‘It’s long overdue’
When 95-year-old Willie Andrade sits down at the Onset VFW and looks around, he doesn’t think about the decades-old building, or the outdoor pavilion or the parking lot out back.
He remembers baseball.
Andrade is the last surviving member of the Wareham Portuguese-American Club, the Cape Verdean baseball team that called the patch of land under the VFW home in the 1940s and 1950s.
That’s where Andrade played first and second base with the team. The VFW’s address, 4 Gibbs Ball Park Road, pays homage to the team’s original sandlot: Gibbs Field.
Families and friends gathered Saturday afternoon at the Onset VFW to honor Andrade and 28 of his fellow players. The setting is particularly poetic, organizer Walter Cruz pointed out, as more than 80% of the players were veterans.
Cruz remembers when his older brother would play on the field while he, a 9-year-old boy, watched.
“The kids used to run out in the woods,” Cruz said, describing how kids watching ball games in the mid-20th century would look for fly balls in the forest. The woods, he said, marked the home-run barrier.
Months ago, Cruz and Andrade began the work of formulating a list of all the players Andrade could remember and reaching out to those players’ families. They wanted to do something to honor the team, and it wasn’t long before Cruz came up with the idea of handing out plaques.
In the Onset VFW on Saturday, several dozen family members and friends filled the hall, laughing as Andrade recounted memories of the late players, and at times, tearing up as he talked about how much he missed them.
Granddaughters and the daughter of center fielder Benny Leighton said they heard about the ceremony from reading Wareham Week, and they contacted Cruz to learn more.
“We’ve heard stories,” granddaughter Jennifer Glisper said of her grandfather’s time playing ball.
Leighton’s daughter, Juanita Leighton, said at one point the Boston Red Sox tried to recruit her father.
“I think it was a lovely experience,” fellow granddaughter Rachel Glisper said, adding that “it’s long overdue” for the players to be recognized.
Before handing out plaques to families, Cruz, Andrade and fellow organizer Tiny Lopes spoke to the history of the team and Gibbs Field. The team played against other Cape Verdean teams from Mashpee, Marion and even Connecticut, the men said.
Later, as family members accepted plaques in honor of their fathers and grandfathers, Andrade bestowed families with memories of his former teammates.
One player was a “hell of a hitter,” Andrade assured one family, while he told others that one teammate was always good at covering many different positions.
Andrade’s and Cruz’s memories of the local Portuguese-American team are more than sentimental — they both remember how good the team was, too. So good, in fact, that when they finally got around to playing the white Wareham team on the Wareham field, the Cape Verdean team won.
“They were rated right up there,” Cruz said. “They were one of the tops around.”