We need business people to help out in that area,” he said.
“It is not right that players representing their country should have to pay for the privilege. Or their parents. We have been talking in Queensland for a while about forming a body to raise money and pass it on to kids who need the help.”
“Some of that is already done, but I would like to see it happen more.”
On the standard of umpiring and on facilities, Kevin Cantwell is equally forthright.
“We have four or five really good umpires in every state – probably more than we used to - but we need to find more. For them to improve, the umpires need good games to umpire in. I think we should bring out United States umpires, when we can, to help out with teaching and advice.”
While in favour of a strong and viable national competition, Kevin Cantwell – like many – is concerned about facilities and attendances that have thus far been somewhat underwhelming with the exception of Perth, Adelaide and Canberra to a lesser extent.
“It was very unfortunate that baseball lost Parry Field (Perth) and Straw Field (Melbourne),” he said. “We need facilities that were like that – closer to population centres and to transport.”
“We simply don’t have the population to play four nights a week and expect good attendances. People need to be able to afford to go to games. It is no good letting the sport become too costly – and it is starting to get that way. For a family to have to travel miles, pay an exorbitant entry and then cough up for food and drink might happen occasionally, but the same family will not come back too often.”
“We need to find ways of getting more people to go to ABL games. Maybe have more family discounts, things like that, to keep the costs down.”
Again revelling in his presence around an exciting new generation of Academy baseball players – this time at the Surfers Paradise club – Kevin Cantwell was happy to tender the advice that he would offer to any young person interested in playing baseball at their highest potential level.
“I spoke at great length at the Academy about this earlier in the week,” he said.
“It is a damn good game to play. You make a lot of friends and it has a lot to offer – especially if you put your head down and work hard.”
“The game can take you around the world,” he said. “There is nothing better than standing in a stadium in another country with your national anthem playing. That really makes the hairs stand up on your neck.”
Cantwell is a firm believer that anyone who is taught good fundamentals has the opportunity to reach a high standard in the game. While the opportunity may or may not be fully realised, committed players will always be able to achieve potential within their own limitations.
“It is a sport where you never stop learning – even much older blokes are still finding out about baseball,” he said. “Getting to understand the game better.”
“And what I like is that you can give plenty back to the game after you have been there and done it.”
“That is what we are seeing with this Academy – decent blokes who care, helping our kids out.”
“It is a wonderful learning environment and I am proud to have been a small part of it,” he said.
Australian Baseball Alumni and its supporters extend our sincere appreciation to Australian Baseball Hall of Famer Kevin "Crazy" Cantwell for his assistance in the preparation of this story. We wish Kevin all the very best as he continues his lifetime engagement with the sport.
The Next Generation
Australians at MLBAAP 2015