Keeping Score: The Lions sleep tonight

  • A program for the Greenfield Lions football team against Lee Athletic Club from the 1950s. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Published: 9/11/2020 5:00:16 PM
Modified: 9/11/2020 5:00:01 PM

Good morning!
Fran Lemay has been twisting arms for a long time. By my count at least four Recorder reporters — Al Oickle, Steve Smith, Jay Butynski and myself — have written about the Greenfield Lions football team of the 1950s.

Recently at his condo on Country Club Road in Greenfield, Lemay gathered up mimeographed lists of names, old programs, ledgers and press clippings, stuffed them into manila folders and handed them to me. “Here,” he said. “I wanted someone to have this before I die.”

The 88-year-old retired banker looks like he could still grind out a few yards like he did when he was a 200-pound running back for the Lions. Now he’s the torchbearer for a time when the interstate was in the planning stages and Greenfield was a thriving hub of department stores, jewelry shops and mom-and-pop places like Naples Bakery and Brown’s Toy Store.

The football team was the brainchild of Joseph “Romeo” Auclair, a Quebec native who moved from Thetford Mines to Greenfield and opened Bill’s Restaurant. He joined the Lions Club which met at the Mansion House on Main Street and suggested they start a football team similar to what the Leominster Lions Club had going in central Mass.

On Sunday afternoons from 1949-55, the Lions played the Ansonia Aces, Cambridge Bobcats, Hopkinton Stone Throwers and any of a dozen other teams. Admission was a dollar and high school kids got in for free. Programs cost a dime and included rosters of both teams. The referee was former All-American running back Lou Bush; the team physician was Dr. Stephen Wolanske.

These weren’t youngsters, they were grown men in their early 20s, some of whom had returned from war. They were paid $10 a game, slightly more than $100 by today’s standards. “It was very physical,” Lemay told Steve Smith in 1975. “Big Mike Rura (of South Deerfield) broke his leg and kept playing. There were a lot of broken noses and teeth. It was back before they had face guards. Afterward we went to Bill’s and drank beer until closing.”

As Auclair had predicted, Veterans Field was jammed with as many as 5,000 fans each game. “Everybody in Greenfield went,” said Terri Greene, whose husband Dick was a receiver and special teams player. “George Hayer said Dick was the best punter Greenfield ever had,” she said, referring to the esteemed Greenfield barrister and district court judge.

(Dick Greene died three weeks ago, and Terri made sure the Lions football team was mentioned in his obituary.)

In their first six seasons the Lions’ were 41-9-1 and outscored the opposition 941-307. “They were very, very, good,” said Greene, “and everybody loved the coach.”

Tall, stern and smart, Stan Benjamin strolled into town like Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter. He was a Framingham native, a coach and a teacher, and he had played five seasons for the Philadelphia Phillies. That was plenty enough to earn peoples’ respect.

“They loved Stan, but you know who was wonderful too?” said Greene. “Ump Nichols’ wife. She’d take their uniforms and mend them. She was a peach.”

Nichols coached GHS football, and Greene may have been referring to them and not the Lions, but it’s a nice story anyway.

“[Coach Benjamin] thrilled the fans with some of his plays,” wrote the Recorder’s Al Oickle. “He liked to spread two linemen far to the right in front of two running backs, two to the far left with another running back and keep three in the middle to guard the quarterback. When the Lions went into that formation the crowd would scream and laugh — and sonuvagun if the lateral-pass-run play didn’t work more than it failed.”

Program ads reflect how times have changed. A few like Partridge-Zschau, Sandri, Foster’s, Harper’s and Cooke & Jones are still in business but most are gone. Alberti’s, Clark Hardware, Stotz Electric, Crosby Optician, Charron’s Pharmacy, Carl’s Restaurant, Aliber’s, Braff & Rich and Bartlett’s all shuttered, and Bill’s Restaurant is now a sports bar.

During its brief existence, the team’s all-time roster grew to include over 100 players whose family names are as familiar today as they were then — Budrewicz, Waskiewicz, Graves, Matuszko, Harris, Sanderson, Peters, Burniske… “There’s Juice,” said Lemay, pointing to Juice Moore in the back row of a team photo. “The big ears point that out.”

Some became successful businessmen. Lemay bought and sold banks, Paul Whalen owned the Hotel Warren, Nook Burniske ran the family’s oil business, Frank Kelley owned Northfield Sand and Gravel, Henry Kostanski was in the funeral business, Jake and Carl Matuszko got into trucking, Stan Kaczenski became the chief of police in Greenfield, and so on.

Benjamin was hired to scout for the Houston Astros. During the 1990 pennant chase the Red Sox needed Houston reliever Larry Andersen to bolster their bullpen. Benjamin told General Manager Bill Wood to hold out for Jeff Bagwell, who was a minor leaguer en route to becoming a Hall of Famer.

Benjamin lived a block from Foster’s Supermarket and spent the winters reffing basketball. The story goes that during a game at Amherst College he called a timeout and announced he’d made a bad call. Imagine that. He died of Alzheimer’s in 2009 at age 95 and is buried in the Green River Cemetery.

The Lions had four quarterbacks in seven years: Ramsey “Bebe” Parenteau, Doc Savage, Howie Burns and Noel Reebenacker. “Parenteau was from Turners Falls,” said Lemay. “He probably played the most games.”

Reebenacker was a Korean War veteran and UMass Athletic Hall of Fame quarterback. “He was a star at UMass,” said Lemay. “His presence caused a grievance with some players because he was paid $50 and all the rest of us got $10.”

Burns played for Benjamin at GHS and was a math major at UMass when he was drafted by Uncle Sam and sent to Korea to break codes. “Howie got along with everyone,” said Lemay. “We grew up together on Lincoln Street and we were very competitive trying to outdo each other.”

Burns moved to Westfield and coached the Springfield Tech baseball team to three consecutive state titles. He died at the Holyoke Soldiers Home in 2019, and Reebenacker also died last year in Peabody.

The Lions Club’s foray into semipro football ended in 1955. The team was 3-3 and the crowds were sparse. Television was booming and Channel 3 in Hartford was airing New York Giants football. The Recorder editorialized they should sue for non-support.

The death knell came on a bleak Sunday in November when 357 fans turned out to watch the Lions play Canton. Already out $10,000 for the season, members voted to cut their losses and cancel the last game.

End of season, end of Lions Club football. “It is a blow to county sports prestige,” the Recorder lamented. “Let the Lions’ fate serve as a warning to all who like sports teams but are too lazy to support them.”

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached at chipjet95@yahoo.com




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