Huddling Up

Huddling Up

It was a bright and breezy opening day for the Walter Pop Smith Little League last Saturday. Players, coaches and parents paraded up Dixwell Avenue and across Munson Street accompanied by police cars, fire trucks and a 94.3 WYBC van. An exuberant trio of drummers greeted the procession as it filed onto the baseball fields next to the Floyd Little Athletic Center. Mayor Justin Elicker addressed the crowd during the opening ceremony. The hot dogs were free and so were the ballgames, which stretched long into the afternoon.

The Pop Smith league, founded in 1952 during a decade that saw rapid growth in youth teams across the country, is one of two official Little Leagues in New Haven. (The other is the Annex Little League). Boys and girls ages 5 through 12 play baseball on teams that start with Tee Ball and progress through Coach Pitch, Junior Majors and Majors levels. The league serves neighborhoods in the center and west of New Haven, bringing together children and families from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Most years, about 300 kids participate in New Haven’s spring season. The number of players is lower this spring after a pandemic-disrupted year but seems likely to bounce back.

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While things were getting going on Saturday, league board member Michelle Labrador was bustling about, directing traffic and spreading the teams out for photos and the opening ceremony. Her experience with Pop Smith exemplifies the league’s long-term community-building effects. She started playing at age seven, with her dad helping coach the team. He kept working with the younger kids while she moved up, and she fondly remembers hanging around the field when her games were over but Dad’s weren’t. She even credits the league with providing her first job, earning $15 to run the scoreboard and $25 when she worked as the official scorekeeper. Now her husband, Edwin, coaches, and their son, E.J., plays. According to Labrador, a lot of the current coaches and parents played together as kids. “It’s like a real family.”

As the initial ceremony wrapped up, the Craftsmen Club team—named, as all teams are, for their sponsor—readied themselves to play in one of the first games of the day. Like Labrador, Craftsmen’s head coach Dave James played in the Pop Smith league as a kid, on the very same team he’s been helping coach for an impressive 35 years. This longevity has made James the patriarch of a baseball dynasty. His own sons were on the team. Now, his grandson plays second base and one of his sons is an assistant coach. When asked to identify the hardest thing about coaching Little League, James paused for a long time to think and never came up with an answer. But the best thing? That popped out immediately. “Working with the kids. Helping them develop. Having them come back from college and saying, ‘Hey Coach, you made a difference in my life.’”

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On opening day, Craftsmen Club got off to a slow start, giving up several early runs to the opposing team, Arabic Temple. James reminded the kids in the dugout to support the pitcher. They quickly launched a cheer: “Let’s go, Khy, let’s go! Let’s go, Khy, let’s go!” Nearby, former player Aunee Brookshire was on hand with her mother to watch her brother, King, who was catching for Craftsmen. For Brookshire, the best thing about Pop Smith is the supportive people. “The coaches are always trying to keep you up and motivate you to do better.” Sheniquia McCrea, parent of first baseman Xavion and a Pop Smith board member focused on fundraising and sponsorships, echoed that sentiment.

I had one lingering question, which I put to coach and board vice president Steve Itkin. “Who was Walter ‘Pop’ Smith anyway?” The inquiry was met with smiles and head-shaking. Itkin says he’s tried to find out but never gotten a satisfactory answer. An impromptu survey of long-timers standing nearby led to some guesses but mostly a chorus of “don’t know”s. The Pop Smith Facebook page celebrates the league’s founding with nary a mention of Smith. No matter. To the players involved, when you say Pop Smith, it just means their baseball league.

Saturday’s game didn’t end well for Craftsmen Club. But by other measures, opening day was a success. The kids were outside in the fresh air, learning about the game and developing their skills. The community came together and coaches kept spirits high. As parent Lesley Frame put it, “That is the biggest win.”

Walter Pop Smith Little League
399 Munson St, New Haven (map)
(203) 397-6995
Website | Facebook Page

Written and photographed by Stephanie Wratten. Images 2 and 8 feature Dave James.

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