Baseball is a game that was founded well over 150 years ago and has since developed a rich and glorious history to garner its standing as America’s Pastime. It is a game that is built upon a foundation of morals and innocence and that has never tarnished over the generations. Millions of kids can be found in their local parks or their back yards with a baseball mitt and a dream of one day being on the mound pitching in game seven of the World Series. Baseball has and always will be a kid’s game, regardless of age.
Every dream begins somewhere and typically that is through youth and little league baseball programs in a child’s respective community. In New Jersey, some community baseball leagues can charge a fee as high as $175 in order for a child to participate in their leagues. Taking into account those soaring costs and with respect to the current economic climate that the country is battling, the Union County Baseball Association has stayed true to the principles of youth by offering a reasonable, no strings attached, $25 player fee.
The Union County Baseball Association (UCBA) is one of the oldest and most well respected youth baseball organizations in the Central Jersey area and has quite an illustrious history that they have not lost sight of. Every year, the UCBA, which was officially formed in 1941, holds an annual “Hot Stove Dinner,” to generate interest in baseball while also paying homage to some of the most outstanding players and coaches for their remarkable achievements both on the field and in the community in Union County.
Unlike most fundraisers or benefit events similar to the Hot Stove Dinner, the UCBA holds this dinner with the sole intent to keep the price of their league fee at the bare minimum so that both today and tomorrow’s future baseball stars are given ample opportunity to be exposed and taught the game of baseball. With the current trends in many communities, the fear of baseball dying across the country is growing and the UCBA does all that it can to maintain a strong influx of youth coming out to play ball in their towns.
“Everything that we do as an association is for the kids. The money that we make from this dinner helps us to offset the cost of running the league so that we can offer that $25 fee,” explained UCBA President Jim Iozzi. “I think that is definitely a plus for us. We try to keep our prices down and that goes all the way down to the dinner price. Our dinner only costs $40 which is nominal.”
Next Sunday, on February 10, the UCBA will host its 77thinstallment of the Hot Stove Dinner at 1:00 p.m. at the L’Affaire Banquet Center which is located at 1099 Route 22 East in Mountainside. Every year at the event, the association secures a guest speaker from the baseball world to generate interest and also instill wisdom and speak of their experiences in the sport. The who’s who list of previous speakers includes legends like Joe DiMaggio, Reggie Jackson, Tommy John, Mel Allen, Bob Feller, Keith Hernandez, Al Leiter, Sparky Lyle and Lou Pinella to name just a few. This year, the UCBA will present the former Yankees Director of Public Relations, noted Yankees historian and New York Times best selling Author, Marty Appel as their guest speaker.
“Here is a noted historian, a noted author, a guy who has spent some years with the Yankees, said Iozzi. “The stories that this man can tell to the average baseball fan, I think is going to be outstanding. As a baseball fan, as a Yankee fan, the stories that he can tell are exciting and I’m just really looking forward to hearing Marty.”
Ed Kovac Jr., who is a UCBA committee member and son to Ed Sr. who was a professional ball player and a UCBA Hall of Famer, sought out to find this year’s guest speaker and explains his reasoning for choosing Appel.
“I asked Marty when I tried to get him as our guest if he had ever heard of our organization before,” Kovac explained. “He said that he had heard of our organization before because when he was the PR director for the Yankees he had to respond to our letters trying to get certain players to come to our dinner as speakers.”
Kovac added, “I think the word refreshing is the word that comes to mind when thinking of Marty Appel as a speaker. If you were to take a poll in Union County, I’d think a good majority of our guests are Yankee fans. Marty Appel can refresh the Yankee organization going to back to the beginning. He’s going to name drop, he’s going to tell stories that you’ve never heard before, things you’ve never read or heard about on television. I think he is just really going to refresh this dinner for us as an association.”
This year, the UCBA will enshrine three new members into their Hall of Fame who were chosen by nearly 100 voters on a ten person ballot. They are, Bill Dolan, who earned All-State honors while playing catcher at Rahway High School, and was an All-American at Monmouth University in addition to serving as the Rahway High School varsity baseball coach. Jim Riccitelli, a shortstop, catcher and pitcher from Roselle Park High School who played baseball for Kean University and signed a professional contract with the Baltimore Orioles organization in 1976. And lastly, George Virgilio, a second baseman from Elizabeth High School who played in the Atlanta Braves, Montreal Expos and Baltimore Orioles organizations.
Players inducted in previous years include legendary figures like Phil Rizzuto, Jeff Torborg, Willie Wilson, Joe Collins, Jake Wood, Elliot Maddox, and Don Newcombe.
To be selected as a Hall of Famer by the UCBA is a very prestigious honor and bears lasting memories for many of its members and their families. Kovac Jr. reflects on what it meant to see his father inducted and provides an insight into how the Hall of Fame voting committee considers the players they choose for induction.
“It meant everything to me, said Kovac. “The Union County baseball league used to consist of actual youth but there were also actual semi-pro leagues set up; not just here, but all around New Jersey. They used to call them “Twilight Leagues”. These leagues were filled with guys who played professional ball that came home and were in their 20’s or even 30’s as well as guys who needed a place to play in the summer while they were playing college ball, so it was highly competitive. My dad really made his mark on the Union County Baseball Association not so much for what he did with Detroit but what he accomplished in their league as both a teenager and as an adult.”
In doing research the UCBA is the only baseball organization in New Jersey that I was able to locate who holds an event like the Hot Stove Dinner. It is a truly unique association that, like baseball, is well rooted in rich history and exists to keep the tradition of America’s game vibrant. It is a sport that stands and continues to grow atop a foundation of tradition and the UCBA does a fantastic job of recognizing that fact.
To purchase tickets to the 77th annual Hot Stove Dinner next Sunday, tickets are available for $40 and can be purchased online on the UCBA website (UCBA-NJ.org) or by downloading and mailing the table reservation form which is also available of the website, to the Union County Baseball Association, Box 176, Fanwood, New Jersey 07023.