HAMMONTON - It is the dream of pre-teen ballplayers throughout the world: to reach - and win - the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
On Aug. 27, 1949, a group of 11- and 12-year-old boys from Hammonton became the first team from New Jersey to make that dream a reality. In the process, they forever changed the way youth baseball would be played.
Sixty years later, all the surviving members of the team accepted an invitation from The Press of Atlantic City to meet at Hammonton Lake Park for the first time since they captured the hearts of the entire state.
Their hair was thinner and gray. Their strides lacked their once-youthful spring. And some had forgotten more about life than many people will ever have an opportunity to learn.
But with every handshake, the memories of that magical summer became a little clearer:
- The untouchable fastballs from the tall, 12-year-old southpaw who held all but one team in the tournament scoreless.
- The enormous stadium in Williamsport, Pa., where they played in front of more than 12,000 spectators.
- The pillow fights that nearly got them kicked out of their hotel.
- And the impromptu parade down Bellevue Avenue, where thousands of new fans welcomed them home.
Only about half of the 1949 team's members are still alive. But those who are share a special bond that they say cannot be replicated.
"It stays with you forever," said the team's second baseman, Nuncie Sacco, 71, of Linwood. "It really does."
John Tomasello had never played baseball before.
"Living in Atlantic City at that time, there really wasn't an opportunity to play hardball. We didn't have equipment. Times were tough," said Tomasello, 72, of Folsom, who spent summers on his grandparents' farm in Hammonton. "What we did, we played half ball, which was played with a half of a tennis ball and a broom handle. When you pitched that ball, it would have all kinds of waves."
Tomasello was watching children play baseball on Third Street one day when one of the boys asked him if he wanted to play.
"When the pitcher threw that big ball to me straight - after being used to seeing that wavy half ball - I hit the ball from one end of the carnival grounds to the other," Tomasello said. He was signed up to play Little League the same day.
The rest of the children on the all-star team were picked by coaches from several different baseball teams throughout the Hammonton area. Each player brought with him a different skill that meshed perfectly with those of his new teammates, though the players were too young to fully understand the significance of what they were playing for.
"We basically lived on the ballfield in those days. You would wake up in the morning and go right to the field, because there wasn't much else for you to do," said Sidney Norcross, 72, of Winslow Township, Camden County. "To us, this was just another chance to play ball."
They were assigned uniform numbers according to their height and then plugged into positions.
"I was number three. So that tells you how small I was," said the team's catcher, Gayton Capelli, 73, of Hammonton. "I doubt any of us were paying attention to how important this was. … What I remember the most (about the events surrounding the World Series) is the ice cream."
The team was sponsored by a drug store that gave them free ice cream every time they won a game.
"We won a lot," Capelli gloated.
One step forward, six feet back
After breezing through in-state competition, the Hammonton All-Stars earned their trip to Williamsport with three shutouts by left-handed pitcher Joe DiGiacomo at the eastern quarterfinals in Hagerstown, Md. The overpowering pitcher was so tall and dominant that he had to bring his birth certificate with him to every game to prove he was 12 years old.
"Just in size alone he was scary. It seemed like as soon as he'd let go of the ball, it was already halfway to the plate," said center fielder Al Marazzi, 71, of Collegeville, Pa. "But we could also hit. I remember Jack Rubba hit one ball halfway up the hill behind the outfield fence. It might have actually barely just cleared the fence, but to me it seemed like it traveled forever. We were a tough team all around."
The team also had the confidence of veterans, since many of the players had made it to Williamsport in each of the previous three seasons - finishing third in 1948.
"Every year we went back, our confidence grew a little more," said Otha Crowder, 72, of Gloucester Township, Camden County. "We weren't cocky. We just basically knew more about what to expect."
The only game the team allowed any runs in - a 4-2 second-round victory over Corning, N.Y. - was the only game DiGiacomo did not start. The next year, as a result of DiGiacomo's dominance, the Little League organization moved the pitcher's mound back from 40 feet, 4 inches to 46 feet and instituted a rule that a player could not pitch in consecutive games.
DiGiacomo later played for the Chicago Cubs' triple-A affiliate in Iowa, but injuries cut short his pitching career. He died in 1998.
To the winner goes the … raincoat?
After defeating Pensacola, Fla., 5-0 in the championship game, in which DiGiacomo stuck out 14 batters, the players collected their trophies and boarded a bus home. Their coaches made them keep their uniforms unpacked and then instructed them to put them on when the bus was a few miles outside of Hammonton.
"I don't think any of us knew what we had done until we got back into town. There were so many people on the streets that it looked like the 16th of July," said the team's shortstop, Ron DeMarco, 72, of Egg Harbor Township, comparing the welcoming crowd to the town's annual Mount Carmel festival. "Then we realized they were there for us. We were loaded in pairs into convertibles and chauffeured through town. I remember my family cheering for me and my cousin running up to shake my hand and tell me how proud he was of what we had done. It was a special moment."
They were given gift certificates to local stores, bicycles, watches and yellow raincoats.
"Who knows why they gave us raincoats? I don't think any of us ever wore them. But it was a nice gesture, I guess," said Sacco, who scored the game-winning run in the championship game on a fielder's choice in the first inning after reaching base on an error. He still subtly insists it was a sharply hit infield single and not an error.
As the team's captain, Sacco was required to make most of the public speeches and appearances on behalf of the team.
He was flown to New York City, where he got to meet New Jersey's then-Gov. Alfred E. Driscoll and visit a star-studded nightclub. The significance of both, however, was lost on the 11-year-old.
"I don't know why I had to do all of that," Sacco said. "To me, Joey (DiGiacomo) was our leader."
But Sacco was more than willing to accept another one of the captain's privileges - a kiss on the cheek from Miss New Jersey.
"I don't think I washed my cheek for days," he said.
'Deja vu, all over again'
Wednesday's reunion started in the parking lot and gradually moved to the right-field fence, where two wooden banners are fixed to honor the team.
"Just stepping onto here brings back a lot of memories," Norcross said as he stepped onto the once-gravel outfield that is now covered with plush grass.
As each player arrived, tentative reintroductory handshakes quickly gave way to friendly hugs. Within seconds, the players had all but blocked out what was going on around them and were engaged in exchanges of "Remember when … ?" and "Whatever happened to … ?"
The conversations made their way from baseball, to health conditions, to fishing, to deceased friends, to chores their wives expect them to do, back to baseball and then fishing again.
"There is a warm feeling of respect we have for each other," Sacco said.
"And it's on display right now," said Crowder, completing Sacco's sentence as if the two were together all the time.
That is not the case.
The team has reunited only occasinoally during the past six decades and never all at once.
In fact, only three players attended the team's induction into the Sports Hall of Fame of New Jersey in 2002. Those who did attend had a chance to rub elbows with professional sports greats such as Major League Hall-of-Famer Yogi Berra.
But as seldom as the reunions are, they give the players an opportunity to turn back the clock.
"I just think it's great that all of us can get together one more time to celebrate our victory," said Robert DeWees, 72, of Egg Harbor City.
For some of the players, the memories do not seem all that distant.
"The only time it feels like it's been 60 years is when I walk up the stairs," Sacco joked.
Most of the players said winning the World Series filled them with a sense of confidence that stuck with them throughout their lives. And as pioneers - only three other New Jersey teams have won the Little League World Series, most recently Toms River in 1998 - they know what it will take for today's teams to achieve that ultimate goal.
"Practice. Practice. Practice," Crowder said. "Because you never know how far you'll go. We are proof of that."
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