Penguins toast a stunning half-century
5 August 2018
A winter powerhouse in eastern suburban Melbourne, Heathmont Baseball Club just recently celebrated its first fifty years as a grassroots community entity that is clearly going from strength to strength – thanks largely to the dedication and the vision of a core of wonderful baseball people attracted to the club over the decades.
Aside from an impressive record of playing success that has gleaned eight A Grade pennants – including five in six recent seasons of the prestigious Melbourne Winter Baseball League – the Heathmont club is a model in strong administration and commitment to junior programmes as it continues to build as an amateur sporting presence providing an invaluable community service.
All grassroots baseball clubs in this country have a unique and interesting narrative. While telling the story of the Heathmont Penguins, we invite other clubs – and other organisations - to assist us in reporting on milestones of interest to our sporting community.
Now universally identified under the “Penguins” sobriquet, Heathmont Baseball Club was formed during 1969 as the brainchild of foundation members Rick Dickson and Max Hunkin.
A former coach of the long-defunct Hartwell Baseball Club, Rick Dickson played at Collingwood Baseball Club for thirteen years and he was a former representative at state and national level. Both the Dickson and Hunkin families have remained closely engaged with the Heathmont club over the fifty years since it was created.
Thanks to an early connection with Heathmont Methodist Church cricket, the baseball club was well-placed to gain a foothold, enabling it to recruit players and some key administrators – including one Bert Jackson, who was Secretary of Ringwood Baseball Association when the Heathmont Baseball Club was founded.
Bert Jackson became a passionate member and a long-term administrator at the baseball club until his passing some years ago. His son Malcolm Jackson – who started with the club as an eight year-old junior – is a current club Vice President who remains actively involved as a player and who provided much of the energy towards planning of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations held in mid-July.
“Heathmont has always prided itself upon being a community and family-oriented baseball club,” fellow Life Member to both Rick Dickson told Australian Baseball Alumni in an interview this week.
“Malcolm provided plenty of the impetus for the celebrations, but he is not the only one. There are many people who were kids eight or nine years of age when the club was formed back then and who are still around the club today.”
Rick Dickson recalls with justifiable pride the circumstances surrounding the creation of Heathmont Baseball Club as a winter sporting entity.
“We quickly developed a very successful Under 13 side playing in the (then) Victorian Baseball Association competition,” he said. “In 1969 we won the Under 13 VBA premiership with John Ramsden shouldering much of the pitching workload.”
Heathmont junior team in early seventies
(image: HBC Facebook)
In its early years Heathmont enjoyed regular success in the junior grades, winning a swathe of titles in the Ringwood District Junior League. Even more remarkable was that the club achieved fifteen representatives for Victorian state sides - even though it was a Victorian Provincial Baseball League entity.
A former Claxton Shield pitching ace and club icon, John Ramsden suffered an unfortunate base-running injury in the seventies that helped hasten the process of helmets being made compulsory for all hitters and runners before he later went on to become Club Coach and pitcher in the club’s first A Grade premiership in the winter of 1980 – just a few years after Victorian Baseball Association had gone to summer.
That initial title – which was followed by further A Grade successes in 1992, 1993, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017 – came just eleven years after the entry of Heathmont Baseball Club senior teams to the Ringwood District Baseball League, which during the late seventies merged with Diamond Valley League to become Victorian Winter Baseball League before later rebranding as Melbourne Winter Baseball League.
“We knew we had some very good players – junior and senior - when the club was established – but in its wisdom the Ringwood league placed us in B Grade when we entered senior competition in 1969,” Rick Dickson recalls.
“Four hundred runs later, we were premier team with John Ramsden on the mound – making the league take us somewhat more seriously.”
Fast forward fifty years and the Heathmont Baseball Club is still playing on the same field off Canterbury Road in leafy eastern suburban Melbourne – a ground that it initially took from a football club. Heathmont Reserve is a markedly different facility these days.
“We had little funding back then, but we kept subscriptions very low and - like all baseball clubs in those days - we made the most of everything we had,” Rick Dickson said. “We collected all of the baseballs we used during the weekend and we had them hand-painted ready for the following week’s game. It took us years to get a permanent backnet – and its position has changed as we have been able to gradually develop one of the very best diamonds in the winter league.”
“Through plenty of hard work, we have been able to secure funding of $ 930,000 for developments at the ground. A new pavilion, change rooms and under-cover batting cage have been built - and this year we will see the installation of floodlights for the whole ground,” he said. “These additions will give the club outstanding facilities for training and for night baseball.”
Heathmont Baseball Club has six senior teams playing in Melbourne Winter Baseball League for the 2018 season. It fields an Under 13 side, an Under 15 side, an Under 17 side and it boasts a flourishing T-Ball programme. At the other end of the age spectrum, it suits up a Masters team during the Baseball Victoria Summer League season.
The club has produced many Victorian and Australian baseball representatives at all levels, and it has attracted plenty of top-line baseball talent – including numerous former professionals. While John Ramsden remains the most highly-credentialed home-grown product from the early club days, Peter Moylan, Phil Dale, Matt Gourlay and Sam Gibbons are among the playing professionals who have spent quality time at Heathmont over the years.
More recently, Penguins and Sydney Blue Sox catcher Mitch Edwards signed with Philadelphia Phillies.
A Life Member at the Cheltenham Baseball Club - who during the recent celebrations was named Manager of the Heathmont 50-Year All-Star Team - Matt Gourlay joined the club in 2010 after a professional playing career with Toronto Blue Jays and Minnesota Twins during the 1990s.
“I came across to Heathmont so that I could continue to play with my mates Daniel Mack, Hayden Dingle and Paul Weichard who I had been with at Cheltenham,” Matt Gourlay said, “along with other quality Heathmont guys like Andy Tierney, Chris Nicholas and Ross Hunter.”
“I started coaching the club in 2011 and have been in that role since – apart from a season off in 2015.”
“Melbourne Winter League is a fantastic competition that attracts players from all over the state,” he said, “and I believe the top end of the A Grade ladder in most years would compete against the top end of Division One Summer League, given the chance.”
“I have absolutely loved my time at Heathmont Baseball Club,” Matt Gourlay said. “It is a place where everyone gets along and where everyone is respected. We are really proud of the success we have achieved in our first fifty years. It is the result of the hard work and the commitment of so many wonderful baseball people around the club.”
“The club itself is a real success story – people just love being there,” Gourlay said.
Image: Heathmont B.C. Facebook
Image: Heathmont Baseball Club
Given its record and its longevity – even through the inevitable difficult times – Heathmont Baseball Club has clearly been doing plenty of things right, with its visionary, hard-working administration and its commitment to juniors crucial to its success when so many other winter clubs have struggled to survive in this league and elsewhere.
Rick Dickson believes that the club’s overarching initial investment in junior programmes and its insistence on a coaching style that focused on proper skills development and creating a culture built around playing to win as a team were factors that generated a positive mindset from the outset.
One run per innings will win most games is a team maxim, for him, that rings as true now as it ever did.
“Heathmont is a club that players, families and supporters can feel a part of,” Rick Dickson said. “They have a sense of being able to take ownership of their own club future. We have always encouraged that, which then leads to creation of close mateships based on playing winning team baseball for players and officials over half a century.”
Still well-entrenched as one of the foundation stones of the Heathmont Baseball Club, Rick Dickson is generous in his praise for the similarly motivated and committed individuals who have worked above and beyond over fifty years to bring the club to its current position.
“There have been many key people,” he said. “Wonderful baseball families. And there are names that keep appearing when the club is discussed. The Dicksons, the Hunkins, the Jacksons, Ramsdens and Waddells. Smith. Kitto. Among plenty of others over the years. Foundation families that made huge contributions to the long-term success and viability of our club.”
“Steve Kitto, for example, started with the club as an Under 13 and he has just passed the 700 game mark as a player!”
“Mark Le Grew has for more than twenty years been a player and administrator of the club,” Rick Dickson said. “Mark’s outstanding ability to negotiate with councils and governments has resulted largely in the magnificent facilities the club now enjoys.”
“No club can survive for fifty years without top administrators – and Mark Le Grew is one of the very best.”
Indeed. And no grassroots baseball club can have any hope of lasting survival if it does not nurture its junior component and place real priority on getting kids and their families involved.
“Junior commitment, in my opinion, is the secret to long-term viability,” Rick Dickson said. “We need to encourage as many youngsters to play the game as possible. Some, even many, will drift away over the years, but those who stay will go on to become senior players, coaches, administrators and executive members well into the future.”
“If you study the names on the magnificent honour boards in our clubrooms – and the clubrooms of any successful club – you will see the same names move right through the various roles required to run a baseball club.”
“The Heathmont Baseball Club has always made a point of trying to encourage good junior cricketers to take up baseball. Much of our junior recruitment relies on word of mouth and I have no doubt that winning premierships encourages more players – because juniors love playing with clubs they perceive to be successful.”
“Family connections have always been very very important for us,” Rick Dickson said. “Just as an example, the Hunkin family has had at least one family member – and often more than one - playing each year of our club existence since Max Hunkin fifty years back.”
Rick Dickson has no doubt that grassroots clubs such as Heathmont are the lifeblood of Australian baseball, notwithstanding the challenges that continue to be faced as a lower-profile sport in a crowded and ultra-professional sporting market.
“Community baseball clubs need decent playing facilities, they need strong junior representations and local media support at the very least,” he said. “If you can build community clubs from a strong junior base, then the club will grow. But the juniors must be coached correctly in skills and in the art of playing as a team to achieve a winning mindset that will stay with them - and with their club - for life.”
Drawing over 150 people to its fiftieth anniversary celebrations just recently, Heathmont Baseball Club is clearly in a strong position to grow and to flourish as a winter sporting power for many years into the future. Although he is immensely proud of his club and of the people who have made it great, Rick Dickson has some reservations about the future of Victorian baseball given the tasks consistently confronting the sport at elite level.
“The current lack of media exposure definitely has a negative effect on the state of baseball in Victoria,” he said. “Most of the general public remain unaware of the amazing success our young baseball players are having internationally. It is unfortunate, but the opportunities for young baseballers to play international games or to be recruited by MLB clubs – or even colleges – is not widely understood by a majority of Australians.”
“There is a fantastic story of unlimited opportunity to be told, but it never gets enough publicity,” he said. “The 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, and the 2004 Athens silver medal gave us a glimpse of what could be. If Australia can qualify for Tokyo 2020, then maybe the sport will find itself in a stronger position. I hope so.”
“Although it is a while ago now, the move to summer in my opinion resulted in losing access to so many of the good cricketers. When I played, the number of Australian cricketers playing baseball during their off-season was substantial. Fitzroy Baseball Club had six of the Harveys at one point playing and Collingwood had Bill Lawry – a brilliant first baseman, pitcher and slugger.”
“We certainly have the talent in this sport, but I feel it could be even stronger if we had the cricketers more involved, as we used to. But money has so much to do with it, and you can’t blame anyone for looking to make a career out of cricket – or any other higher profile sport.”
While Heathmont Baseball Club has not quite generated the results this winter season to earn a shot at another A Grade title, there will always be next year – and another fifty years after that for the club to distinguish itself at the levels to which it aspires. In the meantime, the Penguins will continue to build as a winter entity and to engage the community in a team sport that offers so much for so many.
Australian Baseball Alumni extends its congratulations to Heathmont “Penguins” Baseball Club on achieving the milestone of fifty years as a grassroots sporting club. In so doing, we thank club personnel for their assistance in preparation of this story and we extend our very best wishes to the organisation for a bright future.
MELBOURNE WINTER BASEBALL LEAGUE
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Heathmont 50-Year All Star Team
Image: Heathmont Baseball Club