Jim Pankovits, manager of the Cleveland Indians’ short-season Class A team in Mahoning Valley, Ohio, listened Monday morning as the description of the final inning of a Little League Baseball game played 50 years ago was read from a yellowed newspaper clipping.
Pankovits, 62, didn’t need the play-by-play.
“I remember just about everything,” he said.
Pankovits was one of the stars on the Tuckahoe team that advanced to the championship game of the 1968 Little League World Series. The opponent from Japan led Tuckahoe 1-0 in the sixth and last inning before about 15,000 people in Williamsport, Pa.
Gray Oliver singled. Pankovits singled. With runners on first and second and two outs, right-handed hitter Johnny Mizelle drove a tailing liner to right field.
“First pitch. Hit it on the button. Hit a rope,” Oliver said Monday. “I score. Pank scores. That should be it.”
Japan’s right fielder, Nobuhiko Funaoka, made a diving catch to end the game.
“He kind of turned it into an ESPN play before there was ESPN,” Pankovits said.
This month five decades ago, the Tuckahoe All-Stars began their run, which ended with that Aug. 24 loss to Japan in Williamsport. Pankovits described the defeat as “crushing.” But he added: “The reception we received in Richmond when we came home took a lot of the sting out of it. We had no idea of the interest of the city.”
Readers of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Richmond News Leader followed the postseason success of the team — made up mostly of 12-year-olds — through regional competitions in West Virginia and Florida. The News Leader ran bios of each player, listing his parents, address and baseball achievements. Team expenses of about $5,200 were covered primarily by contributions.
Tuckahoe Little League’s three Little League World Series games were broadcast by the radio station WRNL, and the title game was televised with a tape delay by ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” There was a parade held on Broad Street in honor of Tuckahoe upon its return to Richmond, and the team was saluted before a Richmond Braves game at Parker Field.
From the Little League Baseball headquarters in Williamsport, Tuckahoe Little League obtained a copy of the TV broadcast of the 1968 championship game. That was shown outdoors on a big screen at Tuckahoe Park in Henrico County last month, with seven members of the 1968 team present.
According to the president of Tuckahoe Little League, Brydon DeWitt, there was an effort made earlier this year to organize a reunion of the 1968 team around a Richmond Flying Squirrels game. That didn’t develop for various reasons. DeWitt said Monday that it’s possible a golden anniversary commemorative event tied to a Squirrels game could occur later in the summer.
Oliver, who played baseball and football at the College of William & Mary, hopes to get as many of the team members as possible together in Richmond later this summer, but he recognizes that “a bunch of 60-year-olds are already committed to other things in their 60-year-old worlds.”
The Tuckahoe team won 13 consecutive postseason games in a single-elimination format to reach the championship game of the Little League World Series.
“To lose a game wasn’t even in the consciousness,” said Pankovits, a star at Douglas Freeman High School, an All-American at the University of South Carolina, and big league infielder for six years in Houston and Boston.
In the postseason, Roger Miller pitched five no-hitters and averaged 12 strikeouts. Oliver recalls Miller having remarkable control with a strong fastball, a curve and a change-up.
“Nobody knew what a change-up was in Little League,” Oliver said of hitters dealing with Miller.
Miller also hit three two-run home runs in an 8-5 win over Canada in the Little League World Series semifinals, and totaled nine homers in the tournament.
“We were, in some respects, in awe of him and what he was accomplishing,” Pankovits said of Miller. “It was mind-boggling, all of the no-hitters and the home runs. No telling what would have happened if he had stayed with baseball.”
Miller moved to New England and became a high school soccer standout. He died in 2010, at 54, in Maine. He apparently contracted hepatitis C from blood transfusions in the 1970s. Miller received the transfusions while he was being treated for injuries he suffered in a car accident, according to his sister, Karen Vanek, who talked to The Times-Dispatch after her brother’s death.
The team’s coach, Wes Voltz, died in 2011. During the Little League World Series, he said, “We have the most aggressive hitters in the tournament. They just hate to walk.” Even when Tuckahoe won coin flips before games, Voltz chose to bat first.
Pankovits has spent nearly his entire professional life in baseball, as a player, coach, manager or player development executive, and said that the 1968 experience of reaching the Little League World Series “ranks right up there. Every year — just like this phone call from you — I hear about it. To think back on what was accomplished and how rare it was, it makes it seem even more special every year.”
Tuckahoe also reached the Little League World Series in 1976 (shared third place) and 1993 (0-3 pool play). The 1968 team is the only Little League team from Virginia to play in the World Series title game.