Don Dennee, diamond builder & HOFer
Don Dennee got his start in youth baseball pretty much like a lot of fathers: his son wanted to play.
Unlike most fathers, though, Dennee took it several steps further. Not a lot of dads, for instance, plan their vacations around grass-growing season, so they can water the ball fields where children play.
“I’d get six weeks holidays,” Dennee said Tuesday, at the annual luncheon honouring the incoming class of Kingston and District Sports Hall of Fame inductees, a group that this year includes Dennee.
“Two or three years in a row, I took all six weeks, just to try and grow grass. Because we didn’t have sprinkler systems, I’d be up at three, four o’clock in the morning going down to move the hoses around, just to try and get the grass to grow.”
Selected to the Hall as a builder, Dennee was recognized for his involvement in minor baseball, including his role in creating or improving ball diamonds throughout the city in the past 25 years. He said Tuesday it wasn’t something he thought was necessary, having spent his boy’s first year watching him play in city parks.
“I always thought that our facilities were OK here, because I didn’t know any better,” Dennee said, but then his son was selected to play on the city’s rep team, which meant travelling to diamonds in other towns. “We’d go to play games in places that were half the population of Kingston, but the facilities were head and shoulders over what we had.”
Dennee, who worked at City Hall at the time, paid a visit to Doug Fluhrer,the parks and recreation chief. “I said, ‘Doug, there’s got to be something we can do,’” Dennee said. “He said, ‘You don’t have the numbers (playing); there’s no will at city council to do this.’
“I heard that so many times, finally I just said, ‘To hell with this. We’ve got to do it ourselves.’”
The group embarked on a fund raising campaign. Bingos, break-open tickets, raffles—you name it, the Kingston Baseball Association flogged it. There was also a significant donation from the Kingston Police Association, Dennee recalled, and when the group was ready, the first diamond to get attention was the Cricket Field.
Anyone who ever played left field at the Cricket Field could tell you you’d have to run down a slight incline when charging a ball hit in front of you. That was obvious. What wasn’t as apparent, Dennee said, was just at the edge of foul territory, there was a second little hill.
“We used to watch visiting teams, and it wasn’t very sportsmanlike, but we’d laugh like hell because the Kingston kids, they knew. You could see them raising their feet a little higher because they knew they had to go up another hill. The other kids would just go face down.
“One day I went to Doug Fluhrer and said, ‘Look, that’s got to come out of there.’ He said, ‘There’s no money, we can’t do it, I think it’s solid rock (underneath).’ I said, I’m going to take it out of there.’ He said, ‘A long weekend would be a good time.’”
With the parks department looking the other way, Dennee and a crew showed up with a backhoe, only to discover there was no rock there, just topsoil. “We only needed it to come down about four inches,” he said.
“We just feathered it down behind the bleachers and then seeded it. Fortunately, the spring rains came and the mud hill disappeared into grass and nobody was any the wiser.”
The crowning achievement came the day the idea was hatched to create a peewee-sized baseball diamond behind Branch 560 of the Royal Canadian Legion on Montreal Street. Dennee met Ron Price and Fluhrer on the patio at the legion one day to talk about it.
“It was around 2:30 or 3 o’clock and they said come on. We walked out behind and this field? I think they were hawthorn trees. The trees had spikes on them. We’re walking through there and I’m thinking, ‘Where in the hell do they want to build this field?’ We came to this huge rock and they said this would be perfect. I’m looking around, and I’m thinking, ‘You guys, you’ve been drinking all day. How do you expect us to build a field here?’
A work crew was organized and they got the trees down, and Dennee remembers engaging a farmer to run a disc over it. “He came and he started and, my god, there were thousands of little rocks. I said, ‘What’s going on,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Well, son, I want to tell you, the bottom isn’t very far from the top.’”
The gang then enlisted crews of peewee ball players to pick rocks, and the day arrived to lay the sod.
“It was a Saturday,” Dennee said, “and the transports were coming. They were lined up, one behind another, and there were five or six of us from the executive, we had four or five kids from the midget team. We started at 7 o’clock in the morning, and at 7 o’clock that night we were still doing it.”
The sod was placed by machine, but the strips had to be manually “sewed” together to avoid seams. “Honest to God,” Dennee said, “it was a peewee diamond but by the day it was over, I thought I’d laid sod at Yankee Stadium.
“I have a whole new respect for guys who lay sod.”
Veterans Field became the flagship peewee diamond in the Eastern Ontario Baseball Association. “There were teams who wanted to come and play doubleheaders here, when you’d normally played one game here and then went back to them.”
Was it all worth it, Dennee is asked.
“Absolutely worth it,” he said in a blink. “I’d do it in a heartbeat again. I really enjoyed, after the field was built, being able to slide in, sit back, watch them play for an inning or two and disappear again.”
Dennee will be inducted at a banquet May 1 at Our Lady of Fatima Hall on Division Street, behind Performance Imports near Fraser Street.
The other members of the hall’s 20th class of inductees are: Jack Aldridge(builder), Jenny Ellis (athlete, tennis, golf and squash), George Richardson(athlete, hockey) and Bob Storring (athlete, softball).
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Aldridge coached at Frontenac high school for a number of years with Pat McMenamin, then at Queen Elizabeth Collegiate. He started the North Kingston Basketball Camp when he was at QE which he ran for 14 years.
Ellis won both the women’s singles and doubles titles at the Jack Campbell Memorial Tennis Tournament seven times in 11 years, 1979-89. She won a silver medal at the 1979 national squash championships. Australian born Ellis remains active as a golfer, she’s a six-time women’s club champion at Garrison, most recently in 2012.
Richardson was an outstanding amateur hockey player who made his debut with Queen’s in 1903 winning the intercollegiate title of America in 1903. Queen’s was Intercollegiate Hockey Union champs in 1904 and 1906. He played against Ottawa Silver Seven in the two-game Stanley Cup challenge won Ottawa by scores of 16-7 and 12-7. He starred for the 14th Regiment of Kingston team that went to OHA finals three consecutive years from 1907-09. When World War I was declared he entered the army with the rank of Lieutenant. As a member of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Battalion the Captain was returning from a night raid when he was shot through the hips by enemy fire. He was dragged back to the trench while conscious but died soon after. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1950 and Richardson Stadium, where the Golden Gaels are found each autumn on Saturday afternoons, is named in his memory.
Storring was one of eastern Ontario’s elite fastball pitchers for 25 years through 1998, during which time he also competed in national and world championship tournaments. He pitched mostly in the Loughborough league, but was one added by travelling teams for tournaments and won a world championship with Ottawa Turpin Pontiacs.