ALAMEDA -- Some say sports draw people together. For sure, generations of Alamedans have found this true of baseball.
From the 1950s into the 1980s, the Alameda Recreation and Park Department T-shirt league (all players received T-shirts bearing the nickname of their "home" park) was a summer baseball staple for kids around the city. Except for the 50 cents paid for the T-shirt, players took part free of charge.
On March 20, a de facto reunion of past players took place at the Alameda Theatre and Cineplex. More important, this "First Pitch Benefit Party" projected high hopes for the future as the ARPD looks to relaunch the T-shirt league this summer after an absence of around three decades.
"We're kind of here for nostalgia in some ways, but we're also moving forward," master of ceremonies Bill Sonneman told the gathering. "We want kids to play."
At its height, the old league featured 93 teams representing 12 parks. The revived league won't have that kind of reach -- at least initially -- as only Bayport, Washington, Franklin, Lincoln and Tillman parks will have teams this year (the season will begin the third week of June). Still, the "First Pitch Benefit Party" exuded hope for the future and pride in the past.
Though the evening's main purpose was to raise funds for the new league (attendees paid $50 for VIP admission, $10 for general), the mood remained upbeat. After all, this was about baseball, a long-standing Alameda tradition.
Inside the theater, those of all ages laughed at Abbott and Costello's classic "Who's on First" comedy routine. Lil Arnerich -- generally regarded as the "father" of the old T-shirt league -- then led the gathering in a spirited rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." And audience members learned or reminisced -- depending on their ages -- about the old league's heyday through excerpts of "Play Ball," a documentary made a decade ago by former Franklin Park player Kin Robles, who currently heads public relations for the new league's advisory committee.
Additionally, the players of yesteryear had plenty of yarns to spin.
For Tim Marr, a 1963 game stood out in particular.
"I played in a 16-inning game when I was in Pee Wees," said Marr, who played third base for the Rittler Wildcats in that game against the Franklin Eagles. "The most interesting thing about that game was that the same pitchers pitched all 16 innings, Mike Bartell (for Rittler) and Steve Choy (for Franklin). That same year, Juan Marichal and Warren Spahn pitched 16 innings at Candlestick Park. They didn't have pitch counts or inning limits in those days. We just played baseball all day."
Bartell recalled some of the game's particulars.
"I struck out 30 and Steve struck out 24," said Bartell, grandson of the late Alameda resident and former major leaguer Dick Bartell, for whom the field at Lincoln Park is dedicated. "I didn't think anything about (throwing 16 innings). The next Saturday, the Times-Star had Steve and I come down to Rittler Park to take our photo."
"Mike and I were friends going to school," said Choy, who eventually became Bartell's teammate at Encinal High School.
For others, cherished memories extended beyond the sport itself.
"The day the shirts showed up was always a big deal," said John Doherty, wearing a replica Franklin Eagles shirt. "You'd wait for the box to open to see what color your shirt was going to be -- it changed every year."
Doherty last competed for Franklin in 1975, just before entering high school.
"Everyone got to play, everyone was included," he said. "After this league disbanded, it was like Pony League where you had to try out to play. It's great that they're starting this league again."
Current St. Joseph Notre Dame High athletic director and girls basketball coach Chris Pondok was one of the league's last group of players, competing from the early to mid-1980s.
"As a little kid, I was at Longfellow Park, and when that died down, I went to Washington Park," said Pondok, who typically played center field or second base during his time in the league. "When you got player of the week, the Times-Star used to come down to take your picture. I got that one time in Little Coast. (The league) was great -- no parents (as games took place on weekday afternoons)."
Given the public's response, prospects for the revived league look bright. Besides, it already has a traditional sponsor in place.
"We're really pleased that the Elks Lodge is again going to be a sponsor of the T-shirt league," said city Treasurer Kevin Kennedy, a key figure in spearheading the T-shirt league's revival. "To hear these stories (from decades ago) like they happened last weekend, shows the impact this (program) had on the community."
Alameda's T-shirt league brought scores of Alamedans together through the years. Someday, current players in the revived league will have similar memories to swap with one another.