He started out tossing a rubber Spalding off the front stoop of his family’s home on Yarmouth Road, sharpened his skills on the pitching mounds of East Rockaway High School and Long Island Agricultural and Technical Institute (SUNY Farmingdale), and continued to pound strike zones in minor league cities throughout the country.
Now, Ken Widman has returned home. The 1961 graduate, and first East Rockaway baseball player to earn All-County recognition, was inducted into the ERHS Athletic Wall of Fame in a ceremony held on Saturday, March 4.
After wearing the orange and black for four years as a Rock, and turning in a pair of stellar college seasons, Widman pitched professionally for six years, reaching the AAA level with the San Diego Padres (then an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds) of the Pacific Coast League. A shoulder injury curtailed his baseball career in 1968 at the tender age of 24.
“Coming back to East Rockaway and being honored is a dream come true,” Widman said. “I’m on the wall at SUNY Farmingdale, had a plaque on the wall of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown for winning MVP of the JUCO World Series, and now this. It’s the Wall of Fame trifecta. When I got the call about this, I was flawed.”
Honoring Widman, who garnered All-County status at a time when only 16 players in all of Nassau were recognized, was the brainchild of Class of 1982 graduate and quasi East Rockaway sports historian Richard Hess.
“After reading about Ken and doing some research, I reached out to Dom Vulpis (East Rockaway Director of Athletics) and James Hickey (head baseball coach) and gave them the background information,” Hess said. “I thought it would make a neat story. They said to run with it.”
The 73-year old Widman, who credits high school coach Bill Shelley for honing his craft on the mound, shared some stories of his time playing at East Rockaway, in college, and in the minors with an audience that included current members of the baseball program at East Rockaway; one account involved dominating a future member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
“I was pitching in AA ball for the Knoxville Smokies against the best team in the Southern Leagues, the Birmingham A’s,” Widman said. “I hadn’t won a game, and the opposing pitcher was undefeated. I was pitching in front of my parents and my girlfriend, who later became my wife. They got to witness me strike out Reggie Jackson three times.”
In addition to Jackson, that A’s roster included two other future Hall of Famers, Tony La Russa and Rollie Fingers.
Widman’s most memorable feat in baseball occurred in May of 1963 when he was pitching at Farmingdale (the team was then known as the Long Island Aggies) against New York City Community College in the semifinals of the NJCAA Region 15 tournament. The 19-year old righty was virtually unhittable, but his offense couldn’t get much going either. The game was scoreless until the top of the 18th inning when the Aggies put two runs on the board.
Widman, who held the opponent hitless through 9 2/3 innings, pitched all 18 innings and struck out 32 batters to earn the 2-0 win. He was named to the All-American Junior College team and was selected as most valuable player of the JUCO World Series after picking up a pair of complete-game victories.
Despite being tired, Widman, who struck out 18 batters in a 10-inning outing earlier in 1963 season, never considered coming out. “Honestly, I didn’t even know how many innings I had pitched,” Widman said. “I must have had my curve working, because that was my out pitch. It’s a good thing it didn’t go any more than 18 innings. I’m not sure how much I had left.”
After pitching in the in the minors in North Carolina, Virginia, California, and Tennessee, Widman, who married Nancy Ross (East Rockaway Class of 1964), was released in 1968.
Widman spent nearly a quarter century working for Harris Corporation, a leading communications and information technology company. The Widmans, who will celebrate 50 years of marriage in 2018, have two children, a daughter Keri and son Ken.
“East Rockaway was a great place to grow up,” Widman said. “We played a lot of basketball and baseball in the schoolyard at Rhame Avenue. There was always a game going on. This is a real special honor. Coming back brought back a lot of memories.”