By Dave Bryne
The summer of 1946, the first full summer of peace after World War II, was a time of change in America.
In Lancaster County, there was perceived to be trouble with juvenile delinquency – although, when compared to today’s shenanigans, the sins of yesteryear’s youth seem pretty quaint in retrospect.
Nonetheless, idle hands being the devil’s workshop, Lancaster LNP sports editor George W. Kirchner had an idea to keep those youthful hands busy:
Put them to work playing baseball.
Kirchner’s idea was to hold a baseball tournament, bringing together organized teams and teams culled from the neighborhoods, that would decide the champion of Lancaster County.
Kirchner hoped the tournament would, as he wrote in a column that summer, “… steer them into a path that would lead to good, clean, healthy recreation, to get their minds off things that would lead to mischief.”
Sixty years later, Kirchner’s idea lives on as the 61st LNP Midget baseball tournament gets underway on Thursday.
Over July and August that first summer, sixty-five teams competed in the Midget division, ages 12-14, what we would now recognize as Junior-Midgets. (Today’s Midget age group, ages 14-16, played then in what was called Junior American Legion).
Another four teams, comprised of 9-11 year-olds, competed in an abbreviated Midget-Midget tournament that August.
When the last of a then-record crowd of 7,258 fans had departed Stumpf Field that late-August evening, New Providence wore the crown as the first Midget Division champion while the Martic Minors, out of Holtwood, were the first Midget-Midget champs.
With Curtis Aspril, Jr. on the mound, New Providence ran the table, winning six games. Aspril, now a member of the LNP Tournament Commission, was a 13-year-old right-hander who batted cleanup for his father and manager, Curtis Aspril, Sr. He was the winning pitcher in every game.
Forming the nucleus of the New Providence nine with Aspril were shortstop Tom Reese, third baseman Bruce Barnett and catcher Don Sample.
They were joined in the starting lineup by second baseman Norm Hackman, leftfielder Tom Reinhart, first baseman Don Herr, centerfielder Mel Eckman and rightfielder Tad Dommel.
They defeated West Lampeter 12-5 in their opener, then played Marietta to a 2-2 tie in their second game. After several weather postponements, the two teams met again with New Providence prevailing 2-0.
A 4-3 win over New Holland followed before New Providence broke out with a 12-1 win over the Grandview A’s in the quarterfinals.
With Aspril banging out three triples and driving in a run, over 1,000 fans saw New Providence stop arch-rival Gap 5-1 in the semifinals. Meanwhile, over 1,500 fans watched Hamilton blast the Ephrata A’s 8-1 in the other semi.
The outpouring of support was a harbinger of what was to come. Nearly two hours before the start of the championship doubleheader fans began to swarm over Stumpf Field.
According to reports of the time, over 4,000 fans watched the Martic Minors level the Rothsville Tiny Tims, 10-3 in the M-M preliminary.
“Our eyes were like this,” recalled Martic firstbaseman Gerry Dunkle recently, his eyes the size of saucers.
Dunkle was joined by leftfielder “Pud” Frick, the Woods brothers – Earl at catcher, Vernie at short and “Duck” at second base – Don Trimble at third, Morris Waters in center, Ray Stauffer in right and “Torchy” Bertzfield on the mound.
The Minors had edged the Strasburg Bees 6-5 in the semifinals as Frick banged out two home runs and a triple. “Duck” Woods, the youngest starter at 9 years old, also homered.
Bertzfield, who got his nickname from his flaming red hair, picked up the win, but he was only getting warmed up. In the title game he struck out the first six batters he faced, and whiffed 13 in all, recording all but two of the 15 outs of the game to finish with a 3-hit victory.
Earl Woods spearheaded a 10-hit attack, going 3-for-3 with a double and 3 runs scored. Don Trimble homered and singled.
By the time Lancaster Newspapers co-publisher John F. Steinman threw out the first pitch for the Midget game, over 7,000 fans had wedged themselves up to – and in a few cases over – the foul lines and outfield boundaries.
“We had no idea there’d be a crowd like that,” Aspril told former LNP sports editor Bill Carroll in a story marking the tournament’s 50th anniversary. “Thank heavens we were only 13. I guess we didn’t know enough to be scared.”
Reese doubled into the multitude in left field to lead off the game, triggering a four-run first. New Providence was off and running and never looked back.
Hamilton pushed across two runs in the fifth and another in the sixth, but Aspril kept the Lancaster City reps at bay, limiting them to four hits while striking out 13 and walking three.
The baseball season end that evening. They were challenged to a best-of-three series by the Harrisburg Junior Cogs, champions of the Twin Shore League, and by the Oxford Phillies, champions of Oxford Jaycee League. The LNP accepted the challenges on the behalf of New Providence, with Oxford getting first dibs. Playing on its home field, which was three-quarters the size of a regulation field, Oxford prevailed by a 6-4 score.
When play shifted to the West End Field, located near the site of present-day Wheatland Middle School, the NET champs evened the series as Aspril tossed a two-hit shutout and knocked in three runs with a pair of hits in a 5-0 victory.
As both the Oxford and New Providence players had returned to school, the third and deciding game was canceled by agreement of both teams.
Next up was Harrisburg, with the series shortened to two games, home and home, over the Labor Day weekend. New Providence played host at Stumpf Field on Saturday for the first, and as it turned out, only game.
Despite giving up six runs in the third inning – on six walks, two errors and a hit batter – the visitors won 9-6 as pitchers Timmie Jones and Eddie Davis combined to no-hit New Providence.
The NET champs led 6-5 going into the last inning, but Harrisburg scored four runs to take a 9-6 win home.