It’s one of the grand traditions of Delaware sports, even though it’s not so grand any more. In fact, hardly anybody notices it or cares about it anymore and it’s hard to believe that thousands of people used to pack local ball fields to watch them in crusty, dusty action.
It’s the Delaware Semi-Pro Baseball League, which for 70 years has been entertaining fans with good, old-fashioned baseball that’s still played with sharp spikes and wooden bats. The only problem is that there are hardly any fans anymore.
The Semi-Pro League is in the middle of its championship series, with Home Mattress Center leading the Gildea Raiders 2-0 in the best-of-seven series, with Game 3 to be played on Friday night at Eder Park in Elkton, beginning at 7. The playoff games draw decent crowds, but it’s mostly friends and family and other players. It’s nothing like it used be in the league’s hey-days of the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s and even ‘70s. Young Delawareans and even a lot of middle-aged ones don’t realize how big the league used to be and the attention it got from fans and the media.
This, of course, was back in a time when it was a major expedition to travel to Connie Mack Stadium to watch a bad Phillies team and there was maybe one game a week on television and it was usually the Yankees or Dodgers – OK, it was always the Yankees and Dodgers. Now you can watch every Phillies game, not to mention the Orioles, Nationals and whoever is playing on Fox or one of the 101 ESPN stations.
Plus there are 1,001 other distractions floating around in the cyber-world that weren’t even dreamed of back in the day when the Semi-Pro League was filled with larger-than-life personalities like John Hickman and Bob Henry and Bill D’Onofrio. Sadly, most of those people aren’t around anymore.
And, sadly, neither are most of the people who used to watch them, the people who packed into the small grandstands and along both baselines as the late, great Andy Palese announced the lineups from his small, portable public address system.
When Parkway took on Brooks Armored Car or Canada Dry or St. Anthony’s it used to be front-page news in the News Journal’s sports section and the legendary Matt Zabitka used to write column after column about the colorful people who played and managed in the league.
Proof of the importance and impact of the Semi-Pro League is the fact that two people associated with it are in the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame – manager John Hickman (inducted in 1986) and slugger Bob Immediato (2007).
And in the Delaware Baseball Hall of Fame, right next to big-league names like Judy Johnson and Dallas Green and Chris Short and Ruly Carpenter and Delino DeShields are former Semi-Pro people like Hickman, Immediato, Henry, Zach Carter, Dave Hitchens, Burt Talley, long-time president D’Onofrio and the entire Parkway organization.
But the popularity of the Delaware Semi-Pro League began to wane in the 1980s and now it’s just another league, even though the players are still good and the bats are still wooden. To its credit, the News Journal continued to run full box scores from the league for years after its decline despite a shrinking news hole that relegated other leagues to line scores. But eventually even the big dog in our media neighborhood gave up and now the newspaper just runs line scores that are buried on a back page with a “game story,’’ a single paragraph that you need patience to find and a magnifying glass to read.
Still, the league survives. There are still enough talented and dedicated players out there who love baseball, guys who were All-State in high school and played college ball and maybe even had at stint in the minor leagues. In other words, this is no Sunday beer league. These guys are serious players.
Those players would love to receive more attention from the press and public, they wish the league was as popular as it used to be. But that’s not why they play the game. As long as there are people who love baseball the Delaware Semi-Pro League will be around, and that means it will be around forever.