by Lou Mancinelli
Fifty years ago, a hard-working group of Mt. Airy fathers wanted a way for their sons to play baseball. These fathers were raised, after all, during the pre-World War II golden age of the game. They might not have been old enough to remember the 1920 purchase that brought Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees, then the biggest deal in the sport’s history, but they would have known Jumpin’ Joe DiMaggio.
When the early 60s rolled around, and places for their kids to play the game so many call “our nation’s pastime” were lacking, it was only natural that a baseball program would evolve to fill the local athletic void.
So, in 1962, the Chestnut Hill Father’s Club was formed, and the club’s first Little League season was played.
Over the past 50 years, the Father’s Club has grown from providing glorified pick-up games for a handful of kids, to a full-fledged sports organization with boys and girls sports for kids ages 5 through 18. What started with boys’ baseball, now includes basketball, boys’ and girls’ soccer, and girls’ lacrosse.
Now called the Chestnut Hill Youth Sports Club, a name change that embittered some early members when it was made at the turn of the century, the organization serves over 1,800 families across Northwest Philadelphia and its surrounding communities. Through its programs, thousands of kids have learned to field ground balls and box out for a rebound.
Whether you’re a high-school student poised to play college ball, or a 6-year-old learning to hit off the tee, full of dreams of the big leagues, the YSC has a place for you. This April, it celebrated its 50th anniversary.
“If there’s anything to be said about the Father’s Club,” said Ron Miller, former president (’88-’92) “it’s that people tirelessly worked, volunteered and gave so much of their time and they didn’t ask for anything. That’s the beauty of the organization. That’s what made it.”
Current president Dennis Primavera said the club’s structure and volunteers are the backbone that has held the group together for so long.
It was a Sept. 5, 1962, Chestnut Hill Local article that announced the formation of the Father’s Club. It called the organization a “new novel group.” Five days later, the founding fathers hosted their first official general meeting at the Water Tower and introduced the executive board comprised of John McVay, president; Baxter Leaming, vice-president; Charles Blackburn, secretary; John Fisher, treasurer, and 11 additional board members.
“It wasn’t that organized in the beginning,” said former longtime president Tom Hoban who joined the club around 1965.
“Sometimes it was just 30 or 40 kids and a bunch of guys hanging out playing ball,” he said.
By the mid-1960s, the men organized and divided themselves into different teams to play against one another, Hoban remembered. During that time, a Saturday night basketball league developed at the Water Tower. Soccer also debuted during the club’s first 10 years.
In the early days, according to Hitch Blackburn, the son of one of the original founders, the club was made up mostly of kids raised on the east side of Germantown Avenue. The west side of Germantown Avenue, he said, “was like a different world,” noting that the east side was more working class, while the west side was home to the more financially well-off.
While American mainstream culture was being swept by the tides of the counterculture and the summer of love, the Father’s Club was busy scheduling officer elections and growing its little league to include travel teams, and “A,” “B,” and “C” leagues based on a player’s skill-level.
By the late 60s, board members were learning how to purchase better equipment and uniforms, instead of having its athletes wear black T-shirts and black caps. During this time, Chestnut Hill Academy students started to play, and the club expanded to use the fields at the school.
But it was the during the club’s second decade, late in the 1970s, when it really started to grow, accumulate money and become the community vortex it is today.
That’s when 17-year-president Frank “Stretch” Hendrie got involved. When his son was old enough to play T-ball, Hendrie signed the boy up for the Father’s Club. A year later, in 1978, he was club president. By then, the initial 30 or so families had grown to around 600.
“I was basically the money man,” said Hendrie, a Vietnam War vet who spent six months on a ship off the coast of Vietnam. I’m a natural money raiser.”
Hendrie and his entourage raised “literally hundreds of thousands of dollars” through beef-and-beers and company sponsors for the Father’s Club.
“Stretch was one of those guys who with brute force just made [the Father’s Club] better,” Miller said.
During his presidency, the club did things like refurbish the fields at CHA. Instead of renting the fields, club members and athletes put work into the fields. They raked the dirt, cut the lawn and painted the foul lines.
Hendrie also was instrumental in acquiring the Water Tower basement to function as group headquarters. When his boys (he also had two girls – his inspiration for the club to eventually develop girls’ programs) were old enough to compete in American Legion (boys ages 16 to 18) in the late 80s, he was instrumental in fielding the Father’s Club legion squad.
Oddly enough, the last person to hold an American Legion franchise in Chestnut Hill was Phillies hall-of-famer Robin Roberts. Hendrie even created a team to play in the semi-professional Pendel Baseball League, though its existence was short-lived. During his reign, the club also joined the 21st Ward Little League, based in Roxborough.
Through the seasons and the years, the story of the Father’s Club has been the story of individuals volunteering their time with the goal of creating an organization where children benefit.
“Without women like Genie McClintock and Sue Talley,” said Miller, “there might not be a Father’s Club.”
Neither women had children in the program, but during the 80s they dedicated countless hours to working league registration and other business-oriented details of the organization.
“They did everything that was asked of them and more that wasn’t asked of them,” Miller said.
There were the Filippi brothers, welders, he said, who repaired the backstops as need be.
“Everyone was selfless and always willing to give their time and donate their talents,” said Miller, who built the Water Tower snack bar with the help of other members.
And so for the first 30 years the Chestnut Hill Father’s Club grew, served thousands of kids and brought together two different sides of the neighborhood.
In the 1990s, girls’ soccer was introduced. Now girls had the opportunity to play other girls, and create their own championships instead of being mixed in with the Father’s Club boys, as they had been for years on the baseball teams.
When the name changed to the Chestnut Hill Youth Sports Club, some original members believed a tradition had been uprooted. According to its website, the new name serves to “more clearly identify the mission of the club.”
But, regardless of the name, the significance of the organization and the reality of the opportunities it provides families and children to come together and compete on respectable levels of sportsmanship remain without question.
Whether it’s called the Father’s Club or the Youth Sports Club, to the youngsters and teenagers who make up its teams it represents the vehicle for making their sports dreams and ambitions a little less distant from ESPN and one step closer to home.
And despite the 50th anniversary celebration being rained out during this year’s Little League home opener, the club is set to run strong and grow for at least another 50 years.