On Aug. 12, 1950 (69 years ago this week), a group of 14 Kankakee boys took the first step on an incredible two-weeks-long adventure they would remember for the rest of their lives. That road would lead them from Kankakee to Champaign, then Norwood, Ohio, and finally to Williamsport, Pa.
Those boys formed the roster of Kankakee’s first-ever Jaycees Little League All-Star team. Piloted by manager Frank Cahan, they would win the Illinois state championship at Champaign, emerge victorious from the Midwest Regional Tournament in Ohio, and come within one game of playing for the 1950 national title at the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania.
It was an incredible showing for a baseball program that had played its first games in the late spring of that year. The Kankakee Jaycees Little League consisted of four teams sponsored by local businesses: Dairy Queen, Turk Furniture Co., A.O. Smith Corp., and the area’s Sinclair gasoline service stations. Players drawn from each of the teams made up the All-Star team for tournament competition.
Members of the Kankakee team were Robert Alford, Chuck Boudreau, Dave Evans, Carl Hartung, Jerry Huling, Jerry Johnston, Tom Laffey, Mike Liggett, Paul Palmateer, James Rapp, Joe Scime, Marvin Sublette, Vic Toune and Dick Williams. Manager Frank Cahan was assisted by Bud Emling.
Kankakee emerged victorious in the Illinois tournament by putting down a Champaign team 13-5 in the morning, then recording an 8-0 shutout of the team from Chicago-suburban Dolton. In both games, Kankakee’s Marvin “Gus” Sublette was a standout. Playing at third base in the Champaign game, he collected four of the team’s 11 hits. In the afternoon game against Dolton, he pitched a scoreless game, giving up only three hits … and sealed the win early with a three-run homer in the first inning.
On Aug. 17, only five days after returning home from Champaign, the boys were on the road again, climbing aboard a train at Kankakee’s Big Four depot for the journey to Norwood, Ohio, a Cincinnati suburb. The two-day regional tournament, held Aug. 18 and 19, involved four teams: Natchez, Miss.; Jeffersonville, Ind.; Norwood, Ohio; and Kankakee.
Friday’s opening game, with Kankakee’s Laffey scheduled to pitch against host team Norwood, was rained out. So was the day’s second scheduled game, Jeffersonville versus Natchez.
The rainout compressed the tournament to a one-day affair on Saturday, Aug. 19. The schedule became even tighter when rain forced the scheduled noon start of the Kankakee-Norwood game back to 3 p.m. Laffey gave up only one hit in the first five innings, but was lifted for a reliever in the sixth when Norwood scored three runs to tie the game. In relief, Sublette was credited with Kankakee’s 5-4 win that advanced the team to the evening’s championship game. He picked up his second win of the tournament, pitching a one-hitter as the Kankakeeans routed Natchez 13-2. At the plate, Sublette went 3 for 3, and Laffey, 2 for 3. Catcher Boudreau and shortstop Johnston both had 2 for 4 outings.
Hundreds of fans turned out Sunday to greet the Kankakee All-Stars when their train pulled into the Big Four Depot on Cypress Street. In the lead convertible of a parade through the city was player Alford, holding aloft the Regional Championship Trophy.
Two days later the team boarded another train, this time at the downtown Illinois Central Depot. In Chicago, they transferred to a Pennsylvania Railroad train for the overnight journey to Pennsylvania for the Little League World Series. On Wednesday, Aug. 23, their first day in Williamsport, the boys settled in, took part in a parade and welcome dinner, and sized up the other seven teams taking part in the tournament.
Their first-round opponent, on Thursday afternoon, would be a Pensacola, Fla., team that had previous experience at Williamsport. Although Kankakee was considered the underdog, manager Cahan had worked to build a positive attitude in his players: “I taught them never to say, ‘if we win.’ It was always, ‘when we win.’ “ Helping to build that confidence were more than 100 encouraging telegrams sent by Kankakee boosters, that arrived at the team’s hotel during the tournament.
Cahan’s “when, not if” attitude paid off as Kankakee ousted Pensacola from the tournament with a 2-1 win. The measure of victory was a ninth-inning single by shortstop Johnston that allowed catcher Boudreau to score from third base. Laffey and Sublette shared mound duties in the extra-inning game (regulation games were six innings in length).
In Friday’s semifinal game against Houston, Texas, the Kankakee offense ran out of steam. Houston jumped out to a 3-0 lead against Laffey in the first inning, although he held them scoreless for the rest of the game. Unfortunately, Houston’s Ken Stevens blanked the Kankakeeans, striking out six batters, issuing just two walks and allowing only four scattered hits.
The team returned to winning on Saturday, taking third place in the tournament by defeating Hagerstown, Md., by a 1-0 score. In the championship game, Houston posted a 2-1 victory over Bridgeport, Conn.
The team arrived home on Sunday evening, alighting from an Illinois Central train to what the Kankakee Daily Journal described as “a thunderous welcome” by an estimated 1,000 fans. Riding atop the Kankakee Fire Department’s aerial ladder truck, the team proudly paraded through downtown Kankakee. “Never in this community’s sports history has a group of young athletes so captured the hearts and interest of the populace,” noted the Hearsay column that appeared weekly on the Journal’s sports pages.