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'68 was great for National Little League

July 26, 1998

top photo: Courtest of Mike Brashears

bottom photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer

By GUY FLETCHER / Staff Writer

Thirty years later, the memories of the games, the practices and the good times come rushing back, clearly and fondly.

They remember Dave Wade's clutch home run in the divisional finals and Mike Brashears' amazing control as a pitcher. They remember Dick Haupt's unbelievable fielding and Mike Small's work behind the plate. They remember Mark Smith's power and his heartbreaking injury.

They also remember how the community rallied around them and how they were welcomed home as champions.

--cont from front page--

They are the members of the Hagerstown National Little League team that in the summer of 1968 put together an amazing string of 11 wins in row and earned a berth in the Little League World Series.

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A national television documentary on local Little League play, to air this Thursday at 9 :30 p.m. on ABC, has rekindled interest in the 1968 team. Some players and coaches were interviewed for the show, giving them a chance to once again recall their glory days.

"As the years go by, that experience that we had became more and more exciting and special," said Brashears, now an executive with Brethren Mutual Insurance Co.

During the 1968 regular season, the Nationals, each of them 11 or 12 years old, played for different teams, representing sponsors like the Moose, Burger Chef and Pepsi-Cola. The best players on those squads were brought together as an all-star team, and manager Ron Phillips knew he had a good one.

"We knew we had selected a good field of youngsters," Phillips said.

Because there were fewer local Little Leagues in those days, the boys came from a wide area, including Hagerstown's South End, Boonsboro, Mt. Lena and points in between. Most came from working-class families, where fathers held blue-collar jobs and mothers stayed home to raise their families.

One of their best players was Brashears, then a 12-year-old right-handed pitcher.

'68 champs: now"I wasn't very large. I couldn't throw the ball by anyone," said Brashears.

But with control and finesse, he posted remarkable statistics through the regular season: a 9-0 record, 138 strikeouts and a miniscule .013 earned-run average.

He was nearly as proficient as a hitter, compiling a .542 average that was second in the league and posting a league-leading 10 home runs.

"In all my 12 years in the Little League, I have yet to see a player that has the all-around abilities of Brashears. He can pitch with the best of them and play any position on the diamond with authority," Phillips said in the Aug. 1, 1968, edition of The Morning Herald.

The best hitter on the team was Smith, a left fielder described in the newspaper then as a "lanky, five foot, eight inch slugger." During the regular season Smith hit a league-high .575, while also topping the statistics in hits (38), runs (31) and doubles (10).

Teammates recalled that when Smith did make an out, it was usually a hard-hit ball.

"He was like the aircraft carrier we could all get aboard," said Small, the starting catcher for the team.

But the Nationals were not a one- or two-boy team. They featured many punishing hitters, speedy runners and solid fielders. And they prided themselves on their understanding and execution of the fundamentals of the game.

"We all knew how to play ball. There wasn't one person who dominated the team," Smith said.

Much of the team's success is often credited to Phillips, coach Ed Owens and other adults in the league who helped prepare the boys for postseason play. The players were repeatedly drilled on bunting, sliding and other finer points of the game.

"They really taught you the fundamentals of baseball and they also showed you discipline," said reserve outfielder Rick Lapole.

Perhaps a larger reason for the team's foundation in baseball's basics had to do with the era in which they grew up. In 1968, there were few distractions to keep a 12-year-old boy off a baseball diamond - no Nintendo 64, no soccer, nothing to keep him from spending a day hitting, catching and throwing.

"I was on the ball field every day of my life. That's what we did," Lapole said.

And they did it together, often with a lot of hard work and some fun. They had nicknames for each other, like Rabbit, Goose and Turtle. For good luck, they would rub Brashears' red head before games. After victories, they would douse Phillips' head with pitchers of water.

"Those guys cared about each other and what happened," said Jane Smith, Mark Smith's mother.

Center fielder Greg Haupt remembered the team's chant: "Let the chips fall where they may, it's National all the way."

Haupt said in addition to talent and coaching, the team exuded a quiet confidence, but without being cocky. They simply played as if they knew they were going to win, he said.

"I think the whole attitude all the time was we were a team, we were a unit, and we never considered losing," Haupt said.

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