Fifty years ago, on four steamy nights in August, crowds averaging more than 4,000 packed the tiny bleachers and hung on the fences at Wilmington’s 18th and Van Buren streets field to watch two semi-pro baseball teams do battle. Meanwhile, up the road in Philadelphia, a mediocre Phillies team played before smaller crowds.
It was a phenomenon that was never duplicated before or since, and is unlikely ever to happen again.
The four-game playoff for the championship of the Delaware Semi-Pro Baseball League became the stuff of legend. It pitted Parkway and its longtime manager, John Hickman, against upstart Brooks Armored Car, led by player-manager Lou Romanoli, a 28-year-old firebrand who had stacked his lineup with former major leaguers as well as talented amateurs.
The playoff was the culmination of Romanoli’s near obsessive—and successful —quest to unseat perennial champion Parkway and Hickman, his hated rival. Romanoli had been in the league for 10 years, playing for St. Anthony’s, and he and teammate Ruly Carpenter, son of then-Phillies owner and president Bob Carpenter, were tired of losing to Parkway. After securing sponsorship from Bill Brooks, Romanoli went looking for the top players at each position—“except third base,” he says. “That was my position.”
An infielder and sometime pitcher while at the University of Delaware, Romanoli knew that pitching is the key to any successful team, and he soon landed three of the best—all former major leaguers.
As the general manager of Village Printing, Romanoli (named Wilmington Jaycees Young Man of the Year in ’64) was in New Jersey on business when he read about Ray Narleski in a local paper. Narleski, who had World Series and All-Star experience while with the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians, was then pitching for a local Jersey team. The tenacious Romanoli tracked him down and persuaded him to sign on with Brooks.
Carpenter helped recruit fellow Yale grad Bob Davis, who had pitched for the Kansas City Athletics in ’58 and ’6o and was now studying for his doctorate in clinical psychology at Temple.
Romanoli found Jack Crimian pounding out fenders at John’s Body Shop in Wilmington. Crimian, a Claymont resident who is a story himself, had 15 years of pro experience, including Major League stints with St. Louis, Kansas City, and Detroit. He had retired four years previously and was 37 in 1963, but the stocky right-hander still loved baseball and knew how to pitch. He went 10-0 with Brooks in that championship season.
But perhaps the rookie manager’s biggest “get” was Harry “The Horse” Anderson, a left-handed power hitter who smacked 23 homers and batted .301 with the Phillies in 1958. His short professional career ended in ’62, after which the 32-year-old Anderson had settled into domestic tranquility in Westgate Farms. But with help from team owner Brooks, who had attended West Nottingham Academy with Anderson, Romanoli hounded the slugger until he agreed to join the team—eight games into the season. Anderson’s arrival in the league swelled the crowds at Brooks games. “Fans wanted to see Harry the Horse up close and personal,” says Romanoli.
Anderson solidified a lineup that was already imposing. Playing right field was the 23-year-old Carpenter, who had been Ivy League batting champion while playing for Yale. Catcher Vinnie Scott, also 23, was a near-legend at Salesianum before captaining the University of Maryland football team, followed by a tryout with the Baltimore Colts. He led Brooks in scoring.
Romanoli also snagged the league’s best shortstop, John Pfander, who was named the team’s MVP.
The player/manager, of course, handled the hot corner. A bit slow of foot but strong-armed, Romanoli batted .305, led the team in RBIs, and made the All-Star team.
The rivalry between Brooks and Parkway grew throughout the season, reaching a crescendo in those playoffs, which Brooks swept, four games to none. “A lot of people wanted to see someone else win the championship besides Parkway,” says Romanoli. “On the other hand, Parkway had built a fan base over the years, so they had plenty of people rooting for them.”
Fans also were drawn by the palpable bad blood between Romanoli and Hickman. Romanoli says the cantankerous Parkway manager, who was inducted into the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame in 1986 and died in 1993 at age 77, “pretty much ran the league,” taking advantage of every rule and manipulating league officials. But Romanoli was no slouch when it came to gamesmanship. As one player put it, “Lou would get into an argument during the [pre-game] rules explanation.”
Occasionally, the rivalry turned humorous. Romanoli likes to tell about the time he visited the mound during a game against Parkway. As he spoke to his pitcher, Hickman yelled, “Tell him all you know, Lou; it’ll only take a minute.” Romanoli turned to the opposing bench and answered, “I’ll tell him all we both know, John. It won’t take any longer.” It smacks of the apocryphal and has an old punch line, but it makes a good story.
What many baseball fans of that era may not know is that Romanoli maintained his remarkable athletic roll through the fall and winter months of 1963 and early ’64. Retaining many of the same gifted athletes who had played for his baseball team, he coached and played on Brooks teams that won championships in the Wilmington Touch Football League and the Industrial Basketball League. Carpenter, who had played end at Yale, and Scott were on the football team, and Scott and Anderson starred on the court. “Harry Anderson,” remembers Romanoli, “never saw a shot he didn’t like.”
In May, the Brooks team got together at the Columbus Inn for a 50-year reunion sponsored by Bill Brooks. Eight players attended, along with members of later Brooks teams and a few media people.
“They all looked good,” says Romanoli, “and some are very active. John Pfander is 75 and still plays competitive softball on a team that tours the country. Ruly Carpenter was a state handball champion and now he’s an avid hunter and fisherman. Vinnie Scott belongs to three health clubs and is in great physical shape. And I bicycle about 600 miles a month during good weather and do a spinning class at the Y in cold weather.”
Six players from the ’63 team have passed away: Anderson, Narleski, Davis, Terry Arnold, Johnny Kempski and Harvey Roop.
Those at the reunion took a moment to remember their deceased teammates, but mostly they talked about the summer of ’63, and about what most experts would agree was the best baseball team ever assembled in the state of Delaware.
“It was a magical summer,” says Romanoli.