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Nickel Region Senior League revives the Nickel Belt loop of old

Local hockey folks might need to swallow hard, but the truth of the matter is that Sudbury was likely at least as well known - and many would contend more well-known - as a baseball community through the first half of the 20th century than it would have been necessarily for the on-ice winter athletic displays of that era.

With lights installed at the Queen's Athletic Field in 1944, the venue would regularly draw crowds numbering in the thousands beneath the covered bleachers that lined both sides of the diamond. Names such as Norm Hann, Gerry Wallace, Herb Perigoe, Ev Staples, Keith Boyd and countless more graced the rosters of teams donning the outfits of Frood, Creighton, Coniston and Copper Cliff through the golden age of the 1940s and 1950s.

By 1959, senior men's baseball in Sudbury was shelved, returning only 18 years later when an import from the Ottawa Valley gathered some key folks together, looking to revive the sport that was once the king of the town. "There was no (men's) baseball here, I just wanted to get something going," recalled Danny Gallagher.

Hailing from the ultra-small town of Douglas, about halfway between Renfrew and Eganville, Gallagher was raised with bat, ball and glove in hand, longing to find others who shared his passion for a peanuts and Cracker Jack refrain midway through the seventh inning of every outing.

Enlisting the help of Berk Keaney Sr and the afore-mentioned Gerry Wallace, both of whom were heavily involved when senior baseball last shone brightly in these parts, Gallagher utilized the forum at his disposal, hired on as a sports reporter at the Sudbury Star, to kick start the discussions. "I just put a notice in the paper that we would be having an organizational meeting at Northern Breweries, and people just showed up," he said.

Perhaps "build it and they will come" was not that far-fetched after all. In the summer of 1976, the Nickel Region Senior Baseball League took flight, with just three entries at the time: Copper Cliff Redmen, Sudbury Shamrocks and Coniston Red Sox.

Thankfully, some links to the old greatly influenced the new. "When the original senior league faded out, a lot of the players had time on their hands, so they started up a kids' league," said Mike Fox, who at the tender age of six served as the bat-boy for the Coniston team which featured his father, Clarence.

"We learned our baseball from some of the older players from the original league."

With the opening of the Terry Fox Sports Complex still three years away, the grounds of Sudbury Stadium (corner of Lasalle and Notre-Dame - current location of the taxation center), host to countless fastball encounters at that time, would do nicely. "It was an ideal place for a senior baseball league, with fairly long fences, about 325 down the lines and so on," said Gallagher.

The avid baseball historian recalled with ease his contemporaries of that time who would join him on league all-star teams, topping the various statistical categories compiled by Nora Keaney. Teammates Barry Salo and Al Longlade with the Shamrocks, Steve Smith of the Garson Tigers, Rick Kirkwood and Jack Camilucci in Copper Cliff, and first baseman John Pidutti and the Fox clan (Mike/Steve/Jimmy/Kevin) with the Red Sox.

"Coniston was a small little town, but boy, could they play ball," said Gallagher. "They had some super-duper ball players."

"I never once considered playing for anybody but Coniston," insisted Fox. "Let me tell you, the rivalries between Coniston, Sudbury and Copper Cliff were pretty intense."

Going well beyond just dusting the cobwebs off the senior baseball scene in Sudbury, Gallagher and his co-horts would look to put their spanking new facility on the map, welcoming the South Korean national baseball team in 1979, hosting the Ontario Senior B playdowns a year later, and culminating with the 1983 Canadian Senior Baseball Championships.

"In 1982 and 1983, as a lead-in to nationals, we had a short-term league, the North Central Senior Baseball League (Orillia, North Bay, Barrie, Sudbury Shamrocks), to give us some extra experience going into nationals."

Fans may not have numbered in the thousands, but the local loop that stirred up at least some images of the Nickel Belt league two to three decades earlier still attracted some attention.

"When I first started, there still seemed to be a lot of interest, in the sense that there were fans at the games, and not just the wives of the guys or the kids of the guys," suggested Sudbury mainstay John Rumball, most associated with the Garson Tigers, but who also spent a season with both Sudbury and Copper Cliff in the late seventies and early eighties.

"These were people in the community who would just wander by on a nice summer night to catch the game. Over the years, that really dwindled, I found."

Though passionate about baseball from an early age - Rumball's father, Jack, was president of Sudbury Minor Baseball for some time - John was a good but not great player, recalling his crowning moment in the league, credited with tossing a no-hitter as a pitcher. "It was one of the ugliest no-hitters you will ever see," he said with a laugh.

"I think we won 7-5, but between all of the walks and the errors, there were no hits. I still have the ball on one of my shelves here, somewhere. I don't know if I was a good baseball player, but for sure, I enjoyed it. Baseball was my sport."

And like Gallagher, there were certain names in the game that stayed with Rumball, even to this day. "I am still friends with Al Longlade," he said. "He was always a tough guy to get out, a really good base-runner with a lot of speed."

"And Rick Koritko - one of the only left-handed pitchers, and boy, could he throw smoke. It was a lot more challenging because he was a leftie, so the ball just moved differently."

According to Gallagher, the league would be on hiatus, once again, by the early 1990s. In recent years, a handful of players who had aged out of the minor baseball system reconvened, putting together a senior entry that would play against the current midget teams.

It's still a lot of fun for the gents that are involved, but rest assured, baseball is a long way from going toe to toe with hockey in terms of sporting popularity in Sudbury, as the entire local sports scene sits relatively quiet in 2020.

Orendorff and Associates