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The County League lives on, but old diamonds hold only memories

by on May 10, 2018 10:29 AM

PORT MATILDA — Like the bones of a dinosaur, bleached and dried by the desert sun, the scoreboard behind the center field fence at Port Matilda’s Community Park was crumbling under the weight of years before it was recently torn down. Now, only the frame remains.

Even though it hadn’t been a functioning scoreboard since the 1950s, it still added to the ambience of a venue which was once the Centre County League's jewel, with its wooden grandstands and dugouts built from bricks of the brickyard that sponsored the team.

It was a rite of passage for boys of the town to climb the large oak tree behind the grandstands and crawl out on the grandstand roof, looking directly down on home plate. The scoreboard was wooden, painted green, and was a small town’s version of the scoreboard at Boston’s Fenway Park with panels for each inning. In its time, it had an attendant who placed the appropriate number in each panel indicating how many runs were scored in that half of the inning. It was one of the few remnants of a bygone era.

The landscape of Centre County is dotted with others, but now you have to know where to look for them. The one at Port Matilda is the easiest to find.

It lay dormant for a number of years after the Porters dropped out of the County League, but now a team in the Cal Ripken League, for children 7 through 12, is using it. That’s appropriate in a way — youth enjoying the dirt infield and pool table outfield that generations of men played on before them.

Those men are gone now. Men like Ronnie Spackman, George Rhule, Dick Smith and Sam Stiver, who were cornerstones of the Porters of old. Spackman pitched in the minor leagues, Smith signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates and reached the AAA farm team before coming home to coach at Penn State. Rhule was the grandfather of current Baylor football coach Matt Rhule.

At least the field is being used again. The diamonds where the Pleasant Gap, Coleville and Lemont clubs once played are barely recognizable. Each had its own unique characteristics.

The Coleville field is probably best remembered by those who played on it.

Fans sat on concrete stands which curved behind home plate like an amphitheater, reminiscent of the coliseums of Roman times. But it was the railroad tracks which ran through the middle of the outfield from left to center really set it apart.

Fortunately, there were no trains using it in the late '50s and the mid-60s which only lessened the dilemma for the outfielders. Did you play behind the tracks and have to cross them to get to singles and relatively short fly balls or did you play in front of the tracks and have to turn and run back across them for a deeper fly ball? Tough call either way.

Adding to the outfielders’ problems was a sinkhole in left-center that was surrounded by a piece of snow fence. 

The field at Pleasant Gap is barely discernible now, sitting hard by Route 26 just to the east of town. There were two problems with that field.

The first was that, while it was level and symmetrical, it was laid out so that the sun set directly behind center field, shining directly into a batter’s eyes.

That amplified the second problem, which was that when you played there, chances were good you would face either Ward Whitehill or Terry Perryman. Both were fierce competitors who threw hard, and if you couldn’t pick up an inside pitch because you were blinded by the sun, well, it sucked to be you. The best you could hope for was a cloudy day.

The Lemont field was tucked behind the elementary school and there were a couple of issues with it.

First, the field was not level. It sloped from left field toward center. Bunts laid down the third base side had a way of starting foul and rolling back fair unless the third baseman was quick enough to field it while it was foul.

Then, there was the matter of the playground equipment in deep center field. The last thing a center fielder wanted was to have to chase a long fly ball while having to dodge jungle gyms and see-saws. Fortunately, the games were played in the evening, so at least there was no chance of a third-grader on recess wandering into an outfielder’s path.

Millheim’s field also presented outfielders with a problem. A paved street ran through left field and then made a 90-degree turn in center and ran through right field. As with the Coleville field, outfielders had to choose whether to play in front of or behind the road. Running across pavement in spikes is never a good idea.

At Clarence, there was the matter of the dirt infield extending well into right field, making it tough to call an infield-fly rule. But in those days, as now, the bigger problem was the Mounties who were always a challenge for visiting teams. Plus, there was always a bevy of pretty young women who sat behind home plate, cheerleaders minus the pompons, who were a distraction. 

That was the County League of another time, when the game was played by men in baggy flannel uniforms who left work at the brickyards and mines and farms to play baseball.

Thankfully, while the venues have changed over time, the game has not. In the County League at least, it‘s still America’s game played in a slice of Americana.

Editor’s note: The Centre County Baseball League will soon get under way and correspondent Pat Rothdeutsch will provide weekly reports of the competition in the league.


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