While the attention of Little Leaguers and their fans has been focused on the Little League World Series and, especially, since Fairfield American has been representing New England in that annual event so well, it is an appropriate time to return to the early days of this event in 1948 when another team from our state was in Williamsport, Pa, along with a 12-year old boy who went on to Major League fame.
It was just the second year of the national competition when Joey Jay was one of the members of the 1948 team from Middletown. Five years later, at age 17, Jay became the first graduate of the Little League program to be on a Major League baseball team and later became the first to play in a World Series.
Joseph Richardson Jay was born in Middletown on August 15, 1935, making him now 82 years old. The family home was in the Rockfall district of Middlefield, on the outskirts of Middletown. East Haddam, where he played sandlot baseball, also lays claim to him.
He spent most of his summer vacations there at the home of his grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. George Traslos. His mother, Teresa Traslos, attended Hale Ray School in Moodus. His dad, John Joseph Jay, was a former Middlesex County League and Boston Braves farm club pitcher from Middlefield. He mostly played semi-pro ball in the Middlesex County League, but his career was cut short by a back injury.
Middletown’s Little League was the first in New England
Middletown had New England’s original Little League, known as the Moose League. The city’s Superintendent of Parks and Playgrounds, Bennie O’Rourke, was mainly responsible for organizing the circuit. It consisted of four teams, South Farms, St. Sebastian’s, St. John’s and Staddle Hill. They voted at the start of the season to send their champion, which turned out to be South Farms, to the Little League finals of what was first called the Kid’s National Tournament. It was played then, as it is now, in Williamsport.
Some familiar names in Middletown
In addition to Jay, the names of many on that team may be familiar to Middletown’s long time residents. In fact, some may even be reading this article, which would be wonderful to know.
On the roster were Fred Bastura, Stanley Czuba, George Dunn, Stephen Fekety, William Inglis, Don Johnson, Victor “Yogi” LaBella, Walter Lefco, Stanley Masztal, Dick Wamester, Frank Wamester, John Rybczyk, Frank Rybczyk, and Ralph Satterfield. They were coached by Ed Collins.
Today the competitors are limited to those who were 12 and 13 years of age at the beginning of the season. Starting next year a boy who will become 14 before the completion of the Series will be declared ineligible.
At its inception, the tournament was for the very, very young. Middletown’s team “baby” was only eight years old. He was Frank (Murph) Rybczyk, the youngest and smallest boy in the tourney. He served as the warm-up catcher and as the first-base coach. He became the spectators’ favorite when he came to the plate as a pinch hitter. He drew a base on balls, probably because he presented a small target. (“Small Boys’ Dream Come True, by Harry T. Paxton, The Saturday Evening Post, May 14, 1949).
Before leaving for Williamsport in 1948 over a thousand relatives, friends and townspeople came out to Municipal Field and saw South Farms defeat an All Star unit from the other three teams in the league, 4-3. Don Johnson and John Rybczyk pitched for South Farms. Joey Jay was the hitting star with a three run homer.
The All Stars pitched Ray Bankoski of Staddle Hill, Sebastian Spada of St. Sebastian’s and Jackie Malone of St. John’s. Others on the All Stars were Wally Cahill, Shaun Cashman, Billy Dineen, George Dunn, Joe Hartigan, Jackie King, Victor LaBella, Jackie Malone, Billy Smith, and Dick Wamater.
Unfortunately for the Connecticut rooters, the Middletown team gave up six runs in the first inning and lost its only game in what was then single-elimination, falling to St. Petersburg, Fla, 8-0. St. Petersburg advanced to the finals where it lost to Lock Haven, 6-5.
Others in the eight-team tournament were Loyalsock of Williamsport, Pa., West Shore of Harrisburg, Pa., Alexandria, Virginia, Loch Haven, Pa., Hammonton, NJ, and Corning, NY.
After Little League
Jay attended the former Woodrow Wilson High School (1949-1953), a brick and concrete structure at 310 Hunting Hill Avenue, built in 1931 and which was absorbed by Middletown High School in 1984. The school later moved to a different location and was converted to residential apartments. It is listed on the NRHP (National Register of Historic Places).
In addition to playing for the Woodrow Wilson Wildcats, Jay played in the Babe Ruth League, for American Legion teams, and for the Ahern-Whalen youth program, a forerunner of the local Little League. He was also with noted teams such as the Hartford Chiefs and Middletown Giants, and even sandlot teams “and for anyone who wanted me,” he said. Most of those games were at the city’s mecca of baseball, Palmer Field.
“Once my dad and I were on the same industrial league team. I pitched so much that I can’t remember all my no-hitters.”
The “bonus baby” who proved his worth
Jay became one of the first of the so-called “bonus babies” when he received $20,000 to sign with the Milwaukee Braves. That was when a player who received more than a $4,000 bonus had to remain on the team’s roster for two years, depriving him of playing experience. The rule was meant to discourage teams from giving large bonuses.
After appearing once in relief, Jay finally got a chance to start on Sept. 20, 1953, and he hurled a rain shortened 7-inning shutout. He was then only a month past his 18th birthday.
Except for two years in the minors, Jay was with the Braves until 1961 when he was traded to Cincinnati. He remained with the Reds until 1966 and his success and popularity there earned him induction into the team’s Hall of Fame in 2008.
Success in the Majors
In 1961 and 1962 he won 21 games each year. He was the first Reds’ pitcher to win 20 since Ewell (the Whip) Blackwell in 1947. He also tied as the National League’s leader in wins and shutouts in 1961.
Another milestone was achieved when he became the first former Little Leaguer to play in a World Series. On October 5, 1961, he pitched a four-hitter and struck out six, including Roger Maris twice with runners on, as the Reds beat the Yankees, 6-2, in the old Yankee Stadium. It was the only win for Cincinnati and it tied the Series at one game each.
Mickey Mantle was not in the lineup because of an injury to his right hip, but the Yankees still had plenty of guns including Yogi Berra, who hit a two-run homer in the fourth for the only runs Jay surrendered, Roger Maris, Bobby Ricardson, Bob Blanchard, Elston Howard and Moose Skowron. He struck out Maris, the home run king, twice.
As a result of his performance that day his photo made the cover of Sports Illustrated.
At 6-feet-4 and 225 pounds, Joey must have been an imposing figure on the mound. One press report said he was “probably the largest Little League graduate extant.”
The night before the game Jay took his wife, the former Lois Bruggren of Middlebrow, to see the musical, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” at the Winter Garden Theater. “Great show,” he said on the field the next day. “Tammy Grimes was wonderful.”
He could not do it twice
Things went in the opposite direction in Game #5 when Jay started and lasted only 2/3 of an inning in a 13-5 Yankees’ win that clinched the World Series. His manager, Fred Hutchinson, said: “Joey just didn’t have it.”
Jay stated that his curve “worked very well against the first one or two batters, then the next three hung and they spanked it. I felt well, my arm was okay, but the Yanks are tough.”
Beat his favorite team
“I grew up in Connecticut, about 100 miles from Yankee Stadium. So I got to see a number of games there as a kid, followed them on the radio, and we were big Yankee fans up in Connecticut. It was a big thrill to pitch against the Yankees in that arena.”
Jay finished his career after returning to the Braves in 1966, their first year in Atlanta. He retired to Florida and at last report is living in Largo, in the Tampa Bay area.
He threw right-handed and was a switch-hitter who managed to hit two home runs in his career. His pitching statistics were impressive. In 13 seasons, all in the National League, Jay posted a 99–91 record with 999 strikeouts and a 3.77 ERA in 1,546 innings.
Became critical of Little League
Despite being so closely identified with Little League baseball, Joey Jay became outspoken in his opposition.
He was quoted in an Associated Press article (found in the Spartenburg Herald, July 25, 1969) that he was “not in sympathy with the Little League program the way it has developed. . . I think even the most fair-minded parents put pressure on their boys. I’ve seen a few mothers scold a boy for striking out or making an error. But even those who don’t interfere find it difficult to conceal their disappointment when their kid has a bad game. . . As for the kids who do well, and draw applause and get their names in the paper, I don’t think that’s good for them either. . . .”
He recalled that “our shortstop had his picture in Life Magazine. That boy had lost his ability as well as his interest in baseball by the time he got to high school. I am sure there must be a great many like him. I am convinced the people who get the most out of Little League are the parents. That’s why I don’t think this program helps baseball. A lot of kids must get fed up with it before they are 16 years old. They’ve simply had too much organization when they should be out playing on their own.”
Jay is not the only former Little Leaguer to pitch in the Major Leagues and to win a World Series game. Perhaps it will be done by one of the Connecticut kids from Fairfield American who have been making our state proud this year.
But Joseph Richardson Jay from Connecticut will always have been the first to achieve those distinctions. And nobody can take that away.