The roots of the Payson’s highly successful Little League program can be traced to the early 1960s when facilities were almost non-existent, there were enough players for only two teams and a handful of dedicated volunteers spearheaded the sport.
Ted Pettet remembers those humble beginnings well, “I was the high school baseball coach and I brought the (first) charter down from Flagstaff.”
With charter in hand, the volunteers — including Junior Haught, Larry Wilbanks and Fred Chilson — went about building the town’s first Little League park on a log storage field located west of the Beeline, just south of the old lumber mill.
“We used chicken wire to build the backstop,” Pettet said. “And we moved logs to give us enough room for a field.”
Ronnie McDaniel, who coached for about 10 seasons, recalls the league was started, as “something for the young kids to do — it wasn’t as intense as it is today.”
Pettet remembers he asked townspeople to start a league as a means to build a foundation for the high school program.
“We wanted the kids to have at least some knowledge of baseball when they got to be freshmen,” he said.
He recalls John Chilson, Boyd Peace and the Owens brothers were some of the first players in Payson’s fledgling Little League program.
In those early years it was a struggle to keep the program up and running mostly due to a lack of funds and too few players and coaches. As the years went by, the town eventually was able to field all-star teams that traveled to postseason tournaments in Winslow and Flagstaff.
In the late 1960s, with the original field turning obsolete, the league’s playing site was moved from the makeshift field near the logging mill to the campus of Julia Randall School.
In 1976, about the time Pettet was serving as the town’s first mayor, the Rumsey I baseball and softball park was built and became the new home of the Little Leaguers.
“By that time almost every kid that did well in high school baseball had played Little League,” Pettet said.
He recalls then-high school baseball coach Tom Meck, who went on to be the school’s principal, also coached Little League, as did Neil MacVicar. Today, MacVicar remains active in senior softball circles.
Among the players to star in Little League during the 1970s was Tony McDaniel, now a DPS officer.
He recalls playing on the LaForge team that played against Tastee Freeze, State Farm and Storms Chevron.
“Some of my teammates were David Teeples and Wyley Greer,” he said. “We went to a couple of all-star tournaments.”
Tony, and his brother Greg Williams, were coached throughout their careers by their father, Ronnie, who was then a county sheriff, but went on to become Payson’s Justice of the Peace.
“In those years the program was growing over what it had been, but we still struggled,” said Ronnie McDaniel. “But there were some pretty good players — Billy Hardt and the Connolly boys.”
On the national stage, the first Little League softball game was played June 6, 1939 in Williamsport, Pa., where Lundy Lumber defeated Lycoming Dairy, 23-8.
Since, Little League has become the world’s largest youth sports program. In six decades, Little League has grown from three teams to nearly 200,000 teams in all 50 states and more than 80 countries.
Officials say the basic goal of the program remains the same as it did in 1939, to give children a game that provides fundamental principals of sportsmanship, fair play and teamwork.
Payson program adds softball
The hard-earned success of the early program laid the foundation for today’s Little League that attracts more than 400 youths each season. Only two years ago, fast pitch softball was added and this year this “new” entry will feature two age divisions.
Eventually, the Payson Parks and Recreation Department dropped its slow pitch softball program making fast pitch the only game in town.
The first Little League softball game was played in Payson in the spring of 2008 prompting officials and coaches to hail its arrival.
“It’s finally here, we have a start and it’s exciting,” said Felicia Moore, then an assistant coach on the Payson Thunder.
Payson Elementary School teacher Allison Randall, who helped found the league, agreed, “It is fantastic, so much fun.”
As the Payson Little League program grew under the leadership of Craig McMullen, Eddie Duran, Chuck Barton and later Slade Gibson, local all-star teams began to enjoy more success in postseason area, district and state tournaments.
Among the most accomplished of all the celestial squads was the 2006 9-10-year-old team coached by McMullen that ran undefeated through area and district tournaments to advance to the state tournament along with 13 of Arizona’s finest teams.
What happened there is the stuff ghastly memories are made.
The team had to settle for a 4-2 record and a state fifth-place finish after a combination of math and fate kept Payson from advancing to the final four where the team would have had a shot at winning the program’s first state championship.
In the tournament, three teams in Pool A — Payson, Sabino and Verde Valley — tied in the final standings with identical 4-2 records.
The tiebreaker used to determine which team, of the three, advanced to the semifinals was the result of head-to-head meetings.
Payson had been victorious over Sabino; Verde Valley beat Payson; and Sabino whipped Verde Valley.
Rules dictated the tie would be broken by a ratio of runs allowed per defensive inning in pool play. Sabino’s runs/innings ratio was .908 and Payson’s was .933, so Sabino advanced.
Little League officials say the finish among the three teams was one of the closest in Arizona tournament history.
Another of Payson’s most accomplished teams was the 2003 all-star team that won area and district tournaments to advance to state. There, the team — led by Ridge Halenar, Tyler Savage, Cody York, Hunter Haynes, Dakota Marshall and coached by Bob Halenar — won its first two games before Paradise Valley stung Payson 15-1.
The team — which drew the nickname “Cardiac Kids” for their incredible comebacks throughout the season — eventually, finished 3-3 in the tournament. The team is remembered today as one that was a proving grounds for many athletes who went on to star at Payson High School and lead the Longhorns to the 2008 state football title.
Registration on deck
Payson’s Little League history is rich and storied. Soon, there will be more opportunities for players, coaches and volunteers to add to that tradition.
The chance begins with an upcoming baseball and softball registration to be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Jan. 25 to 28 in the Rim Country Middle School cafeteria.
The fee is $75 per player, $70 for a second child in a family and a third child may play for free.
The fee includes uniform jersey, pants, hat, belt and socks.
For those registering for coach-pitch divisions, which are for ages 6 to 8 years, the fee is $50, which includes a uniform jersey and hat.
After the Jan. 28 registration deadline, a $5 fee will be charged. When registering, parents must have in their possession a copy of their child’s birth certificate.
Once registered, tryouts for girls fast pitch softball will be Feb. 20 and for baseball they are Feb. 27. Both tryouts will be held on the Kiwanis fields located in west Rumsey Park.
The much-anticipated opening day is April 17 for the about 400 youths expected to participated this season. Registration forms can be found at: www.eteamz.com/PaysonLittleLeague.