At one time, Hamtramck was the center of baseball

(Editor-at-Large Walter Wasacz writes a weekly column on life in Hamtramck.)

By Walter Wasacz

It was nice to get a call a few weeks ago from one of my oldest, dearest Hamtramck buddies, Stanley Nalepa, a retired public school teacher who was a recreation baseball mentor to me in the 1960s.
It reminded me of what an exciting time it was to be a youth ballplayer in the city.

Beginning early in the 1950s, Hamtramck kids had few peers on the diamond. Participation in Little League, Pony League and Colt League — not to mention bantam and minor leagues that served to instruct and feed the Little League American and National leagues — was bursting at the seams.

Tournament teams, which were made up of the best of all the players in each league, were extremely competitive. More often than not, the best team the Hamtramck National All-Stars would face in district play would be the city’s American All-Stars. Coaching was top notch. Kids were taught fundamentals first — like how to field a ground ball at third base and make an accurate throw to first base to get the hitter out. Nalepa also reminded me of that in his call.

Stan — everyone called him “Bob” — was a bit of playground legend: at strikeouts, which were played against the wall at Dickinson School, or long ball, which used the length of the playground.

We used to hit a lot of fly balls into people’s yards and front porches on Edwin St. back then. But rubber balls, which we’d buy at candy stores like Stack’s or Kwik’s on Conant, usually didn’t do much damage unless they hit a window directly. Which wasn’t often, thankfully.

But Nalepa really excelled on the neatly manicured grass diamonds at Veterans Memorial Park and at Playfair, where the Pony League played. He was an All-Star for the Americans in Little League in 1959, but he wasn’t a World Champion then. It was the Nationals that made it to Williamsport and stormed past Auburn, Ca. in the final game. Nalepa did win a World Series title in 1961, with the Pony League, and came close in 1963 with the Colt League squad. He was also quite a player for the Hamtramck American Legion, played college ball at Central Michigan and later became a manager of the Colt League All-Stars.

Nalepa picked me to be a member of a pretty good tournament team in 1970. I was the only 15-year-old on a veteran group made up 16-year-olds like Bill Nahorodny (a catcher who played in the Majors with the Phillies, White Sox, the Tigers and other clubs), and a bunch of great St. Ladislaus High School players who kept the Greyhounds as one of the most best teams in the Catholic League each year.

The training was really superb. It prepared me to play ball at a pretty high level for Austin in the Catholic League’s Central Division. I never faced Catholic Central’s Frank Tanana, who was then the region’s best all-round player and later a great Major League pitcher, because I was a few grades behind him. But I saw him pitch a bunch of times and knew he was going to be huge.

I never saw Art “Pinky” Deras pitch either. He was the kid that everyone wanted to be in Hamtramck. He pitched and hit that Nationals team to the World Series championship in 1959, and did it again with the Pony League team two years later. He was a star in Colt League, at Hamtramck High and signed an $80,000 bonus — a ton of money in the mid-1960s — to play for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Briefly, while he was still in the Cardinals’ farm system, a sporting goods store named for him operated on Jos. Campau near Faber. It was on the same block that included Playdium Bowl and a decent coney island whose name I’ve long forgotten. The buildings on that block are all gone now, replaced by a fast-food drive-through restaurant.

Deras’ remarkable story is now the subject of a documentary to be aired this Sunday on Channel 7. There was a premiere of the film earlier this week at the HHS Community Center.

It comes highly recommended and opens more than a few portals into the community’s rich history, when excellence was the expectation. It’s a nostalgic journey for adults who might recall those sweet, golden years but also a legacy for kids in present day Hamtramck to grab onto.

Anything possible is the message — even being the best in the world at whatever we do within reach of us all.

(“The Legend of Pinky Deras: The Greatest Little-Leaguer There Ever Was” will be shown at 1 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 29, on Channel 7, before the Little League World Series championship game.)

7 Responses to At one time, Hamtramck was the center of baseball

  1. Dave Serafini

    April 18, 2011 at 10:46 am

    What great memories growing up in the Hamtramck area. I lived on Moran by Buddy’s Pizza and went to St. Augustines for grade school and then St. Lad’s for high school. Played in the Detroit Park & Rec baseball league at Jayne Field and won the city championship for 2 consecutive years (1968 & 1969). Mostly players that went to St. Lad’s and we had great coaches. We knew how to play the game and what it took to win. Now I’m a high school softball coach in Petoskey and hoping to provide some of the coaching that will help the players to play the game the right way.

  2. Marc

    July 15, 2015 at 11:04 pm

    I see no mention of Stanlet Walter Malec, if that’s not Hamtramck Baseball then please in lighten me

  3. thomastavolacci

    February 29, 2016 at 4:14 pm

    I played baseball at JayneField in the early 1960s. I played for a team called the mighty midgets ,does anyone remember this team and the Pro midgets. I did not play for the Pro Midgets. Does anyone remember Mr Davis and what happened to him

  4. Jim

    September 19, 2016 at 11:53 pm

    Does the 1959 Hamtramck Little League and Pony Leagues Champs ever have reunions? I talked to Mark Modich a few years back. I remember listening to them play on the radio in 1959 and 1961. Mark shared a lot of his memories of those teams.

  5. Gregg Wilczynski

    October 1, 2016 at 12:25 am

    In 1961 the Hamtramck Pony League won the Pony League World Series going undefeated throughout the entire tournament.
    The pitchers were Art Deras from Hamramck High School and Gary Wilczynski, from St.Ladislaus High School.
    Wilczynski pitched a no hitter in the semi final game.

    Shortstop Tom Paciorek, also a Greyhound, went on to star at St.Lads, followed by a Hall of Fame career at the University of Houston.
    In 1964, Wilczynski’s senior year, he led the Greyhounds to another City Championship, which was preceeded by a record three consecutive no hitters.
    Hamtramck produced many star baseball players.
    Because of their success in high school baseball, the many Greyhound City and State championship teams celebrate their accomplishments on the first Saturday of October with a ballplayers reunion.

    Hamtramck produced many star baseball players

  6. Denise Lenartowicz

    May 7, 2017 at 6:14 am

    I’m looking for any one who can provide me with information on softball teams that played at Jayne Field park during early 1970s. They were mostly bar leagues made up of St Ladislaus and St Florian graduates as well as others around the Detroit hamtramck area. I’d love to see some old photos of those teams for geneaology purposes..

  7. Ken Dombrowski

    July 30, 2017 at 8:39 pm

    There was a coach back then, I believe
    his first name was Nick. He worked for
    the U.P.S. Does anyone remember his
    last name?

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