The Cactus Little League team arrives at Tucson International Airport after playing for the Little League World Series championship in 1973.
The names across their jerseys said “Beavers Band Box” and “Adair Funeral Home.” Their coach was an electrician.
They started at Freedom Park, a scruffy ballpark on 29th Street, and ended up at the White House.
Forty years later they have become butchers, bakers and big-money makers. The son of a big-league catcher became a firefighter. The son of a guy from the phone company became a big-league pitcher.
“When we got on that big plane to fly across the country, most of us had never flown in our lives,” remembers Mark Osborne, the steady third baseman who is now 52. “It was almost unimaginable that a bunch of Little Leaguers from Tucson were going to play in a baseball game on national TV.”
To get to the championship game of the 1973 Little League World Series, the Cactus League All-Stars survived 12 consecutive games in a single-elimination format, winning the state, regional and national championships, beating teams from New York, Michigan, Washington, Hawaii, California and Arizona.
How good were they? Ed Vosberg pitched a no-hitter. A few days later, Mike Fimbers pitched a perfect game.
When they finally reached the shrine of Little League baseball, Williamsport, Pa., Fimbers pitched a one-hitter, striking out 14. A day later, Vosberg matched it, tossing his own one-hitter.
“I’m not sure we were aware of the size of the stage we were on,” says Mike Carreon, a middle-of-the-order outfielder, now 52, a Tucson firefighter. “I was so naïve that I thought once we got to Pittsburgh that we’d see Willie Stargell and some of the Pirates at the airport.”
A few weeks ago, Osborne manufactured a dozen DVDs from ABC’s broadcast of the 1973 championship game, ordered commemorative T-shirts and scheduled a reunion. Nine members of the ‘73 Cactus League All-Stars will share their 40th anniversary in Tucson this weekend.
“I’ve forgotten a lot of things from my baseball career,” says Vosberg, 51, who pitched in 10 major-league seasons and helped Arizona win the 1980 NCAA championship. “But I remember almost everything from that Little League team.”
Gone, diminished by time, is the anguish of being matched in the world championship game against a Taiwan team long accused of fielding a lineup of older players, some possibly 14 and 15. The team’s enduring coach, Ralph Lanik, a retired electrician who remains in Tucson and plans to attend the reunion, never did back off allegations that Taiwan should’ve been disqualified.
“I still consider us the Little League World Champions,” he says. “In my eyes, I’m not satisfied at all that the Taiwan team met the Little League age requirements.”
But does it matter any more?
Two of the Cactus League All-Stars, Rich Bianco and Bobby Blum died. Fimbers, the team’s star player, seriously injured his arm while shutting out the Taiwanese through three innings, stifling a club that outscored its opponents 57-0 in Williamsport.
Fimbers, whose overhand curveball made him almost unhittable in the summer of 1973, never did pitch successfully again, not even at Rincon High School. But now he plays in a city league for 35-over players, enjoying the game, appreciating what the Cactus League All-Stars accomplished so long ago.
The club will be honored before Saturday’s Tucson Padres game at Kino Stadium.
“It’s funny, but over the years, not a lot of our guys became college players or even standout high school players,” says Osborne, who runs a general construction maintenance business in Tucson.
“Vosberg, of course, became a big name. Our second baseman, Dave Mees (a butcher in Tucson) played in college, but mostly we were a bunch of neighborhood kids from Lineweaver and Howell elementary schools, middle-class kids who came together for one pretty magical summer.”
The team’s catcher, Gerard Pahissa, a firefighter in Washington, is flying in for the weekend. Larry Manciet, who manages a Costco store in Mesa, and Ken Merritt, who works in the finance industry in Texas, will return for three days of activities.
After winning the state championship in Casa Grande, the Cactus All-Stars rented a bus, traveling to San Bernardino, Calif., where they won four West Regional games in succession. They beat Concord, Calif., in a tense 1-0 championship game as Vosberg pitched a two-hitter, striking out 12.
“We were pretty stinking good,” Vosberg says. “I can’t remember us making a mistake or a big error at any time. Ralph Lanik and Harry Unger, our coaches, were just superb. That was such an advantage.”
In the title game, Tucson hit just two fair balls against Taiwan; 16 of the 18 batters struck out. Vosberg remembers that “just hitting a foul ball seemed amazing.”
Says Osborne: “It’s etched in my memory how much older and bigger the Taiwan team was. They threw absolute BBs. No one had faced pitching like that. We had no chance. No one did.”
Through the years, Carreon, whose father, Camilio Carreon, was a catcher for the Cleveland Indians, and whose brother, Mark Carreon, played for the San Francisco Giants, New York Mets and Chicago Cubs, watches the Little League World Series. He tries to imagine how the ‘73 Cactus League All-Stars would match up.
“I’d like our chances,” he says. “We didn’t have a weak spot.”
After leaving Williamsport, the Tucson team flew to Washington D.C., and a few days later was greeted by an estimated crowd of 2,000 at the Tucson airport.
“It went beyond baseball,” says Vosberg. “I remember standing in the White House next to president Nixon’s daughter. I remember our team going to Baltimore, watching Jim Palmer pitch. I still have my hat and jacket from that team. We wore green pinstripe uniforms. It was all so cool.”