(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.)