ST. PETERSBURG — The little leaguers came each spring to Northwest Recreation Center bringing their cleats, their gloves and their hope. Each of the young players checked in with a slight woman holding a clipboard, who herded them to teams with the efficiency of a border collie.
For 33 years, Marjorie Pilsbury also sold Twizzlers licorice, hot dogs and Italian ice at the concession stand, which started out as a weatherbeaten trailer. She also served as treasurer of Northwest Youth Baseball.
"Marge wasn't a baseball person, she wasn't a coach," said former longtime board member Charlie Gerdes. "She was like the mom of the league. She knew these kids' names, she knew where they went to school and she knew their family members."
She worked behind the scenes, less visible than Wilbur Pilsbury, her husband, who helped found the league in 1972.
"She was one of those very quiet people," said Bob Chick, 72, a former Evening Independent sportswriter and baseball parent. "Her husband had the voice of a foghorn, and she was more of a sparrow."
Players included many of the more than 40 foster children the couple took in over the years, alongside two of their own. Some arrivals had to be taught how to eat at a table, how to brush their teeth and to attend school.
While Mrs. Pilsbury's own childhood was not scarred by that kind of abuse, neither did she receive an abundance of care. She was born in St. Petersburg, the daughter of a Webb's City ice cream server who drank too much. She shared a bed with two sisters.
"I remember we had beans on the stove, and corn bread," said sister Shirley Keith, 70. "That's pretty much what we ate."
She was 16 when she married Wilbur, who was seven years her senior. The first foster child, a 7-year-old girl they had found crying at Sunshine Speedway, came when they were young adults.
Some children just showed up at the door, accompanied by a social worker. In those days, there was a lot less paperwork. Often, the kids wound up playing baseball.
She also took in stray dogs, and has owned as many as seven at a time. She had not taken a vacation since 1988, daughter-in-law Kelli Pilsbury said.
Names of leagues changed over the years — from Florida Little Major League to PONY baseball and now, Dizzy Dean — as the number of fields expanded from four to seven. A generation of kids grew up and enrolled their own children in Northwest Baseball — where Mrs. Pilsbury was still running the concession stand.
"She's the one who made it such a family culture," said Gerdes, 55, who estimates Mrs. Pilsbury affected 150,000 players over 33 years.
She ordered the league's supplies, wrote the checks and paid the insurance. She stepped down five years ago, about when the league finished an upgrade to its concession stand.
Members dedicated the new snack bar to Mrs. Pilsbury and mounted a plaque on the wall.
Replacing her proved more difficult, as board members groped to master routine tasks she had always taken care of.
"She had the key to the post office," said Wanda Dudley, 54, a past president. "Over the years, no one ever wondered where the mail came from. After she left, we would show up at meetings, and we were all looking at each other and going, 'How do we get the mail?' "
Mrs. Pilsbury entered a nursing home four years ago suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Relatives often found her there pacing the halls, a clipboard in hand — getting ready for "the season," she said.
"She was so concerned that it was time for the season to start, and they weren't doing enough to get ready for it," said daughter Linda Phillips, 60. "That kinds of gives us an indication of what was in her head."
Mrs. Pilsbury, who has been called the "first lady of Northwest," died Oct. 23 at the Seminole Pavilion nursing home. She was 81.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]