DELMAR — For 50 years, the Bethlehem community has gathered together to support the Bethlehem Softball League. This historic anniversary season honors those who have remained determined to support girls’ dreams on and off the field.
Dr. Irving Van Woert, one of the original creators of the Bethlehem Tomboys Girls Softball League (recently renamed the Bethlehem Softball League), coached for several years. His memoirs are detailed accounts of the community and local businesses that worked together to make the fledgling team thrive.
His comprehensive narrative recalls that the first game was played on July 5th, 1972. However, before the first pitch was thrown, meticulous planning and discussions were part of a long process to make the league possible.
Original softball player Tracy Cunha, née Castiglione, brought home a school flyer that promoted the idea of forming a girls’ softball league. Her parents, John and Sally Castiglione, decided to go. She describes her mother as the “first feminist I knew,” who saw a need for girls to be included in sports the way that boys were.
They went to the meeting, which was attended by representatives from Miss Softball America. The idea of the league met with a rousing response. Cunha’s parents were one of the first couples to volunteer in a managerial capacity.
Alongside other dedicated individuals, they were determined to make softball accessible to the girls and young women in the area. Dr. Van Woert’s original notes were quick to credit by name the hard work of the diligent parents and board members. He also specifically credited Lee Rhenish, a SUNY varsity softball coach and commissioner for Miss Softball America, for “bringing the sport into the area.”
“Initially, the members of the board met every evening for long evenings that went late into the night,” Cunha remembered. “I will never forget them; sitting around our dining room table and planning this. All kinds of emotions were palpable— excitement, frustration, and determination.”
Her father and mother became president and vice president as the league formed officially under Miss Softball America. Dr. Van Woert notes in his memoirs that the relationship grew “controversial” as they lacked proper funding and independence under the umbrella organization. They left Miss Softball America after the first season, the initial step on an uncertain pathway to their independence.
“They scraped money together with car washes and bake sales, a generous local community, and many more meetings,” Cunha said. She reminisced about how “dozens of businesses jumped in to sponsor the teams.”
Some of the original sponsors were Toll Gate and Tri-Village Drugs. “It was an amazing group of people who jumped in during a time that was tough,” she added.
“It’s interesting to see how long it’s lasted and how many people in the community, young girls and now women who are now mothers, have gone through this program,” said Maggie Tromp, a senior at the Academy of the Holy Names.
As a player for BSL since Tromp was young, she has thrived in many roles, from shortstop to first base, even as an umpire for her younger sister’s team. “I’m a student-athlete. That is the best way to describe me,” she explained.
She remarked on “what a staple it is in the community for people.” She added. “It has family connections for me because my mom played in the league. For others, I think it secures its foundation as such a strong, long-lasting league.”
The league has evolved over the years, blossoming into separate recreational and travel teams. The renaming was another step in the development of the league. Branding has also developed, particularly under Mark Ciafardo’s attentive eye.
League president Mark Ciafardo laughed about how he “wears many different hats.” As manager, coach, and president for BSL, Ciafardo is also a father; encouraging his daughters in softball also continues to inspire him. He describes himself as dedicated to the “empowerment” of the young women in the league.
He reflected on how softball has taught the girls and young women to learn life skills such as dealing with conflicts and teamwork. He also commented on how it raises their “independence and confidence” from day to day.
“They built an amazing program that helped young girls develop character and self-esteem, as well as other life-empowering skills,” said Tracy Cunha. She now works for the New York State Senate and has worked in public service, organizing events that advocate for women’s rights. “I feel I benefited from that.”
Maggie Tromp is in her final season. Looking back at her years with BSL, she said, “There have been ups and downs always throughout my years of playing… It taught me to stick through a lot of things and the fact that I can really improve in anything with just repetition and practice.”
“With friendships, it opened me up to many new people,” she continued. “It’s helped me improve my growth and connect with other people that I wouldn’t have had the chance to.”
Tracy Cunha agreed that softball and the friends she made remained a part of her life. “There are so many people who have made my life better, and I met them through softball.”
There are many events planned to celebrate the historic season. All season, players will have shirts emblazoned with the 50th-anniversary design. On April 22, opening day, Town Supervisor David VanLuven and his wife will throw out the first pitch. On June 11th, there will be an anniversary celebration that invites all those who have played and supported the league to honor the season.
“When I step back and reflect on what the BSL means to me and what word(s) best describe what our organization is all about, I find myself at a loss for words,” Mark Ciafardo wrote in his president’s address to honor the anniversary season.
“How do you describe an organization that has touched so many lives over the last 50 wonderful years? I believe you do so with one word: excellence.”