Smithtown’s Moriches Baseball Field was dedicated Tuesday in memory of James E. Dowling, who as town highway supervisor in the post-World War II boom years built a modern road system and in his spare time founded what became the St. James/Smithtown Little League.
Dowling, 99, died May 26, shortly after town workers finished a $400,000 renovation of the Veterans Memorial Park field that brought a gleaming artificial turf infield, shaded dugouts and new fencing. A sign unveiled after Tuesday’s dedication reads “James E. Dowling Smithtown/St. James Little League Facility.”
Smithtown Supervisor Edward Wehrheim — who said that as a boy he played Little League in neighboring Kings Park — called Dowling a “local legend” and “probably the best highway superintendent we ever had” in remarks delivered from home plate alongside town officials and dozens of Dowling’s descendants.
Dowling’s life was sketched in Tom Brokaw’s book, “The Greatest Generation:” He was an orphan taken in by a local family and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He was 19; it was 1943. A year later, Dowling was lead bombardier-navigator on a B-24 bomber shot down over Germany. He spent eight months in a German POW camp.
After his return, Dowling served as Smithtown highway superintendent from 1960 to 1998, paving the town’s network of dirt and gravel roads and transforming its small highway department into an operation with 200 workers and a fleet of heavy machinery.
“I ran that department like a business and in military style,” he told Brokaw.
Dowling’s Little League work is less storied but began before his public service, in an era when the town offered few organized sports for young people.
Dowling, a Red Sox fan, and other Americans had played baseball to pass the time in prison camp, sons Will and Greg Dowling, of St. James, recalled before Tuesday’s ceremony. “All they did was play baseball,” said Greg.
Back in Smithtown, Dowling bought bats and balls for local boys and formalized the league in 1957.
“We started with four teams, and by the ’70s we had 600 boys playing,” he told Brokaw.
In a phone interview, another son, Jeff Dowling, also of St. James, recalled that local businesses helped cover the cost, yielding names like the Splinters, sponsored by a lumber yard, and the Agents, sponsored by an insurance brokerage.
More recently, that league donated $50,000 toward the town's field renovation. It now serves 700 boys and girls from ages four to 12 who play baseball and softball. In an interview, president Richard Tomitz spoke of a promising partnership with Marty Lyons, who played for the New York Jets in the NFL and plans to entice a major youth softball tournament to the town.
Tomitz said he was thrilled by the rebuilt field, mostly because it will cut down on rainouts.
“When you got rain or any type of precipitation, it put most fields underwater for several days… We had times when it would rain Monday and you still can’t play Wednesday,” he said.
On turf, Tomitz said, “it can rain during the game and you’re fine… It’s beautifully done,” he said of the new field.