Sports by Tim Martin Dedicated to the game

North Coast Journal

JULY 1995 - SPORTS


 

Dedicated to the Game

by Tim Martin

Some people need to hear a certain sound of music from a familiar song to feel a rush of emotion. Others might require the scent of a special perfume. With Lou Bonomini, it just takes only two little words:

Play ball!

Without embarrassment, Bonomini, 79, will confess his passion for baseball - the tension, the strategy, the players in their positions, a ball whacked sharply and sent whistling softly overhead. He will explain how nine innings of baseball leaves him feeling as though he has just stepped out of a bracing shower. He will tell you that watching baseball is like falling in love - you want the sensation to last forever.

Which, in Bonomini's case, it has.

He has long been a mythical figure in the history of North Coast baseball: a working-class hero who has led the Humboldt Crabs to 17 state championships; a genius who has created legends with a ball and glove; a team manager with a reputation for being unselfish and unassuming.

In his five decades with the Humboldt Crabs he has been a fund-raiser, scout, batting coach, fielding coach, infield coach, player and manager.

Bonomini doesn't like to talk about himself. He would rather tell you about other Crabs volunteers, like Don Terbush, Ned Barsuglia and the late Fred Papin, who mended team uniforms and groomed the ballpark like a prize animal. Bonomini would rather brag about the businesses that employed the ballplayers for the last 50 years.

The Humboldt Crabs got their debut on June 17, 1945 - the day they played their first game against the Scotia Lumberjacks.

"The ball club, which was sponsored by the Paladini Wholesale Fish firm in its first few seasons, was loaded with local talent," said Bonomini. "We defeated Scotia 21-2 at Albee Stadium in Eureka, and went on to finish that first season with an 11-5 record."

Bonomini recalled the Crabs spent most of the 1950s playing in Albee Stadium at Eureka High School.

"Most of the night games were played at the Arcata Ballpark because it was lighted," said Bonomini. "Our main competition in those days came from teams like Redding, Santa Rosa and Medford, Ore."

Leading a ball club was no simple task, especially for a young man who was working in the woods as a faller and bucker, operating a store in Eureka (Bonomini's Market) and raising a family.

"I played with the team for the first 10 years," Bonomini recalled. "My position was left field.

"Back then the Crabs had a roster of 15 to 18 players. We played Saturday and Sunday, and worked out twice a week. The boys also worked 40-hour-a-week jobs."

His wife, Elvira or "Vera," remembers those days. Simpler times. Back when players seemed cut from plain cloth and America itself was still young and raw boned. The sport had not yet been bruised by greed and labor woes.

"There were plenty of jobs back then," said Vera. "It might have been pulling green chain, or painting a house, or working in the woods, but the boys never complained. They would do anything to play ball."

"Those who came to play with the Crabs had three responsibilities," added Bonomini. "They were responsible to their job, the ball club and the community. That's what it took to play on the team."

He was a firm believer in teaching fundamentals, both on and off the field. The team learned from working hard, competing fairly and coexisting with the people of Humboldt County. And each man emerged, not only as a good ball player, but as what André Malraux once described as that rarest thing in the world: a mature man.

"We played a pretty good round of ball," said Bonomini. "Dane Iorg was a good ball player. Randy Nieman pitched for me for one year. Andy Oliveria, Wally Scott, Rico Pastori … " Bonomini halted in mid-thought.

"The club had lots of good ball players. I hate to name just a few."

Each Crab game was an inspiration for him. The world of semi-pro baseball became a part of him. He lived it, played it and made Crabs baseball his life.

Vera recalls the stands filled to capacity, the grass green and inviting, manicured to an eyelash, the sweet aroma of hot dogs and beer.

And the Crabs playing great baseball: The crack of the bat. Long drives to deep center. Diving catches. Homers sailing over the fence. The opposing team's coach staring at the scoreboard in disbelief.

"It was a lot of work," said Vera, "but it was a lot of fun, too. Sure, I got frustrated at times, because I had a family and small ones. Still, I wouldn't have had it any different. Baseball is Lou's biggest love. That always came first. The family had to cooperate, and the family did cooperate."

Throughout the 1950s the Crabs roster remained much the same - mostly a collection of local talent. The Bonominis did their best to keep the team alive through ticket sales and concessions.

"I took care of the children when he was on out-of-town games," said Vera. "I sewed uniforms and helped out during home games."

In the 1960s the Crabs gained a national reputation and evolved into a grooming school for college players. Recruits began to pour in from across the country. Some arrived with not enough money for their next meal. But no ballplayer ever went hungry, Lou and Vera saw to that. They tended the team like it was their own baby - powdered, lotioned and loved.

"Louie was a motivator," said Ed Oliveria, who played 13 seasons for the Crabs. "He was a person who led by example. He was concerned about his players. He got them jobs, fed them and let them live at his house.

"Vera patched uniforms, fed ballplayers and did the laundry of the ones who stayed with them. It was more than just a team to them - Lou and Vera took those kids in as their own."

"When they didn't have any place to go, they stayed with the manager," said Vera. "When the house was full, we pitched a tent for them behind the store. Some of them stayed there all summer."

The Crabs' reputation rose like a rocket. They became unsinkable, unflappable, unshakable and unstoppable.

"Louie was always positive as a coach," said Oliveria. "Not negative at all. The only criticism I ever heard was that he wasn't using enough local players. During the '40s and '50s, he brought in key players. He wanted the Crabs to be a top notch team. Louie wanted top-flight baseball in Humboldt County."

According to Oliveria, better quality competition in national semipro ball forced Bonomini to recruit college players from California, Oregon and Washington. The Crabs were no longer just playing teams from Northern California. Now their competition came from San Francisco, as well as from Florida and Alaska.

"You never will have a great baseball club unless you start scouting around for ball players," said Bonomini. "You might find three or four local players that were real good. We needed more than that. That's why we brought guys in."

As the club grew in size and strength, so did the burden of management. Bonomini soon found himself in need of help and called on his good friend, Ned Barsuglia.

For Barsuglia, volunteering for duty with the Crabs was like strolling into the tar pits at La Brea. He went in for a quick season or two, and 35 years later he was still there.

"Ned came in the early '60s," said Bonomini. "I coached the players, and Ned scouted college recruits, lined up sponsors and found summer jobs. Ned's done a good job. He's had it all by himself for the last seven or eight years."

Under Bonomini and Barsuglia, the Crabs became the National Baseball Congress Champions in 1961, 1963-77 and West of the Rockies Tournament Champions from 1982-1985. Their best finish nationally was in 1964. All these winning teams were stocked with top college players and former minor leaguers.

"Everybody liked the program," said Barsuglia. "We always treated the kids right. We gave them a place to stay. The college coaches liked our program. It is one of the finest west of the Mississippi."

In addition to providing the North Coast with a class brand of baseball, Bonomini and Barsuglia developed young ballplayers to the point where many advanced into professional baseball and the major leagues.

"We didn't have to push them," said Barsuglia. "These kids were dedicated. They knew what it took to get to the majors. They came here to work, to improve themselves."

Altogether, the Crabs have sent 38 players into professional baseball. Of those players, the biggest group came from the 1970s, where 17 players found their way to the majors: Stars such as Randy Niemann (Houston), Greg Shanahan (Los Angeles), Dane Iorg (St. Louis), Terry Sheehan (Minnesota), Sandy Vance (Los Angeles) Bruce Benedict (Atlanta), Bruce Bochte (Seattle), Steve Davis (Chicago), Olin, Harkey and Hernandez (Yankees) ...

"In our 50 years of existence the Crabs have won 1,579 games and lost just 502," said Barsuglia. "And a lot of those games were against the nation's best teams. We also have 17 state championships and five third-place finishes in the National Baseball Congress Tournament at Wichita, Kan. In the 21 times we have gone back to Kansas, we have always been in the top eight."

"The last 10-15 years, the majors' scouts have come to see the Crabs play," said Bonomini. "They realized that we must have something here that they have to see."

Baseball is a game that must always be played out to conclusion. Bonomini and Barsuglia had done just that for 50 years. And now they were tired.

"It was time that someone else took over the program," said Barsuglia.

"Lou, Don (Terbush) and I lived the Crabs 24 hours a day for years. My wife, Dolly, had been a good supporter, too. She had put up with me being on the road for all those summers. (But) I just said, `Hey, if we don't find someone, I'm going to have to quit.'"

The story was supposed to end here, sadly, but a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity: Once the announcement was made about the demise of the Crabs, volunteers began to step forward. In five decades of local baseball there has never been a greater tribute to the team. For Bonomini and Barsuglia it was an emotional day.

"It's nice to see the Crabs continue," said Bonomini. "I just hope they keep up the same quality of ball players. It's a job. You gotta be dedicated. ..."

"The new people? I hope they have Crabs in their heart," added Barsuglia. "Think Crabs. Think a good successful program. The fans expect the Crabs to win. June 10th will be the start of the 51st season. We're going to have a good team. We should - I recruited them."

Somewhere in Humboldt County, at this moment, a 10-year-old boy stands at home plate, bat poised over his shoulder, cap pulled down over his eyes, waiting for the next pitch. He doesn't play for money or fame. He plays for the joy of the game.

He is just beginning to understand what Lou Bonomini and Ned Barsuglia have known since they were his age - that baseball is the most perfect of games, solid, true, and precious as diamonds.



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