CHERRYFIELD, Maine — There may be a baseball field in Cherryfield named for Major League baseball legend Carlton Willey, but what the locals remember most is his “Old Men’s Club.”
Every morning since his retirement from baseball and his return to his hometown in 1965, Willey hosted friends for conversations over coffee. At 8 a.m. sharp every day but Sunday, the men gathered to discuss politics, people, hunting, fishing and, of course, baseball.
More than 15 years ago, a club member hung a sign on Willey’s door designating it the “Old Men’s Club,” and none of the members seemed to mind that the coffee was instant, cooked by the former star pitcher in a microwave.
Town Clerk Mona West said Willey was a celebrity in Cherryfield, “a local boy that made it good.”
But Willey never acted the part of a star.
“He didn’t like the limelight,” Janet Sprague said. “He was just one of us. He was a great fellow.”
Sprague and her husband, Harold — a member of the Old Men’s Club — affectionately called Willey “Cardy.”
“Yes, he put old Cherryfield on the map when he went into the big leagues,” she said.
Willey’s roots ran deep in Cherryfield. Ichabod Willey was one of the town’s founders, and Carlton Willey was an eighth-generation resident.
Nearly everyone in town seemed to know of Willey’s Old Men’s Club.
“I was a founding member,” recalled Charlie Tenan, Willey’s cousin and lifelong friend — literally. Tenan and Willey grew up less than a quarter-mile apart and spent their entire lives not just as cousins, but as close friends.
“I miss him already,” Tenan said Tuesday morning.
Tenan said those village men who gathered at Willey’s “took care of all the world’s problems.”
Tenan said he was six weeks younger than Willey and that when the pair was growing up they were often joined by the neighborhood children in a game of sandlot baseball.
“It seemed like there was always a bunch of kids around and we all liked baseball,” Tenan said. “In those days, we could play ball right in the middle of the road.”
Later, when Willey retired from a career that included years with the Milwaukee Braves and New York Mets and returned to his hometown, the pair hunted and fished together “and chased the women together,” Tenan joked. “He was a nice guy. I’ve got so many good memories that I can’t even think of just one.”
Allegra Willey, whose husband was Willey’s cousin, lived right across the street from the baseball star.
“He was a simply very, very nice man,” she said.
In 2007, Willey’s ex-wife, Nancy Willey of Cherryfield, told the Bangor Daily News what it was like to be Willey’s wife during the heyday of baseball.
The Willeys were high school sweethearts and Nancy Willey traveled with her husband around the country until it was time for their two children to start school back in Cherryfield.
She said that in 1958, a seat in the bleachers of Milwaukee County Stadium cost 25 cents and vendors sold hot dogs for a dime. She said Willey was popular with the children who had visions of being a star pitcher.
In 1964, a good pitch by Carlton Willey ended his career.
“He got hit [in the face] with a line drive at Florida spring training and that just ruined his career,” Nancy Willey told the BDN.
In a 2003 interview with the Bangor Daily News, Willey talked about his career.
“I’d like to have my career to do over again, I sure would,” he said. “It was fun. I’d think people would have forgotten me now but the mail keeps coming.”