Take me out to the Old Timers ball game

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In this youth baseball league, we, the players, ran the show. No coaches needed. We rounded up our buddies, hopped on our bikes and pedaled our single-speed bikes to Old Timers Baseball games on the northeast side of City Park.

Old Timers Baseball, whether by design or good fortune, elevated sandlot baseball to a new level, and Denver’s aspiring baseball prodigies embraced it with the fervor deserving of summer traditions like swimming, fishing and evening neighborhood games like kick-the-can. What the league lacked in traditional structure — coaches, practices, meddling parents and certified umpires — it compensated with pure fun and the joy of play.

“I didn’t have a full appreciation of how great Old Timers Baseball was until I finished my high school-playing days at George Washington High School,” said Val Knopf, a baseball and football stalwart at the school during the mid ‘60s.

From 1943 to 1970, Old Timers Baseball hosted a summer league for Denver area youngsters. Teams were assembled primarily by neighborhood and school pals, and if additional players were needed to complete a team’s roster, there was a pool of unaffiliated players available. Ballpark locations were essentially aligned with the city’s quadrants, providing convenient access to participants walking, biking or riding a bus.

Old Timers Baseball was open to boys 11 to 17, divided by age classifications. By 1946, the Rocky Mountain News called the program the “largest of its kind in the Rocky Mountain Region.” In addition to Denver’s 99 teams, six other cities, including Englewood, Pueblo and four Western Slope communities were fielding programs. In 1959, Jack Carberry wrote in the Rocky Mountain News that the state had 20,000 boys enrolled.

Alums of the program universally flash back to the uniforms of the day: gray wool baseball pants and full-length “stirrups,” plus a souvenir cap and T-shirt promoting local business sponsors.

Not only were the uniform pants unbearably hot, they also were customarily long for most kids, requiring a system known as “rolling” to fit them like their professional heroes wore. Players even wore thin, white “sanitary hose” — think old-school nursing uniforms — underneath the stirrups, making certain the higher cut in the stirrup faced backward. In theory, these knee-high stockings prevented infections from cuts endured from base runners sliding into a base, since metal spikes were permitted.

Was this overkill? Probably. But our heroes in Major League Baseball wore them, so we were all in.

Another memorable nuance of our uniforms was the style in which we folded our caps to fit in our back pocket. This was necessitated since each field provided only one batting helmet.

Pedaling one’s bike through morning rush hour traffic in wool baggies was the antithesis of today’s spandex-clad, helmet-topped, urban commuter. Since the weekday games were played in the mornings, parents and guardians were customarily at work or implicitly discouraged from attending. Old Timers was about the game.

Irv Brown, a former baseball coach at the University of Colorado from 1969 to 1980 before the school disbanded its program, and a popular Denver radio talk show host, was a believer in the Old Timers program. He said it “encouraged leadership from the kids. Today’s youth activities are so highly structured, the kids never learn to make decisions for themselves. The absence of fans, coaches and parents provided the kids opportunities to develop leadership skills.” Brown passed away earlier this year.

The Denver civic community, specifically the judicial sector, was the driving force behind the founding and development of Old Timers Baseball. District Judge William A. Black conceived the idea, and served as president of the organization for more than a decade. Under the guidance and, more importantly, the influence of the judicial community, newspapers and police departments embraced the organization. Both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News provided generous coverage and promotion of the league, frequently writing “feel-good” columns documenting the organization’s accomplishments. There was no fee for participation, thanks to vigorous fundraising efforts. Financial sponsorship fell in place as Denver’s business community seized the opportunity to promote wholesome activities.

Nowhere is the vibe of the postwar Americana psyche more evident than the registration form for Old Timers Baseball, which encouraged participants to “... promise to lead a good, clean life, obey my parents, and be at home at 10 p.m. every night.”

Old Timers Baseball filled the niche of play that was void of performance pressure, providing more laid-back or casual players an opportunity to play organized baseball for the love of the game.

Nearly equivalent to the joy of the baseball games was the camaraderie of post-game rides home, pedaling and cruising through tranquil Denver neighborhoods while strategically averting the busy streets our parents told us to avoid. My crew sought routes with plenty of “bumps” as we referred to the intersections where the constant repaving of certain streets or avenues provided a virtual roller coaster effect.

My pals and I stopped at Mathis Drug Store, on 6th and Marion, when we got back to our neighborhood. I’m not sure which was best, the air-conditioned drug store or the Cokes at the soda fountain. On the way out, we scanned the comic book section for new releases and sometimes had money left over for baseball trading cards. Before riding the final few blocks home, the coolness of the dark-red brick on the north side of the drug store provided the perfect place to sit down and open the trading cards, in perpetual search for a coveted Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays or Hank Aaron.

Joe Carabello is a freelance journalist, entrepreneur and central Denver resident. He can be reached at jcarabello1@comcast.net

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