By Andy Prest/North Shore News
Stories Still Fresh Half a Century After All-Stars Captured Everyone's Hearts
This past October, a group of men, all in their mid-60s, gathered at North Vancouver’s Mahon Park, in the shadow of a grandstand sign reading Fen Burdett Stadium.
It was a fitting spot for the meeting, considering that 50 years earlier those same men, boys at the time, had spent countless hours training to perform feats on the baseball field rarely matched before or since in Canada. And the great Fen Burdett, a legendary figure in North Shore youth sports, was their manager when they made a run all the way to the 1965 Babe Ruth League World Series held in Anderson, Indiana.
Some of the men were still great friends, but a few hadn’t been heard from since getting off that bus that took them home from Indiana where they became just the second Canadian team to ever win a youth World Series game (no other Canadian team would win one again until 2007). But despite that huge gap in time, a lifetime for many people, the men picked up right where they left off.
“You can never break the bond,” says Rick Mark, a catcher and team captain who helped organize this reunion. “The warmth was evident right from the beginning…. You always have that.”
The old ball players settled right back into their comfortable patter, recalling old plays with uncanny accuracy, swapping stories about the girls back in the day and, of course, giving each other the kind-hearted grief that only a great teammate can give.
They didn’t hesitate, for instance, to bust the chops of Graham Chapman, the man who came up with the idea of this 50-year reunion, because he wasn’t able to perfectly recreate the team photo that ran in the old North Shore Citizen 50 years ago.
“He couldn’t get down on his knee,” says Mark. “We were giving him a bad time.”
It didn’t matter much that Chapman had lost both of his legs due to kidney problems over the years. It did matter that he was there, though. It mattered greatly.
“This was a big deal for him,” says Mark. “It turned out to be a big deal for all of us.”
The journey to the World Series started at Mahon Park where the North Vancouver all-stars won three straight to win the district championships in the summer of ‘65. The journey nearly ended soon after at the provincial championships in Kelowna where the boys lost their first game of the double-knockout tournament. They kept fighting though, winning five straight games to book a ticket to the Pacific Northwest regionals in Hoquiam, Washington, where they won five more to make the World Series.
“We were pretty determined and pretty experienced and pretty big,” Mark says about what drove the North Van boys to success. “Everybody carried their weight and played hard. We had a purpose.”
Muscle and moxie may have driven them to succeed, but a huge part of the story for the boys is what literally drove them to the World Series. A big old bus.
“Five days on a bus, baby. It was unbelievable,” says Mark. Highlights of the trip included getting chased off a practice field by a swarm of mosquitoes in Minneapolis, going to a McDonald’s restaurant for the first time (the franchise came to Canada in 1967), and stopping in Spokane to see the movie Help!
“We loved it,” says Mark. “We were so into The Beatles.”
They were the last team to arrive in Anderson, earning themselves a spot on the front page of the local newspaper. The tournament’s official program contained welcome messages from Lyndon Johnson and Lester Pearson, and the games were played in a stadium full of 6,600 appreciative fans.
Ace pitcher Norm Kennedy, who had thrown a no-hitter and a one-hitter in the Pacific Northwest playoffs, went to work again in their first game, throwing a three-hitter as North Van knocked off California 12-1 to open the tournament. That was it though – two losses later they were on their way back to Canada.
When they returned home, however, they were little celebrities. Len Corben – another legendary name in North Shore sports because of his historical articles and books on the subject – was working as a reporter for the Citizen at the time and somehow talked his publisher Hal Straight and editor Ralph Hall into letting him follow the team all the way to the World Series.
“They both loved baseball,” Corben wrote in a 2005 story commemorating the team’s 40th anniversary. “They must have sensed how special this team was, so allowed me time to travel to all the tournaments. Straight even came up with money for my flight to Indiana, a rare perk for a community paper.”
Corben was there once again Sunday, now included as part of the team along with Fen Burdett’s son Mike, who was too young to play with the all-stars but still came with the team to Indiana. It was a fitting tribute, considering Fen helped turn the boys into a great team, and Corben’s coverage in the Citizen helped turn the boys into household names.
“We had a reception when we got home,” says Mark. “We knew we were kind of a big deal, but we didn’t have any context. We just assumed people covered these kinds of things.”
Though none went on to play big league baseball, most of the boys went on to become big deals in the community. Three of them – Mark, Dick Burns and Dave Pearce – served as school principals on the North Shore. Many still live on the North Shore, but a few are scattered across B.C. and beyond. Nearly all made it back for Sunday’s reunion, a testament to the power of sport and team, even after half a century.
“The remarkable thing was how easy we blended back together and how those memories were clearly shared memories,” says Mark, adding that when the team first reunited at a pub before heading to Mahon, he tried to get some lunch ordered but couldn’t get them to shut up about baseball long enough to pick the food. “The guys just weren’t interested.”
No one left unsatisfied though. Kennedy had managed to wrangle 18 brand new baseballs from the Babe Ruth League and they all signed them for personal souvenirs. Mark also put together photo and clipping packages for each player.
“Everybody got to walk away with something to show their kids, to talk about it and let them know it actually happened,” he says with a laugh. “It’s so bloody long ago.”
It was a lifetime ago, but Mark now realizes it was an experience that shaped their lives to come.
“As kids we were in America and we were competing and we were winning,” he says. “It’s always been a huge part of my life to have that kind of experience at 14 and 15 years old. It just generated all kinds of belief and confidence.”
That confidence is something he’s strived to pass on to new generations throughout his life, says Mark, whether it’s through sports or arts or any endeavour that pushes you to be your best.
“I’m a big believer in winning. I think winning matters, or excelling in your performance,” he says. “You don’t always get to win, but if you’re on the stage, you’d really like to get some applause, to get to the point where that rehearsal matters and you nail it when you’re out there.”
The North Van all-stars nailed it in 1965. And it’s great to see, 50 years later, they’ve nailed it again.