For over 60 years now, the Hertel North Park Youth Baseball League (HNPYBL) and Shoshone Park has been the place to be in North Buffalo for fun and excitement in the Summer time. Boys and girls ranging in age of three to sixteen have learned how to play baseball or softball in a tiny park on Hertel Avenue near Main Street, while growing up in North Buffalo. This season, close to 1,000 children are playing in a sport once considered America’s favorite pastime in a City which doesn’t even have a Major League team.
“We’re here to allow a child every opportunity to play baseball or softball within the city limits and be successful,” said North Buffalo Baseball president Donald Morris. According to the city, North Park baseball is the longest, consecutively running youth sports programs in Western New York, dating back to 1957 in Shoshone Park. “No child that wants to play is turned away,” Morris contends and the long-time president of the league who has steered this volunteer organization for over 25 years, maintains its commitment.
Every evening at 6:00 pm, while church bells chime in the air from neighboring Carmelite Monastery and St. Rose of Lima parish, umpires on as many as seven park diamonds yell “play ball” for games between area children, under the watchful eyes of volunteer coaches and managers, making sure the rules of the game are followed and a winner is proclaimed. Each game is six innings long but everyone gets a turn to bat and play the field. Regardless of the score, any child can come up with that big hit to left field or throw that third strike on the mound. It’s happened for thousands of area men and women, who have gone on to live comfortable lives in various professions but first, having played in Hertel North Park.
Afterward, there’s always a grilled hot dog or cheeseburger to enjoy from a concession stand. Games are held every night during the week and all day on Saturday. Some games are scheduled for eight o’clock pm on two Park diamonds where four light towers help illuminate the game after sundown. Welcome to Shoshone Park. North Buffalo’s version of a field of dreams for thousands of Western New Yorkers playing America’s game.
Morris hasn’t been the only one “swinging for the fences” everyday during baseball season. He has help from approximately 15 volunteers, men or women who carry out everything from scheduling team games, practices, finding umpires, chalking diamonds or selling team sponsors, just a few of the key components in having a good year. “I feel that we’re giving people the best in youth sports for their sons or daughters at affordable rates without a single hint of politics or garbage getting in the way, he confides. “It’s not a game when it comes to making people happy.”
In North Buffalo, the nickname for boys baseball is Blaze. The girls are known as Wildcats and on any visit to Shoshone Park, you’ll find boys and girls wearing either baseball shirts or caps with the word emblemized across the front. These are travel teams in various levels, depending on age. There are nine travel Blaze teams currently for boys and six Wildcats teams for girls. Any boy or girl playing on a travel team for North Buffalo must have a house league team, playing since the season starts the first weekend in May.
Currently there are as many as 60 house teams playing this season in Shoshone Park on as many as eight diamonds. Each team plays twice a week and depending on the weather, could win a league championship before the end of July. There’s no victory in a battle with Mother Nature. Rain can put a damper on things, but Morris and the 15 volunteers who serve as officers for the league, tells everyone to come to the Park unless a decision has been made.
A first time child registering this year can be as young as three or four years old. This is the best time to start a child into a league like North Buffalo. They would learn how to hit a baseball off a tee, catch, throw and run the bases. There’s 12 boys and 4 girls tee ball teams, numbering over 100 new faces this year to Shoshone Park.
Over the years, the Park has undergone many changes to benefit the Community. Though not a part of the Frederick Law Olmsted System, it has a unique charm to those who love baseball of softball. A flag pole, carrying the United States flag was erected several years ago and sits in front of the league’s headquarters. Every Saturday morning at 9:30 am, the National Anthem is played prior to the start of all games. There’s games scheduled until 5:30 pm, making for a full day of excitement in North Buffalo.
Just like the Pro’s also, the nicknames for boys and girls house team are Yankees, Mets, Blue Jays and Tigers. There are several Yankees teams, complete with the navy blue and silver colors, where you can cheer on your favorite teams. Everyone wants to be a Yankees team player, but children learn to have fun regardless of their team names or which friend they’re playing against.
After tee ball, a child grows into a rookie division made up of five to seven year olds. They learn how to hit a baseball or softball with the help of a battery powered machine placed on the mound of any diamond if needed. There are five girls rookie teams: Shamrocks, Rebels, Diamonds, Devils and Angels. Each girl or boy gets a chance to bat and learn a position on a diamond. A coach is nearby to help guide the player to successful play. Some in the Park contend that this division is the scene of many exciting games on any given night played by many just learning the game.
A lot of time has passed since the early days of the North Buffalo League. In the mid 1950’s, a group of men sat down and formally set out a plan to offer the sport of baseball to a community which consisted of hard working families striving to form friendships after their work was done. While Buffalo native and Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn was striking out New York Yankees for the Milwaukee Braves, these men were successful in using Shoshone Park as the site for their new league. Only four teams were formed in those early days, but the memories made of those times still last in the minds of those who played.
Since 2016, when the League celebrated its 60th season, a drive has been in place to reconnect with its past through memorabilia and artifacts. Old pictures, uniforms or even scrapbooks that were saved by families have been requested by Morris to help bridge a gap in the history of the league from the late fifties until the early 1980’s. In the 26 years since Morris has been President, he has seen the enrollment of the League nearly doubled from 500-600 to its number today of 936.
Since 1994, Shoshone Park has come alive at night with the construction of four light towers that were placed around diamond #1 near the parking lot. Now, two games could be played there on a given night, the second one beginning at 8:00 o’clock pm and being completed after dark. For those passing by Hertel Avenue, it’s a site to behold. A second diamond has also been put under the lights in 1997.
In all this history, Morris contends that there is still much more he would like to see happen for the league. While he isn’t privy to say, he does confess to still being happy about certain kids he’s coached in the Park. His teams have won regular seasons, divisions, playoffs, tournaments, and districts in those years but the faces of all his players have given him the most joy.
“The first Saturday in May is the best day of the year,” said Morris at this year’s Opening Day Celebration. “We’ve had the support of the City of Buffalo and Mayor Bryon Brown, the County and the Parks and Recreation Department. I can’t thank them enough but most of all I wish to thank the parents of all these children who bring their sons and daughters to Shoshone Park in order for all this to happen, It’s time to Play Ball.”