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1956: Pioneer player recalls area’s first Little League season

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WATERTOWN — John Lava went to Rand Field last summer to watch his two grandsons play baseball in the Watertown American Little League.

Lava said he was impressed with the renovated facility, but it wasn’t the grand stage he remembered from nearly 60 years ago.

“To go back and see them play there, it’s like a treat, being the same field I played on all those years ago,” Lava said. “It looks kind of small. But back then, it looked like Yankee Stadium when we were growing up. It was so big to us.”

Lava, a 68-year-old Watertown native and resident, was a member of the Elks Club team during the inaugural Watertown American Little League season of 1956.

Lava said he still looks fondly upon his three years of playing Little League ball.

“You meet a lot of new guys,” he said. “The biggest thing is, whether they’re still here in town or they moved away, you might think about a name and it brings back nothing but good memories.”

Lava, who was a catcher, center fielder and occasionally a pitcher, said he initially was upset about the team he was placed on.

The league used a draft system, much like the one in place today, and Lava was chosen for a different team than his neighborhood buddies from the “sand flats,” an area around Arsenal Street that at the time was made up mostly of Italian-American families.

“All my good friends were pretty much on the Eagles, and I got on the Elks Club,” Lava said. “I ended up meeting a lot of new guys and making memories for life. A lot of friendships were developed through those years.”

Lava eventually married. He and his wife, Martha, have two daughters, Kim and Kris. He was a co-captain on the first Jefferson Community College men’s basketball team during the 1964-65 season and managed Henry Wilson Jewelers in Watertown for almost 40 years until he retired a few years ago.

Lava, who graduated from Watertown High School in 1964, is an avid golfer and attends just about any sporting event that involves his three grandchildren. But Lava said his Little League playing days are still the source of some of his fondest memories.

“We’d get on our bicycles with a rake and ride out to Rand Field,” Lava said. “We’d go rake the infield and get the game in that night. Even though the city rec department would come in that afternoon and get the field in shape, we wanted to let them know it was ready.”

He added: “The neighborhood I came from had some great athletes. … We’d go down there about 8 o’clock in the morning and play until noon, we’d go home and have a bite to eat, and then go right back down there until dinner time and play baseball all day.”



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