Tonawanda News — When the Tonawanda National Little League closed its doors in 2000, the games may have ended but the impact of those that kept it alive for about 50 years continues to be celebrated.
On Saturday night at 6 p.m. inside American Legion Post 264 in Tonawanda, TNLL will host its second annual reunion.
Many individuals have left their mark on the league, but maybe none more so than 74-year-old Bill ‘Bear’ Bearfield, who volunteered within the organization for almost 40 years.
Bearfield’s love of the game and passion for teaching allowed him to coach and even undertake the responsibility of league president for 12 years. All of his time and hard work was to help youngsters play the game he loved.
“We taught the kids about good sportsmanship and being good sportsman, and to play the game fair,” said Bearfield, a retired Spaulding Fibre factory worker and union rep. “I think I enjoyed the games as much as the kids did. I think that’s how most of the managers felt, because we’re like big kids. We always had a good time and when the game ended — sometime you would be at each other, tooth and nail, for the game, but it was all in competition.”
Bearfield moved to Niagara-Wheatfield after he got married, but never could divorce himself from the league and city that he loved. When he got out of work at the factory he’d go from Wheeler Street over to the fields off Fletcher Street on Little League Drive.
‘The Bear’ said that TNLL and Tonawanda American Little League were one of the first organizations to compete in interleague play. With only four team in the majors TNLL wanted to give the players a chance to play more teams and avoid repetition.
“We did a lot of things in the league. It wasn’t just one person it was a lot of people,” Bearfield said. “We started a tee ball program early and we started interleague play, probably 10 years before Williamsport said it was OK. … We had probably the only in-ground dugouts which was kind of neat for the kids because that’s what the major leaguers had then. We tried to maintain them to the very end.”
In 1965, Bearfield took over as manager on his first-ever majors team. The squad won the city championship that season, a memory that still stands out for Bearfield 48 years later.
“When I got the team in ‘65 I won the city championship. That was my first year with the team,” he said. “That sticks in my mind, right off the bat I got lucky and got a good team and won it all.”
Don Horton, a former TNLL coach and a member of the reunion committee, said that Bearfield is the type of person that every little league needs to survive.
“He was the glue that held the league together. He was a coach, president of the league, worked on the fields and helped with all the fundraisers. He was there for such a long time and he knows so many people who were involved with the league for so many years. A lot of coaches will just stay when their kids are in the league and then not coach anymore. But Bill was beyond that.
“He was there for many years and without kids in the league. Those are the special people in all little leagues. The ones that stay with it even when their kids aren’t in the program — just because they believe in the program. … He is well-respected by everybody that was involved with the National Little League.”
Bearfield said he can’t really pinpoint a single reason the league folded, just that to keep any little league afloat a lot of people have to be involved.
“In 2000, when it disappeared, I think it was because of a lack of help. You need a lot of help,” he said. “In our heyday we had eight major league teams and 18 minor league teams, so you’re looking at about 100 people involved. The population in Tonawanda don’t grow because a lot of people move away. But while we were there we had a good time.”
The TNLL reunion committee is extending a welcome to anybody that is interested in attending the event Saturday night. Tickets are $20 and the reunion is scheduled to run from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m.Contact Sports Editor Matt Parrino at 693-1000 ext. 4117 and find Tonawanda News sports on Twitter @tonanewssports.