Paradise Little League celebrated its 66th season in 2018, continuing a program which started modestly in 1953 with four Major Division teams and which now boasts more than 40 teams within PLL.
While Little League itself was born in 1939, it did not gain a foothold in this area until 1952 when County Sheriff Larry Gillick began fulfilling an earlier campaign promise that “if elected, I promise to put a baseball glove on the hand of every boy in the county before my first term expires.”
Gillick, a pitcher of some distinction in the Pacific Coast League in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, began by establishing leagues in Chico and Oroville in 1952. One year later, he expanded his effort to Paradise, encouraging local parents to form two teams and enter them in the Oroville league.
Gillick’s proposal was greeted enthusiastically by members of the Paradise Legionnaires, a very popular town softball team that had been playing in valley leagues since 1948. In anticipation of the need for a field for the local youngsters, the Legionnaires were largely responsible for laying out the first ball park at Moore Road in 1953. With Legionnaire mainstays Jim Dietle, Glen Gallman and Ed Parker leading the way, a number of Paradise residents such as George Hersey and Harold Lambert started taking sign-ups in April of that year.
Instead of the anticipated 30 to 40 sign-ups, the organizers were inundated with more than 100 eager applicants. Rather than send the local players to Oroville to play, PLL directors decided to form their own four-team league and play all games at the Moore Road field. The extra players were assigned to a pair of farm teams coached by Bob Wilson and Curtis Fenton in a program which was coordinated by the Paradise Recreation and Park District’s Elmer Martin.
During the first year the league was financed to a considerable degree by grants from ten local service organizations, including the Agenda Club, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paradise Board of Realtors, Soroptimist club, Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club, Lions Club, Chamber of Commerce and Parent Teacher Association.
For many years, these and related organizations played a major role in league activities, sending representatives to each meeting of the PLL board of directors and assuming responsibility for much of the league’s financing. Another less conventional form of revenue in that first year was a raffle at the ‘Paradise Festival and Apple Show’ in which the grand prize was a matched pair of imported chinchillas!
Opening Day-June 16, 1953
Opening Day in 1953 was apparently an event to remember. In the words of Paradise Post reporter E. G. Covington, it started with “a parade of all Little League players in uniform, riding jeeps through the downtown streets. After an impressive flag-raising ceremony, the first game was called between the Cards and the Braves.”
Radio Station KMOR decided to broadcast the opening game in which Ed Parker served as the umpire. Umpires during the early years were all unpaid volunteers, and Parker was joined in that first campaign by Russell Thurrott and Andy Snodgrass.
In the opening doubleheader, the Cards nipped the Braves 9-8 and the Phils edged the Dodgers 4-3, setting the stage for a tight pennant race that wasn’t decided until the final game of the season.
Paradise fielded its first all-star team in 1953 and, remarkably, it won its first game against Quincy, 6-3, behind the pitching of Jim Wernicke. Unfortunately, the second game was against a very big and very talented Oroville team and Paradise was eliminated by a 5-1 loss. That defeat became much easier to accept in later weeks as the Oroville team went all the way to the Western Regional tournament in Santa Rosa and came within two wins of a trip to the Little League World Series in Williamsport.
1954-The Debut of Babe Ruth League
One year after Little League was introduced, the quartet of John Handley, Harold Lambert, Jack Peterson and Harold Dunwoody established a baseball program for older boys, chartering a Babe Ruth League franchise. The Ruth teams of that era had a number of successes, reaching a pinnacle in 1963 when the local squad advanced to the Northern California Championships in Vacaville.
The PLL continued to field only four major division teams throughout the 1950’s. The only significant change occurred in 1956 when Gillick encouraged most of the local teams to drop their affiliation with Little League and join with a smaller organization, the ‘Western Boys Baseball League.’ The change was reportedly made because of Gillick’s opposition to Little League’s emphasis on “national post-season tournaments and individual awards.”
Curiously, when Paradise and the other cities returned to the Little League program in the fall of 1956 it was because they were “unhappy with some of the WBBL restrictions which prevented them from competing in the post-season state tournament.”
Unlike the present area when Little League is just one more event in a busy family schedule, the youth baseball program was a focal point of community life in the 1950’s. Without competition from television, skateboards, video game parlors, soccer, computers, Tinseltown 14, marital arts and a swim club, Little League games were a source of entertainment not just for the players and their families but for many other residents of the community as well.
The annual parades were viewed as the final evidence of spring’s arrival. These extravagant affairs included ‘floats and boats’ and typically involved the participation of the local County Supervisor, the chairman of the PRPD and other local politicians. The post-season banquets were a major social event, attracting such popular baseball personalities as Marv Grissom, Tony Freitas, Charles Graham, Lyle Olsen, Clay Dalrymple and Hobie Landrith.
During this period, while the Major Division continued to consist of the same four teams, the Rec District’s minor league program was ballooning to hundreds of boys playing on a dozen teams. Faced with the increased numbers, the league finally added the Giants and Yankees in 1960. A typical schedule in those days had four games played each week at the Moore Road field and two at Paradise High School.
1961-Birth of the Mothers’ Club
A significant addition in 1961 was the first Mothers’ Club Auxiliary which was organized under the direction of Eloise Laird. Although volunteer mothers had operated a concession stand at the ball park as early as 1957, the new organization represented a major commitment in terms of fund-raising, uniform repairing and organization of such events as a dance recital, lunch box social, bake sale, dinner dance, bottle drive and pancake breakfast.
In those years before single parenthood and the working mother became inevitable facts of life, attendance at Mothers Club meetings often ran as high as 40 or 50–remarkable figures when one considers that the league had only about 90 players.
Another major event in 1961 was the ground-breaking on an ill-fated Little League park on the Floyd Caldwell Ranch on lower Skyway. Caldwell was the Braves manager from 1958 through 1960 and later served as the Little League and Babe Ruth president, and he donated a sizable plot that was intended to serve as the home of the local program. Volunteers quickly broke ground, and by the middle of 1963 had erected fences and dugouts, poured the foundation for a snack bar and were working on the bleachers. Then, in August of that year, the project was suddenly derailed, so to speak, by a requirement that a $50,000 signal crossing be constructed where the ball park access road crossed the Southern Pacific train tracks that ran between Chico and Stirling City. Despite the fact that only two or three trains used the track in an average month, no solution was ever found and the half-finished ball park was permanently abandoned.
In the mid-1960’s the Babe Ruth League program became less attractive, and the league directors voted to affiliate instead with Pony Baseball Inc. The program consisted of Pony League for ages 13-14 and Colt League for ages 15-16. In 1965, the Colt League began playing its games on the newly constructed Ball Park No. 2 at the Moore Road complex.
While private contributions had financed the league for its first dozen years, the PLL board reluctantly decided to begin levying a player registration fee in 1964 to cover the costs of hats and insurance. Little controversy resulted from the shocking assessment of $2.50 per player!
One of the major differences between today’s Little League and that of the 50’s and 60’s is the prowess of the hitters. The newspapers of 1957 reported that Pinky Greene ripped nine homers, breaking the former record of six set in 1956 by Doug Parker. By 1962, the record had been hiked to 12 in one season. And the PLL’s answer to Babe Ruth surely must have been Dennis Planje who was credited with 15 homers in 1970.
1969-72-The Years of Expansion
After operating no more than six teams in the Major Division for its first 16 years, the PLL expanded dramatically between 1969 and 1972, adding the Minors, Seniors and Farm League in that order. Four minor teams were created in 1969, the Pony-Colt Leagues were replaced by a six-team Senior Little League in 1970 and four Farm teams joined the program in 1972.
Another landmark was reached in 1976 when Little League modified its charter to permit girls to participate, and Denise Dorville (daughter of current PSLL president Ralph Dorville) became the first girl to play in Paradise. That same year, after 23 years of futility, Paradise finally won a Major Division all-star tournament, as Steve Durman hurled a one-hitter against Chico Eastside to win the District 47 title.
One year later, the Giants became Paradise’s first TOC winner, sweeping three games against District 47 opponents. Two weeks later, the Senior all-star team not only won the District 47 title, but also battled to a second place finish in the division play-offs in Sacramento. In 1978, the Seniors repeated as District 47 champs and won two games at Sacramento before being eliminated.
A major preoccupation throughout the 1970’s was acquisition of a field owned by the league. In 1968 a proposal for a field at Ponderosa School was rejected because it “would probably be taken by school expansion.” A number of proposals were made over the years for one or more fields at Bille Park, but these were rejected either because of neighborhood opposition or because of lack of funding.
The search began anew in the late 1970’s when the PRPD announced that the PLL would have to vacate the Moore Road fields to make room for adult softball. In May 1980, League President Ralph Dorville completed negotiations for the five-acre parcel on Buschmann Road, agreeing to pay $47,000 in the form of a $10,700 down payment and assumption of an existing mortgage. Several months later the field was named in memory of Lonnie Egleson, a popular 15-year-old veteran of many PNLL seasons who died in a tragic fall several days before he and his Senior League teammates were scheduled to start all-star play.
Little progress was made on the field for several years, but under the guidance of PLL President Kathy Dance and Field Committee Chairman Gary Hawks, a major effort began in 1983. And, eventually the land was leveled, fences were constructed, dugouts were erected, and the park opened for its first game on May 26, 1984. Progress on the balance of the project received a major setback that same year when it was discovered that the mortgage assumed in 1980 was not for 20 years, but in fact provided for a $31,000 balloon payment which was due in 1989. The consequence of this discovery was that, for several years, the league had to put every available dollar into an accumulation fund to make that balloon payment.
The Late 80’s-When Paradise ruled the roost
For the most part, Paradise teams have kept a low profile in post-season play, winning only a handful of tournaments in the first 30 years of play. That all changed in the period 1986-1990 when local teams brought home a large number of TOC and all-star championship pennants. For the only time in history, a group of District 47 ballplayers won all-star championships as 12-year-olds (the Major Division in 1986), as 13-year-olds (the Junior Division in 1987) and as 15-year-olds (the Senior Division in 1989). The PLL ‘Class of 1987’ nearly duplicated the feat with a Major Division title in 1987 and the Junior championship in 1988, but they came up short in their quest for the 1990 senior title. After winning the District 47 title, the 1988 Junior team advanced to Yuba City, where it came out of the loser’s bracket to win a dramatic double-header on the final night and claim the first Section title in the PLL’s 36-year history.
In addition to dominating all-star tournaments in the latter part of the decade, there was also a windfall of 13 TOC titles, including back-to-back Major Division championships by the Braves in 1986-1987. There was even more phenomenal success in the Minor TOC where Paradise teams captured six of eight titles between 1983 and 1990, including back-to-back wins by the Beavers in 1984-1985.
1991-The Year it All Changed
In the wake of the A’s-Giants World Series of 1989, there was a remarkable resurgence of interest in baseball in Northern California and it manifested itself in much larger turnouts for youth programs throughout the area.
Both Chico and Paradise reported substantial increases in sign-ups in 1990, and PLL President Joaquin Pina and his fellow board members suddenly found themselves with eight teams in the Major Division and 12 more in the Minors. As a result of the increases, it was decided to split Paradise in half, and Bille Road has been the boundary between North and South ever since.
Even more youngsters opted to play baseball in 1991, and Little League reached its zenith that season when the PNLL and PSLL combined to field 24 major and minor teams (five major and seven minor in each league). As if the baseball growth was not phenomenal enough, another substantial milestone was reached in 1991 when the town’s Bobby Sox program elected to affiliate with Little League. Under the leadership of Paul Rice, Ken Keenan and Bob DiPietro, the softball program decided to make the change in order to save charter and insurance costs and to permit the Paradise girls to compete in post-season tournaments with other area teams. (Most of the Bobby Sox tournaments of the era required that Paradise teams travel to Roseville and Fairfield for their first-round games). In any case, the decision added 11 more teams to the PLL, although the softball program was operated independently of both the PNLL and PSLL for a number of years before finally aligning itself with the South. The softball program made a permanent home for itself at Paradise High School, playing its Senior and Major games on the Varsity softball field and minor games on the upper ‘Tennis Court’ field.
Stability in the 1990’s
After a number of years in which first Paradise North and later Paradise South seemed to have a slight numerical advantage, the relative populations of the two leagues have stabilized in the last few seasons. Both leagues have been involved in their own quests for additional ‘Fields of Dreams.’ The PNLL invested hundreds of hours and a fair amount of money in efforts to develop a field at Magalia Community Church, but the project had to be abandoned when the costs of installing a drainage system and other utilities became prohibitively high.
Meanwhile, the PSLL continued efforts to complete the snack bar/equipment shed as well as the second field at the Egleson complex. In an effort spearheaded by President Mia Ng, the snack bar was ‘officially’ opened in 1998 and the second field was improved to playable condition during the same period. In late 1997, it was named ‘Jim Horne Minor Field’ in recognition of the efforts of the PLL official who went on to serve for 11 years as District 47 Administrator. Shortly thereafter, PSLL President Ralph Dorville (who orchestrated the original purchase of Egleson Field during one of his earlier tenures as the league’s chief executive officer) has completed the ‘coup de grace’ for Egleson–a wrap-around grandstand which seats 400 people and has made Egleson into the premier youth baseball park in the district. And who was his right hand man for the project? None other than his son, Dennis, now a local contractor, but in the 1980’s a perennial PLL all-star.
The Late 1990’s-Two More Section Titles!
After a number of years of mediocre showings in post-season play, Paradise teams suddenly posted some remarkable successes near the end of the century. First, the 1998 PSLL 12-year-old All-Stars broke the Chico stranglehold on the District 47 Major Division tournament, becoming the first non-Chico team to win the title since the back-to-back Paradise victories in 1986-1987. More remarkably, the PSLL squad went on to win the Northern California Section Championship in Red Bluff–only the second in Paradise Little League history.
And, thanks to the 1999 Junior Girls Softball all-stars, Paradise did not have to wait long for a third section title. After winning the District championship, the Paradise girls traveled to Eureka where a dramatic, late-night doubleheader win on the final night earned the Section title and the right to advance to the Northern California Division tournament in Stockton. The girls were able to win one of three games in Stockton, becoming the first-ever Paradise team to post a victory at the Division level.