By Dave Byrne
In August of 1963 the Millersville Blue Jays won the New Era Tournament Junior-Midget championship, becoming the third — and last — Millersville town team to claim an NET title.
Flash forward 50 years and eight of the surviving 11 members of that team, plus their coach, Bill Kreider, gathered Saturday at the home of Mike Wilds to celebrate their golden anniversary.
It was the first time the Blue Jays had gathered together as adults.
As one might imagine, stories were told, memories shared and a splendid time was had by all.
As splendid as their run through the Junior-Midget field 50 years ago.
“We had a great group of fellas. Bill (Kreider) coached us and worked us hard,” said Wilds, the winning pitcher in both the semifinal victory and championship game.
“We didn’t win every game that year,” he continued. “We had a lot of close games. We won the league, and that’s what allowed us to get into the tournament.”
“We lost a few games that year,” agreed Kreider, who coached Millersville Junior-Midgets for 10 years and was a member of the 1947 Conestoga Indians that won the second-ever NET Midget-Midget championship.
“We came through when we needed to. One thing,” he added, “they were dedicated. We played two days a week, had practice three days a week, and they were at every practice. They didn’t miss.”
One might take a moment to recount a tale told when, in the early stages of the ’63 season, several players did miss a practice.
Upset, Kreider announced he was done and walked away. Taken aback by this turn of events, the team held a practice on its own. When he learned of this, Kreider reconsidered and returned to the helm.
The Blue Jays, a group of 14- and 13-year olds who lived on, or in the neighborhood surrounding Duke Street in Millersville, were one of two J-M teams the town fielded that summer — the Redbirds being the other.
They were also one of a large number of teams sprinkled throughout the Penn Manor School District, including the Manor Ridge juggernaut.
And so it was that, after losing 1-0 to Lancaster Township in the penultimate game of the season — Wilds threw a no-hitter, but LT scored an unearned, walk-off run on an overthrow at third base — the Blue Jays faced Manor Ridge with the New Era invite on the line.
Tied 7-7 going into the last bats, Millersville loaded the bases with two out.
Alan Houck, one of five 13-year olds on the roster — Mike Thatcher, Jerry Hershey, Dave Nehr and Rick Rothweiler being the others — stepped to the plate, looked down at Kreider in the third base coaching box and got the bunt sign.
Kreider had every confidence Houck could get it down and beat it out, which he did, placing the ball perfectly and delivering the Manor-Buchanan League championship.
It may have also been this game, or an earlier Manor Ridge meeting that season, where Thatcher lost a bit of his innocence.
As Thatcher recalled, he was playing third and the Manor Ridge baserunner strayed way off the bag.
Thatcher tug him out and, as the disheartened lad trudged back to the dugout, his coach came out, picked him up and physically placed him back on the base.
“He’s out,” Thatcher told the coach.
“The umpire didn’t see it,” the coach replied.
“But he’s out,” Thatcher insisted.
“Son,” the coach instructed, “the world isn’t a Boy Scout camp. It’s time you learned.”
With their spot in the New Era assured, the Blue Jays took on Red Rose American champion Manheim in a semifinal contest held in Mountville.
Millersville jumped on Manheim starter Tom Getz — who would go on to coach baseball and football at Hempfield — for three first-inning runs.
The Blue Jays added four more runs over the next five innings before Manheim broke through, then finished off a 10-5 victory.
That earned Millersville a spot opposite Anderson, the Red Rose national champion and returning J-M runner-up.
Half the Anderson roster would go on to be the core of J.P. McCaskey’s 1967 Central Penn League champion — the second of five straight CP titlists coached by current New Era Tournament commissioner Bob Herr. Few gave Millersville a chance.
To a man, the assembled Jays recalled Saturday, “Everyone was telling us there was no way we were going to beat Anderson. They were going to kill us.”
One Blue Jay was certain that was wrong.
Bruce Keiper grew up in the same 8th Ward neighborhood with the Anderson players and played many a pickup game with them before moving to Millersville that summer.
“When it came down to playing them in the final game, it was great. I knew we could beat them,” he said.
A crowd of over 1,200 gathered at Farnum Field that evening and, just as they had done against Manheim, the Blue Jays jumped on Anderson starter Ken Porter.
Phil Jacobeli tripled in two runs in the first inning, bringing Keiper to the plate.
“I’m nervous,” Keiper recalled. “The first swing I took I heard someone in the crowd (yell), ‘He swings like a rusty gate!’
“I thought, ‘Calm down.’ The next pitch came in, I hit a home run.”
Keiper’s blast over the fence made it a 4-0 game. Anderson got one back in the bottom of the first, but Millersville tacked on three more in the second.
Anderson answered with five singles, scoring four runs and it was a 7-5 game.
The Blue Jays added single runs in the fourth and seventh innings and Wilds settled in, allowing just an unearned run the rest of the way.
He struck out 14 while walking two. For the tournament he walked seven and struck out 25, holding batters to a .193 average.
“The number of strikeouts I had was crazy,” said Wilds, who still competes in an over-60 men’s modified softball league at Garrett Park.
“My catcher, Dick Beppler, wherever he put the glove, whatever he called, I had 200 percent faith in him.”
While Wilds was taming opposing hitters the Blue Jays averaged .306 with six extra-base hits.
“.306?” said Kreider Saturday, “I don’t think we hit that well all season.”
As he told the New Era’s Bill Fisher that long ago evening, “The guys tore into the ball. They were really up for the game.”
And game to reconnect after too many years away.