Kids and grownups alike have been swinging bats at balls since Brookfield’s earliest days, back in the 1890s. Local organizations, such as Brookfield’s Lodge #693 International Order of the Odd Fellows even got up their own volunteer teams to play against out-of-town teams.
Early teams played in Congress Park, and up until the 1920s also at a site on the southwest corner of Maple and Fairview avenues. Here a playing field was laid out and maintained by interested parties, and even a grandstand was built. No photos of it are known to have survived.
There was nothing organized for kids, however. They just went and picked out a lot somewhere, and everybody brought any kind of equipment they owned, whether it be a battered bat, splitting-seamed ball, or a glove too big or too small for fingers to hold onto or wiggle into. Bases could be made out of anything lying around-mom’s best frying pan, a scrap of wood or a piece of paper, weighted down by a rock. When the Depression came, maybe the glove and ball would be so taped up and nearly unrecognizable.
Though the equipment was less than perfect, the kids-usually boys-showed their same old enthusiasm, shouting, yelling, arguing and astonishing their mothers with their post-game filthiness. Perhaps the girls weren’t quite so rowdy, but there were some who loved baseball, too.
Back in 1930, S.E. Gross School student Mary Witzman was on the school’s Girls Baseball Team, and proud to show off her batting stance and swing. Teacher Hazel Lyons acted as coach. At that time, the school’s baseball field was located just went of the school building. A couple of decades later, and after, when the playground was all paved, signs on the side of the school proclaimed “No Ball Playing.” Wisely, ground floor level windows were screened off, because this rule was almost impossible to enforce.
After World War II, the little “baby booming” boys took up baseball, and, before 1950, an aerial photo view showed that a primitive ball field had already been laid out and used at the corner of Brookfield and Arden avenues. No, there were no lights, no fences, no refreshment stand, and maybe even the bases weren’t spaced correctly. If there were bases. But there was baseball life in Kiwanis Park, before the formal appearance of the Little League.
The concept of an organized Little League was invented in 1939, and eventually came to the village in 1952, with spring training for interested boys beginning on Monday, April, 28, at 6:30 p.m. Little League President Irving Eiserman told the Brookfield Enterprise newspaper in the April 10 issue that training would be held every day except for Sundays, until May 10.
From May 12-15, player tryouts were held for team positions, and there were to be four different teams formed. Some 275 boys registered for the tryouts. Little League rules specified that there be a player auction, where managers could bid “points or trading dollars” to acquire more skilled players. Practice sessions then went on from May 20-27. Opening day for the season was Decoration Day, which is today known better as Memorial Day.
On Decoration Day, Friday, May 30, at 2 p.m., spectators gathered at the diamond in Kiwanis Park. Village President Dan Kulie threw out the first ball, opening the season, and, indeed, Little League baseball in Brookfield. Four teams of 15 regular players, each team with three additional alternates, played a double header that afternoon, sponsored by the Lions Club, the Amvets, the American Legion and the VFW Post 2868.
It must have been really something to see, as the Enterprise for June 5 reported that “a large crowd was on hand Friday to cheer the youngsters on in a double header that was marked by many outstanding plays.”
Unfortunately, the paper failed to record who the winners of the games were.
Remember the girls? They were, apparently, still going strong with their own unofficially recognized league teams, as the June 5 Enterprise headlined an article: “Brookfield Girls Softball League Opens Play Sunday.”
It seems the Brookfield team was playing the East Chicago Stars that Sunday, June 8, at the Kiwanis Park diamond. The Brookfield Girls Club team had played at least the year previously, and who knows how much longer before that? By June 19, they were “trouncing” the Whiting, Indiana Corkers, and about to engage the Gary, Indiana Chicks.
Girls’ baseball didn’t come into official league play here until 1974, and since that time, it has come to some fame. As local Little League Baseball Legend Roy Alden Overholt put it, “Well, in the first 15 years, we won seven state championships at different levels, and that means we are the state capital of girls softball for Illinois.”
The boys league stood the test of time, and very soon the Farm and Pony Leagues came into existence, followed in 1962 by the Babe Ruth League for the older boy players. Right from the beginning, the Kiwanis Park field had been built by volunteer labor and donations. In 1953, the Brookfield Kiwanis Club donated the dugouts for the players.
Undoubtedly the most productive volunteer that the Brookfield Little League has ever had is the aforementioned Roy Overholt (some players call him simply, “Mr. O.”) Why? Well, let’s get in a few stats first.
A local boy from the beginning, Overholt was born in the Hollywood section of Brookfield on May 1, 1924, and lived for many years at 3851 McCormick Ave. He went to Hollywood School, Hauser Junior High, and then on to Riverside-Brookfield High School, graduating in 1942. He served in the Army from 1942-45, and then married Audrey Lavenau of Riverside on Jan. 24, 1948 at the Concordia Lutheran Church in Berwyn.
For several years the happy couple lived in Brookfield, at an apartment at 9220 Ogden Ave. In 1956, after Overholt had son number two, Gary, the family moved to Bridgeview. But he couldn’t stay away from Brookfield. In August, 1961, he moved back to a house only a few doors away from his childhood home, on McCormick Avenue. Today he lives on Arden Avenue, right across from Kiwanis Park.
Back in Bridgeview, he got involved in the Little League, both because he was a baseball buff and because of his sons. He served as manager from 1956-61 in both the Bedford Park minor league and the Summit-Argo-Bedford Park-Bridgeview Little League.
Once back in Brookfield in 1961, he became first a coach of the Buresh’s Lobster House team, and a year later, in 1961, became the team’s manager in mid-season. Winning many championships with his boys, his name soon became synonymous with baseball in Brookfield.
He got involved with the nuts-and-bolts of the game, too. Going to White Sox seminars, he learned how to fix ballfields. No job was too big or too small for him. Soon he was helping plan and install the lights at the fields in Kiwanis and Ehlert parks, wiring the scoreboard sign at Kiwanis Park, spraying weed killer when needed, and even keeping the popcorn machines at both parks’ refreshment stands in operation.
Currently going on at the Kiwanis Park field (named Overholt Field in his honor in 1981) is the Roy A. Overholt Invitational Tournament. Overholt began this himself in 1964, asking winning teams from area leagues to come and play here, as a kind of Little League World Series.
“When I decided to try out a tournament,” said Overholt, “nobody knew if it was going to work out.”
But it did. Being completely self-supporting and charging an entry fee, it became an annual event. In 1969, Overholt “retired” from the Little League, but was named a life member of the Little League, and also at this time, the name of the Roy A. Overholt Invitational Tournament became solidified.
Overholt has received a few other honors over the years. At an official dinner on Sept. 15, 1981, he was declared and awarded the distinction of being the Citizen of the Year by the Brookfield Kiwanis Club. In the autumn of 2004, he received the Riverside-Brookfield High School Medal of Achievement.
Though he has been mightily pleased to received these honors, it has changed him little. Even today, he still goes over to the Kiwanis Park and Ehlert Park fields, taking care of the baseball diamonds, and doing it for the kids, surely, but also for his own pure love of the game.
So from its earliest days, baseball in Brookfield has been a volunteer operation; from the olden days when grubby kids on vacant lots all shared beat up bats, balls, and gloves, to today’s selfless volunteers who just like to see the game go on, hoping to forever hear the umpire shout those immortal words “Play ball!”