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Little Big League: Road To (And From) The Majors

Tommy “Digger” Donohue recalls 1967 team, MLB career

Baseball players, young and old, learn the game’s fundamentals in Little League: hitting the cut-off man, catching with two hands, running through first base on a grounder … the list goes on, longer than the centerfield fence at the old Polo Grounds.

America’s pastime leaves an indelible imprint on the youth. How could a young ball player forget a walk-off home run, throwing a no-hitter or pulling off a successful squeeze bunt or triple play?

For others it’s recollections of postgame pizza or ice cream, the smell of fresh-cut grass baking in the outfield sun, heaping piles of sunflower seeds or head-sized gum wads of Big League Chew.

In the case of Tommy “Digger” Donohue, it’s the memory of winning a Little League Senior Division World Series.

The lifetime Westbury resident and Donohue-Cecere Funeral Home director (290 Post Ave.) went on to play two seasons in the big leagues as a catcher for the California Angels in 1979 and 1980, but still speaks fondly of learning the game’s fundamentals here in Westbury.

Donohue recalls receiving a homecoming fit for a king, as a member of Westbury’s 1967 Little League World Series Championship team when more than 400 community members welcomed the team at the airport after they returned home from Iowa, where they beat West Des Moines 11-3 in the championship game.

“The way the community came together, it was unbelievable. We had eight busloads of people come into greet us at the airport. We made a procession out to Westbury and drove through the all the streets and had a great old time – waking up everybody; people out on their lawns.

“It was amazing how everybody knew we were coming home and it was 1 o’clock in the morning. It was like it was the biggest thing that ever happened,” said Donohue.

Of the 1967 championship team, Donohue said he’s the only remaining member still living in the village. He said the nucleus of the team played together from Little League baseball throughout their playing days at Westbury High School before many of them went on to play at the college level.

“The Westbury Little League was very strong at the time. You actually had to tryout for that all-star team, maybe 50 guys tried out and 14 were selected, I believe. The skill level was unbelievable, we won every championship every year in high school and continued on in the summer leagues before everybody dispersed when we went to college,” said Donohue. 

Donohue actually accepted a football scholarship to play at Idaho State University before the Angels drafted him in the first round, ninth overall, in 1972. Naturally an outfielder and a pitcher, Donohue was moved to catcher with the Angels – an impossibly late conversion to a new position – but the switch was ultimately his ticket to the show.

“I was never behind the plate, ever, in my lifetime. The management and the higher-ups thought I had a lot of tools and if they could put me behind there then I’d be able to get the job done and that’s what happened – it was my ticket to the big leagues. I probably never would have made it as an outfielder,” said Donohue, who noted how two of his five home runs in the majors were hit off Hall of Fame pitcher – and later, a Harlem Globetrotter – Fergie Jenkins.

After two seasons behind the plate with the Angels, four-time MLB All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove winner Bob Boone, who helped the Philadelphia Phillies win a World Series title in 1980, replaced Donohue, who then called it a career. In 1984, “Digger” earned his associate’s degree in mortuary science from SUNY Farmingdale and went into the family business.

“Whenever we used to come into Yankee Stadium, Phil Rizzuto was always making jokes about me being a funeral director and he dubbed me the name ‘Digger,’ so whenever I came into New York, I was ‘Digger Donohue.’ It was my nickname my whole career,” he said.

Donohue said his grandfather helped build the family’s original funeral home on Castle Avenue in Westbury in the early 1940s before relocating to the current location on Post Avenue in 1998. He and his wife Kerry, daughter of former longtime Westbury Village Justice John L. Molloy (1949 to 1991), raised five children in the village.

“I married the justice’s daughter, I can park anywhere I want in the village,” Donohue said.

Nowadays, Donohue is active with the Major League Baseball Alumni Association in organizing golf outings and free clinics for young ballplayers, where he passes on the fundamentals he learned in Westbury to Little Leaguers with hopes of making it big, just like Digger.