Planes, games and Bernie Tomzak

The following is another "Have Fun or Get Out of the Way" column by Don Leighton and Mike Granlund and their alter egos, Lance Boyle and Billy Pirkola, which runs occasionally in The Daily Telegram.

The following is another "Have Fun or Get Out of the Way" column by Don Leighton and Mike Granlund and their alter egos, Lance Boyle and Billy Pirkola, which runs occasionally in The Daily Telegram.

In last Saturday's column entitled "The Improbable dream of 1959," we brought you the story of 14 11- and 12-year-old Little League baseball players who achieved great things -- they are the only Little League team from Superior to win the Wisconsin State Championship.

We were able to hunt down many of them and get their impressions of that magical season and of the men who coached them, Ray Thillman and Bernie Tomzak.

This team came within an eyelash of the ultimate goal of every Little League player in the world: the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Penn.

Here are the recollections of 12 members of that team. We were unable to reach Tom McCauley, and Tony Depta passed away in August of 1999. Sit back, put your feet up, remember, and reminisce with Lance and Billy, the time when baseball was king, life was simple, and dreams came true.


  • Pat Longrie lives in Temicula, Calif., and has a team photo of the 1959 stars on a wall in his home.

"That was a fun year that you just can't forget," Longrie said. "I played center field and coach Tomzak moved me to third base in our first all-star practice. He must have hit me a million ground balls and he hit them hard. He made me into a third baseman.
"Our team combined speed, left-handed bats and the ability to bunt for base hits. Because of our speed, we were able to beat Marquette, who had two pitchers at least six feet tall. The team chemistry was fantastic and everyone contributed to our success. We had lots of great players and two great coaches."

  • Chuck Mahaffey heads the geology department at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., and remembers the confidence he and his mates had because of the preparation of Tomzak and Thillman.

"We were always prepared and I can't remember Bernie making a mistake," Mahaffey said. "He always made the right moves. Our team was smaller than everyone we played, but we were better prepared in the fundamentals and little things that win or lose games. Bernie was ahead of his time and had us playing at a level that could not be matched. He molded that team."

  • Gordy Mossberger still lives in Superior and considers Tomzak a "great coach."

"I played for Bernie for three years, he turned me into a switch hitter and taught me how to bunt to take advantage of my speed," Mossberger said. "One of my fondest memories is playing in Bessemer, Mich., on one of the nicest fields I have ever seen. In fact, on our honeymoon, my wife, Judy, and I stopped to look at the field.
"We had car caravans of parents and fans coming from Superior to watch us play. Mr. and Mrs. Peck were so supportive of us and Chuck McCauley took a ton of photos. Coach Tomzak taught us discipline and how to concentrate.

"I loved Bernie as a coach. We were better than anyone we played in the fundamentals of the game: cut-offs, bunts, first and third situations, stealing, getting a jump on the ball defensively, all of the little things. He was a winner as a coach and he is a winner as a person."

  • Jim Waletzko lives in Superior and remembers all of the fun he had. The plane ride is something he vividly remembers. In fact, he became ill and Ray Thillman should not have been sitting where he was. He remembers Tomzak and Thillman as "pleasant, friendly and it was a real honor to practice and play for them."
  • Bob Johnson lives in Superior and did not have the same problem Waletzko had with Thillman.

"The experience was something I will never forget," Johnson said. "We all had so much fun and the summer of '59 is one summer I will never forget. I still watch the Little League World Series every year. I love Bernie Tomzak. He was a great coach that was tough, but we respected him. I remember, very vividly, he hit the ball really hard in practice."

  • Jim Liebaert's "fondest" memory was when Larry Raymond threw up on him.

He recalls, "The parents and businesses in town raised money so we could travel to our games," Liebaert said. "It wasn't cheap to fly and without the support of the community, we could not have done what we did. I coached third base much of the time and sent many runners home. Bernie and the 1959 team should be considered for Superior Hall of Fame Induction. I have a lot of great memories."

  • Pat Walsh's fondest memory is the state championship game against North Shore Milwaukee.

"They were really cocky and big," Walsh said. "You could tell they thought beating us would be easy. Beating them and winning the trophy was great."
As for plane memories, Walsh said, "Most of us got sick on the plane. Only one of us had ever flown before, so it was not pretty. The puddle jumper we flew from Kansas City to St. Joseph, Mo., made most of us sick."

Walsh also recalls, "Bernie would take the time to work with everybody. He was extremely organized and everyone worked hard. We accomplished great things because of our coaches."


  • Bob Peck was an 11-year-old on the team and remembers the plane ride as well. "Half of the kids were sick," Peck said.

He also remembers Bernie as the kind of person we looked up to.
"We were pretty lucky to be on that team and to have the coaching we did," Peck said.

He also remembers the big pinch-hit double he hit against Ottumwa, Iowa. "We had our chances to win that game," said Peck, whose athletic exploits eventually earned him nine letters from the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

  • Steve Armstrong remembered his two coaches more than anything. "Bernie put the team together and drilled and drilled us in the fundamentals until everyone knew how to do everything," Armstrong said. "He was demanding and expected us to perform at a higher level than our opponents."

When asked about the plane, he responded, "Lots of kids were sick, I was one of the lucky ones."
Armstrong hit a three-run homer in Bessemer, the only one he ever hit. Great memory.

  • Tom Custard wasn't so lucky. He got sick, real sick. It had to be all of those peanuts he ate. We're not sure if Tom has recovered yet!

"No one thought we would win," Custard said. "Milwaukee was so big and we were so small. Most of the fans were pulling for Superior. It was great. I remember making a great catch in center field during the championship game. I still see Bernie on occasion. What a classy guy. He is the reason we won."

  • Larry Raymond did not hesitate when asked his fondest memory. "Bernie was, and still is, quite the guy and one of the best coaches I ever had," Raymond said. "He helped me become a catcher. I wanted to be in every play. My dad had been a catcher and he told me that was the position to play. Bernie taught me how to position players, what pitches to call, and all the little things that were important. With guys like Walsh and Fitzgerald pitching, it was like pitch and catch. I would give the sign and give the target and they would hit the target. It was pretty easy.

"Bernie was so committed and taught us the basics. I still watch the Little League World Series. I won't miss it. My wife thinks I'm nuts. What a great time, except for the plane ride."

  • Mark Fitzgerald remembers all the games as if they were yesterday. He was the winning pitcher in the district and state championship games. He gives Bernie all the credit for the success of the team. Mark still remembers things Tomzak taught him about sports and about life in general.

"Bernie was more than just a coach," Fitzgerald said. "He thought of us as his kids. He taught us how to play the game right, and he was the reason we were as good as we were. He is a great man.
"One other not-so-great memory, yes, I puked on the plane."

It seems the common threads of this finely woven tapestry, (wow), are the coaching of Tomzak and the dreaded plane ride. We don't think any of these men will ever forget either.

See you next week, with more on that wonderful year, 1959.


The "Have Fun or Get Out of the Way" column by Don Leighton and Mike Granlund runs occasionally in The Daily Telegram. Opinions and/or story ideas can be e-mailed to or

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