It was still in the early innings of a Saturday morning baseball game at Town Field when Jim Collyer – Dorchester’s answer to Johnny Pesky – went over to the first base line and opened up his fold-up chair. Soon after, one of the players, a five-year-old T-baller, came over to Collyer and said, “You got old. How come you got old?”
The question drew a laugh from the 84-year-old Collyer, who has been playing or prowling the coach’s circle in this Fields Corner yard for more than six decades. He has seen and heard a lot.
“It made me feel good,” he said, “because I’m thinking, ‘Hey, I was old last year too!’ But I guess I didn’t look old then. Kids have such wisdom at that age.”
Collyer, who was diagnosed with emphysema last year and is hooked up to a portable oxygen tank for five hours a day, laughs a lot and when he’s not laughing, he’s at least smiling. It’s a disposition that’s served him well, from his hardscrabble childhood as one of five boys in a Jamaica Plain walk-up, to a stint in Patton’s Army and a 25-year career driving a Hood milk truck around Greater Boston.
Today, slowed but far from stalled by his respiratory illness, he smiles when he talks about the game he loves and the All Dorchester Sports League (ADSL), an organization that has kept Jim in the action long after most outfits would have put him out to pasture.
For the league, Jim is still essential; he organizes the yearly T-ball league that has been rejuvenated under the watch of a new generation of ADSL leadership.
Next month, on Fri., Oct. 5, the ADSL will pay fitting tribute to ‘Gentleman Jim’ at the organization’s first-ever gala event at Florian Hall. (The event starts at 6 p.m. and includes a buffet dinner and cash bar. Tickets are $50.)
It promises to be a night of memories, with plenty of Boston Park League old-timers and younger players on hand to salute their long-time coach and mentor.
“We’re trying to diversify our income,” explains the current ADSL director, Jared Blandino. “When we thought about a yearly event, we thought, what better way than to honor Jim, who exemplifies everything we want to be as an organization.”
Collyer’s first love as a child was poetry. He’d spend his Saturday mornings at his neighborhood park, lounging on the boulders and dreaming up stanzas. He was 12 years old— a late bloomer on the sandlot— when he discovered a love for baseball. When an older boy who was a pitcher broke his arm, Jim was called in to take the mound. He wouldn’t stop throwing until he was well into his sixties.
He played his first official Park League game in 1951 at Town Field just weeks before shipping off to Fort Hood in Texas and, eventually, a two-year stint in Germany. The young southpaw was good enough to play on the winning team in the “Little” World Series in Germany, a competition that featured many major-leaguers who were also drafted into service — or enlisted— during the Korean War.
When he returned home, Jim married his sweetheart, Margaret ‘Peggy’ Brown, a Neponset girl whom he met during a dance at Moseley’s on the Charles. Peggy and Jim will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary next February on Valentine’s Day.
The couple settled first on Tolman Street near Garvey Park and then— with Jim driving a Hood milk truck and bringing home $19.50 a week— they bought a home on Houghton Street and started their family. They have ten children, including one son whom they adopted. Today, many of Jim’s 30 grandchildren turn out to help him teach the youngsters how to play ball.
In 1956, Jim pitched in front of 5,000 people at Town Field during a pivotal championship game for the McCormack Club. It was not unusual for Park League games to draw huge crowds in those days— and players even earned a tidy sum— as much as $150 a season— when their associates passed the hat during the games. On that particular day, however, Jim’s reward came by way of a single fan who turned out to see him pitch: his dad, who suffered from both tuberculosis and a drinking problem for many years.
“I’ll never forget him coming out of the crowd that day and saying, ‘I never knew you could pitch,’ ” Jim recalled, a tear on his cheek. ‘That’s cause you never saw me before,’ I said.”
Collyer’s pitching career stretched well into his 40s – and then well after he gave up his milkman job and became a loading dock supervisor at a Quincy electric company. He spent four nights a week out at the city’s ballparks— a sacrifice that he said his bride Peggy never complained about. “She always said, ‘Well, he’s not down the tavern every night. I know where he is.’ ”
Jim pitched his final game at age 64, when he was took the mound for the ADSL entry in the Park League. He walked the first and only batter he faced and went on to be recorded as the losing pitcher.
“So, I lost my very first game and the last one,” he said with a laugh.” But in between, from age 15 to 64, he won many more than he lost.
In 1989, Mary Hines of the Boston Parks department enlisted Jim to join the ADSL’s team of coaches and the board of directors and he has been a mainstay at the Fields Corner clubhouse ever since, staying through some difficult days in the 1990s, when the organization lost its focus, he says, and most of its leadership and — most importantly— parents and kids.
“Joe Cloherty rescued it and brought it to a place where it could regain the respect of the community,” said Jim. “Now Jared is here and he’s done a tremendous job. He loves what he does and has great ideas. I love the things I see. I’m happy to see the growth that can come out of here. We’ve gone the right way again.”
The “heart of the organization” is the T-ball and instructional league that Jim still oversees with help from Jared and his own grandkids. The league is unique locally in that it uses a pitching machine to reduce the number of batters hit by pitches and to keep the focus on skills training.
Between innings, kids on the bench get encouragement from Jim, who hands out baseball cards to players and their younger siblings. He stays off his feet much more now. He has learned to pace himself because he has every intention of coming back for next season and the ones that follow.
“As soon as T-ball starts up again, I’ll be back out there as long as I am able to,” he promised.
The ADSL gala event honoring Jim Collyer will be held on Friday, Oct. 5 at 6 p.m. at Florian Hall. Tickets are $50 per person and sponsorships are available. Call Jared Blandino at 617-287-1601 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more about Jim Collyer, read his essays about baseball and coaching at ADSL's website.