It’s mid-July, and the Saugerties Little League season is still going strong. All-star games are still being played at Cantine Veterans Memorial Complex thanks in part to an especially wet spring which extended the season’s length and ensured the summer sounds of baseball and softball are still heard in the air.
In 2011, Saugerties Little League is celebrating its 60th season as a vital part of the community. It’s especially fitting that, with the exception of a mention on the official league website, the milestone is mostly going uncelebrated. After all, no one involved with Saugerties Little League expects it to ever go away.
“We have a series of t-shirts that we have been selling,” said league president Greg DeCelle, adding that part of the reason for the relative lack of pomp and circumstance about the anniversary is that with so much focus on the games, there’s often little room left for anything else. “It’s tough when the season gets going, because it’s usually compacted into six weeks. Of course, this year because of the rain, it’s been 12 weeks.”
DeCelle is the league’s third president since 1971, taking over in 2008 when prior president Gladys Hutton retired. DeCelle didn’t have experience running a league, but certainly did as a participant: he was a player from ages 8-12 before moving up to Babe Ruth the following year. Also at age 13, he began umpiring little league games.
Boys only at the start
Saugerties Little League began as boys’ only, ages 8-12. When Bob Lehman became president in 1971, the league had eight major league teams and eight farm teams, where the players only wore caps. There was an additional Grasshoppers division with four teams of 8-year olds that played on Saturday mornings. There was no t-ball, and there was also no girls’ softball. The latter was introduced in 1974.
“We decided that we would do it, but only if it was self-sustaining,” said Gladys Hutton, who at the time was a member of the league’s board. “A number of people went out and got the sponsorships, uniforms and everything for the teams. It was on par with what the boys had.”
During the inaugural season of league-sponsored girls’ softball there were four major league teams and eight minor, giving all kids who showed an interest an opportunity to play. The response from the community was immediate.
“The bleachers would be packed watching these little girls play,” Hutton said. “They couldn’t believe how well they could play.”
Hutton coached one of the original major league girls’ teams, the Howard Johnson Hojos.
“It was just such an exciting time for girls in sports, because there was nothing in high school and no other options whatsoever,” she said. “The women had their league in the SAA, but most girls at 11 weren’t going to compete with women, obviously.”
In 1976, softball expanded to include the senior leagues, giving girls aged 13-15 an opportunity to continue playing while their male counterparts moved on to Babe Ruth.
“We had eight teams to begin that,” said Hutton. “And that’s still going, that league.”
Hutton has been one of the Saugerties Little League’s principal movers and shakers over a nearly 40-year span, first becoming involved as a statistician and publicist in 1973 when her son was 12.
“Have you ever made that mistake, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if somebody would get the stats ready for the paper?’” she said. “They said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’”
Building fields and rosters
Hutton managed six different softball teams between 1974-81, and in 1976 led the Saugerties Girls All-Stars to the New York State Championship title game, coming up just short at Gil Hodges Stadium in Brooklyn. She was league president from 1983 through the 2007 season, and in 2008 she saw Field Four at Cantine, which she originally helped build, dedicated in her honor.
“We did a lot of building in my time,” she said. “The only fields that were there were 1, 2 and 3. Actually, parents, managers and coaches literally put in field 5, which is now the Fick field. That field was actually dug out by a large group of parents and kids. That was the kind of commitment we had. All those dugouts were put up by volunteer help. Same with the press boxes, and of course the concession stands and the bathrooms.”
There are now six fields used by Saugerties Little League at the Cantine complex, and another two in Glasco that came on board in 2009 when the Glasco Little League became part of the Saugerties league. Hutton said the local fields are not only important to the Saugerties Little League, but also many of their opponents.
“People want to come here and play,” she said. “If given the choice, a lot of them would rather come here and play than play on their home field.”
All told, Saugerties Little League has more than 600 kids playing on 46 teams overall, a total that includes boys and girls. A Challengers Division was established in 1989 to give kids with disabilities an opportunity to play. Run by Kim Knisell, the Challengers are one of the Hudson Valley’s sole such divisions, with kids from across the region participating.
“We get kids from Catskill, Kingston, really all over the greater Ulster County area,” said DeCelle. “In some cases the kids really want to come out and play but are really not able to. They don’t have the ability to stop the ball playing against kids who have a higher ability. There’s a lot of kids who love the game, and it’s been a huge success over the years.”
But without community support, DeCelle said, the league might look a lot different than it does today. That’s due to the spirit of community and volunteerism Hutton spoke of, a spirit which is also seen in sponsorship. Local businesses sponsor teams, picking up the cost of uniforms and other incidentals. There are also other options for sponsorship, including the advertising seen on the signs in the outfield of the fields the Little League plays on.
“That’s big revenue for us and helps tremendously to keep our costs low,” DeCelle said. “We only charge $50 for registration. Some other leagues charge as much as $125 for the year, and without the sponsorship help we might be in the same position.”
Longest running coach
When DeCelle was a player in the league around 30 years ago, he was coached by Joe Martin, Jr. Martin is still a coach in the league today. He credits his involvement after his own playing days were over because of the job he saw his father and John Dodig do with a team then called the Pirates.
“When I saw them coaching, I wanted to help them out,” he said, adding that when the pair found themselves unable to commit the time to coach in the 1977 season, he submitted an application to take over the team. He was just shy of his 20th birthday.
“I was the youngest manager ever in the league, and I’ve been a manager the longest in the league,” said Martin. “There hasn’t been any gap. I’ve coached everything that you can imagine in between, but I’ve always coached little league, every year.”
Not only has Martin been the league’s longest consecutive coach, he’s done the job with one team. The Pirates became the Mets as soon as Martin was able to make it happen, and he still coaches the team today.
“We’re playing here in Saugerties Little League in New York, and we don’t have the Mets in our league,” he said. “We needed new uniforms one year, and I said, ‘We need to switch to the Mets.’ Ever since then, we’ve done fabulously, especially with the orange uniforms.”
Martin said that what keeps him coming back is what he calls the best-run organization in the community and the kids who play for his teams.
“The majority of my life has been with the kids in Saugerties Little League,” he said, adding that he can still see himself at that age, playing in the league as a member of the Southside Cardinals under coaches Harold and Tom Wilsey. “My first true love is this age group here, 9 through 12 boys’ little league. It’s the love of the game, the sparkle in the eye of the kids when they learn something new. Saugerties is a good town and we get a lot of great kids in the league. I keep doing this and it keeps me young.”
The Saugerties Little League is still playing ball, and looks to keep doing so well into late July with softball and baseball scheduled at Cantine until nearly the end of the month.