Longtime teacher spent over 40 years involved with youth baseball in Durango
Ward Lee, who was known to some as “Mr. Baseball” in Durango, died on Tuesday. He was 89. Lee was involved with youth baseball for over 40 years in Durango and has a field named after him at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. He was also a longtime teacher in Durango and a devoted father.
Lee had an opportunity to play professional baseball after a decorated college career at Colorado State College, before it switched its name to the University of Northern Colorado. The Durango ballplayer, who wore No. 19, batted over .400 one season in college and led the Bears to the College World Series where they eliminated the University of Southern California, 2-1. Lee was a right fielder, but he could also pitch and play shortstop.
Ward Lee fields a baseball. Lee, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies after playing college ball, died on Tuesday. (Courtesy)
The Philadelphia Phillies then drafted him and wanted him to play for their farm club in Fresno, California.
Lee instead returned to Durango.
“He had three kids at home and chose us over that,” said his daughter, Wardine Lee. Lee eventually had five daughters with his wife and high school sweetheart, who was also born and raised in Durango, Rita: Wardine, Karen, Lisa, Cyndi and Virginia. Lee was born on Sept. 23, 1933, and married Rita in 1952, before the Phillies came calling.
Lee started running Durango’s Old Timers Youth Baseball Program just out of high school when he was 17. He returned to Durango during his summer breaks from college to coach and direct the program.
Lee ran the program for 42 years, volunteering his time from 1951-1993, and it has been estimated over 10,000 boys participated. He also got businesses to sponsor the teams so it was free for the players to participate.
“Dad was a coach of baseball, but he also coached the game of life to his baseball boys,” Karen said. “It wasn’t if you won or lost in baseball, it was how you played the game.”
His favorite play, however, was a delayed double steal, Cyndi said.
Back then, when Lee was first working with the league, girls didn’t play baseball and they weren’t allowed in the dugout, his daughters said, they worked the concession stands during games. They also grew to love the game.
Karen said she remembered going to a Dodgers and Giants game, and her dad spotted Willie Mays during batting practice and told his daughters to say, ‘say hey, Willie.’
“We did and he turned to us with the biggest smile, said, ‘say, hey girls,’” Karen said. “He had a great smile.”
The Yankees, with Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, however, were his favorite team.
Lee taught many different subjects at Durango High School as well as Emory E. Smiley and Miller junior high schools, including world history, geography, physical education and an environmental living class. In the environmental living class, he taught his students survival skills and invited members of the Ute tribe to the classroom to share their stories.
Before playing for the Bears, Lee first attended college at Mesa in Grand Junction where he played both basketball and baseball. He lived in Durango the rest of his life.
Beyond baseball, Lee also enjoyed hunting and fishing and camping. He was also a gardener and a big canner who refused to let any of the produce from his garden go to waste.
He and Rita also enjoyed dancing, and Wardine said, “I like to think they’re up there dancing to a Frank Sinatra song.” Rita died four years ago.
“We took what he gave us and include incorporated it into our lives,” Karen said. “That’s how we’ll continue his legacy.”
A rosary will be held at 7 p.m. Friday at St. Columba Church in Durango. Funeral services are set for early afternoon Saturday, also at St. Columba. His family will have an informal meet and greet from 3 to 5:30 p.m. Saturday at the Durango Community Recreation Center, adjacent to the Ward Lee baseball field.
His family is also planning to hold a life celebration for Lee at the Ward Lee field sometime this summer.
Ward Lee, in his baseball manager uniform. (Courtesy)
Ward Lee stands by the baseball field named after him in Durango. (Courtesy)
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