Twilight for The Sunset
Without Sponsors’ Support, Legendary League May Fold
Craigue and Sons player Shane Rossetti warms up before heading up to bat at Memorial Field on July 29, 2004. The team is part of the historic Concord Sunset League which is the oldest after-dinner baseball league in the U.S.
(Concord Monitor - Lori Duff)
The Sunset League, date unknown. (Courtesy photograph)
The future of the Concord Sunset League, the oldest after-supper amateur baseball association in the country, may have never looked bleaker.
The league, which was founded in 1909 and is open to players 17 and up, is barely afloat financially after the loss last year of three sponsors, said Steve DeStefano, the league’s organizer for more than 20 years. Coaches, too, are in short supply.
“It’s not that we don’t have kids that want to play,” DeStefano said, citing as evidence the phone calls he routinely fields from prospective players and their relatives. In fact, the league is the last of its kind in the state, he said, and, as a result, attracts many Division II and III college players from cities such as Dover, Nashua and Keene who want to keep their arms warm for fall ball.
Instead, it’s the dearth of sponsor dollars that DeStefano said is wreaking havoc on the league’s bottom line. With player fees still relatively low — $75 to play at least 15 games — revenue is down, and that can put DeStefano in a difficult position. Last season, for example, he had to personally chip in about $2,000 to balance the books, he said.
While the league once thrived with between four and six teams, DeStefano said it was a struggle last year to cobble together just three — thanks in part to Frank DeMaria, a coach in another adult league who offered at the last minute to manage a team, and Bob Palisi, a sports apparel salesman who sold him 20 uniforms at cost.
This year, so far, things have been slightly better. DeStefano has managed to secure a third sponsor, Sanel Auto Parts, but he hopes to find at least one more.
“When we have four to five teams with 15 players each, we pretty much end the season even,” he said.
Each game, including umpire and field expenses, costs about $150, DeStefano estimated. Sponsor contributions — $750 per season, plus initial uniform and equipment costs — pay for much of that. It also helps offset the cost for players.
The sponsor fee is not cheap, DeStefano acknowledged. But it becomes less expensive if a sponsor sticks around for multiple years, because uniforms and equipment can be recycled.
“I don’t know if there’s a payoff for sponsoring,” said DeStefano, who sponsors and coaches a team himself. “But I know they’re doing the kids a service at a less expensive cost. It just allows the kids to play ball.”
Things were a lot different in the early days of the league, said 83-year-old Tommy Hardiman, who played for 20 years, beginning in 1946. Before World War II, he said, thousands of locals flocked to White Park to watch the games. Player positions were in hot demand.
“Everyone wanted to play in the Sunset League,” he said.
The league suspended play for two years during the war, starting up again in 1946, the year Hardiman joined, fresh out of high school. Teams in those years were saturated with veterans, he recalled, few of whom were cavalier about their play.
“It wasn’t just something to do,” he said. “It was almost a rivalry type thing going on.”
Though the intensity on the field remained high, crowds began to dwindle as cars and television became more available, Hardiman said.
Red Eastman took over the league in the mid-1950s, managing it for four decades before passing the reigns to his son, Paul. DeStefano, who had played in the league since 1974, took over two years later.
The composition of the league had become much younger than it was when DeStefano first joined as a player. More and more college kids turned to it as a training ground for fall season play and future professional goals. The league retained some of its variety, though, DeStefano said, with plenty of older players who refused to retire their gloves.
But in the past two decades, sponsor interest has waned. New Hampshire Distributors dropped out in the 1990s, DeStefano said, because they were weary of sponsoring teams composed mostly of minors. Craigue and Sons Home Exteriors sponsored a team for more than a decade before finally dropping out a few years ago. And then Grappone Auto Group, which had sponsored a team for half a century, dropped its sponsorship last year, following the death of local philanthropist John Grappone.
“It’s tough losing a sponsor,” DeStefano said. “You hate having to constantly ask people to pitch in.”
Hardiman said part of the responsibility for the unfortunate position in which the league finds itself falls on people such as himself, too.
“I blame people like myself, who got so much out of the league and haven’t been out to watch a game in years,” he said. “Granted, I’m 83, so that’s some consolation, but still, it’s not like I have too many other things to do.
“Thank god for Steve,” he added. “He’s been the glue holding that whole thing together for a long time.”
DeStefano remains somewhat optimistic. He noted that since the city completed several renovations at White Park there are a lot more families with young kids coming out to watch the games.
And he’s not giving up on the sponsorship effort just yet. He’s reached out to other news outlets and has made the rounds at local Rotary Clubs in hopes of drumming up more sponsors. Because in the end, he said, it’s not about the money or the effort required to put the season together. It’s about the sport.
“There’s nothing better than watching a good baseball game — a good, clean game,” he said. “That’s what I like to see.”
Jeremy Blackman can be reached at email@example.com or 603-369-3319.