We know Little League
By Diane Imrie
Well, I think I am over my Olympic withdrawal. The Games of the XXXth Olympiad definitely provided the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
Through it all, our Canadian athletes once again represented our nation with pride and distinction on the international stage.
Speaking of athletes representing us with distinction, congratulations to the two Thunder Bay teams that earned the right to be Ontario’s representatives at the Canadian Junior and Senior Little League Baseball Championships earlier this month.
Both of these teams were carrying on a tradition of excellence in Little League baseball, which has its roots in our area dating back 60 years.
When Little League baseball first made its appearance in Northwestern Ontario in the early 1950s, the number of young ball players that turned out to sign up was an indication of how popular and successful the program would become.
By the mid-50s, leagues were active in both Fort William and Port Arthur, eventually spreading across the region to such communities as Kenora, Atikokan and Marathon.
Although operating with a smaller population base and a shorter playing season, teams from Fort William, Port Arthur and Thunder Bay have won an incredible 12 Canadian Little League titles.
In 1975, the Port Arthur Continentals won the Canadian Major Little League title, which is now considered part of the Little League division.
In 1982, Thunder Bay was invited to send a team to the Canadian Pony League championship, now known as the Junior League division, where their all-star team claimed the national title.
In Big League action, our community was selected to represent Canada at the 1969 World Series held in Winston-Salem, N.C., the first year Canada was invited to compete.
The following year Canada’s newly-formed city earned the right to represent their country with the Thunder Bay Red Sox winning the national title and advancing to the 1970 Big League World Series held in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Although we have claimed national titles in all divisions of Little League baseball, it is in the Senior Division where we have truly left our mark.
It all started with the Fort William Nationals, who won our first Canadian title in 1964 and added a second national title in 1968.
The Fort William Americans won back-to-back titles in 1966 and 1967.
The Fort William Moose-Internationals brought home national honours in 1969 and the National-Internationals had three victories including 1974, 1975 and 1980.
After a 25-year drought, the 2005 Westfort Internationals brought home our ninth Canadian Senior Little League title.
Although all of our national titles are equally important, I thought I would highlight our first national champs.
The team was an all-star squad made up of players from an eight-team league sponsored by the Fort William Royal Canadian Legion branches.
On Monday, Aug. 17, 1964 in Stoney Creek, Ont., the Fort William National All-Stars defeated the team from Valleyfield, Que., 14-2 to claim our first Canadian Senior Little League crown.
Two days later, the team found themselves boarding a plane in Toronto for their trip to Louisville, Ky., and the chance to be the first team to represent Canada at the Senior Little League World Series.
Arriving late in the evening, the next morning they were issued their tournament uniforms bearing the name "Canada." What a great moment that must have been!
Their first game was played under the lights in the 20,000-seat State Fairground Stadium, against a team from Brenham, Tex.
Finishing out the first inning ahead 4-3, the team held the lead until their opponents added two unmatched runs in each of the fifth and sixth innings.
Although outhitting the Texas team nine to eight, their 7-4 loss saw them out of the single-game knock-out tournament, but having put in a strong showing against a tough team.
To say that the citizens of the Lakehead were proud of this team’s accomplishments would be an understatement.
Prior to the days of Twitter and Facebook, it was quite an effort and expense to send a message. That did not seem to matter to the over 500 supporters who added their names to a telegram that was sent to the players.
Upon their return home, the team was greeted at the airport by over 1,000 cheering fans. They were then escorted through town in a motorcade that included convertibles and fire trucks.
Cheered along the parade route, they arrived at the Fort William Gardens to a packed house. The next day the team was treated to a meal at the Royal Edward Hotel, a civic banquet and a return engagement to the Gardens where they were introduced and presented with watches by the Legion.
Following an autograph session, a dance was held with Donny B. and the Bonnevilles supplying the music.
So just how much did this heroes' welcome mean to these young sports stars? As one player stated, “It (the tournament play) was a real thrill, a real experience, but nothing compared to coming home.”
What another great example of Thunder Bay doing civic pride up right!
The members of our first-ever Little League national championship team included Dave Bragnalo, Ron Busniuk, David Hudyma, George Kenno, Robert Kochan, William McEwan, James Montroy, John Pimenow, Alan Rawlyk, Rick Sandberg, Don Sawicki, Greg Smith, Bill Sutherland, John Tafe, William Nesbitt (coach) and Roddy LeBlanc (manager)
Until next time, keep that sports history pride alive.
(Diane Imrie is the executive director of the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. Her column runs every second Thursday.)