Top of the Morning, June 1, 2014

Top of the Morning, June 1, 2014

Little League baseball is celebrating its 75th anniversary (check out Parade magazine that comes with today's paper). The sport once thrived in Champaign-Urbana, nearly 50 teams competing for the prestigious Twin City title in the late 1960s. For a peek at the glory days, we asked three longtime Little Leaguers to stroll down Memory Lane.

JOE THOMPSON was the driving force behind the first Home Run Derby in 1999.

"I'm not sure what prompted me other than my son Rich was 12 and had hit a home run," Thompson said.

So did a lot of his friends.

"We had 59 players hit home runs that year and all 59 players showed up to compete," Thompson said.

A huge crowd watched the hastily-organized competition at Eisner Park in Champaign.

"My favorite experience in my association with youth sports," said Thompson, who played for Urbana's Coca-Cola before moving into coaching.

HAWK ROUGHTON played for Plumbers & Steamfitters of Urbana's Southern League in the 1960s. He went on to coach a Twin City champ (Dimond Bros.) and serve as Robeson League boss.

"The beauty of Little League which is lost on travel teams is the neighborhood feel," Roughton said. "It didn't matter if you were playing or not — you went out and watched."

In the '60s, the Twin City tournament was "the only game in town," he said.

What enhanced it was the lack of interleague play in those days. Just like the majors used to be.

"You never saw a lot of the other teams until the Twin City," Roughton said.

JIM MARTINIE played for Champaign National Bank in 1967-68, went on to coach his kids and helped raise nearly $50,000 for the installation of lights at Zahnd Park, where today's champs are crowned.

"We'd go to the smaller communities like Fisher and Paxton and Gibson City and they'd all have lights — and we didn't," Martinie said. "That was a big step for us."

He regularly runs into former teammates around C-U.

"Ask any of them and they can still tell you the sponsors for every team in the Northwest League at Bleacher Park," Martinie said. "Little League goes on and on."

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Got a Little League team photo to share? We'd love to help. Send it to mhowie@news-gazette.com or add it on our Facebook page and we'll make a gallery of them. 

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