Rough Diamonds and Red Sox
While out-scoring an opponent remains the fundamental purpose of any bat and ball game, baseball has undergone a plethora of developments in its evolution over the past two hundred years.
Australian grassroots baseball is a far different commodity these days compared to what it was in eras past, when it was a solely winter sport with somewhat less of the accoutrements and the facilities that are now taken for granted. Even as late as the 1960s, fenced fields and pitching mounds were rare, playing equipment was basic (often expensive or recycled), coaching was rudimentary and opportunities for developing young players were virtually non-existent.
Despite its minority status in mainstream Australian sport, baseball nevertheless excited the interest and the passion of youngsters intrigued by what was – for them – a whole new ball game.
Former Latrobe Valley resident, baseball lifer and long-standing South Australian umpire Russell King has provided an engaging snapshot of his experiences as a teenager suiting up for Traralgon Red Sox during a baseball era half a century ago.
Russell wrote this story for the Traralgon and District Historical Society. While its appeal may naturally be greater to his contemporaries in Latrobe Valley baseball, the story has direct relevance to a broader baseball community committed to recording our origins.
Rough Diamonds and Red Sox offers unique and special recollections in a particular location, in a particular era of grassroots Australian baseball. Australian Baseball Alumni invites any and all persons with a story of their own – or of their club – to contact us for follow-up.
ROUGH DIAMONDS AND RED SOX
1. A WHOLE NEW BALL GAME
While Aussie Rules was by far the most popular winter sport in the Gippsland of the sixties, others were around for those prepared to look. It had been mine for a few short years, but circumstances found me moving away from the game as the 1965 season was due to commence.
As so often happens however, the closing of one door precipitated the opening of another. The Latrobe Valley Baseball Association (LVBA) was just about to commence its second season (Traralgon had won the inaugural premiership by beating the hitherto undefeated RAAF in the Grand Final) and had decided to form an under-16 competition. Searching for interested youths Mr. Keith Winter visited the Traralgon High School during one of its regular Wednesday sports afternoons and held a coaching clinic. Interest was high enough for the school to enter a team, and because a few of my mates had decided to give it a go I decided to do the same.
In fact I had been a member of the junior inter-school team the previous year. This team beat all comers during the winter, culminating in a sound defeat of Warragul at Warragul on a pretty little reserve on the south side of the railway line. My contribution to this team came to absolutely zero, for even though I was included in the squad I can’t recall playing a single innings. Perhaps I had one or two turns at bat. I remember it being a solid enough junior side though; Alan Pump from Callignee pitched, Donny Court caught (sorry), Colin Stuckey from Flynn played at first and Mick Crump from Glengarry - red headed and fearsome looking - was the second baseman
The newly-formed LV juniors comprised about six teams from Traralgon, Moe, Yallourn and Morwell. We played on Saturday mornings -often starting in thick fog - at venues such as Morwell High and Morwell Tech., and occasionally on any flattish paddock that was big enough. Home games were played on our own school oval, at the top end beside a big old pine tree. For uniforms we wore an old pair of pants and windcheaters or jumpers. Those who had football boots played in them, and those who didn’t wore their school shoes or sand shoes.
Baseball was pretty new to all of us, but everyone had played cricket of course and we saw the two sports as sorts of trans-Atlantic cousins; never mind that baseball was supposed to be played in the summer. In fact baseball in all States was played in the winter in those days, and country baseball still is.
Using a glove and swinging a round bat took a little getting used to, but we persevered because it was good fun, though in truth we weren’t all that good and I was very much at the bottom of the ladder talent-wise. In one game I was tried at first base, and such was our pitcher’s confidence in my ability that rather than throw the ball to me for an out he ran across and touched the base himself. Similarly, after being tried in the outfield I threw away my glove the first time a ball was hit to me and caught it bare handed!
We muddled through however, quite enjoying ourselves along the way and were finalists at the end of the home-and-away round. We promptly lost the first semi-final and finished in fourth place for the year. Mind you I had enjoyed myself enough to decide that I would play again the following year.
2. FINDING A NICHE
We commenced the 1966 season with a new coach, a teacher named Neville Johnson, quite the most unflappable and phlegmatic man I have ever met. We called him ‘Nosnhoj’ (making sure that he never heard us) and he saw enough in me to allow me my wish of playing at third base.
Perhaps the first season had done us some good, for the ’66 version of the Traralgon High School Baseball team was much better than the previous year’s and we were soon involved in a battle for top position with Morwell High. The venues and opponents were much the same, but the school had provided us with a uniform for the season, green with gold piping. The sleeveless tops had enormous letters across the chest and were worn over white windcheaters, while the baggy knickerbockers were tucked into green football socks.
That year there was, for some reason, a shortage of powdered lime to mark out the baselines and batter’s boxes with, so for our home games we would lay the diamond out by hand after practice on Friday evenings, using sawdust from the school’s woodwork room. Transport to away games was in the cars of generous parents as well as in Mr. Johnson’s enormous mustard-coloured Chevrolet. It was a huge machine, managing to fit five or six of us inside. Those trips to and from Morwell or Yallourn were a great deal of fun and were maybe one of the reasons that we became such a good team; the Chevy not only took us to games, it seemed to generate team spirit as well.
My form must have been OK, because in July I was invited to expand my baseballing commitments and join the Traralgon Red Sox B Grade side, a senior team. I accepted happily and fitted in fairly well, gradually improving in adult company and learning a great deal about the sport I had chosen, though the higher standard of play did take some getting used to.
For instance, in my very first game (against the other Traralgon team - the White Sox) I saw my first ‘curve ball,’ a pitch that actually moves in the air. Throwing for the White Sox was a gentleman named Mal Rainsford, who was a cricketer of some repute and was said to have played interstate baseball in younger days. His curving pitch would start out aimed at the batter’s head, forcing the uninitiated to quickly bail out of the batter’s box in self-defence, only to see the ball break sharply over the home plate for a strike. Thus bamboozled we lost the game.
Something else that was new were the ‘pepper games’ we played as a form of batting practice prior to a game. Pepper is a means of rapping out hits to your teammates who stand in an arc about 15 yards away and throw a ball for you to hit. Each person usually gets ten or so hits, but if they are caught they rejoin the fielders at once. If a fielder drops a catch or misfields then they go to the end of the line. It’s a fine way to get ready for a game and a lot of fun too.
Back in the juniors the High School side was having a highly successful season. With Hugh Tate and Geoff Scott sharing the pitching duties and Ray Triggs our solid backstop we were solid contenders. As well there was Colin ‘Johnno’ Johnson, Leon Sjolund, Andrew Jacka, Greg Clydesdale, John Purdie, Max Lethlean, Gary Johnson and Trevor Guenther. There was also one hurdle: Morwell High. With a really good left-handed pitcher named John Bowen and an excellent catcher in Ivan Treloar, they finished up on top of the ladder at the end of the home-and-away round. We were second, having lost to them on each occasion we played.
In the midst of all of this was a mid-week competition, held under the auspices of the Central Gippsland Secondary Schools Sports Association (CGSSSA). We performed well in this company, sweeping all before us, including clinching the title with a win over guess who? Morwell High School. This win was meritorious for a few reasons; firstly, it was played on a senior sized diamond (the under-16 version was a little smaller). Secondly, our ‘hot’ pitchers were rested for upcoming weekend games and Eric Skaleskog was given the task. Eric didn’t play junior baseball, instead he played in the seniors on Saturday afternoons and he pitched a super game to hold the Morwell batters well in check. Thirdly, the game contained an extremely rare baseballing gem - a triple play - three outs in one. With runners on second and third and no men out Morwell were threatening to score. Luckily for us the next batter hit a sharp drive straight to Geoff Scott at shortstop; he caught it, threw the ball to me to snag the runner at third before he had a chance to return and I did the same by throwing to Hugh Tate at second. It was all over in seconds and left everyone stunned. Triple plays are seldom seen at any level of the game let alone in a country school competition. The fourth factor was a little more cerebral, we had shown ourselves that Morwell was beatable. Up until that game we had always been a little overawed by them. Not any more.
Back on Saturdays though they defeated us again in the second semi-final, forcing us to do things the hard way. We disposed of Morwell Tech. in the preliminary final and the stage was set for a crackerjack Grand Final, which was scheduled for August 20th at Duncan Cameron Reserve.
3. HIGHS AND LOWS
The morning was fine and sunny and the diamond marked out in the north-east corner of the ground, which was still relatively new and something of a Mecca for young Traralgon baseballers. For years the site of Duncan Cameron Reserve – on the corner of Bank and Francis Sts. - had been the town rubbish tip, but after it became clear that no more refuse would fit the Council decided that the area was to be reclaimed. The result was a superb little cricket ground with the Traralgon area’s first turf wicket. A fine brick pavilion fronted by terraced steps was constructed in the south-west corner and the whole facility was something to be very proud of. Perhaps because of the nifty new turf no football was played on the ground (though the Southside club took up residence in later years I recall), but thankfully baseball was permitted. Now and then, if my mates and I were watching a senior game we would be pressed into boiling hot dogs in the pavilion’s kitchen and selling them to spectators with bottles of Aygee or Alpine soft drinks.
Almost from the first pitch of the Grand Final it was clear that we were very much on our game and we racked up 11 runs in the first innings. It didn’t seem to matter what the formidable Bowen threw, it was if we were swinging cricket bats. In the field we were just as strong, and with Hugh Tate pitching in top form we completely dominated the game to run out easy winners, 19 runs to 5. What a day! What a thrill! Our normally reserved coach smiled broadly and we whooped with glee. It was my first premiership in any kind of sport and I walked home in my uniform as if I was floating on air.
Adding spice to the feeling was the knowledge that I would soon be commencing another finals campaign as my Red Sox team was scheduled to meet the Sale Swans in the B-Grade second semi-final at Catterick Crescent the very next day. Quickly I came back to earth with a resounding thud; Sale were an excellent team and they beat us 20 runs to 12, though at one stage we had led 8-5. Sale’s pitcher, Charlie Jones, was the fastest I had ever faced up to that time and was in fine fettle. To add to the general gloom I copped a nasty crack on the ankle from a sharply bouncing ball and failed to complete the game. Then I woke the next morning with mumps!
Without my guiding hand the Red Sox defeated Moe 20-8 in the preliminary final, thus earning another crack at the Swans, this time for the premiership. My illness had passed without any major dramas and Mum agreed to let me play as long as I remained ‘well rugged up’ as she put it. The game, at Catterick Crescent again, commenced at noon so that after we had finished we could hurry down to Duncan Cameron Reserve to see the end of the A-Grade Grand Final in which the Red Sox were also playing.
In the end we saw none of it, for our game became something of a classic. At the end of the regulation nine innings scores were level at seven apiece, and the game continued for an extra six innings until that blessed Charlie Jones hit safely (to me in the outfield) and scored the winning run in the bottom half of the fifteenth innings! Reporting in The Traralgon Journal and Record a few days later, Bob Medlicott, the League’s Publicity Officer (who was also our coach and catcher) gave the following figures: the contest lasted for four hours and three minutes. 61 Sale batters and 63 Red Sox batters came to the plate. Both teams made eight errors. Sale left 13 runners on base and the Red Sox 12 and the same numbers applied to safe hits, Sale 13, Red Sox 12. In dual feats of true stamina the starting pitchers for each team - Alan McKechnie for Traralgon and Charlie Jones for Sale – threw for the entire game! Between them they threw in excess of 350 pitches, truly herculean efforts. The Journal stated that McKechnie, Andy Stevens and Ray Beaton had been the Sox’ best.
Not altogether broken hearted (we had shown that Charlie Jones was probably mortal) we hurried down under the viaduct to Duncan Cameron Reserve only to find that the A-Grade Grand Final had been over for some time. It had been won by the Morwell Cougars 6-2, denying Traralgon - under the leadership of John Stuckey - three premierships in a row. No matter, it had been a fantastic sporting winter.
4. A STEP UP
Strawberry Fields by The Beatles was at the top of the charts and Snoopy Versus the Red Baron ( duly ‘beeped’ for decency’s sake) wasn’t far behind as the 1967 season commenced. My form during the previous year must have been considered adequate, because I had been promoted to the A-Grade squad. I made my debut against Morwell at Morwell and we were soundly thrashed. A fortnight later, during a win over Yallourn, I saw my first ‘real’ umpire, a gentleman named Mr. Epps, who wore a black suit with a white shirt and tie whilst officiating!
As is often still the case in amateur sport there were never enough umpires to cover every game in the LVBA. Consequently players from other teams often did the job, and almost as often teams in B-Grade umpired their game between themselves. One Sunday afternoon, having played the day before, I found myself at the Yallourn No. 5 Ground (a malevolent, soggy patch of swamp close to the original power station. Its surface was mainly coal dust which had been sown with grass) to see a B-Grade game. I had travelled with one of my adult teammates and we were asked to officiate because there were no league umpires available. We agreed (though some wag on the sidelines told us that we’d be sorry) and got things under way. The game turned out to be rather spiteful, with the Yallourn coach in particular very argumentative. In the end this gentleman, after objecting violently to a particular decision which didn’t favour his team, led it from the ground. Our pre-game advisor had been right, I was sorry, mainly for the players who didn’t get to finish their game.
Such behaviour though was very much the exception. Relations between players (and umpires) were almost always cordial, not to mention social. Baseballing folk in the Valley invariably took a great interest - if not pride - in one another. Teams would always get together for an after-game drink to discuss the afternoon’s formalities, and I was often taken aside by a more senior opponent for a little coaching or some thoughts on our sport during such occasions. Perhaps it was because our game was a relatively minor one, but the feeling of camaraderie and belonging was very strong and certainly made me feel that I had chosen the right path in regards to sport.
On the diamond A-Grade was relatively hot company for a 16 year-old in his second year of serious sport. There was a sprinkling of former Melbourne A-Graders in the League and a couple of Victorian representatives, both past and future, as well. The senior grade boasted two teams from Traralgon, and sides from Morwell, Moe, Yallourn, Sale and the RAAF. B-Grade was similar, though the RAAF had no side, and players moved between Grades as form and availability dictated, as they do in most amateur sporting clubs.
Playing facilities during those years were nowhere near the same as they appear to be nowadays, but most clubs had at least a semi-permanent home and some even had a few small improvements. For instance, Traralgon attached a couple of posts and some wire mesh to the Duncan Cameron fence for a backstop, and at the beginning of the 1967 season Morwell opened its new facility on a vast oval beside the coal train track just off the Driffield Road. This had a little clubhouse and a big backnet and the Tigers were rightfully proud of it. There was even a sandpit that Morwell swore was a pitching mound, though few were ever fully convinced. Elsewhere things weren’t always so sophisticated, Moe’s home ground was an open stretch of grass in the middle of the racecourse; no nets and no fences, nothing but a game.
Nor were there ‘dugouts’ to sit in during a game; players sat on wooden benches usually taken from the clubhouse if they were available. If they weren’t then the ‘bench’ consisted of a tarpaulin to keep the seat of your pants and the playing equipment off the (often sodden) grass.
More often than not we played without the benefit of a backnet. If a ball was hit foul or thrown out of play it had to be fetched; there were no large groups of spectators to do it for you. At Duncan Cameron I must have spent hours searching for balls between the edge of Bank St. and the huge mound that the train line is laid on. In the other corners of the ground foul balls often finished up in someone’s back yard. If an innings closed or your turn at bat came up as you searched you had to leave off and hurry back to the game. There are probably still balls from the sixties hidden in the surrounds of Duncan Cameron.
Unlike the present day pitchers threw ‘off the flat,’ though to prevent damage to the grass clubs procured long strips of conveyor belting for the ‘mound’ area. Bases were square canvas bags filled with kapok and held in place with long pieces of steel rod. To hit a home run a batter had to hit the ball far enough to be able to circle the bases before it could be thrown back. Only at Duncan Cameron Reserve was the fence capable of being carried by a hit. Mind you it had to be a darned good one, I don’t recall ever seeing one, only hearing about them after they’d happened.
Because we were playing in the winter we quite often found that the baseballs we were using became slippery and difficult to throw. We got around this by smearing the pockets of our gloves with a substance called ‘Grippo.’ This tacky stuff came in a small flat tin and was used by lawn bowlers in the summer, and I’ll bet the manufacturers never thought baseballers would use it. Just as well too, for the use of a ‘foreign substance’ is forbidden in baseball, though I always thought that it made good sense in the depths of a Gippsland winter.
On the diamond Morwell ruled. They led the league unchallenged for the entire 1967 season while the rest of us battled to stay in touch. However, as the season unfolded another challenge arose: representative honours. The LVBA belonged to a parent body known as the Victorian Provincial Baseball League (VPBL) and on the Queen’s Birthday Weekend of every year it held the Victorian Country Championships - both senior and junior.
These Championships, known as the Country Carnival, were fought out between representative teams from each member association at a different Provincial location every year, and when players were invited to try out for the LV junior (I’ve always thought it was under-17, but clippings from the Journal say otherwise) team I decided to test the waters. The first practice was held at the by now familiar Catterick Crescent playing fields (so much of my youthful sporting endeavours were bound up on that hard sweep of grass) and about 20 aspirants turned up. As it turned out I was the only person trying out for the third base position, though that was certainly no guarantee of selection.
After three or four trial afternoons the squad (of 14 or 15) was announced and I was named. The Carnival was to be held at Ballarat and three weeks or so before the long weekend we played a trial game against the Bairnsdale senior side on a fine, cool Sunday afternoon. I was a little surprised when we gave the men from the east a bit of a bath, beating them 14-4. I has quite a good game from memory, crashing one long hit deep down the left field foul line and making three or four outs from third base.
The following weekend was the League’s Field Games, a gathering of most everyone from baseball in the Valley for a bit of fun (the baseballing ‘family’ comprised about 150 people I estimate - a figure inclusive of family and friends). Field Games don’t seem to be held any more, but they used to be an integral part of any season. Consisting of four events, the long throw, diamond run, fungo hit (fungoing is the act of throwing a ball up and hitting it yourself - a ‘fun-go’) and the infield throw, the Field Games were played for a trophy donated by the Umpire’s Association and were keenly contested. They provided a chance for baseball people to get together in a relaxed atmosphere and to show off their skills at the same time.
After lunch the LVBA seniors played their trial match against Prahran, an A-Grade Melbourne team, and though beaten 3-1, showed that they had the makings of a good outfit. They would need to be too, for they had been promoted to the First Division and would have to play without the services of Morwell pitcher Glen Percy, who had chipped a bone in an ankle.
Come the evening of Friday, June 9th we set out in the LV Bus Lines’ charter special and arrived at our Ballarat motel at about 11 p.m. This was the first motel I had ever stayed in and I shared a room with Max Lethean, my Traralgon and High School teammate and good friend, and Bruce Lucas from Moe. Bright and early we woke the next morning, donned our LV uniforms (grey with white and navy trim) and headed off past Lake Wendouree to the vast playing fields in the north-west corner of the city. My first impression was of the wonderful atmosphere. As far as the eye could see there were baseball uniforms in the colours of leagues from all over Victoria and beyond. Besides ourselves there were Bairnsdale, Sunraysia, Wangaratta, Bendigo, Ringwood, Diamond Valley, Dandenong, Mt. Gambier, Hamilton, Warnambool, Geelong, Shepparton, Ballarat, of course, and Colac. Surely this was baseball heaven.
Picking up our bags and wishing the seniors good luck we trooped to the far corner of the fields and found our diamond nestled in a vee formed by a stand of large pine trees. This was to be the site of our opening game against Wangaratta. We were in the second division and reality sank in fairly quickly as the boys from the north-east beat us. In fact we lost all three games we played, though we gave the eventual winners, Diamond Valley, a real scare before succumbing by a run.
So, with our representative duties finished we faced up to the fact that we were the bottom of the pile, winless in the lowest division possible. Not that we were bad, we had some terrific youth players; Ross Percy our captain, was a marvellously gifted baseballer, and he, along with pitcher Greg Ryan from Yallourn, was selected in the junior All-Star team at the conclusion of the weekend. Also in our squad were Hugh Tate and Ross Norman and Ivan Treloar and Max Lethlean, all excellent players. We just didn’t produce the goods.
Personally I found it hard to be too concerned, in spite of the fact that I had done virtually nothing in aid of our cause. It was difficult to be down for long in such a hotbed of baseball. In between games there were others to watch, hot dogs to munch on, new jargon to listen to and file in the memory and new friends to discuss things with. Win, lose or draw it was a wonderful weekend. The seniors played four games and won only one, the loss of Glen Percy proving to be a factor. As a group we stayed to watch the weekend’s showpiece, the senior Division I Grand Final, in which the home side beat Diamond Valley, then re-embarked on our diesel cruiser and headed back to the Valley.
5. PREMIERSHIPS, PROTESTS & POSSUMS
The next weekend battle was rejoined at home. Things were fairly busy for me in terms of sport because I was still playing for the High School in the juniors on Saturday mornings as well as for the Red Sox in the afternoon. In the under-16s we were sweeping all before us, thanks to a cadre of players from last season’s premiers and a couple of promising new recruits. At a senior level the Sox went through July in a slump, losing to Yallourn and Morwell and then to our club brethren the White Sox, while coach John Stuckey was away in Bendigo representing the VPBL in its annual game against the city side.
It was in this game that I suffered my first real injury of any import. As I slid into second base the glove of fielder Leigh Cairncross caught me beneath the chin and forced my head back into the ground with a thud, knocking me unconscious. Ray Alvin graciously drove me to the Traralgon and District Hospital and Dr. Trevor McLean (who had assisted my entry into the world almost 17 years before) attended to me. I think he had been watching the football at the Showgrounds when called, but it made no difference of course, he came as he always did, courteous and caring. His diagnosis was slight concussion and he ruled out any further exertions. Ray and I returned to Duncan Cameron to witness the end of a surprise defeat.
Nevertheless we picked up the traces and were soon back in some sort of form. By the middle of July we were solidly in second place on the ladder. The Journal of the 17th showed that Morwell were clear leaders with 28 points, us second with 18, White Sox third with 14 and Yallourn making up the four with 12. We had a new man on the team too, a former Morwell player named Leo Jones, who - legend had it - had once thrown out a batter/runner at first base from left field. For those unfamiliar with baseball such a feat is more or less unheard of, perhaps the cricketing equivalent would be running out a batsman at the non-striker’s end from deep fine leg, on the first run!! Mind you Leo certainly looked as though he could have done it.
Soon enough we were setting our sails for the finals, while out along Shakespeare St. the High School nine was doing the same. The junior competition seemed to have developed into a two horse race between ourselves and a ‘new’ traditional foe, Traralgon Tech. At the completion of the minor round we were both level on points at the top of the table, though the Tech. led us on percentage, and because they had beaten us both times during our home and away encounters, they went into the second semi final as slight favourites. We had been down this road before though and showed our experience by beating them 15-9. Interestingly, many members of both teams were also playing for Traralgon clubs in the afternoon, so after the semi quite a few of us joined forces for an afternoon game. Charlie Speirs and myself for instance, were both members of the Red Sox A-Grade side, while Max Lethlean was the Red Sox’ B-Grade pitcher and blokes like Peter Hornstra and Guido Fabris and Tony Locandro played for the White Sox.
To everyone’s surprise the Tech. lost again the following week, to Morwell High this time, so it was to be another THS v MHS grand final. This year things were different though, Morwell no longer had Bowen pitching to Treloar, while on the mound we had the experience of Max Lethlean and the promising power of Gary Johnson. For something different I had taken up catching (or backstop if you like), in addition to playing third base in the A-Grade, and it was with both Max and Gary pitching to me that we defeated Morwell High for the second year straight, 19 runs to 11, under murky skies on a greasy Duncan Cameron Reserve. It didn’t seem quite the same. Perhaps we were getting spoiled.
The Red Sox’ final home and away game for the season was at the RAAF Base and we had an excellent hit out, beating the airmen 13-1. To lighten the mood a little Coach Stuckey had Charlie Speirs and myself do some of the pitching, and with the help of our teammates we actually did quite well, though the RAAF boys were without two of their stars, a pair of West Australians named Brian Muggleton and Ian Abrahall. Both had been state representatives in the west, and Muggleton in particular was a fine player, one who had also played Sheffield Shield cricket. The two dominated the end-of-season best and fairest voting for A-Grade, Abrahall winning by a vote from Muggleton, and their mid-season arrival at East Sale was enough to make the flyboys a different proposition altogether. They finished out the season in grand style and had a definite impact on the makeup of the final four, which was: Morwell Cougars 34 pts, Traralgon Red Sox 22 pts, Yallourn 16 pts and Traralgon White Sox 14 pts.
The A-Grade finals, all of which were to be played on Duncan Cameron Reserve, began the following Saturday with Yallourn playing the White Sox. The game was a beauty, Yallourn winning 9 runs to 7; but even this was eclipsed the next day when we beat the Cougars 2-1. This result was a real boilover, with the wily Stuckey - on the mound for a change - pitching a masterpiece and tying the Cougars’ batters in knots with a display of great control and guile.
More drama ensued in the preliminary final a week later. With Morwell leading Yallourn 4-2 late in the game, umpire-in-chief Bob Medlicott took exception to the abuse of his partner, Ken Walmsley, by some members of the Yallourn side and awarded the game to Morwell. The coalminers lodged an official protest, but some administrative problems immediately became apparent. The Journal of August 31st reported them thus:
“…it was not a tribunal matter and it was a bit hard to expect the Association Executive to hear it because:
Mr. Medlicott is the Association Secretary,
He could not appeal to the District Representative because he holds that position himself,
Coach of the Yallourn team and one of the players under fire is Mr. Colin Wale, who is also the Association President,
Three players in the final are Association Vice Presidents and another is the Assistant Secretary.
Which could lead to some animated debate when delegates, hurriedly summoned yesterday, meet tonight to discuss the issue.”
Looking back it all seems laughable, though no one thought it funny at the time I dare say (I must add that - knowing what I do now - such a protest probably shouldn’t have even been recognised, let alone heard). In any event, the Association Executive upheld Yallourn’s protest and ruled that the game should resume from where it had left off the following weekend. Thus the eventual winner would find themselves completing one game and almost immediately being thrust into another - the Grand Final against the waiting Red Sox.
History shows that as we took extended batting practice at Catterick Crescent Morwell wrapped up the replay in about ten minutes and prepared to meet us in the Grand Final. It turned out to be a cracker; coming from behind we levelled the scores at two runs apiece in the ninth innings. Neither team scored in the tenth, but the Cougars batted in three in their half of the 11th and we could only manage one. Morwell had scored consecutive A-Grade championships and were worthy premiers. In the lower division Morwell also triumphed, holding off a fast-finishing White Sox (who batted in a phenomenal 13 runs in the final innings) to win 18-16 and complete a good weekend’s work for their club.
Traralgon baseballers bade farewell to 1967 with a pair of games against the visiting Ballarat Baseball Club, something that was an end of season annual event. Playing on the Showgrounds the gold miners won both outings. I was catcher to John Stuckey in the Saturday game and played in the outfield the next afternoon. Both games were quite social, but deadly serious into the bargain and it was a little sobering to see ourselves measured against this fine Provincial club. Their main pitcher, John Peddlestone, was widely held to be one of the finest hurlers in the State at the time, and he certainly showed us why.
To keep my hand in over the summer I accepted an invitation to coach the Grey St. Primary School softball teams, the Possums and the Emus. One night a week I would hurry from classes at high school and park my bike beside Grey St’s. gravel playing field, where thirty or so eager lasses ranging from ten years to 12 waited for my expert guidance.
Such guidance usually took the form of hitting catches to the bunch and letting them work out who would take it. Then, as the light dwindled each girl would get a little batting practice before we broke up, with me calling out which diamond each team was playing on at Agnes Brereton Park the next Saturday.
Any form of effective coaching during competition turned out to be well-nigh impossible because both sides played at the same time! All I could do was watch one team for a while and then run like billy-o to the other game, trying all the while to ensure that every girl got to play at least part of a game. Patient parents kept an eye on things as I traipsed to-and-fro and the whole experience turned out to be a lot of breathless fun. It probably would have been more so if they had won, in fact neither the Emus nor the Possums won a darn thing until the final games of the season (which for the Primary School competition was before Christmas I think) and then they both broke through in style. The girls were rapt and so was I.
6. PLAYING CARDS
Over Christmas I was fortunate enough to gain a holiday job at the Cement Factory at the end of Janette St., a facility which had hitherto been little more than a partially hidden industrial behemoth on the city’s southern fringe. Most of what I did was manual labour, swinging a shovel, then a jackhammer and finally lowering buckets of mortar to a team of specialised brickies who were refurbishing one of the huge kilns in the centre of the plant. For the final week I was actually the plant caretaker from midnight till dawn. Things were very quiet at the time, the factory had shut down for the holidays and I spent much of the early morning in the front entry building reading and listening to 3TR. Occasionally I would conduct forays around the site in the company’s Holden ute, just to make sure that weren’t hordes of industrial terrorists creeping over the creek and preparing to invade.
To my relief none were ever sighted, but the job had provided two noticeable benefits: my bank account was replete thanks to a month or so of adult wages, and my frame was noticeably more muscular courtesy of some pretty hard yakka. As a result of the latter I commenced pre-season training early in March with the body - if not the mind - of an adult.
The Beatles and their Magical Mystery Tour were top of the pops at the time, and if the four mop tops were heading in a new direction then so was the Traralgon Baseball Club. Keen to knock Morwell off their premiership perch the club again entered four teams in the LVBA of 1968, the Cardinals and the White Sox in A-Grade and the Red and White Sox in B-Grade. The ‘Cards’ were to be the soft focus of the club’s efforts, a sort of senior partner if you like, and I was flattered to be selected in their squad. Having outgrown junior baseball at last, the senior version was the only option open to me, but I reckoned that I was big enough and ugly enough to hold my own if nothing else.
On the diamond things were different as well. The near legendary John Stuckey had moved to Melbourne (so someone else would be delivering bottled gas to our home) and the coaching reins had been taken over by Wally Boyd. A new PE teacher from the Tech., Dave Williams, had joined the club and Neil Aldersea, Tony Locandro and Greg Jessop from last year’s White Sox also became Cardinals. From the previous year’s Red Sox were myself, Lloyd Lewis, Charley Speirs and Hugh Tate and up from B-Grade were Max Lethlean and Emilio Mazza.
The season kicked off and there were a few new things amongst our opponents as well. Morwell were as strong as ever of course, with an almost identical lineup to that of 1967, but the RAAF were consistently better right from the word go. Yallourn had gained the services of a couple of veteran ballplayers and the Sale Swans seemed to more at home in the higher division too. Suddenly the whole Association seemed to be stronger and harder.
During most of the previous winter Hugh Tate (almost always called ‘Spud’) and I had been leaving the school grounds every lunchtime (strictly against school rules) and running up the hill to John Stuckey’s place in Evelyn Court for some specialised coaching. In fact the coaching was for Hugh, but my being there meant that I could squat and catch the ball as he threw them and ‘Stuck’ could devote all of his attention to Tatey’s pitching technique, which was coming along just fine. These sessions - added to my catching duties for the High School nine – now paid off here in the 1968 season when I was entrusted with the A-Grade catching job for the Traralgon Cardinals.
A word about uniforms here. Traralgon had naturally adopted the town colours so that we played in a maroon strip with white piping and lettering. In addition to this a white windcheater was worn under the shirt and a pair of Traralgon footy socks, often specially cut to produce ‘stirrups’, was worn over a pair of ordinary white hose in the traditional baseball manner. Many players, especially the more senior ones, had ‘warmup’ jackets. These were woollen bomber-style jackets worn ostensibly to keep a player’s arm warm when he was neither batting nor fielding, but they also served as a sort of ID for the wearer. You knew at once what his club was if he was in mufti and you could get an idea of the wearer’s history as well, because it was the custom to sew team, premiership and representative patches down the sleeves. Therefore, the more patches the more experienced and successful the person was. Caps weren’t always worn, not everyone was comfortable with one on, but the majority did because it was more or less traditional. Protective helmets for batters were still some way in the future in the country leagues, though now they are compulsory for both batters and catchers no matter where the game is played.
Using money from my summer job I ordered a pair of proper baseball shoes, low-cut, with triangular metal ‘cleats’ instead of stops. For the previous season I had used a pair of my father’s old street shoes shod with football stops. I placed my order at MacDonald’s Sports Store (there was a barber at the back of the shop) and checked in each Saturday morning to see if they had arrived, but after six weeks of the same reply, ‘try again next week,’ I gave up and purchased a pair of soccer shoes from a store in Seymour Arcade. As for the essential glove, most players bought their own, though quite a few did as I did: they permanently ‘borrowed’ one from the school’s kit. Club’s purchased bats and protective equipment and it went into a pool, which was divided between teams.
Play commenced and we were soon doing well, save for mastering Morwell, who still had our measure. They were a tough and experienced outfit. Still, the competition was always enjoyable, with lots of terrific baseball being played and a great bunch of blokes to play it with. The spirit amongst the Cardinals was wonderful and got better with every outing. We often found ourselves getting together at Wally Boyd’s place on Friday nights for informal team meetings, and much team fun was had over a game of cards and a few drinks. The change of name (although there had been a previous incarnation of the Traralgon Cardinals) seemed to be reflected in a different kind of attitude, more confident and assured.
Things didn’t always go our way of course; one sunny afternoon (the 1968 winter was somewhat milder than most I think) while playing at the RAAF Base the dangerous Brian Muggleton attempted to ‘steal’ third base mid way through the game. Receiving the pitch I rifled the ball to Neil Aldersea at third base, and the throw was near-perfect. So good in fact that Neil had time to simply lay the glove (with the ball in it) down beside the base and wait for Muggleton to slide into it for an out. Unwilling to give up so easily he was quick-witted enough to stop and simply jump over the waiting glove onto the base, where he stood - hands on hips - and looked around as if to say ‘how about that?’ It was a sensational piece of quick thinking and both sides laughed about it cheerily over the after-game drinks.
The Queen’s Birthday weekend loomed on the sporting horizon and I joined many of my teammates at tryout training for the LVBA representative team. These sessions were at the Morwell ground after lunch on Sundays, but the final practice was a game against Melbourne club side Prahran, on Duncan Cameron, as it had been the previous year. During the pre-game warmups I was in the outfield taking catches as batters got their eyes in when I raced back for a deep fly ball and ran straight into the horizontal metal pipe of the fence at full tilt.
More surprised than hurt I recovered quickly and took part in the game briefly (no one ever got a complete game in this sort of event) but wasn’t selected in the squad for the upcoming Carnival in Geelong. Realistically I had known that I was only a very rough chance at best, but the opportunity to train with the elite of the Association and to be at least considered certainly did me no harm at all.
The Valley fared only ordinarily during their time away, the one ray of light being the naming of Cards’ infielder Dave Williams as the Division 2 Best & Fairest player. This honour also earned him selection in the Country All-Stars team, which played games against the City team as well as a series against representative country sides from other States.
Back in Traralgon I was glad to get back into things the following weekend when local games recommenced. The Cardinals’ form continued to be excellent and we hovered around the upper levels of the final four without too many problems. Perhaps we had become a little complacent at one stage though, for our fellow Traralgon A-Graders- the White Sox - delivered us a wake up call in the form of a surprise defeat one Sunday afternoon. ‘They wanted to win more than we did,’ Lloyd Lewis said at game’s end, and he was right.
During this second half of the season I found myself playing in the B Grade one Saturday because I was unavailable for the A-Grade on the following afternoon (Air Training Corps’ duties no doubt). The game was against the undefeated Moe lineup at the Traralgon High School ground and we shocked them with a sound defeat. I was fortunate enough to have an excellent game (perhaps my A-Grade experience helped) and pitcher Mark Kerr threw a blinder as well. Next weekend though, it was back to the Cards and the final few rounds of the home-and-away season.
The Cougars were far enough ahead for first place to be out of our reach by this stage, but we were playing very good baseball. The final match of the minor round was against Sale at Sale and we despatched them ruthlessly, winning by around 20 runs. I had bought my own bat a few weeks earlier and used it to good effect by rapping out three three-base hits which brought in six or seven of our runs. With the finals a week away we were more than ready.
7. A BROKEN BAT AND A CLOTH PATCH
The second semi-final against Morwell brought us back to earth a little when they beat us fairly comfortably. I was named amongst our best with two safe hits, but broke my darned bat when I swung at an inside pitch from Glen Percy and the ball struck the wood (aluminium bats were still some years away) well up the handle. I was understandably disappointed - it had been quite expensive. Yallourn and the RAAF played in the first semi the next afternoon and the airmen emerged victorious in a tight and tense tussle held right in front of the Duncan Cameron pavilion on a gorgeous day. So - it was Morwell through to the Grand Final, mothballs for Yallourn and the Cardinals versus the RAAF next Saturday at Yallourn No. 4.
Somewhat surprisingly we defeated the flyboys quite easily, by eight or nine runs I think. My purple patch continued and I beat out another couple of safe hits to be named in the best again, but the team was the thing and ours was in fine fettle as we eyed the upcoming tussle with the Cougars for the title. Same venue - Yallourn No.4 - and same time - 2 p.m.
Grand Final day dawned foggy and damp, but soon cleared to become fine, sunny and clear. In the morning I went across to Morwell with Spud searching for some parts for his recently-acquired Holden, then a little after noon I trekked across to Yallourn for the game. The ground was in perfect condition and as we laced on our shoes and prepared for the warmups coach Wally Boyd announced that there was to be a change in the lineup: Hugh Tate, not Lloyd Lewis was to be the starting pitcher. Both had shared the pitching duties throughout the season, but Morwell had seen much more of Lew than they had of Hugh. The two had differing approaches as well. Lloyd, already a wily veteran, relied on a combination of breaking pitches and pinpoint accuracy. Spud, taller and more powerful, threw the ball with explosive pace and dared batters to hit him if they could.
Proceedings got under way and it was clear almost at once that the move had been the right one. Tatey was at his very best, the Cougars unable to come to grips with his pace. Our defence was rock solid too, defying every effort of the Morwell batters to string a few hits together. On the flip side, the redoubtable Glen Percy was pitching for the Cougars, but we were bunching our hits and had soon jumped out to a healthy lead. Adding gloss to Spud’s pitching performance was that fact that in the third innings he had called me aside and said that his breaking pitch - the curve ball he used as a change of pace - was unreliable and that we (the pitcher/catcher combination) probably shouldn’t use it any more. So he completed the game by throwing fast balls and nothing else, quite an extraordinary effort, and evidence of great sporting maturity in one so relatively young (like me he was not yet 18).
Neil Aldersea, fielding at third base, pulled off the play of the year when he snared a hard hit ground ball that was actually past him and threw out the batter/runner by a couple of steps. I can still see it all in my mind’s eye to this day, Neil diving away towards the foul line and coming up throwing, the ball a white blur across the infield and Lloyd Lewis grinning as it thudded into his glove. That single out was the game in miniature; it was the Cardinal’s day and even Morwell seemed to be saying so as they found themselves forced to ‘bunt’ (a bunt is a ball that is ‘tapped’ rather than hit forcefully and is a surprise play usually reserved to break a deadlock ) a couple of runners across the plate in an effort to get something going.
The Journal records the result as 9-6 Traralgon, though in fact it was 9-3, but what matter the score? We were champions of the Valley, decisively and undisputably. Coach Boyd accepted the cup and we were each presented with a cloth patch bearing the embroidered words LVBA Premiers, A Grade, 1968. Mine still graces my old warmup jacket.
8. THE FINAL INNINGS
Every up has a down it would seem. After showering at home I hurried around to Wally Boyd’s home in Gordon St. for the celebrations. Good cheer flowed aplenty and I certainly had my share, for by nine o’clock I was flat on my back, drunk for the very first time. Kevin Hills drove me the short distance home and delivered me apologetically to bewildered parents. Blissfully unaware of anything, let alone the consternation I was causing, I promptly vomited over the legs of my father’s pyjamas! I hope that he can see some humour in the event from wherever he may be now.
A few weeks later, at the Club’s presentation evening, I received a trophy inscribed Best Team Player, Cardinals 1968. Lloyd Lewis also bought and presented each of us with an inscribed medallion to commemorate our success. Both still grace my modest trophy cabinet and I cherish them dearly.
By now it was September and I wasn’t too far from leaving home forever to join the Air Force, though two more baseballing events would take place before that happened. The first was a trip to Ballarat, the return of the social weekend we had shared in Traralgon at the end of the ’67 season. Tony Locandro, Peter Hornstra and I travelled with Kevin Hills in his battered FJ Holden and we booked into the same motel that we stayed in for the VPBL Carnival the previous year. The next day we played the Ballarat Baseball Club on a soggy ground, but after a few innings steady rain set in and the game was called off. This was disappointing because my good mate Jeff Roberts (whose father managed the milk factory on the Glengarry Road) was coming off a promising rookie year in the sport and was to pitch this game.
The news didn’t get much better either; the single night in the motel had taken all but a few dollars of the cash I had brought with me. Nor was I the only one, there were perhaps five or six more of us in similar circumstances (all still at school) and it was unclear where we would sleep. The idea of spending a night in Ballarat in the back of Kevin’s FJ with three or four other blokes was less than appealing, so we ended up sleeping in the room of some of the more solvent members of our troupe. There were 10 or 11 of us in the one room and all but the registered guests had to slip out quietly well before daylight!
The rain hadn’t stopped all night and it continued on into the day as well. The playing field was a quagmire so there was no choice but to cancel our game and go home. This was even more disappointing because we had brought the bulk of our premiership-winning team for this contest and really thought that we could win. In the end we drove home slowly as it bucketed down all the way, holding our collective breath each time we approached a set of traffic lights on the way through Melbourne, for the FJ’s brake pedal had to be pumped like mad to make sure there was enough hydraulic pressure for us to stop!
Through October the Australian Baseball Council (now the Australian Baseball Federation and the sport’s controlling body in this country) assembled a representative Australian team for a series of games against Japan (the Japanese team actually belonged to a large steel corporation, but a true national side would have been far too strong for an Aussie side of the sixties). The teams played a series of games in all of the capitals and the Melbourne leg was played at the recently-completed Ross Straw Field, not far from the Melbourne Zoo, late in the month.
This was an event too good to pass up. The first game was played on a Saturday and was actually televised on the ABC. Naturally I was glued to the screen, but the next day I drove up to the big smoke with Kevin Hills to see things in the flesh. There was a sizeable contingent from the Valley and we had the privilege of seeing John Stuckey catching for the Victorian side in the curtain raiser - Victoria vs. Japan. He did well too, though the local lads were beaten quite easily. The visitors won the main game as well, courtesy of a massive home run in the ninth innings. Nevertheless we went home more than happy; along with about 5,000 others we had seen our national team in action and that was enough in itself.
A little over a month later I said farewell to family and friends as I left to enlist in the RAAF. Many things from my adolescence have stood me in good stead in the years since, and those four years of baseball in Traralgon rate highly amongst them. Over 30 years on the Traralgon Baseball Club still plays each winter in maroon uniforms with white piping. Their juniors occasionally have to play in the fog and you can still buy a hot dog to eat as you watch the game. Thank heavens for all of that.