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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Lajoie’s work helped lead stadium into a new era

NASHUA – Fred Lajoie recalls getting a phone call a few years ago that included a request from out of the past. It was the mother of one of the Oakland players who competed in the Babe Ruth Bambino World Series at Holman Stadium in August, 1988.

She was asking to see if Lajoie had the video of the TV-13 broadcast of a game in which her son hit a big home run. He had become a minor leaguer in the Oakland Athletics farm system, but died of a stroke, and the video was to show her grandson. ...

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NASHUA – Fred Lajoie recalls getting a phone call a few years ago that included a request from out of the past. It was the mother of one of the Oakland players who competed in the Babe Ruth Bambino World Series at Holman Stadium in August, 1988.

She was asking to see if Lajoie had the video of the TV-13 broadcast of a game in which her son hit a big home run. He had become a minor leaguer in the Oakland Athletics farm system, but died of a stroke, and the video was to show her grandson.

“It was a call that came out of the blue,” Lajoie said, “but I found it and sent it out to her.”

Just the significance of that event is one of his contributions to the city’s youth sports community secured his induction into the Nashua Lions Club’s Holman Stadium Sports Legends Hall of Fame. There ceremony will take place before the annual fireworks show at Holman on July 4.

Also being inducted is the late former school official and coach Richard Belanger.

When Lajoie, who already has a youth baseball field named after him in the city, got the call from Ed Lecius of the Nashua Lions Club last week, he was surprised. His work as the longtime Bambino/Cal Ripken State Commissioner didn’t usually involve Holman Stadium.

Except in 1988, when he orchestrated and ran an event that made history, helping to pave the way for Holman as it now stands, as one of New England’s premier small ballparks.

“My involvement in Holman itself was fairly limited,” Lajoie said. “For that reason, it surprised me they elected me to this. Although that World Series was a major event, it was two weeks.

“But this is nice. There’s some heavy hitters up there.”

Heavy hitters that Lajoie helped get inducted as he was on the original Legends of Holman committee back in 2009.

Yet the Bambino Series was a signature event.

“Afterwards, I think (the city) really realized they needed to put some money into the facility,” Lajoie said. “I was kind of ashamed that what the people were sitting on was concrete. People from all over the country had seen what the stadium looked like. It was too bad.”

Despite all that, the event was a smashing success. How did Lajoie decide to try to have Nashua host a national event? He went to the Bambino World Series in Oakland, Calif., and didn’t think the job done was very well.

“They did not do a very good job in Oakland,” Lajoie said. “And I was concerned that as bad as it went it was a real black mark on this program (national Bambino baseball).”

He met with then-mayor James Donchess and expressed his ideas. The city had seen its affiliated minor league team, the Pirates, bolt a year earlier, and while not actively seeking a replacement, the idea of a national event would rejuvenate the baseball atmosphere. A pledge of $30,000 came from that meeting to get things going. The idea was sold.

There was one problem. The only organization or company willing to help sponsor the event was the city of Nashua itself, which gave Lajoie that $30,000. Lajoie was afraid he’d be stuck with any shortfall.

“My wife was really concerned,” Lajoie said. “If we didn’t make it – the cost was in the area of $130,000 – without a sponsor to back it up, the house was going. But fortunately the group we put together really brought in a lot of money.”

The tournament brought in big crowds, upwards of 2,000 some nights. There was no shortfall – in fact, there was a profit, enough for the city’s five Bambino leagues to split, about $4,000-$5,000 apiece.

Lajoie had an army of 400 volunteers working on the event.

“The program book had brought in $25,000 alone,” Lajoie said.

Ted Williams spoke to the Bambino players, a huge hit. Lajoie recalled that Williams told him if any adults showed up for the session, he was leaving.

“No adults, kids only,” Lajoie said Williams told him.

The event was so successful for Bambino Baseball that Nashua became the model for the event. Babe Ruth Baseball invited Lajoie to supervise subsequent World Series “when they would be worried about what that city was doing, to make sure it was going to be done properly.

“They evidently were very impressed with what we had done here. We set the example. Nobody had ever done it in a stadium,’’ he said.

Basically retired now but still a consultant locally, regionally and nationally, Lajoie, now 75, grins when he recalls how he got involved in youth baseball in the first place.

His sons were playing and his wife, Cecile, urged him to give up softball and “work with the kids.” So he checked out one of the fields they played on, Ledge Street, and said to himself, “You’ve got to be kidding. The kids are playing on this? This is worse than when I was a kid.”

Lajoie then went to work to improve things.

“I was in a unique position,” he said. “I was in construction. So I knew everybody in construction. I could get some work done on (the fields) for nothing.”

Dugouts, concession stand, a scoreboard and lights were installed at Ledge Street. Lajoie soon became a Bambino Baseball state official.

“The idea was to make it fun for the kids,” Lajoie said. “That’s how it started.”

Someone from Babe Ruth’s national headquarters got wind of what Lajoie had done and called him to see if he would start a 12-year-old program in New Hampshire. He said he’d give it one year.

“And now here we are, all these years later,” he said with a chuckle.

Lajoie’s efforts to improve Holman didn’t stop with the World Series. In fact, that jump-started his and others’ interest to try to see if minor league baseball could return to Holman, and he was the vice-chairman of a committee to seek out a team. A deal was in place with then-owner of the New Britain Red Sox Joe Buzasto to lure Boston’s Double A affiliate from to Holman if $250,000 in renovations, mostly covered by the team’s rent, could be completed.

However, the Board of Alderman nixed the deal Lajoie had negotiated.

“I really regret they never took that offer,” Lajoie said, adding he is still perplexed that professional baseball hasn’t been able to succeed in Nashua.

“We could have had the Red Sox and instead of playing in Portland, Maine, they’d be playing in Nashua.”

Eventually, three independent league organizations, most notably the Pride for a decade, called Holman home.

And today, Holman is a far different place. His family, including grandchildren, will be in a luxury suite at the stadium on the night of July 4, a structure that no one could have envisioned in 1988.

“That’s a big, big change from what we did in that 1988 World Series,” he said. “I can take an elevator to the thing. That’s unbelievable. It’s unbelievable what they’ve done up there.

“And the Silver Knights look good. They’ve got the (Lowell) Spinners behind them, and they get a pretty good crowd.”

Lajoie thinks back to the final day of the Bambino World Series, how he felt after that last pitch when Oakland beat Jackson, Miss., for the title.

“I was major relieved,” he said. “I asked my financial guy, ‘How’d we make out?’ He said, ‘You’re in the black.’ Thank god. We went overboard, we probably spent more money than we had to. But I wanted everybody who was here to understand when they left they had been through an unbelievable experience.

“At the time, it was the best one Babe Ruth had ever done. They told me that, and they still tell me that.”