Glory Days: Trio of LHS sports heroes recalls exploits from the 1940s

LACONIA — Sixty five years ago, a trio of Laconia High School athletes, who between them had earned 26 varsity letters, were featured in an article written by Sam Clevenson in the Laconia Evening Citizen which recalled their past exploits and detailed their plans for the future.
Those three men, now 83 years old, gathered recently to look at old newspaper clippings and reminisce in what might be called a Bruce Springsteen song ''Glory Days'' moment, about the Laconia sports scene in the 1940s.
The three ''Men of Letters'', as described in a caption beneath their photo, were Jeep Munsey, Milo Pike and Leo ''Pat'' McGrath, all of whom earned four letters in baseball.
''A lot of the seniors had joined the Army so we got to play varsity baseball as freshman,'' said Pike, who in his high school career would win 20 of 29 varsity pitching starts, including all five that he made against Franklin, described in the article as a major rival, as well as games against Cathedral and Central of Manchester and Nashua, while hitting over .300 in three of his four seasons.
''Laconia was a great baseball town back then.'' McGrath recalls, noting that his first experience at baseball was playing on an Industrial League team along with his father and grandfather. ''That's where we learned baseball. There weren't any Little League teams then and we learned in our backyards and in pickup games,'' says McGrath, who played the infield for Laconia High School for four years and hit .362 one season, and, along with Pike and Munsey, played American Legion baseball during the summers after the high school season was over.
He homered in one of those Legion games at Kelley Park in Bristol, pulling a ball over the right field fence off of Bill Marston, one of then best high school pitchers in New Hampshire. Marston outdueled Pike that die, though Pike struck out 10 in eight innings, in a 2-1 loss. Marston struck out 12 while allowing only three hits in that victory and was only 15 at the time.
McGrath, who earned three letters in football as well as two letters in basketball, recalls former Red Sox catcher Birdie Tebbetts of Nashua bringing a team of Red Sox players to the Pearl Street grounds in 1948, just after they had lost a playoff game to the Cleveland Indians.
''The major league pitcher pitched against the Red Sox hitters and out pitcher pitched against our hitters. It was really something to see big league players in Laconia,'' says McGrath.
McGrath also recalls Laconia hosting the House of David baseball team, who gained fame for their beards and barnstormed the country during the 1920s until the early 1950s playing local teams. Among those playing on the House of David team against Laconia was Walter Peterson, who would in 1968 and 1970 win the New Hampshire governorship.
''He wore a fake beard during the game and would keep lifting it up and smiling at us,'' recalls McGrath.
Munsey, who earned three letters in football and was a unanimous pick as an All-State running back, also earned three letters in basketball, as did Pike. He was the only one who went on to play sports in college, serving in the Navy before attending the University of New Hampshire, where he co-captained the football team, set punting records which still stand to this day and once gained 151 yards in 12 carries against Vermont while scoring three touchdowns. He also played basketball and baseball at UNH.
McGrath also served in the Navy, declining an athletic scholarship at Saint Michael's College after fellow LHS football player Peter ''Beau'' Lessard, who was also headed to St. Michael's, decided instead to attend Syracuse University. He would later work for Pike's paving company.
Pike, who had been in line for a baseball scholarship at Wake Forest, attended Norwich University but went into the family paving business in 1949.
''I had seven men, two trucks and a wheelbarrow to work with'' Pike says of his first summer on the job.
''We never saw a baseball, basketball or football until we got to high school,'' Pike recalls, saying that Munsey, who was a natural athlete, adapted the most easily to all three sports. Pike was frequently the high scorer for the high school basketball team, scoring 15 points in a come from behind 36-33 win over Spaulding High School of Rochester and 15 in a 36-35 loss to Spaulding which Laconia lost on a last minute basket.
Munsey, who once had a 29 game hitting streak in baseball, recalls that the city had at least four teams playing in a city league which featured players such as John Lyman, Warren McVey, Ray Simoneau, Peanut Lamere and Norman ''Farmer'' Hubbard, and an All-Star team which played teams from other cities.
''There used to 250 to 300 people at our games,'' recalls Pike, who says that the immediate post World War II era was a golden age of sports for Laconia, whose football teams competed against and defeated teams from cities like Nashua and Manchester.
Numbers tell a lot about the relative decline of Laconia's competitiveness. In 1950 Laconia had a population of 14,745 (not counting Gilford), compared to 13,776 for Rochester, 15,874 for Dover, and 34,669 for Nashua. Since then the other cities have doubled their population while Laconia has added only 1,000 residents.
''When we played sports there was no television to speak of and people were engaged in their community in a way that's just not possible today. It was a fun era, an exciting time to be involved in sports,'' recalls McGrath.
Pike says that until recently when Munsey had knee surgery the trio of 1948 LHS graduates frequently got together for golf and that he and McGrath were out on the Laconia Country Club course as recently as last week.
''We still like to talk about the good old days,'' says Pike, who jokes that ''the older we get, the better we were.''


Milo Pike, Leo 'Pat' McGrath and George P. 'Jeep' Munsey, members of the Class of 1948 at Laconia High School, earned 26 varsity letters between them during their high school careers. (Roger Amsden/ for The Laconia Daily Sun)

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