(Left to right) Roger Spear and Louis “Sonny” Collette at the 2002 Maine Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Portland. Submitted photo

FARMINGTON — Louis “Sonny” Collette grew up in West Farmington and attended the West Farmington Grammar School before entering and graduating from Farmington High School in 1947.
While in grammar school there was no organized baseball for local youths, but the game was nevertheless, played on area sandlots. Collette’s first nickname “Slugger” was given to him by teachers and students in grammar school as a result of his hitting on the field next to the school.

: Louis “Sonny” Collette. right, leaves for baseball camp. Here he bids goodbye to his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Refino Collette, at the West Farmington train station before heading to the minor league baseball camp at Albany, Georgia. Submitted photo

It all started when he hit a long drive through a school window. Collette’s teachers, to prevent “Slugger” from doing it again, reoriented the layout of the field. Shortly thereafter, “Slugger” ripped a long foul ball that went through another school window. After that “Slugger” was instructed by a teacher to choke up and learn to be a spray hitter. However, that didn’t work; because Collette was always destined to be a power hitter.

Once in high school, Collette’s athletic abilities became known throughout Franklin County and beyond. He was a five-sport letterman. His 1945 track team won the county and the state championship when Collette set a state record in the 120-yard hurdles. In 1947, he and teammates Lee Gray, Herb Wing, and Richard Green set state records in the 440- and 880-yard relays.

Louis Collette was also a member of the school’s winter sports team and excelled in cross country snowshoeing. His 1945-46 basketball team finished the season with a 21-2 record. He was a gifted football tailback who simply outran the opposition, scoring eight touchdowns in a shortened season. He was named to the Class B All-Maine Football team.

But baseball clearly showed that Collette was, as one former teammate described, the crème de la crème. He was the complete package: he could hit for average, hit with power, possessed blazing speed on the base paths, could run down fly balls in the outfield with the absolute best, and had a strong and accurate throwing arm which kept opponents from taking liberties on the bases. He could throw the baseball like no one else. These are the special qualities fans love and scouts look for in a ballplayer.

The 1948 original Farmington Flyers baseball club. Front row, kneeling: bat boy Davis Clark. Second row: scorekeeper Norm Ferrari, General Manager Cash Clark, Scott Kendall, Peter Dorion, Don Green, Mel Johnson, Johnny Gagne, Coach Phil Folger. Third row: Manager Ardine Ellis, Don Kenney, Dick Green, Louis Collette, Dick Johnson, Cecil Kendall, Frank Look. Submitted photo

After starring at Farmington High School, Louis continued his pursuit of a professional baseball career by playing summer ball. In 1948 he was recruited by local Coke-Cola owner, Cash Clark, to play on his very first semi-pro Farmington Flyers baseball club. The Flyers was the start of a local baseball dynasty that became well known throughout New England as a highly-competitive organization that recruited its players from throughout the northeast. That summer, Collette, by a popular local vote through the Franklin Journal newspaper, was named to the league’s all-star team.

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While Collette was enjoying a successful 1948 season with the Flyers, on June 25 the Franklin Journal announced that the Major League Baseball St. Louis Cardinals would conduct a baseball tryout camp at Bates College in Lewiston on July 7 and 8. The announcement said, “Every boy in the vicinity who feels that he has what it takes to become a professional baseball player is invited to enroll for a try-out.” Collette attended the try-out and as a result of his performance was signed by the Cardinals. The chief scout, in charge of the east coast for the Cardinals, indicated that he was especially proud of signing Collette.

Louis “Sonny” Collette, left, and a St. Louis Cardinals scout congratulating Collette on the signing of his professional baseball contract. Submitted photo

In the spring of 1949, Collette reported to the Cardinals’ minor league training camp in Albany, Georgia and was later assigned to the Hamilton Red Wing Baseball Club in the Pony League in Hamilton, Ontario, where he was the starting centerfielder. In late June, Collette’s contract was assigned to the Cardinals’ farm team, the Geneva County Baseball Club in the Alabama State League, where he hit at a .303 clip.

On August 21 he was transferred to the Cardinals’ farm team in Salisbury, Maryland which played in the Eastern Shore League. After arriving in Salisbury, Collette immediately became the dominant player for his team. He ended the 1949 season with a combined .308 batting average with all three clubs.

For the 1950 season, Collette was initially assigned to the Albany Baseball Club in the Georgia-Florida League, but before the season started his contract was transferred to the West Frankfort, Illinois Cardinals farm team playing in the Mohawk Valley League where he played the entire 1950 season.

Collette was known locally as a speed demon and that reputation followed him in his professional career. In August, 1950, a Major League scout with the Boston Braves clocked him circling the base paths in 14.2 seconds when he hit the first ever inside the park home run at West Fork’s Memorial Stadium. The scout remarked, “That’s big league running.” During that 1950 season Louis kept up His outstanding hitting by closing out the year with a .297 batting average.

On October 24, 1950, Collette was assigned to the St. Joseph, Missouri Cardinal’s club in the Western Association League. However, before he was able to report he was drafted and he elected to serve in the U.S. Air Force for four years. During his tour of duty Collette was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas where he was able to play baseball all four years with military teams in the Transportation International League. During those years Louis continued to excel on the diamond and honed his skills in preparation for his return to the Cardinals organization in hopes of joining the likes of Musial, Schoendienst, and Slaughter at the Major League level in St. Louis.

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In 1953, while still in the Air Force, Collette received a letter from the Cardinals’ Major League office which stated in part, “It was a unanimous opinion that we expect our organization to be a better and stronger one after you leave Uncle Sam’s service and rejoin us.”

In 1955 Collette reported to the Cardinal’s spring training, where he incurred an injury that rendered his throwing arm “dead.” At that point in his aspiring career, Collette was expected to be the “complete” ballplayer and his strong accurate throwing arm was an essential tool of the trade for success. As a result of the injury and seeing the end of his dream of becoming a Major League player dashed, Collette requested and was granted his unconditional release from the California League by the Fresno Cardinals.

Not deterred and anxious to pursue another career Collette entered college to enable him to become a teacher/coach. In 1959 he graduated, with honors, from Montana State University with a degree in physical education. He was also MSU’s assistant baseball coach during his senior year.

In the fall of 1959 Collette started his long and successful teaching and coaching career in Maine. His first position was at Lisbon High School teaching physical education and coaching football, track, and baseball. In his second year as football coach, he took a 1-10 football team in 1959 to an undefeated Maine Class B State Championship in 1960.

One of his former players once remarked, “Even though Coach Collette was a great coach, more importantly he became the ultimate role model for all of the students at our school.” In 1965, Lisbon High School honored Coach Collette at the dedication of its new football stadium.

After two years in Lisbon, Louis returned to Montana State for a year and earned a Master’s Degree in Physical Education. The following year he came back to teach and coach at Rockland High School. For five years he remained at Rockland. As a football coach he helped develop a football program at which time noted sports columnist Dick Doyle wrote, “Collette likes being a fundamentalist developing green material … A school is fortunate to have and keep such a builder.” Coach Collette also was instrumental in leading Rockland High to its first ever Kennebec Valley Conference baseball championship.

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In 1968, Collette accepted a position as teacher and coach at Brunswick Junior High School, where he remained for the next 16 years until his retirement. While in Brunswick he coached football, track, and was athletic director. As a track coach his philosophy was to give everyone a chance to develop a specialty.

In the eight years Collette coached track he continually had one-third of the school’s enrollment, usually 120 boys and 80 girls out for the sport. During those eight years his track team compiled an amazing 55-2 record. The year after he retired, the program’s annual 200 participants dropped to just 25. His special touch with his students and constant encouragement to succeed was greatly missed after his departure.

Collette’s former principal said Louis was a very positive and professional staff member who was serious about his responsibilities and expected the same from those with whom he worked. He was truly a team player, demonstrated a quiet confidence, and contributed much to the overall success of Brunswick Junior High School. Another education colleague once said, “Every kid should have a Louis Collette in his or her life.”

For more than 20 years as a teacher, Collette taught a unit on the great American game of baseball. He proudly felt that this effort influenced many of his former students to take up the national pastime and enjoy it as an interested lifelong fan.

As a ballplayer and later as a coach, Louis Collette was an exemplary specimen of physical fitness who never asked a student or player to do a physical activity he couldn’t personally demonstrate beforehand. Nothing changed. In 1990, at age sixty, he won 3.3 and 7.1-mile road races at Eastport’s annual Fourth of July celebration event.

In 1999, competing in a Senior Olympics Golf Championship at Myrtle Beach, Collette won the event. A former teammate and friend said, “If you could see the way he hits a golf ball off the tee it would give you an idea of his past baseball hitting ability.” In 2002, Louis Collette was inducted into the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame.
Louis “Sonny” Collette, while living in Bingham, Maine passed away this year at age 92.

Roger G. Spear, UMF Vice President Emeritus, is a well-known authority on local sports history (especially baseball) and is currently working on a manuscript of local baseball, 1865-1956. He can be reached by email: [email protected]

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