Baseball

My Dad: A Little League Big Shot

When it comes to my family’s baseball gene pool, I ended up in the shallow end.

With a pair of water wings.

Whereas I didn’t hit my growth spurt or figure out how to really hit a baseball (keep your head down!) until it was far too late, my younger brother, John, was a perennial youth league all-star and an all-conference performer during high school.

And my dad?

Well, he was all-everything.

My Pop, throwing filth

During college in the 1960s, my father, Joe, excelled as a pitcher at Kankakee High School and then Illinois State University. Excelled so well, in fact, that after earning his sheepskin from ISU he was plucked out of the Major League draft by the San Francisco Giants and dispatched to a minor league gig in Medford, Ore., where he lived out his dream.

Spending his days spinning curveballs under the Oregon and Idaho sun, my dad competed against the likes of future Major Leaguers such as Ron Cey and Doyle Alexander, the latter of which he defeated when Alexander was a peach-fuzzed 17-year-old making his minor league debut for the L.A. Dodgers.

With the Giants, my dad played alongside teammates that included George Foster, who won the 1977 NL MVP with the fabled “Big Red Machine,” and Leo Mazzone, who rose to fame as pitching coach for the 1990s Atlanta Braves featuring Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine.

Unfortunately, for my dad, his own career came to an abrupt halt when midway through his second season in Medford he injured his pitching elbow and never recovered.

“I needed Tommy John surgery,” my dad has said many times. “They just didn’t have it yet.”

If they did, it might be known as “Joe Wischnowsky” surgery today.

Nevertheless, despite the sour end to his playing days, my dad came home with plenty of sweet stories from the final years of his baseball career.

Although it’s always been the beginning that’s fascinated me the most.

Because, 50 years ago this summer, my then 12-year-old dad first broke onto the hardball scene in a starring role for one of the greatest Little League teams to emerge from the Land of Lincoln.

Ever.

In 1958, my father’s Kankakee Jaycees All-Star team’s incredible postseason run led them from small-town Illinois to Williamsport, Pa., and, ultimately, to a berth in the title of game of the Little League World Series, where they faced the defending world champions from Moneterrey, Mexico.

In the U.S. Championship game prior to the title bout against the Mexicans, my dad took the mound against a Gadsden, Ala., featuring a flame-throwing pitcher by the lyrical name of Mackey Moats.

Moats, according to what one of his teammates told my dad back then, was known an avid weightlifter.

Even though he was only 11 years old.

Nevertheless, my dad defeated Moats and the boys from ‘Bama 3-1, providing me with what’s probably my favorite of all of his baseballl anecdotes.

Many of the rest of the Jaycees’ memories, however, were captured nicely this past Sunday in an article written by Steve Soucie of the Kankakee Daily Journal .

The story is posted below. And I just want to say, I’m proud of ya, Dad.

And I’m glad I never faced your curveball.

I wouldn’t have stood a chance.

50 years later, Jaycees are still Illinois’ best

By Steve Soucie

Assistant sports editor

When Little League’s postseason slate began in 1958, most of those in the know believed the Kankakee Jaycees entrant in the tournament wouldn’t even get out of town.

But in reality, the team was about to begin a journey that has never been bettered by an Illinois squad in Little League baseball history.

The tournament was a single-elimination event at every one of its stages in 1958, which required capable teams to never have a bad game or even a bad inning, lest their fate be decided with a loss.

Fortunately for the Jaycees, they were built in a fashion that wasn’t apt to allow that to happen. The club won 12-consecutive games using an iron man pitching staff of two arms to claim the U.S. Championship before losing a 10-1 decision to a loaded Monterrey, Mexico, team in the World Championship game.

Not bad for a team that was an underdog from the start.

The postseason begins

In 1958, the tournament began with a Sub-District, which was contested prior to the District Tournament. The Jaycees earned wins over Wilmington and Bradley to earn a berth in the District Tournament, but most, including some of the players themselves, believed the Kankakee Lions (now the Kankakee Knights of Columbus) might be too powerful to overcome.

“In the District Tournament, the Lions were supposed to be the team to beat,” Jaycees third baseman Mike DeBetta said. “They had some huge players.”

But Spring Valley took care of the Lions in District semifinal game, and the one-and-done format ended the so-called favorite’s run in their tracks. The Jaycees topped Coal City 12-0 in the other semifinal and then bested the upstarts from Spring Valley to move along.

The Jaycees had little trouble in the Sectional but ran into a bit a rough patch in the State Tournament, fending off tough teams from Marion and Evergreen Park to keep the dream alive.

Through it all, Don McKay and Joe Wischnowsky (who strangely went by the name of Wischnowski throughout his athletic career, never bothering to correct an erroneous spelling of his name) did all of the pitching. McKay threw a bit harder than Wischnowsky and would often throw the first game of the tournaments. Wischnowsky, armed with a surprisingly good curveball, would then pitch the second. The duo alternated between shortstop and pitching positions..

Only once was either of the two relieved for during tournament play — when McKay was forced out of the World Championship game after being plunked by a batted ball. Wischnowsky was unavailable having pitched in the U.S. title game, so outfielder Brian Adame was pressed into action.

“There’s no doubt Joe Wischnowsky was the better pitcher of the two of us,” McKay said from his home, just outside of Dallas, Texas. “Take a vote of the team and he’d win in a landslide.”

That tandem pitched back-to-back shutouts in wins over Gary, Ind., and Birmingham, Mich., at the Regional.

At that point, the team had achieved what basically nobody thought was possible — a berth in the Little League World Series.

At Williamsport

The format at the Little League World Series was just as unforgiving as the previous tournaments. One loss ousted a team from the tournament. The four U.S. qualifiers (Kankakee Jaycees, Darien, Conn., Gadsen, Ala., and Portland, Ore.) were joined by international representatives from Canada (Valleyfield, Quebec), Latin America (Monterrey, Mexico) and the Pacific (Honolulu, Hawaii). The Hawaiian team had to go through Pacific qualifying as Hawaii wouldn’t become a state for two more years.

The odd seven-team bracket had the Jaycees opening against the squad from Oregon. McKay locked horns with Portland‘s ace pitcher Rick Wise. Wise would later win 188 games in Major League Baseball with Philadelphia, St. Louis, Boston, Cleveland and San Diego.

But on that day, Wise was just another pitcher the Jaycees had to topple to keep the dream alive.

It was an epic battle.

Portland drew first blood with a run in the third inning, but DeBetta who emerged as a serious threat with the bat in the postseason, blasted a Wise offering over the fence for a game-tying tally.

“That was something,” DeBetta said. “I still get asked about that. I don’t hesitate to talk about it, either.”

The two teams stayed deadlocked until the sixth inning when Tom Fowler, the Jaycees strapping first baseman, connected for another home run off of Wise.

“I didn’t know him, of course, but what he did always left an impression on me, Rick Wise was at home plate congratulating Tom,” Wischnowsky said. “That’s sportsmanship. I don’t know if you’d see that today.”

McKay needed to get three more outs to get the Jaycees to the U.S. title game. He maneuvered that minefield successfully, and the Jaycees unbelievable run continued.

Alabama was next and the only team standing in the way of the U.S. title. Wischnowsky handcuffed Gasden for four innings before giving up a solitary run in the fifth. The Jaycees offense wasn’t exactly potent, either, but managed to turn two hits into three runs for a 3-1 victory.

Against Mexico

The U.S. title game was quickly followed by an opportunity to win the whole ball of wax. But Monterey, Mexico, the tournament’s defending champion, had overpowered each of its foes throughout the tournament and did so again, toppling the Jaycees 10-1 in the championship game.

“They were by far the class of the tournament,” Wischnowsky said. “What struck me was how mature some of them were. I think some of them were already shaving; it was like men against boys. We were hoping to beat them, but it was obvious pretty early on we weren’t going to.”

Hector Torres, a 9-year Major League veteran who played the 1971 season with the Cubs, stymied the Jaycees’ bats, limiting them to just three hits and a lone sixth-inning run, well after the outcome was decided.

But few, if any of the Jaycees, focus on the loss. For them, it’s about the journey that came before it.

“It was just a really fine collection of boys,” coach Gus LaRoche said. “We played great defense and we had really good pitching. It was something else. One loss and you were out. We didn’t get that loss until the last game.”

The celebration that ensued following the team’s return to Kankakee was impressive. A large contingent of team supporters caravaned the team back to Kankakee before a huge reception back at Beckman Park.

Banquets and other perks followed, including an on-field tour and recognition at Comiskey Park, where the team brushes elbows with Chicago White Sox greats Sherm Lollar and Nellie Fox.

“We knew it was it something special, but we were kids and we were just having fun, and I don’t think we realized the magnitude of what we were doing,” Wischnowsky said. “But as we look back, we realize it. I still get thrilled about it, even 50 years later.”

  • Mackey Moats… I will have to check my family tree to see if there is any relation… obviously the baseball talent must be on the other side of the moats family tree.

  • hhenao

    Just read this….that’s a cool story!

  • tep509

    What a great team effort and bunch of kids and coaches.
    If anyone has any video of the games in Williamsport, I’m interested in acquiring it. Video coverage at Williamsport had not yet begun so it’s difficult to find any film of the games.

  • Jacob Mellinger

    i am writing a thesis on the team from Kankakee and I was wondering if you had anymore information about there road to the world series