By Christina Santucci
When Phil Fragale first became involved with the Forest Hills Little League, Jimmy Carter was president.
Some 35 years and five presidents later, the Middle Village resident still coaches youngsters at the league’s complex, at 66-01 Fleet St.
And for his continued service, Fragale was honored during Forest Hills’ Opening Day festivities Saturday.
“This day is definitely warranted. He’s given his life to this organization,” said Evan Spilke, the league’s former president and major league commissioner.
Fragale, who played second base for the Cleveland Indians’ minor league team, started as a coach for his son Louis’ team in 1978.
“My son was getting to Little League age, and I traveled around, I checked some of the Little League programs out,” he said. “I liked what was going on down here.”
Three years later, Fragale switched to coaching 11- and 12-years-olds. He has stayed with that team, which changed names from the Ben Hill team to Michael C. Fena, which is its current name.
Over the years, Fragale estimates the group won 27 championships and their recent record had been three season victories in a row before they were beaten in the final game last year.
Fragale also coaches a summer travel team, and his daughter Roseanne played in the softball program.
Spilke said he brought his son to one of Fragale’s practices in the 1990s and noticed how the longtime coach focused on the fundamentals of the game and stressed the importance of education.
“He taught the children how to respect the game, respect their teammates and most importantly to respect their parents,” Spilke said. “I believe Phil is the greatest coach I have ever seen. However, he is a better man than he is a coach.”
On Saturday morning, Spilke took Fragale out for breakfast at the Shalomar Diner, where he told Fragale about the ceremony.
Even a few minutes before the festivities, Fragale was somewhat at a loss for words. In a short speech to the crowd, he took time to praise others who helped out in the league before acknowledging former players and their families in attendance.
“Seeing the parents of the kids that played for me, I just can’t tell you what it means to be,” he said, choking up.
League President Lenny Wisner presented Fragale with a sweatshirt to stay warm while coaching and a watch inscribed with a message of thanks. U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing) and state Sens. Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) and Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone) also praised Fragale’s dedication to the program.
To conclude the ceremony, Fragale took the mound to throw the season’s first pitches to grandsons Rob and Louis.
“Just look at the people here. You really don’t think about it. You are doing something so long, you have affected a lot of kids positively,” Fragale said.
Reach managing editor Christina Santucci by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4589.