BILLINGS, Mont. — Jim Decker has an indelible image of his mother, Frankie.
During the late 1940s — “I was just a tyke,” said Decker, now 72 — his mother would round up a half dozen neighborhood boys and drive them in the family’s Pontiac sedan to a vacant lot, where she’d spend hours hitting them hundreds of fly balls and ground balls with a fungo bat. She’d pepper her swings with tips about the right way to corner a fly ball or scoop up a grounder, Decker said.
“We had no organized place to play,” he said, photographs of his parents and his former Babe Ruth League teammates and opponents at his fingertips.
A few short years later, while Cec Musburger and others were getting Little League baseball off the ground in Billings, Frankie and Doc Decker had their sights set on Billings’ older ballplayers — those ages 13-15. Eventually they would form Babe Ruth baseball in Billings and beyond, but in those early days, Decker said, it was the Little Bigger League that Doc and Frankie and others founded locally.
Doc — his given name was Ira, but baseball fans called him Doc because he was the one who always toted a first aid kit to every game — would eventually become the first international director of Babe Ruth Leagues Inc. He earned that title by organizing leagues not only in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho but in three Canadian provinces as well — Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
Little Bigger League formed nationally in New Jersey in 1951, changing its name three years later when Babe Ruth’s widow, Claire Merritt Ruth, agreed to lend the Sultan of Swat’s name to the fledgling league. Today more than a million players compete in Babe Ruth leagues, reported the Billings Gazette (http://bit.ly/2bDyYsF).
“Dad was a remarkable guy, but mom was the instigator,” Decker said from his Billings home. A member of the National Baseball Congress, she also served as an arbitrator when youth baseball games were protested.
Decker remembers one protest well, because it involved him. A ball he hit while competing as a 14-year-old struck the foul pole, which some fans call the fair pole because it’s in play. The umpire wrongly called Decker’s blast a foul ball, and Decker’s team manager played the rest of the game under protest.
Frankie was one of three arbitrators to reverse the incorrect call, Decker said. “She almost never got over” the ribbing she got for overturning the call in favor of her own child, he remembered almost six decades later.
Just as the crowd that celebrated the dedication of Cec Musberger Field at Centennial Park remembered it, Decker identified the Billings of the 1950s as “one of the finest places you could be a kid. It wasn’t unusual for us to get on our bikes and cross the river into the South Hills with a fishing rod or a .22 rifle. We’d go there on a Saturday with our sleeping bags, and the rule was we had to be home Sunday before the street lights came on.”
It “took a whole community” to put together Little League and Little Bigger League programs, he said, and it’s “no surprise” that a community like Billings would produce a number of Major League players.
Decker used to catch future Major League star Dave McNally. “You could hold your glove wherever you like and he’d nail it every time,” he said of the former Baltimore Orioles great. “You could see it even then. He was just so solid.”
Decker joined the U.S. Navy 10 days after graduating from Billings Senior High School in 1962. He got married and, following his military tour, moved away and enjoyed a long career in heavy equipment before moving back to Billings two years ago.
Doc Decker died in 1977, and Frankie died 11 years ago. Both passed away in March.
Decker may have left Billings for a few decades, but he never escaped the charm of what is still the national pastime.
“In those days, the Billings Police Department sponsored both a Little League team and a Babe Roth team, and they were wonderful sponsors,” he said. “I may have gotten away from Billings, but I never got away from baseball.”
Information from: The Billings Gazette, http://www.billingsgazette.com