It was a long ride, and in some ways a very unexpected ride.
“Way back when,” Harvey Soolman laughed, “[Park League Hall of Famer] Avi Nelson and I used to discuss how we hoped we could still be playing baseball when we hit forty. Well, we made it to forty and then some. We certainly got our money’s worth.”
Soolman stepped down as manager and occasional player of Towne Club at the end of the 2015 season, his 46th in amateur men’s baseball; and Nelson is still getting his swings in men’s senior baseball into his seventies.
“I didn’t have a lot of natural talent,” Soolman explained. “But, I worked real hard. In fact, my biggest regret is that I didn’t work even harder. And, I hate when people say how much I must love it. Or they wax romantically that I must have kept playing for ‘the love of the game.’ I really do hate that. I kept playing because that’s who I became: a ballplayer. I’d like to think that’s what I was. Then, among other factors, connecting with an old high school friend, who I hadn’t seen in almost 50 years, showed me that a lifetime had gone by. I’d been a ballplayer – all I ever wanted to be growing up. Now, it became time to be someone else.”
That “someone else” Soolman is becoming is a writer. Already with several stage plays under his belt he completed his first novel, Learn to Duck, Newark Phelps, about a rookie private investigator who gets in over his head; and a sequel, Welcome Home, Newark Phelps, which will hit the sidewalk shortly.
He also began another new adventure. “I’m having a ball taking horseback riding lessons,” he says. “I love horses. Guess I always have. I remember asking my grandfather if we could get a horse when I was a kid. But, living in a three decker in Brookline little did I know that wasn’t going to work. Horses are the best – beautiful, gentle animals.”
A lot has happened since the rookie baseball player morphed into the rookie horseman and suspense novelist. He got a base hit in his first Park League game for the Lechmere Orioles in 1970. “No idea what it was,” Soolman says of his initial hit. “I might have blooped one over the shortstop’s head for all I know.” But, he didn’t become a Park League starter until the following year when he pinch hit a game-winning home run for the previously winless Patio Club. “One game I’m sitting on the bench for a team that hasn’t ever won a ballgame – I mean, how bad must I be? – and the next game after the home run I’m batting cleanup.”
“Then one year, back on Lechmere, I almost played every inning of every game. Had it up until the last game of the year. But, I’d been slumping, and my manager Dick Holmstrom – obviously unaware of my feat to date– sat me. Damn!”
Then, he eventually landed on Triple D’s in 1980. “I learned a lot from Jim Sullivan, the best manager I ever had,” Soolman continued. Managers and coaches don’t win or lose many baseball games, but when we won the championship in 1981 with me mostly being useful as the third base coach I think I made a major contribution to that team’s success and the title. If a third base coach can have a good year, I definitely had it.”
Very soon he would get his own chance to manage in 1982. “I had shoulder surgery in the fall of 1981, and didn’t tell my teammates or manager. And the following spring I really wasn’t ready to throw. Knew I wouldn’t be able to throw from the outfield; so, I tried catching. At one practice we’re having infield, and I had to throw down to second. Well, my throw hits the ground about ten feet past the mound. Oh-oh. I can’t imagine what my teammates must have thought. But, when I took over Hyde Park Sports I was able to control my own timetable on a team with less pressure and get back into playing shape.”
A couple of games into the season Hyde Park Sports, with no manager and a bare roster, was in danger of folding. Soolman, along with his old Lechmere teammate Nelson, stepped in to save the franchise. In a season that looked headed to oblivion they built a team from scratch in a hurry, won 11 games and finished seventh in a nine-team league. Soolman began to play regularly once again and batted .304.
But, early next season came what Soolman calls “the most ungrateful display I have ever seen.” A year after saving the franchise from extinction and beginning to put together a talented ball club that would include future Park League Hall of Famers Lloyd and Larry Hill, Harry Raphael and George Katz, Soolman was relieved of his manager duties at Hyde Park Sports – in the middle of a game!
“For some reason,” Soolman relates the story, “The team franchise holder was intimidated by one of my players and his father, and I could tell I was being bad-mouthed behind my back and that the boss was looking for an excuse to get rid of me. Well, there was a close play called against us that I didn’t contest, and this idiot comes to the bench and demands that I go out onto the field and argue. I refused and told him to go away, and he wasted no time telling me I was through. That was his gratitude for my saving his butt the year before in favor of someone who was bullying him. Kills me when people don’t know who their friends are.”
Moving onward, within a few days Soolman was named manager of a struggling Socieded Latina team that was winless in the Park League basement. They promptly won two games with Soolman delivering the game-winning hit both times, but after two weeks the sponsor was unhappy that Soolman had moved his struggling prized shortstop, who had been brought from the islands, to center field. Thus, in a chain of events unsurpassed even by the oft-fired Billy Martin, Soolman was blindsided and canned from his second managerial position in two weeks. “He thought I’d stay on and help my replacement. No way, see ya.” Sociedad Latina would only win one more game the rest of the season and finish 3-29.
“If you asked me what my legacy might be,” said Soolman, “I think it’s that teams have always been better with me than they had been without me. I’ve always made some positive impact.”
Even Towne Club was in a similar situation. Following Jeff Toussaint’s retirement Soolman was asked if he would run the club in 2004 and passed. That team won just 11 games. But, the next year he was asked again and accepted. He put together a team that won 16 games and missed the playoffs by one point.
Over 11 seasons Soolman’s regular season Towne Club managerial record was 191-177.
Soolman is amused that Towne Club, in their first season without him at the helm, won their first league championship in 25 years. “I’m very proud of that,” he says. “I’m very proud of the guys who made it happen – some of whom have been dedicated to this team for years: Mike Stefaniak since 2006, Dana Dresser since 2008, Steve Picco in 2008. Steve suffered a serious knee injury and gave up baseball only to come back and then give it up again to play softball. But, he knew he was meant to play baseball and came back to the guys and had a great year. Stuff like that makes me very happy for the team’s success this year. People I brought to the team like Grant Bowen (who co-managed this year with Stefaniak), Chris Hoyt, Alex Venditti and pitchers like Connor Farrell, Conner Rooney and James Bussiere that I gave a chance to throw all came up big this year. And they brought in some final pieces to put it over the top.
“I said to them mid-season, ‘Man, you guys are going to win it all without me.’ And Dana spoke up in front of the team and said, ‘Harv, we’ll never be without you.’ That was a great moment for me. Then, they made me feel part of the whole championship. But, this is their title. They got the job done, and they won the championship.
“Maybe they feel I gave them something, but it was a two-way street. I couldn’t have done it without them. My last regular season at bat I walked late in the final game while we were down a run. So, I had to lift myself for a runner. The whole bench emptied and came out to greet me near first base. I can’t tell you how special that was for me. The plate umpire couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on. He didn’t know that was it for me. I was afraid I would go off down the right field line and ball my eyes out after it was over. But, the guys made it feel good. I owe them a lot.”
His actual final Park League appearance didn’t go quite so painless. Being drubbed, 9-1, by Palmer in Game 2 of a three game semi-final sweep, Soolman got vocal following a sixth-inning controversy, and when he pinch hit to lead off the seventh he was drilled in the shin on the very first pitch. “Of course, it was intentional,” he chuckled. “It was Palmer. But, I think [Palmer’s Matt] Lipsett had a postgame beer ready for me.” No pinch runner this time on base.
Surprisingly to many, his first year without baseball since he was five years old wasn’t difficult for Soolman. He didn’t swing a bat or throw a baseball even once all through the spring and summer. He umpired about 80 high school, youth and adult games, something he had done for several seasons already. It wasn’t until October that he tossed a baseball around with a young woman friend. “That first time each year is always something special,” he said, “no matter when it is.
“My sister Roberta said to me this year that our mother (who passed away in 2001) would never have believed that I gave up baseball. At times I never thought I would,” said Soolman. “I think [Park League great] Walt Mortimer was surprised, too. He said it was in my blood. But, I think it was time, and I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished.”
Harvey Soolman was inducted into the Boston Park League Hall of Fame in 2015.