Alameda's fabled T-shirt league to stage a comeback

Alameda's fabled T-shirt league to stage a comeback

Michele Ellson

Alameda's T-shirt league is staging a comeback. Photos from the ARPD Facebook page.

Kevin Kearney played baseball on a scholarship at Cal and, briefly, in the minor leagues. But the most fun he ever had playing a sport, he said, was the time he spent in the Alameda park department's T-shirt league.

“My love for baseball started when I was an Edison Indian,” Kearney, who later played as a Krusi Colt and is now known as Alameda’s city auditor, said.

Fast-forward to 2013, and Kearney is helping the Alameda Recreation and Park Department resurrect its fabled youth baseball league. The department is planning to field teams at a half-dozen parks in the summer of 2014 and is running a T-shirt contest on Facebook to generate interest in the league’s revival.

“I often say the founding fathers, in their wisdom, put a park in virtually every neighborhood in Alameda. And (they) became a focal point for the community,” said Kin Robles, who chronicled the glory days of the T-shirt league in a 2003 documentary, Play Ball. “To this day, people still identify themselves by the park they played for. I’ll be a Franklin Eagle until I die.”

A.J. “Lil” Arnerich is widely credited as having kicked off the golden age of the park leagues. Before Arnerich became the park department’s supervisor of athletics, in 1953, the park department had only a handful of teams and accepted only the best players in the city. But Arnerich decided to open the department’s leagues – which predate the nonprofit run youth sports leagues of today – to all of the city’s youth.

“Every child that came out made the team,” Arnerich recalled in Robles’ documentary, saying his approach mirrored that of a mentor named Charlie Tye who did the same for him and other kids growing up in West Oakland. He said he applauds efforts to bring the leagues back.

The low-cost park program – Arnerich said he charged 50 cents for the T-shirts, while Recreation Supervisor Patrick Russi, a Rittler Wildcat who played in the 1970s and coached in the 1980s and 1990s said youths were charged $25 – grew to include 93 teams across a dozen parks, serving youths in first through eighth grade.

Arnerich said the modern leagues – which charge parents more than $100 to register youths for a season – could be too costly for some to participate in.

“A lot of people just cannot afford it,” he said.

The park leagues may have been open, but the games were still competitive, players said. Victories are lovingly recalled – and lorded over friends decades after the fact, if they still happen to live in town.

“We still brag that we won,” Kearney said of a championship win the Krusi Colts scored over the Franklin Eagles.

Players in the league offered fond memories of playing baseball at the park with their neighborhood friends morning, noon and night, free of what some see as the overly heavy parental involvement endemic to youth sports now.

“It wasn’t just the adults running everything,” said Kearney. He said older youths were able to earn some money as umpires, while Robles said they also served as mentors to younger players.

But a youth spent in the T-shirt leagues offered more than just time on the field, onetime players said: Coaches taught them life lessons too, requiring proper conduct to play and helping out with homework and more.

“There were a lot of park directors who did homework with kids who were struggling. Or knew something was going on in their life and helped them with it,” Robles said.

The park department offered football and basketball in addition to soccer, but those programs – while offering kids the opportunity to try out different sports in a more open environment – didn’t quite capture the imagination that the baseball leagues did. Baseball had one thing going for it that the other sports didn’t, though: A weekly pullout in the local newspaper where team photos were snapped, box scores laid out and exploits chronicled.

“It was a huge thing,” Russi said of the newspaper pullout, also called Play Ball. “And I think that’s what people remember, and why people had such strong feelings about it.”

The biggest moment for any park kid who participated in the program, though, was at the start of the season, when the park director ripped open the box containing brand-new team shirts.

“You wore that T-shirt every day,” Kearney said.

Russi said the park league ended in the 1990s, as nonprofit youth sports leagues became dominant. But Kearney, for one, wanted to see the T-shirt league return. He and City Treasurer Kevin Kennedy approached Recreation and Park Department Director Amy Wooldridge about restarting the league, and she put the plan in motion.

Wooldridge said that the league is still in its formative stages, but that initial plans are to have teams in six parks where the department already has programs – Washington, Godfrey, Franklin, Bayport, Lincoln and Tillman – and to have existing staff run them, offering practices and games during park program hours.

“It allows us to incorporate a longstanding tradition into our existing fabric,” Wooldridge said, adding that Alameda’s park department is one of the oldest in the state.

Kearney will be working to raise the $7,500 needed to buy equipment for the T-shirt league. Meanwhile, the park department’s T-shirt contest, on Facebook continues through August; the three shirts that receive the most votes will be printed up and sold at the department’s pending Everything Alameda event, which is scheduled for September 28.

Although Wooldridge only recently announced the department’s plans to revive the T-shirt league, she said that interest in it is alive.

“The buzz is already out there. I’ve already had people say, ‘Oh I want to coach, I want to volunteer,’” she said.

“It’s still in the formative stages. But it’s exciting,” Wooldridge added. “It’s a great way to bring people back who are parents now, and just kind of get them excited and involved.”

Anyone interested in contributing to the newly revived T-shirt league can send a check with “T-Shirt League” in the subject line to Friends of the Parks, 2226 Santa Clara Avenue, Alameda, Calif. 94501. Donations may also be made online, at www.alamedaparks.org

Comments

Submitted by Kin Robles (not verified) on Thu, Aug 8, 2013

Kudos to Kevin for rekindling the idea and to Amy for her willingness to implement this legacy program. Alamedans, young and old, should be delighted that one of the great youth sports programs in history will return to the "Garden Isle" for more generations to enjoy. I'm confident that former "park rats" everywhere will rise to the occassion to help supprt the proposed t-shirt league. Now is the time for all of us to give back to a program that played such an important role in our early lives.

Submitted by Dale Roth (not verified) on Fri, Aug 9, 2013

Have you found someone to print the shirts?
I would be happy to do them for next to nothing.
Would look forward to personally delivering them .

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, Aug 14, 2013

I grew up playing all three sports at Franklin with all my brothers sisters, and neighborhood friends. The whole program was fantastic from the park directors to the games. I don't understand why Alameda ever gave it up. You can't get that experience with little league. If I lived in Alameda today. I would look to cut the city managers salary and bring back all the fun park programs. Check out Kin Robles playball site and the 100's of testimonials to the parks you will find there. Kudos to Arnerich for starting the league . Bring it back and Play Ball!

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