Guy Larsen and Debbie Bowlby were married on Saturday, Aug. 16, 1975. But their wedding trip was delayed.
“I was playing softball for Steve’s Pizza in the championship series,” he explained. “We were ahead two games to one in a best-of-five. I wasn’t going to leave.”
The Bedford Men’s Softball League engendered that kind of ardor. From the early 1960s to the mid-1990s, historic Page Field on Loomis Street was the center of the summer sports universe for players and fans.
It was a local cultural phenomenon. And though decades have elapsed, former players, most now in their 60s and 70s, recall those summers with almost reverential joy.
“We had all played together as kids. We all knew each other – it was more than just teammates,” said Larsen.
Added Paul McGrath, “It was socially one of the greatest things ever. It was very competitive, but the minute it was over, we had a lot of good laughs. Everybody felt it was some of the best times of their lives.”
Paul Eikelboom remembers the league’s early years. He joined a team soon after he graduated from Bedford High School in 1963, playing centerfield and then first base when he got older. Later, he had great success as a manager, taking all-star teams to the esteemed Metro Tournament at Hanscom Field.
There was a team of police officers, he said; Genetti’s Package Store was another sponsor, along with the Progressive Club and Blue Ribbon Dairy. “My father played for Stefanelli’s Fruit Flies,” said McGrath, a team sponsored by Bedford Fruit Store.
“I remember going to my father’s games when I was five or six years old, stacking bats, a little kid running around and having a blast,” recalled Steve Gaylor.
Among the softball players in the ’60s were Joe Bellino, the Heisman Trophy winner; Hank Brady, who later was the town assessor; future Fire Chief Bob Palmeri; Joe Sweeney, future selectman and town moderator; teachers such as Bob Biggio, local athletes Bill and Eddie Ricker, Charlie Larsen, Greg Ashe, Tony Busa, Jack Oram, Jim Kohm, and Hank Gardini.
One name that comes up repeatedly when reminiscing about the Bedford Men’s Softball League is Phil Beecy, Sr. The 1954 Concord High School graduate (the first graduating class at BHS was 1958) was primarily responsible for the establishment of the league, Eikelboom said.
Gary Sethares, a dominant softball pitcher in New England for years in the ’70s and ’80s, said Beecy was his mentor. “He could make the ball do things that was just amazing – you didn’t know where the ball was coming from,” recalled Tom Hanley, who played for a few years in the mid-1970s.
Beecy’s son, Phil, Jr., a 1973 BHS graduate, had his own distinguished career as a pitcher. “My father first played for a team sponsored by the police. They used to play exhibition games against inmates in prisons,” he said. “I used to throw with my father in the backyard.”
There were other multi-generational stories. “My dad was a shortstop and that’s the position I played,” Gaylor reported. “My father played – we lived right on Page Field. I was probably shagging outfield balls when I was 10 years old,” McGrath said.
“As kids, we knew about the softball league,” said Steve Jepsen, whose playing days spanned two decades – 1974 to 1994. “My earliest memory was watching the Metro Tournament at Hanscom Field. There were teams from all over eastern Mass.”
He said the Bedford league was unique because participation was limited to men who lived or worked in the town, so the feel was “almost like the old neighborhood.” The only exceptions were a brief period in the early ’80s when Hanscom and Burlington players joined.
“We would have a meeting at the Legion in April and decide who would play, how much we had to charge. It was all us. There was nobody else,” Larson said. Jepsen agreed: “The players kept the league going.”
“To me, those guys were heroes – kids I watched ahead of me in high school all of sudden they were men playing softball,” said Hanley, a 1972 BHS alumnus. He didn’t play varsity in high school “but I could catch the ball. Rick Houle, my roommate, had the best arm of anybody I ever saw. He and I used to practice all the time. There were some older guys who could just play – they made things look easy that for me were hard.”
Gaylor was active from 1978 to 1995. “To me, fast-pitch softball is the closest thing to baseball. There were a lot of low-scoring games; the pitchers were in control,” he reflected. “You had to play fundamental ball. You got a guy on, you had to move him over. Pitching and defense.”
“I always put everything in it,” Jepsen testified. “It became so competitive, it was wild. I put my all into it,” said Beecy, Jr.
Sethares graduated from BHS in 1971 and was recruited to play summer softball. After a few years, he was lights-out as a pitcher, but the underhand motion didn’t come automatically.
“I was pretty wild at the beginning; I walked a lot of people,” he related. “It took me a few years to master the strike zone.”
Sethares played for 22 years. He was often part of the all-star teams that competed in regional tournaments – and even the nationals out in Redding, CA, in 1987 when Bedford fell to Lebanon, PA in the finals; Beecy, Jr. still has the newspaper clipping stored on his phone.
“We had a pretty good nucleus, a group of guys that played very competitively,” Sethares said.
Larsen’s 22-year softball career actually began in 1969 before his junior year at BHS because of an eligibility loophole: he was working for his team sponsor, Purity Supreme. So, parts of his playing days covered four decades.
“When I started, guys were wearing jeans and T-shirts,” he recalled, but soon sponsors began purchasing full uniforms. Larsen said one of his favorite combinations was solid green shirts and white pinstriped pants. For years, local guys such as Bobby Atwood, who lived around the corner, served as umpires. As the league moved through the mid-1970s, Larsen recounted, it assigned certified American Softball Association umpires to the games.
“It was a very friendly competition – for the most part,” Larsen said.
Hanley seconded that: “My brother Kevin is still not happy that I ran him over to score a run when he was a catcher.”
There was plenty of trash talk. But Larsen continued, “At the end of the game, we were just a bunch of guys who were still friends. It never lost that.”
Jepsen remembered, “After the game, a lot of teams would get together behind the medical buildings across the street. We were all Bedford guys. Between the lines, we wanted to kill each other, but after we were all friends.”
Gaylor said, “When the game started, we were fierce competitors. If you were on the other team, I didn’t know you – until the game was over. Someone would go to Purity and get a bag of steak tips and three or four cases of beer.”
McGrath asserted, “It was an absolute ball. We had so much fun; we laughed so hard when we got together. Everybody said this was the best years of our lives.”
Hanley said, “The thing I remember was the socialization, hanging out with guys I didn’t really know well in high school. It was a huge deal.”
“As kids, we followed the league,” said Mike Leskouski, who was a second baseman for about eight years beginning in 1982 until his team, known as the Budmen, disbanded in the early 1990s. “I remember Kevin Hartwell and myself used to ride our bikes down. It was like an event – it was so much fun.”
Leskouski, a 1979 BHS graduate, was younger than the core players when he began playing softball, “but we are really good friends today. When it came to game time, it was war. And we laughed about it later. We still talk about it like it was yesterday.” He mentioned Todd Russell, Andy Blake, and Joel Shamon as among the BHS athletes who joined the softball league in the 1980s.
Wayne Braverman started and managed the R&W Realty team while he was in college.
“I was one of the younger people in the league when I joined and really didn’t know much about softball or managing a team. Fortunately, I had some excellent mentors. One who helped me the most was Peter Petersen. He was a pitcher and on nights we didn’t play, he was usually at the field anyway. His home was a short walk away. He was an encyclopedia of game strategy and Bedford softball trivia.”
Braverman was a sports writer for the Bedford Minuteman when he started in the league.
“While covering sports in Bedford, I had a good idea of which high school juniors and seniors would someday be good in the league. I recruited a lot of younger players.”
He wrote many stories about the league for the town newspaper, including after he was promoted to senior sports editor with Beacon Communications.
“I made sure I didn’t play favorites in what I wrote. I wanted to be fair and help the league. And it was a lot of fun writing those stories,” he said.
He ended up working with another of his softball mentors – teammate Neil Mariani, who was also a photographer with the Minuteman.
“Neil and I sometimes would end up talking about softball at high school games. He knew a lot about the game and loved to share what he knew with the younger players like me.”
Neil was a passenger on one of the hijacked airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.
At the peak of the league in the 1970s and ’80s, each team played a 20-game schedule, one or two games a week between May and August, followed by playoffs. Over the years, the range of sponsors was a reflection of the Bedford economy. Millipore. Genetti’s Package. Hillside Motors. Dodge Tire. R&W Realty. Bedford Cheese Shop (part of Bedford Package Store). Cozy Corner. Chadwick’s. Hanscom also had an excellent team that for a while, was very difficult to beat.
“I remember when the Hanscom team folded, I recruited a few of their players, including their star pitcher. It really hurt when both players got transferred by the Air Force,” said Braverman.
A turning point for the league was the installation of lights at Page Field around 1977. Before then, teams played some games on satellite fields at neighborhood schools or BHS.
“When the lights came, that opened up a whole different world,” said Larsen, who was on the Recreation Department staff at the time and handled the projector when the funding proposal came before Town Meeting. “We had the opportunity to play two games at Page at night,” said Gaylor.
Eikelboom, a Florida resident, was in town for a reunion in June, and he admired the permanent fence at Page Field, which primarily hosts youth baseball these days. “We had to put up and take down a snow fence,” he related. “But it’s good to see that the field is still being used.”
“We did a lot of the work on Page Field,” Gaylor recalled. “We put the fence up. We kept the lining machine in the shed there.”
Beecy, Jr. said when the infield was dry, he and Jepsen would drag it with their trucks. He added that there were plans for a concession stand and restrooms, but they were thwarted by neighborhood opposition.
There were fans at these games – sometimes throngs.
“I remember seeing a lot of people behind the backstop,” Jepsen said. “It was something to do in Bedford on weeknights.”
Beecy, Jr. said the parking lot was always full, and “everybody would clap when a foul ball would break a windshield.”
Leskouski remembered, “My father never missed a game.”
Hanley described a “magical” championship game: “It was a huge deal. It seemed like the whole town was there. I remember running through the snow fence in right field to make a catch. I’m lucky I didn’t lose my spleen.”
Less than a decade after the nationals, the league was no more.
“As years went on, a lot of fast-pitch softball went away. Bedford was one of the survivors with Belmont and Cambridge,” McGrath recalled.
“The demise of the league was the lack of young pitchers in fast-pitch softball,” said Sethares, who retired in 1993 when he was around 40. “A lot of pitchers were finishing their careers.”
Gaylor observed, “Men’s fast-pitch was slowly dying. It seems like the younger kids didn’t love it as much as we did. We tried to bring in younger blood. But in the end, there were maybe three guys on each team who were even 10 years younger. The majority of us were within four or five years of each other.”
“The reason I gave it up was because the last two years, I wasn’t as excited to play softball,” Larsen said. “When I was in college, I couldn’t wait to get home and start playing. Until I was 40, I looked forward to it all day.”
Leskouski said, “We knew it was going to go because we weren’t getting enough young guys to play.” Hanley noted that communities “didn’t hang on to those social things so much anymore.” Referencing a book by the sociologist Robert Putnam, he cited the “Bowling Alone” phenomenon.
Several former players recently gathered for an informal reunion in Bedford and shared memories and photos.
“We loved it so much,” Gaylor testified. Added Beecy, “I really do miss it.”