Volume 6, No. 6 - September 2011
Days of Destiny: A Reflection
Toward the end of the 1970s, amidst the backdrop of America's energy crisis, the cold war's tumultuous international landscape and the first million-dollar Major League Baseball contract, Little League Softball was taking its early fateful steps, with Rhode Island's North Providence West Little League showing it is possible to run before you walk.
"Even now when we watch the Little League World Series on TV, my daughters still don't believe that my team won the Little League Softball World Series," Lee-Ann (Bak) Reef, second baseman for the 1979 World Champions, said. "The experience was phenomenal and to this day we are all so proud of what we accomplished."
It's been 32 years since North Providence West Little League (NPWLL) traveled to Waco, Texas, and won the world title by defeating the Southern Region champions from Orlando, Fla., but Manager Richard Palumbo still has vivid memories of his players and that team.
"Back then, the entire tournament was single elimination and we went 11-0," Richard, a 25-year Little League volunteer coach and umpire, said. "We played only three close games, giving up just five runs and committing one error. We won the world title, 5-2, but it should have been a shutout.
"I started coaching Little League Softball in 1976, and in that first year I realized it wasn't like coaching boys," Richard, who learned to manage with, "discipline and a smile," said. "That first year, after my team lost its first nine regular-season games, somebody told me I was being too tough on the players. Edith (Edie) Reall, my assistant coach, asked me to be more gentle and cheerful. After that, I changed my strategy. We were still disciplined, but we had a lot of fun too."
In 1974, Little League was emerging from a series of legal proceedings that challenged the organization's "boys only" policy. In the months after New Jersey Hearing Examiner Sylvia Pressler declared: "The institution of Little League is as American as the hot dog and apple pie," and "There is no reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls," Little League Baseball made the decision to admit girls, and became Little League Baseball and Softball.
Although Little League won a majority of the court cases, the time had come for the organization to reflect on the reasons for its success, and recognize the core values that had grown the program into an international phenomenon through its first 40 years. Those successes and conveyances of life lessons should and would be offered equally to girls.
Two years later, hundreds of miles away in Northern Rhode Island dozens of young softball players not only embraced the new-found opportunity, they relished the chance to show the boys they could play.
"Like most of the girls, I started playing when I was nine," Melissa (Missy Palmieri) Fernandes, an outfielder and reserve pitcher on the '79 championship team, said. "My friends were are all signing up and my mom said, 'Go ahead and try.' All I wanted to do was find a sport I could understand and enjoy.
"The year before our team won the World Series, our league lost the Eastern Regional championship game to the team that won the World Series (Shippensburg (Pa.) Little League," Melissa said. "When we came together in 1979 for all-stars, Coach Palumbo was serious and so were we."
"Coach Palumbo was strict and worked us hard, because he expected a lot from us," Lee-Ann said. "He didn't want any drama, and we responded great to his coaching style. I also remember that he was so superstitious that he wore the same blue shirt and blue pants for every game."
Despite not having any children in the league and no experience coaching softball, Richard was able to change his approach without compromising his coaching philosophy.
With new-found perspective came an abundance of success, as Richard's 1977 regular-season team won 17 of 18 games and earned him the opportunity to manage the league's all-star team. Unaware he was building a dynasty, the NPWLL coach proceeded to win eight of the next nine Rhode Island State Championships.
"With the '79 team, I told the girls they had to make all of the practices and we couldn't fool around if we want to make the World Series." Richard said. "I had four girls in 1979, which were on the '78 team, including Nancy Santo-Padre (dosReis), who was 12 going on 20.
"Nancy was unbelievable," Richard said. "She was the most vocal and outspoken, and let the rest of the team know that they were to listen and do what I tell them."
North Providence West Little League outfielder Nancy dosReis, now Rhode Island State Police Detective dosReis, is one of three women enshrined in the Little League Hall of Excellence located inside the Peter J. McGovern Little League Museum on the Little League International Campus in South Williamsport, Pa. She entered the Hall of Excellence in 2004, as part of Little League's 30th anniversary celebration of girls playing Little League.
Leading up to the '79 World Championship run, Richard explained that the four returning players were the pulse and conscience of the team. Together they geared up for a run to the World Series by way of a re-match with the team that had beaten them in the Eastern Regional championship the year before.
"Playing and winning was motivation for the girls," Richard said.
"When we won the East, I was relieved to make it to the World Series and I wanted to win," Melissa said. "It was fun to be on our own and with our friends. We were one big family because only 16 people from home were able to make it to Waco."
Among those who did make the trip to Texas was North Providence Mayor Salvatore Mancini, who was NWPLL's biggest fan outside of the players' parents.
From the first day it was offered, Little League softball "just caught on" in North Providence, Richard said, and he credits the league's popularity to Mayor Mancini. "The Mayor was behind us 100 percent. He attended all of the league's all-star games, both boys and girls, no matter where they played."
After the World Championship was won and the team returned home, North Providence was frenzied.
"When we came home and saw what looked like the entire state of Rhode Island at the airport to greet us … That's when it hit us what we had accomplished," Lee-Ann said. "We were thrilled with how proud we made the state and we celebrated for months."
"For many years there were signs all over town declaring North Providence, home of the 1979 Little League Softball World Series Champions," Melissa said.
In 1989, the team reassembled for a 10-year reunion, but as friends and families tend to do, some teammates moved away, and over time, lost touch. Melissa, Lee-Ann and teammate Lori Chille re-connected through Facebook and eventually were able to gather a majority of the team for a 30-year reunion held over the 2009 Labor Day weekend.
"Everyone was all over the place," Melissa, who along with her teammates took nine months to organize the reunion, said. "Eight or nine of us connected through Facebook and we wanted the reunion to be a surprise for Coach Palumbo. I was so excited that everybody wanted to come."
Three team members were unable to attend the reunion hosted by Melissa, but Richard did, and he was stunned and humbled by the gesture.
"When I went through the gate (at Melissa's house) the team was standing there with the Championship banner and plaque," Richard, who coached NPWLL softball back to the World Series in 1981, said. "I tried to control myself, but I couldn't help the tears welling up in my eyes … I love those girls and they know how I feel about them."
Retiring from coaching in 1984, Richard, a certified public accountant, became Umpire Palumbo. He spent the next 15 years calling softball and baseball games in North Providence West Little League.
Melissa, Lee-Ann and the rest of the 1979 Little League Softball World Series Champions understand and appreciate as adults the unique achievement of their childhood. "It was surreal," Lee-Ann said of the championship season and the reunion. "We were a great team with great coaches, but you don't realize all that until you grow up."