COLUMN: Memorial Day baseball – it started 64 years ago in Ocean City

By TOM WILLIAMS

This is undoubtedly the most unusual Memorial Day in America’s history.

Started as Decoration Day in the 19th century (some believe the earliest tributes were by the Confederate Army in the South during the Civil War) the holiday became Memorial Day in 1967 and four years later was moved from May 30 to the last Monday in May.

There have been parades, concerts, solemn ceremonies and sports doubleheaders through the years on the holiday to honor and mourn the military personnel who have died while serving in the military.

But no Memorial Day has been like today. There are a few parades and concerts, most of them hopefully staged very carefully. Ceremonies should include facial masks and social distancing. But there is no sports.

In Ocean City, Memorial Day once marked the beginning of the Ocean City Youth Athletic Association’s summer baseball league season. There was a parade down Asbury Avenue that included bands and military marching units. The youth baseball teams would also march in uniform to Wesley Avenue, between Fifth and Sixth Streets, adjacent to the Memorial Field, for a ceremony.

After the ceremony two teams would walk up Sixth Street to the field at Sixth and Bay to play the season opening game. The other two teams would be transported to the VFW Post at 15th Street for hot dogs, chips and soda. Then, after the first game was completed, those boys from that game would head to the VFW Post and the other two teams would play the second game of the doubleheader.

As the decades passed, the start of the OCYAA season was moved up until it became locked into April. Those first few years the games were played on the Sixth and Bay field that had no outfield fence. That eventually became a minor league field and a new field was constructed a block down. That new field, where the OCHS softball team now plays, eventually added lights so that games could be played at night. It was later dedicated as Dick Grimes Field, in honor of the man who was a major force in Ocean City’s youth baseball.

Dixie Howell was the first president of the OCYAA. Later, people like Harry Vanderslice, Naz Costanza, Joe Fagan and Mike Dattilo played major roles. And Greg Donahue has kept the programs going and growing by dedicating hundreds of hours every year to the OCYAA.

The association moved its fields to 35th Street and dedicated the major league field as Harry Vanderslice Field. Years later, the building housing a concession stand and meeting room in center field was named for Greg Donahue.

Moving to 35th Street had good points and bad. It gave the fields new facilities. But there were no lights and the location was away from the bulk of the city’s population. Still, the OCYAA thrived and, in the last decade, had exceptional success in the Little League Tournament, sometimes in association with Upper Township.

But, about those games that started the whole adventure on Memorial Day 1956 – the very first day of OCYAA baseball.

Mayor Ed Bowker tossed out the first pitch and the Exchange and Lions battled in the opener. The teams were sponsored by local civic groups in those days. Exchange had a 7-6 lead but the Lions scored eight times in their last at bat for a 14-7 win. Jack Mathis hit a grand slam home run for the Lions.

In the second game of the doubleheader, Bill Hammersley pitching a no-hitter for Kiwanis in a 3-0 win over St. Augustine. John Burch pitched almost as well in defeat.

Full rosters of the four teams, plus the names of the people who created the association, are listed below.

That is the way it started 64 years ago. The OCYAA has provided spring and summer baseball every year since – until this year. There is still hope a few games might be played in 2020 but, if not, there are plenty of memories created in 1956 and all the years since.

Do you have special memories of OCYAA baseball?

OCYAA Original Teams 1956

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