World champs forever

OPRF PONY team celebrates 50th anniversary of momentous win

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By KIT KADLEC

It all started with a loss. Camaraderie, a motivational manager and just enough talent helped turn a bad start into a world championship season.

The only OPRF Pony League tournament team to ever win the World Series lost its first game in 1960 to host Bellwood 4-2. Fifty years later, the team is now celebrating its anniversary of the title with various events this month.

Playing on the edge in tight games was to be a theme for the entire tournament run for this team. They took advantage of the double-elimination rule time and time again. The result was perhaps the greatest season yet for OPRF Pony on the national stage.

Such great teams need special leaders, and manager Warren Cooney certainly fit the bill. The father of five was a structural iron worker with a deep tan and presence on and off the field that inspired his players.

But most notably, he held the distinction of being the youngest tail gunner in Naval Air Force history. When he was just 15-years-old, Cooney joined the Navy under a friend's name. When it was finally discovered two years later, he was already stationed at Guadalcanal. His father, also stationed there with the Seabees, signed the papers for his son to stay in the Navy under his own name.

Cooney rallied his players on the 1960 team like he was rallying troops. A local paper quoted him before the first game as saying to his players, "Never say die. And I mean never!" The rally cry stuck, especially when some of the players were a bit flustered by the opening loss.

Larry Bock, the 14-year-old star of the team, recalls feeling grateful after the loss that he was on the 1959 Pony team that won a couple games before being knocked out of the first round. "I remember telling someone that at least we won a few games last year," he said.

The league president, Phil Jacklin, came to speak to the players at a practice after the loss and echoed those sentiments - there was no shame in not advancing, he said. Oak Park-River Forest Pony was just seven years old at the time, so expectations weren't too high yet. Some players recall Cooney was none too happy with this message, however. He knew his team could do more and wanted them to believe it as well.

The road

The second game of the Subdistrict Tournament, with the season on the line, things didn't start out much better. The team fell behind early to Cicero, but battled back, winning the game 10-9. The game ended when, with the bases loaded, a Cicero batter hit a line drive right into the pitcher's glove. Inches were the difference.

They then won four more games to win the tournament, squeaking out three of five wins by just one run. Randy Kadlec, a catcher on the team, recalls a close play at the plate where the ball was knocked out of his glove by a runner, allowing a run. Kadlec glanced over to the stands to see his father and uncle leaving to their car. They were certainly surprised later to hear the team won.

Lost in that first round, however, was top left handed hitter Dick Jirsa with a broken finger. From that point on, the entire OPRF lineup of pitchers and hitters was entirely right handed.

OPRF went on to win the district and regional tournaments. In order to get to the World Series in Washington, Pa., Bock tossed a no-hitter. He struck out nine to defeat Marquette Park of Chicago 2-0 at Greenfield (now Lindbergh) Park in Oak Park.

Bock, had a good fastball, but also relied heavily on a good curveball. He pitched in an era with few restrictions on how many pitches young boys could throw. Often times, he would pitch with only a day's rest, estimating now that he pitched six or seven times within a period of two weeks. The championship over Marquette Park was no exception, but Bock says he enjoyed the moment despite his post-season arm pain.

"I knew everything was going to be on the line, and it had to be the best I could do," he recalls. "When you're caught up in the moment, you wanted to pitch more."

The local papers printed a photo of Cooney accepting the trophy following the win at Greenfield Park, a big grin on his face.

"He was very charismatic," said Kadlec. "He made you want to succeed for him because you knew how happy he would be."

Players said the upbeat Cooney rarely, if ever, argued with umpires. Perhaps it was because he felt it would reflect badly on OPRF's league, although never gave an explanation. Cooney has since passed away.

Complimenting his spiritual leader style was assistant coach Ed Denton. Denton was the brains behind the team. Wearing glasses and a watch to games, he looked more like a professor than coach at times. He came up with the team's complicated signs and helped plan out the lineups.

At Denton's side was his 16-year-old cousin, John Vrooman, who shared his love for the thinking part of the game. Vrooman went on to become head coach at Coastal Carolina University, which he helped lead into being a strong Division I team by the time he retired in 1995. In 1960, however, this was his first time outside of playing, helping scout out opposing teams at each step of the tournament. It was his scouting report that directly helped decide the final at-bat of the championship game.

The show

All these pieces came together as the team prepared for its first game in Washington, with the tournament opener against West Covina, Calif.

The leadoff batter was Courtney Shevelson, the best runner on the team. OPRF's strategy was to play small ball and get him around. Bunting was high on the list if he got to third and less than two outs. The team chanted a variation on the White Sox song "Go, go, go" each time he or other runners got on base. In one game against Houston, Shevelson singled to lead off the game, stole second, and then scored on the overthrow all before the second batter even completed his at-bat.

At first base was George Tye, listed at 6 feet, 3 ½ inches. That height certainly paid off on high throws from the infielders. Another infielder over 6 feet, Chas Bellock, batted .417 heading into the World Series. Phil Corkill was the regular second baseman and another key piece.

Splitting time with Kadlec at catcher was Robert Mueller, who played on the OPRF Pony team in 1961 that made an unsuccessful bid in Washington for back-to-back titles.

While many OPRF tournament teams get stuck with too many shortstops and too few experienced outfielders, this team had a strong rotation of Shevelson, Steve Sullivan, Floyd Overgaard and Rich Battaglia.

Battaglia had about 30 friends and relatives from the Oak Park area come to cheer him on at the World Series, and all posed for a picture in the local Washington paper after he had hit two home runs in a 7-4 victory over Greensboro, N.C. Battaglia also homered in the championship game.

He "evidently was well inspired by his family," commented the paper in its story. Other players had support as well, and the news reports estimated about 100 supporters came out for Oak Park-River Forest.

Joining Bock on the mound was hard-throwing Larry Hamm, Greg Walstrom, Larry Roche and Battaglia. They also had Greg Marotz, the only player on this OPRF team to later play professional baseball. Although in 1960, Marotz was only starting to come into his own.

"I could see as the tournament went on, he was getting a lot faster with his fastball, and getting lots of movement on it," said Bock.

In Game 1 of the World Series, Cooney decided to start Bock, who was undefeated in each of his eight tournament starts. It didn't pan out. West Covina won 5-4, scoring four runs in the fourth inning by taking advantage of a dropped fly ball.

Losing that first game was nothing new for OPRF, however. Relatives sent in telegrams soon after reminding the players of their opening defeat in Bellwood. Cooney read them all out loud to his players.

Less than 24 hours later, they defeated Columbia, S.C., 6-2. Bock hit a two-run home run in leading the effort and Shevelson got three hits, scoring twice.

That was followed by a win over Greensboro. Then came perhaps the biggest challenge - a strongly built team from Houston that had yet to lose in the tournament.

"They were just physically impressive," Vrooman said of the Texans. "And they could play some ball. But no matter how dominant somebody seems in baseball, don't ever overestimate your opposition, and don't ever underestimate your opposition."

In their 6-2 victory over Houston, Bock, Shevelson and Bellock had three hits each. Hamm pitched well to get his second victory of the tournament.

Cooney, to the enjoyment of his players, had been crossing out the team photos printed in the paper of all the teams at the World Series. Now, just one was left.

The championship

In the final, OPRF had to face West Covina one more time after they defeated Houston. Cooney's team was lucky to have drawn the correct straw a couple of days earlier, earning them the final bye and giving Hamm an added day's rest. Hamm took to the mound again for his third tournament start. It's a memory Hamm hasn't forgotten.

"As a pitcher, you can remember the excitement," he said of the start and the atmosphere at the crowded stadium.

The California team opened with a home run off Hamm, but he then settled down. OPRF then took three lead changes, before West Covina tied it for a final time in the bottom of the seventh inning. In one of the more dramatic plays, OPRF pinch runner Dan Gibbs dashed for third base on a sacrifice bunt and seemed to be headed for an out. Gibbs, a football player, perhaps was intimidating enough as the third basemen missed the ball, allowing him to score the go-ahead run in the seventh.

It would take only one extra inning, however. Getting his first at-bat of the game, Kadlec singled home Corkill with a drive to center that went through the outfielder's legs.

Hamm recalls the excitement of the play with his catcher Mueller, as both hit their heads on the top of the dugout while jumping up in glee as Corkill rounded third.

"It was the most exciting time of our sports career, at least for most of us," said Bock.

Still, despite the excitement, OPRF had to finish it off. Bock took to the mound in the bottom of the eighth. West Covina managed to get runners on second and third with two outs. The next batter was a switch hitter, which Kadlec instantly recalled from one of Vrooman's scouting reports.

Seeing the batter go to the right side, Kadlec called for a curve ball. The batter jumped out of the way of the pitch. Strike one. Perhaps sensing more of the same, the batter switched to the left side.

On the next pitch from Bock, the runner on third took off for home, and even though the ball was tipped by the batter's swing, Kadlec held on and reached out to easily tag the runner out at the plate. The batter switching over had opened up the catcher's view of the runner sprinting in.

"To me, it was incredible to be swinging when a guy is stealing home, but that caused the runner to lose all his momentum," said Bock.

Correctly, the umpire ruled the runner out since a foul tip is considered in play. OPRF was named the world champions. Cooney took a glass jar and filled it with dirt and gravel from beside home plate and on the baselines as a permanent memento.

Kadlec said he was so caught up in the excitement he thought he was going to throw up on the field. Others have a hard time even remembering the celebration other than the great feeling it released. Then, having taken the train back to Chicago, the team was greeted by an even bigger contingent of fans at Union Station, followed by a police-escorted motorcade back to Oak Park's municipal building at midnight.

The team later had banquets and parades, and the village erected six signs on various streets championing "Oak Park, home of the 1960 World Champions, Pony League."

Perhaps even more exciting for some of the players was an invitation to Wrigley Field for a day game against the Giants. They participated in the pregame, including some batting practice. Tye got some tips from Willie Mays on his swing.

"I hit a couple to the wall and Willie Mays said, 'Way to go,'" said Tye.

That was followed by a trip up to the broadcast booth where they spoke to Jack Brickhouse and were interviewed.

But such a great team in 1960 couldn't pull together for anything truly equal in the years after. Some players, such as Bock, said they lost their physical advantage or grew tired arms. Others, such as Tye, just lost interest in baseball and switched to other sports. Perhaps once such a pinnacle was reached, it was hard to find intense interest again.

Nonetheless, a good number of the team remained in baseball. Jirsa, Vrooman and Hamm all did some coaching at various levels, all with success. Marotz was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates and went all the way to Triple-A. Kadlec coached and umpired back in Oak Park within the Pony and Bronco leagues for more than 40 years.

But whatever they've gone on to do now outside of baseball - either working as lawyers, judges, professors, etc. - this special group will always be able to claim that one special summer in 1960 as their own. It was a time when nothing, even losing, could stop them from being the best in the world, if only for that one special year.

OPRF Pony has yet to repeat such a feat, although many teams have come close. But as the 1960 team can attest, it's often just a game of inches.

Kit Kadlec, 32, the son of Randy Kadlec, graduated from OPRF High School in 1996. He received a master's degree in journalism at Northwestern University and spent time as a newspaper reporter for the Daily News Transcript in Boston. Kadlec has lived in Germany and Australia. He is currently living in Oak Park with his wife and 2-month-old son. Kadlec is working on getting his masters in teaching at Dominican University. He's also an assistant coach for the OPRF freshman baseball team.

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bobby burnitz from bear, de  

Posted: September 7th, 2013 6:51 PM

fantastic summation, enjoyed it immensely !!!!!!!!!!!!