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.)

22 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?

  8. Terry Graham

    January 26, 2018 at 10:57 pm

    I played against Pinky in 1964?? I play on Denby Post American Legion team. I went 7 for 7 in the opening Belle Isle tournament. Pinky was the icon of my high school and American Legion playing. I’m sure I never got him out pitching, but I did throw him out when he tried to stretch a single into a double. Had him out by 10 ft. Umpire had his back turned and called him safe. My coach “Dunlap” went ballistic. I played Senior mens hard ball until I was 55. Met several men who remember his little league performance. Thanks Pinky for the memories!

  9. Bob Barker

    June 30, 2018 at 2:39 am

    I watched agonizingly as Auburn lost 12-0 to Hamtramck. I was to start in center field but slipped in the outfield and broke my left wrist (i’m left handed) in a practice before the first all-star game in ‘59. Wouldn’t you know it, Auburn won every game only to lose
    to America’s best youth pitcher (as I’ve always told others). The town fathers still sent mealong to watch the team at Williamsport.
    Despite losing, the Auburn players were celebrated by the whole Sacramento as well as Auburn area.
    The ‘59 All Star team was inducted into the Northern California Sports Hall of Fame at Yuba City in Spring 2018.
    (PS: my great grandfather came out from Michigan and settled in Auburn in 1852.)

  10. Harry

    May 12, 2019 at 7:55 pm

    You miss Dave debueshcer ,Marc Shultz ,Dave stepalitus, Dennis ribant, mike dekun, Gerry markowicz, bob washelewski, Sylvia jankowski, art dears, ken banker, state , regional World Series finales and champs years in a row from 1955 thru1961.

  11. Dr George S Wilkins

    May 20, 2019 at 1:06 pm

    Pitched for St Ladislaus High School and was fortunate to have John and Tom Paciorek on our team my senior year. Pitched for the 1958 Hamtramck Pony League team which ended up as United States runner ups in Washington, Penn losing to Miami, Fl 3 – 2 in the final game. Great summer ball with Sid Klein, Little League coach, Hank Semczak , Pony League coach and Stan Malec, Colt League coach. Rich Dembeck, Little League coach, was my uncle. TJ still around? Ball players galore from Lads, Florian’s and Hamtramck High School. Players like Tom Duda, Jim Rutkowski, Art Deras, Joe Sky, Gene Morowski, Syl Jankowski ( lived across the alley from Syl), Mike Dekun, Gerry and Dan Markowitz, Marv Schultz, Jimmy Segadi ( cousin), Ed Malaczewski, Dave Steplitas, Dennis Ribant and many, many more. Great memories growing up in Hamtramck.

  12. Dick (Lefty ) Ehart

    July 21, 2019 at 3:39 pm

    This column brought back some great memories. I went to Servite HS and pitched against St. Lads 3-4 times in my high school career. They could beat you so many different ways. In my junior year I threw a 3 hitter against them with 17 strikeouts and still lost 1-0. This was a team that featured a senior John Paciorek and a sophomore Tom Paciorek. The guy that did me in….a 1st baseman named Les Tanana, he hit a home run and there went the ball game.

  13. Paul Janas

    March 26, 2020 at 12:14 pm

    I remember Stan Nalepa. Good guy and good coach. I played on the 1971 St. Lad’s state championship team with great players like Tom Crepeau, Rick Radzinski, John Skiragis, Bernie Biringer and Mike Venditti. Best coaches in the world with Mike Soluk and Frank Wilczynski. We had a great team then.

  14. Michelle

    August 26, 2020 at 3:38 pm

    My dad was Mike Soluk and I’m proud to read all these posts about the teams, players, and coaches. I went to Lads. Peace and love to all. RIP dad.

  15. Frank Drazkowski

    June 5, 2021 at 1:33 pm

    I played on the first Hamtramck Little League all Star team in 1952. We were state runners up to Bay City. I still have my medal. I went to St. Lad’s. 1958 We played in Briggs Stadium and beat Austin high 3-1. Dave Debussere picthed for Austin. I played Little, Pony and Colt leagues. Those were the good days growing up in Hamtramck.

  16. Michael R Mazilauskas

    December 17, 2021 at 10:39 pm

    I played baseball in Hamtramck all my childhood in 1970 to 1984. Tee ball to American Legion. We always had some of the best baseball fields. Thanks to all my coaches and FOP and the local businesses that sponsor the baseball teams.

  17. George S Wilkins

    January 15, 2022 at 11:09 pm

    Frank Draz — you brought back a great memory. I was the freshman pitcher at St Lads that TJ had me pitch batting practice at Briggs Stadium to our team before we played Austin. A great memory to pitch from the Stadium mound and a bigger thrill to have Lads beat Dave Debuschere and Austin for the City Championship!. So many great memories from Lads and Little League, Pony League, Colt League and American Legion baseball in Hamtramck

  18. Jim omilian

    June 8, 2022 at 4:46 pm

    Went to st. Florian in 1970s. Was fortunate to play pony league, colt league and American legion ball in hamtramck. Memories that have lasted a lifetime. Also st. Florian team got to play and win at tiger stadium in 1975. The coaches were great !

  19. Robert Semczak

    August 17, 2022 at 2:22 pm

    My uncle was Hank Semczak and my cousin,his son,Henry played on the 1955 World Series

  20. Steve G

    October 19, 2022 at 7:01 pm

    I graduated from St. Lads in 1979. I played Hamtramck Rec. Baseball from Tee ball (66′) though Capital League (79′). The late great Bob Nalepa coached us in Pony and Colt league. He was a great man and coach. I played with many friends from Hamtramck High and St. Florian’s. We all knew of the history of Hamtramck sports athletes . I’m proud to be from Hamtramck

  21. Joe Martin

    December 12, 2023 at 9:49 pm

    Won the little league championship in 1971 for Club De Loup “Cleveland Indians” I led the league for the triple crown. Coach Mitch Wysocki. Oh yeah, they were saying I was a better player than my cousin Bill. I believe that was true in hindsight, but pops had zero interest and only mom sort of grasped it. I didn’t get groomed like Bill by his dad to eat, sleep and poop baseball. Had that happened I feel pretty sure I’d have eclipsed my “never did anything in the Bigs” over rated cousin.

    I’m content now at almost 65 knowing the potential to have been a better player than him was there.


  22. Reynold Gutz

    April 13, 2024 at 10:21 am

    I played for Gordy Wilcynski In the class E Detroit little league the East Detroit greyhounds our team went undefeated for two or three years straight we played at Jayne Field for the city championships and won Each year my nickname was Whitey we had Guy’s like Pee-wee sills bob kus Kenny peters coach Gordy was absolutely the best I will remember him always remember at one practice and ice cream man was pulling down the street and I ran over and bought a cherry popsicle I didn’t even unwrap it and Gowdy walked up to me and took it from my hand he unwrapped it and went along the bench and let every player take a bite Of my Popsicle he came back and handed me the empty stick and told me if I can’t buy for the whole team I don’t buy for anyone and to this day I try to practice that he was the best

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