Giving 'Em Fitz: Fatherly love, manifested in a Little League field

Players line up in front of the clubhouse and press box built by some of their fathers.
Players line up in front of the clubhouse and press box built by some of their fathers.
Posted: June 16, 2014

Bill Hunter was as unadorned as his standard outfit of workman's khakis and a crisp white T-shirt.

An Army staff sergeant in World War II, he was an iron worker whose forearms looked like Popeye's. His lips constantly gripped an unfiltered Camel and there was always a rake, a hammer, or a bat in his big hands. Even as a kid, I knew this was a man who preferred work to words.

With the aid of a lot of other Delaware County dads, all of them World War II veterans and most of them just as tough and taciturn, Hunter cleared a stretch of woodland on the far side of a gully, just off South Central Boulevard in Broomall, and built the Lawrence Park Little League complex.

Some early mornings, I'd pass the field and see him there alone, spreading tar paper across the roof of the new clubhouse, watering the grass, even operating a bulldozer. I'd wave and say hello. He'd nod back. Once, I heard him mowing in the dark.

Fifty-plus years later, Bill Hunter and most of the other dads who helped him are gone. But that Little League field, their simple monument, remains.

Thinking about it on this Father's Day, when most of their sons are grandfathers, it seems that the field meant more to them than to the kids who played on it.

In retrospect, for our dads, that well-tended field must have been a shrine, a place that represented the deepest emotional bond they would ever have with their sons.

For so many of them, World War II had turned off their emotional taps. Whatever horrific war residue they needed to deal with, they often did so inappropriately, by drinking, philandering, raging, or, most commonly, retreating.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, the touchy-feely era of father-son relationships was a long way off. Raised in the Great Depression by fathers who preached to them that children were meant to be seen and not heard, these veterans found it difficult to communicate with their sons about things that mattered.

For them, Little League served as a welcome conversational surrogate.

Little League's postwar explosion came along at a perfect time for these returning vets. The organization founded in Williamsport, Pa., in 1939 had 770 affiliates in 1950. By 1959, when work was well under way at Lawrence Park, there were more than 5,000.

"More and more," Parents magazine noted with wonder in 1957, "today's dads are trying to give definition to their roles by involving themselves in as many facets of family life as possible, and participating in the lives of their children."

Little League was how, in that repressed era, father-son intimacies were most often communicated.

Our dads coached, umpired, and worked with an unspoken love that, while it might have appeared misdirected, would eventually be understood. Sharing a dugout or a team photo with their boys, hitting them balls, catching their tosses, raking the field on which they would play - all were more heartfelt expressions than routine activities.

Maybe that's why the fathers who built Lawrence Park's Little League complex never seemed able to let it go. The diamond complete, they added a snack bar, a press box, a public-address system, dugouts, a flagpole garden, and eventually a second field.

Soon their sons graduated from the league. We would go on to become the rebellious adolescents of the late 1960s. But many of the fathers, like Hunter, stayed on. Losing their sons to girls, college, or the service, they were unwilling to abandon this other loving handiwork.

My own father was one of these dads. When we had holiday visitors, he would often walk them over to the Little League field to show it off.

Once, on what I think was a Fourth of July, he and my uncle accompanied my brother and me and our two cousins there. The field was empty so we decided to play.

It was the Fitzpatrick men vs. the Galloways. My father, my coach and idol, was stepping down from the clouds to be on my team. I don't remember who won, but I'm certain my childhood didn't contain too many happier moments.

Those Lawrence Park fathers worked in factories and mills or at drudge office jobs. In the evenings, they would hurry home, get something to eat, and head for the Little League field.

Sometimes the games would start before they arrived. The tandem baseball had forged broken, we'd look for them constantly. They'd park in the elementary school lot at the top of the hill. When you saw them striding down toward you, you felt safe and complete. After that, whatever was going to happen in the game, had real meaning.

If he was your manager, you might get a pat on the back as he entered the dugout and looked at the scorecard to see how you were doing.

The best time came when the game was over. The complex emptied in the twilight. You'd slowly take off your spikes and gather your glove and bat.

Then, walking alongside your dad, you'd head home.

And Bill Hunter, and maybe a few others, would stay to tidy the field for another day.


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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