January 25, 2012

VFW League made a difference

Sports Columnist

From the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s in Ocean City, young boys learned basketball from Veterans.

Members of the local VFW Post created a league for boys in the fifth through eighth grades and, with cooperation from the City of Ocean City, gave hundreds and hundreds of young athletes their first exposure to the sport. Many of those young boys went on to become part of successful teams for Dixie Howell at Ocean City High School.

The idea for the VFW League started with Joe DeFranco, who was the Commander of the VFW Post and became chairman of the post’s youth committee.

“We had six to eight teams and played every Wednesday,” DeFranco remembered. “Mayor (Edward) Bowker was very helpful and so was George Gardiner, who ran the Recreation Department. They did everything they could for us. But the reason for the success of the league was the members of our post.”

The league games were played in the old Convention Hall, which sat on the Boardwalk across Sixth Street from Gillian’s Wonderland Pier, just about where the skateboard park used to be. The Convention Hall would later burn down but it was quite a place.

There was a bowl-like stage at one end, a main basketball court in the center of the building and a small court up against the wall at the Boardwalk end of the building. The main court used to be a caged court, going back to the days when basketball was played in a caged enclosure. The poles which held up the cage were still there along the sides of the court. They were padded but you needed to be careful when you ran the court.

“Joe DeFranco asked me to get involved,” said Nick Palermo. “It was a great idea and we were all in favor of it. I was happy to get involved.”

Dick Galante, whose family has made a major impact in Ocean City sports, was also a major force in the success of the league.

“We had some great guys who gave their time as coaches and referees,” Galante said. “Guys like Jimmy Pessolano, Bill Nickles, Dick Grimes, Tommy Swain, Frank Pileggi, Charles Bringhurst and Joe DiOrio. There were many other members who helped make the league successful.”

In addition to the weekly league games, the VFW League created more opportunities. There were games against teams from Atlantic City and other area communities. There were all star teams that traveled to Bayonne for tournaments.

“They were terrific in Bayonne,” said DeFranco. “They treated us great. They put us up in a fire house for the weekend. It was always a great experience for the kids.”

At the time, Ocean City had no school basketball teams below the ninth grade. And there were limits on the recreation programs, which were not nearly as diverse as they are today. The VFW League filled a gap. It gave young boys a chance to experience competitive basketball in a structured environment with coaches and referees who played the game themselves and were happy to pass along what they had learned.

Through the years there have been many groups and individuals who have given of their time and talents to make Ocean City a better place.

The men of the Ocean City VFW Post in the 1950s and 1960s, some of whom have died and others who are in their 80s and 90s, deserve thanks for what they accomplished six decades ago.

They served in two ways.

First, with the time they spent in the military serving their country. And also by creating and administering a basketball league that brought enjoyment and opportunity to the community’s younger generation.

Read more of Tom Williams' columns