The Incredible Baseball Journey of Newport Fifth Ward Little League’s Bill Mathews
One of the most interesting baseball fields in Rhode Island sits in Newport. It may not be where you are thinking of right now but I’ll guide you to it. It’s just passed the eclectic row of restaurants and bars, souvenir shoppes, and grandeur of downtown Newport, down Thames Street passed ice cream parlors and bachelorette parties walking the sidewalks. After a right turn onto Wellington Ave., there it is – Hogan Field. Located in Kings Park, with the backdrop of Newport Harbor, and way off the pace of the hustle and bustle of Newport nightlife sits one of the best views in all of Rhode Island Baseball. I always enjoy visiting Hogan Field, taking photos of it, and writing about it. And just recently, my stories of Hogan Field caught the attention of one of its former inhabitants.
I would like to introduce you to Bill Mathews. Bill reached out to me with such an incredible baseball story that I had to share it with you, the Rhode Island Baseball Community. His initial email to me caught my attention, to say the least. ” I grew up in the Fifth Ward and went to Eckerd College in 1975. Little did I know that I’d end up as the Head Coach at Eckerd for 24 years, as well as coaching 5 National Teams around the globe.” Bill went on to write “I’m also the Lead Official Scorer for MLB with the TB Rays. It all started at Hogan Field playing for Walter Mey on the Fraternal Order of Police team and it never let up to this day. I am one of the luckiest guys you’ll ever meet.” So, I wanted to get to know Bill and learn more about his baseball journey from Newport to Eckerd and around the globe. Here is an excerpt from our conversation.
Bill, you mentioned in your email to me that your baseball journey started in the Fifth Ward Little League at Hogan Field. Help me set the scene:
- I grew up on Gilroy St and started playing in the 5th Ward LL at age 10. I was drafted for the Majors right away and played for the FOP team for 3 years under the leadership of Walter Mey. I got my first glove and cleats at Ryan’s Sporting Goods on Thames St, and then also went to Edward’s on East Main Rd. Walter Mey was the first influence I had, but my father , Bill “Hap” Mathews was always there to play catch. I’d watch him play softball 2 nights a week at Murphy Field. I played 3 years at the Majors level, making the All Star team every year, swinging my beat up 31 inch wooden Louisville Slugger. I led the league in homeruns as an 11 and 12 year old, with 5 and 6 respectively.
How did families find out about baseball signups? Where was the information posted?
- Families were made aware of sign-ups by word of mouth ( at Underwood School, which is no longer there) or by signs nailed to telephone poles.
What did Hogan Field and Kings Park look like when you played? Did they hang sponsorship banners in the outfield? Did they have a scoreboard? Did they have a concession stand or press box?
- There were no advertising signs in those days, remember, it was 1967-69. The park faced the oil refinery and the water was outside the left field fence. The scoreboard was hand operated, like Fenway, and the concessions were cooked at home by our parents and brought to the field. It was a neat atmosphere to play in, but the water wasn’t an attraction to me, as I hit left handed and would always try to hit the pump station outside the right field fence.
Who were some of the prominent figures at Fifth Ward, sponsors or volunteers who helped run the league?
- I remember some of the neighborhood Dad’s who would help out…Frank Sylvia, Joe Carellas, Bob Loughlin…and I’m sure there were a myriad of others.
What about post Little League? Summer baseball, (pre AAU and travel teams) what leagues were prominent back when you played?
- Once we were finished with Little League it was on to Senior Babe Ruth (coached by Al Fisher, whose son David played for me at Eckerd) and also American Legion (coached by Bob Dieffenbach). Bob Westmoreland also helped out and had a son that played with me at Eckerd as well as a son who played for me at Eckerd. I also played softball with a travelling men’s team, The Gallery of Homes, and learned so much about playing baseball from the great Paul Reynolds. Paul also got me on the Middletown Sunset League team at 17, which was a great experience. Playing in the Sunset League at Cardines, where we also played our High School games was awesome.
Did you attend Rogers High School? And did you play baseball for Rogers? Any playing time at Newport’s Cardines Field? Who were some of the best ball players around that time in Newport?
- I played at Rogers for Duke Abbruzzi, a legendary figure from his days with the Providence Steamrollers. Playing all Spring and summer at Cardines, with 4 different teams, was a fantastic experience. The short right field wall was fun to play pepper with for sure. I also have wonderful memories of sitting on Ralph O’Connell’s porch and listening to him talk of his days with the Providence Greys and playing with and against Babe Ruth. I played 2b, SS, pitched and played all outfield positions as I grew older. Any place on defense worked for me, but the fact that I hit left handed was a key to my longevity. I was fortunate to play with some super athletes… John Toppa, Jr., Dan Corrigan, David and Dickie Galvin, Ken Loffredo, Hugh Mally, Mike Reagan, Randy Meyer….just to name a few.
You mentioned going to Eckerd College after HS. Were you recruited locally here in Rhode Island for baseball or was your move more academic than athletic?
- I was recruited by Bill Livesey (my true mentor- we still talk once a month), an immortal figure in baseball, building the Yankee dynasty as their player development director after leading Eckerd to the College World Series in 1977. I was average at best on a good day, so I went to him after my sophomore year and told him I was done as a player. He said that was a good decision because he wanted Brian Sabean and I to take over the Eckerd JV team. You might recognize his name as he just retired from the GM position with the SF Giants after 20 years. I was an assistant at Eckerd for 4 years, then in 1980, went to teach/coach/administrate at a local prep school for 10 years. I coached Varsity Soccer, Basketball and Baseball, taught 5 classes and spent the final 3 years of my career there as the High School principal.
What got your mind thinking about coaching?
- During the summers I coached American Legion baseball along with winning 2 National titles with the St Petersburg PAL baseball team. So, beginning my coaching career at 20 years old was paying dividends in the community. In 1990, Jim Harley ( the AD at Eckerd and my other mentor- we talk once a week to this day) called me and asked if I wanted the Eckerd job as an interim head coach, as there had to be a national search conducted. I accepted and left the principal’s position to return to my alma mater. There were 279 applicants for the job, but I got it and began my teaching and career at Eckerd College. I spent 24 years as the head coach of the baseball program and am now in my 32nd year as a professor. I teach 3 Athletic Administration courses as well as 2 Social Psych courses.
I’m pretty sure there is a healthy list of collegiate baseball prospects in Florida to recruit from. Along the way, did you ever look to the Northeast and Rhode Island for potential student athletes to fill spots on your team?
- I recruited over 400 student athletes to Eckerd, 60% of which were from New England and the Midwest. 100% of my recruits received their degrees while enrolled or shortly after leaving Eckerd. I never had scholarship money until my last two seasons (when I was given 1 full ride). All the other schools in the Sunshine State Conference were fully funded with 9 scholarships..so I had to recruit a bit harder then they did. Some of my Rhode Island guys were Frank Newsome, Todd Stetson, Chris Piggott, Jared Habershaw, David Fisher, Mike Parnagian, Jim Jennings, Andre Steele, Rico Presciutti, Scott McDonald, Derek Dion, Dave Andrews and another 10-12 guys from Southeastern Massachusetts (from the South Shore down through the Cape).
Talk a little bit about your international coaching career and some of the teams you managed along the way.
- I began my international coach career in 1998 for MLB and spent 20 summers coaching National teams in Poland (2 European gold medals), Russia, Sweden ( 2 Prague Baseball Week titles), the Netherlands (World Champs in 2011) and finally in Guatemala , until COVID set in and stopped all travel. My next assignment was supposed to be with the Israeli team in Tel Aviv during the ill fated summer of 2019.
Apart from coaching baseball, what are some of the other avenues you have pursued in baseball?
- In 2008 I was asked to come in and be the Official Scorer for MLB with the TB Rays. I accepted, and it’s been quite a run for the last 14 years. What an honor to be one of only 90 MLB Scorers in the world. The pressure is high and the anxiety wears away, but we make all the calls in every game and stats ride on our decisions. As you might imagine, I have had some pretty intense conversations with wealthy athletes, coaches, managers, and agents over the years.
Favorite baseball park you remember here in Rhode Island or New England area? How about in your travels as an MLB official scorer?
- As for my favorite parks… McCoy Stadium in RI and, of course, Fenway. But Tropicana Field is #1 with air conditioning and a roof to keep us dry throughout our summer rains!
Brag about yourself – what is your fondest baseball memory as a player, parent, coach, mentor?
- It’s really hard to pick my favorite memories : winning the Gold Medals, becoming the all time winningest coach in Eckerd College athletic department history and every single night I walk into Tropicana Field representing Major League Baseball. None of this would have been possible without Karen (my wife), Chris, Katie and Zach (my kids) and Chris, Peter and Theodore (my son in law and my 2 grandsons.)
Bill left the conversation with one final thought, “that’s a lot of information, but understand that I know full well how lucky I have been throughout my career to have support and commitment from so many great individuals.” From Gilroy Street, it is an easy 10 minute walk to Hogan Field, one I’m fairly confident Newport’s Bill Mathews made time after time to start his baseball journey. From Hogan Field to Cardines Field and Rogers High School in Newport, RI to Eckerd College and the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg, FL, and then globally for several international teams, Bill Mathews has one been on of the most incredible baseball journeys I have ever had the honor of sharing. I’ve never met Bill in person but I intend to one day. His love of the game of baseball and how he has given back to the game is beyond impressive and I am so happy to have had the opportunity to write about him.
Bill Mathews, thank you for your time and for sharing your baseball journey that is still being written. I am the lucky one to have met you!
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The RIBBE is The Rhode Island Baseball Experience. It is promoting the game of baseball here in the great state of Rhode Island for the entire baseball world to see. The RIBBE is positive stories, photos, videos, and responsible social media posts. The RIBBE is an information resource for families looking for an AAU team or a summer camp or a great place to buy a first baseman’s mitt. The RIBBE is a network of coaches, tournament directors, parents, leagues, and baseball junkies whose passion of the game of baseball is unquestioned. I believe that providing expert analysis, information and directions to ballfields, and coaching advice from some of the top RI baseball minds will help promote the game of baseball here in RI to a whole new level.
Thanks for this great article!
Great story. And a wonderful journey. Billy has always been a great guy.
Great story and a great guy. I had the privilege of coaching Billy in Babe Ruth All Stars and my half brother John Dieffenbach coached him in Legion. The article brought back great memories about all the players mentioned. All of them were great players who became better men. Thanks for the memories.
Oh My, what great times they were! Thanks for the memories!!!