Wally Widholm, the Best Twilight Backstop of All-Time

In the world of baseball, a top-notch catcher is like finding a unicorn—rare and game-changing. Elite backstops not only excel at calling games, preventing wild pitches and controlling the basepaths, but they also contribute offensively, making them a double threat. With a great catcher behind the plate, the game flows more smoothly, reducing the chaos and boosting chances of victory. However, exceptional catchers are few and far between.

The likes of Josh Gibson, Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, Ivan Rodriguez, Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, and Adley Rutschman are some of the game’s greatest anomalies.

So what about catchers from Connecticut? Who’s been the best man with a mitt from the Nutmeg State?

Maybe it was one of the following major league catchers: Brad Ausmus, Brook Fordyce, John Ellis, or Skip Jutze. Perhaps the title belongs to a lesser-known big leaguer such as Nick Koback, Mike Sandlock, Matt Sinatro, or P.J. Higgins. There are several unsung candidates from the minor leagues including Jim Sheehan, Roger LaFrancois, and George Enright.

Last but not least, many have called Wallace “Wally” Widholm one of the best. He is rarely remembered today, but Widholm dominated the local scene in the 1950s and 1960s. His mentees, GHTBL President Bill Holowaty and Vice President Andy Baylock, still rave about his talent and control of the game behind the plate. It’s no understatement to call Wally Widholm the best twilight backstop of all-time.

Let’s take a look at his life and athletic career:

Wally Widholm, 1954.

Originally from Astoria, Queens, New York, Wallace R. Widholm was born on August 6, 1927. Widholm grew up in the same Astoria sandlots as the famed southpaw, Whitey Ford. He was Ford’s teammate and catcher. Widholm once claimed a broken finger prevented him from signing with the New York Yankees at the same time as Ford.

University of Connecticut Baseball team with Wally Widholm (far right), 1950.

Instead, in 1946, the New York Giants signed Widholm to a professional contract at 18 years old, but Widholm opted to serve in the United States Navy. He briefly attended Ursinus College before transferring to the University of Connecticut in 1949 as a two-sport athlete. His college eligibility was called into question when newspapers reported on his professional contract, but a court ruling made him eligible.

Wally Widholm, University of Connecticut Baseball, 1951.

To become UConn’s starting catcher, Widholm won a head-to-head competition in tryouts. Longtime Connecticut head coach J. Orlean Christian chose him over a returner named Walter Allen. Widholm ended up batting .325 on the season. He earned the role of captain and a First Team All-District selection. His commanding presence and “lead by doing” approach were unmistakable both on and off the field, as he effortlessly took charge and set the standard for others to follow.

Wally Widholm (left), UConn Basketball, 1951.

At 6’2″ Widholm was also key to the UConn Huskies on the basketball court. He manned the forward position and was a part of UConn’s first ever team to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Though the Huskies lost to St. John’s University at Madison Square Garden, he described the game as, “The biggest thrill I had at UConn.” Widholm played three basketball and baseball seasons for the Huskies.

Wally Widholm, University of Connecticut Basketball, 1952.

After graduating, Widholm began working at Hamilton Standard – a propeller maker in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. He was one part ballplayer and one part employee. Hamilton teams were nicknamed the “Propellers” or “Props” and Widholm was their field general behind the dish. He was known for timely line-drive hitting and for blocking nearly every ball behind the plate.

Hamilton Standard Propellers and Wally Widholm (standing, fifth from left), 1952.

His performance spurred the Props to a second place finish in the 1952 Hartford Industrial Baseball League – known as the Dusty League for short. Then the Props won four pennants in 1953: the Dusty League, the Connecticut State Semi-Pro, the Connecticut Industrial, and the Bi-State (Connecticut and Rhode Island) championships. Hamilton Standard also established a basketball team, and Widholm guided them to yet another Dusty League title that winter.

Hamilton Standard Propellers and Wally Widholm (standing, fourth from left), 1953.

That same year Widholm assumed the captain role for Hamilton Standard. He was highly regarded and heavily scouted as a top catching prospect in New England. Because of this, Widholm was sought after by local amateur and semi-pro clubs. The Puritan Maids of the Hartford Twilight League recruited Widholm, and he immediately won an All-Star selection. He also made appearances for the Portland Brownstones of the Middlesex County Baseball League.

Hamilton Standard Baseball, 1953.

Widholm had many highlights in ’53, but none more memorable than his trip to Dallas, Texas. Hamilton Standard athletes were flown to the Lonestar State to oppose airplane manufacturer, Chance Vought in a series of contests: baseball, basketball and bowling. Both Hamilton Standard and Chance Vought were divisions of Pratt & Whitney Aircraft at the time, and Chance Vought had relocated from Stratford, Connecticut, to Dallas, Texas a few years prior. The interstate competition allowed the divisions to meet and negotiate labor union contracts.

Hamilton Standard Basketball, 1953.

In the lead up to Texas, the Hartford Courant splashed Widholm’s face across the sports page. The captain and his fellow employees were photographed as they boarded a United Aircraft Convair at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut. On September 12, 1953, the counterpart companies did battle at Burnett Field in Dallas. Chance Vought edged the Props 2-1 and held them to one hit.

Widholm (right) departs East Hartford, 1953.
Burnett Field, Dallas, Texas, 1957.

Many of Widholm’s Hamilton teammates were longtime Hartford Twilight League players. They were William Landers, Harold Lewis, Charlie McMeans, Ed Kukulka, Joseph Haberl, Thomas Delucco, Daniel Ambrosio and others. Some of these men, at one time or another, were minor leaguers, and Widholm would follow suit. In 1954, he signed a contract with the Milwaukee Braves organization and designated to the Miami Beach Flamingos of the Florida International League.

Widholm hits grand slam for Miami Beach, 1954.
Flamingo Field, Miami Beach, Florida.
Wally Widholm (left), Miami Beach Flamingos, 1954.

Miami was managed by a 3-time World Series Champion, Pepper Martin. Of the Miami club, Widholm once said, “That was the best team I ever played with.” That season, he banged 6 home runs in 80 games with a 2 to 1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He was a 26 year old rookie who showed flashes of brilliance on defense. His bat proved to be full of contact, but he lacked consistent home run power.

Wally Widholm (right) of the Miami Beach Flamingos.

When the Miami Beach Flamingos folded midseason, Widholm was sent to the Quebec Braves of the Provincial League. He performed at a high level in Quebec, batting .347 in 29 games played. The only catcher with a better batting average was Dick Brown of the Sherbrooke Indians. Somehow, during his torrid streak in Quebec, Wiholm managed to avoid hitting a home run.

Wally Widholm is tagged out in a rundown, 1954.

To squeeze more homers out of Widholm, the powers-that-be of the Milwaukee Braves organization sent him to work with Hall of Famer, Paul Waner (113 MLB career home runs). Waner considered Widholm an “arm hitter” and claimed it was too late to change styles. Widholm recalled the memory in a 1976 Hartford Courant interview stating, “I didn’t believe him then, but I did later in my second year when I batted .292 with no homers.”

City Park, Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1955 (c.)

Widholm’s brief professional career came to an end in the state of Mississippi. There he played 117 games with the Chicago Cubs-affiliated Vicksburg Hill Billies of the 1955 Cotton States League. He may have forgotten, but Widholm swatted 4 home runs and finished third on the team in RBI (45). Knowing the big leagues were out of reach, he decided to make a new life back in Connecticut.

Hamilton Standard wins the Hartford Twilight League Regular Season Title with Wally Widholm at catcher (bottom, right), 1958.

Widholm married his fiancé Joyce Papetti, then settled down in East Hartford and later in Glastonbury. Wally went back to work (and play) for Hamilton Standard. In addition to the Props, he started at catcher for the Meriden Merchants and the Bloomfield Athletic Club. For the next decade plus Widholm was a mainstay in statewide tournaments, the Hartford Industrial League and Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League.

Merchants Invitational Baseball Tournament – L to R: Fred Vogel, Wally Widholm, Dave Musco, Mickey Garbeck, Jack Hines, & Bill Malerba, 1959.

His Hamilton Standard team of 1958 remains one of the greatest in GHTBL history. The Propellers lost only one game in the Regular Season to capture the league title, and they swept the Playoff Tournament. Widholm called nearly every pitch that season. A year later with the Meriden Merchants, he was named Most Valuable Player of the 1959 Merchants Invitational Tournament at Ceppa Field.

Widholm dives safely into third in GHTBL game, 1965.

For most onlookers, there was no catcher in the state with more ability than Widholm. His noticeable right arm threw hard enough to afford him many occasions on the mound as a relief pitcher into his later years. Widholm had his most dominating season in 1966 when he served as player-manager for Hamilton Standard and won Most Valuable Player at 39 years old. Former big leaguer and manager Frankie Frisch presented Widholm with his MVP award.

Wally Widholm (2nd from right) accepts Twilight League MVP Award, 1966.

Widholm suited up in the Twi-loop until the age of 43. He switched clubs a few times from the Hamilton Props to Herb’s Sport Shop, and the Manchester-based super team, Moriarty Brothers. He collected 7 Season Titles and 8 Playoff Championships in the GHTBL. Widolm retired from playing in 1970 as a member of Moriarty Brothers and became a successful head baseball coach for East Hartford’s Post 77 American Legion.

Moriarty Brothers vs. Hamilton Standard at Dillon Stadium, Hartford, Connecticut, 1967.

After an impressive athletic career and a full life, Wally Widholm passed away on March 4, 2005, at age 77. He was survived by his wife Joyce and their two children, Leslie and Wallace. Today, Widholm is remembered fondly by his friends. His character reflected an archetype of a well-rounded athlete. Widholm was a great catcher, a power forward, a family man, an animal lover, a generous soul, a gentleman, and a quiet leader of men.

Wally Widholm
Wally Widholm

The greatest thing about sports is the people and the ballplayers. It’s a healthy environment. You get to know a lot about yourself.

Wally Widholm

Other star catchers of the GHTBL:

– Francisco Ascensio, Meriden Merchants
Andy Baylock, Hamilton Standard
Bob Blinn, Herb’s Sport Shop
– William “Sonny” Carroll
Dennis Casey, Riley’s Redlegs
Dave Chicon, Bristol Cassins
Art Clune, Hartford Knights
Kyle Cooney, Meriden ProCare
Edward “Red” Cox, East Hartford Anchors
Theodore DeMaio, Herb’s Sport Shop
John Dione, Columbia A.C.
Marek Drabinski, Newman Lincoln-Mercury
Walter Dunham
Douglas G. Elliot, Malloves Jewelers
Douglas S. Elliot, People’s United Bank
Ray Fagnant,
Max Festa,
Jake Fournier, Bill’s Sport Shop
Allan Garray, Society for Savings
– Willie Gonzales,
– Simon Greenbaum,
Mike Gulino, Record-Journal Expos
Matt Hackney, Bristol Merchants
Dan Hickey, Ferguson Waterworks
Doug Holmquist,
Albert G. Huband,
Matt Hukill, Society for Savings
Skip Jutze,
Ronald “Rollie” Johnson, Hartford Orioles
William “Hank” Karlon, Savitt Gems
Stanley “Mickey” Katkaveck
Nick Koback,
Ronald Kozuch,
Mike Leonard,
John Liptak, Valco Machine
– Michael J. Lombardi
Felix Lupia, People’s United Bank
Kevin MacIlvane,
Richard Magner,
Justin Morhardt, People’s United Bank
Bill Nardi,
Jim O’Connor,
– Frank Orefice, Tuckel’s Radio Rhymers
Jim Penders, East Hartford Jets
Ron Pizzanello, Vernon Orioles
Matt Pliszka,
Jeff Rustico, People’s United Bank
Sebby Salemi, Hamilton Standard
– Guy Settino,
– Thomas Shortell, Mayflower Sales
Zac Susi, Foss Insurance
Dick Teed, Herb’s Sport Shop
Chris Thomas, Malloves Jewelers
– Jim Tucker, Superior Auto
– Francis “Woody” Wallett, Savitt Gems
Edward Wojcik, St. Cyril’s

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