Column

Little lie got him in to play baseball 59 years ago

The 70-year-old shares his story after last year's champions lose their title over residency violation

The recent story of Chicago's Jackie Robinson West Little League team, their U.S. title taken away because some of their players lived outside the district they represented, struck a nerve with Phil Hart.

That's because he lived the story, 59 years ago.

Hart is 70. He lives in Los Feliz, writes books, produces documentaries and works with his wife, Tanya Hart, who has a show on the American Urban Radio Network.

Recently, Phil Hart sat in a local deli and told his story.

Hart is black. That is the thread that runs through this story, a story that takes unexpected turns along the way.

When he was 11 and living in Denver, his best friend was Cary Gagan, who is white. They both went to Smiley Junior High School, but Hart lived in the Denver neighborhood west of Colorado Blvd. Gagan had moved to the nearby Park Hill neighborhood, east of Colorado Blvd., where, according to Hart, many white families had moved.

Hart spent the night at Gagan's house, as he often did. "That's where I first found out what pizza was, where I had my first taste of it," Hart said.

The next day, he tagged along to Gagan's Little League game.

"I showed up to watch, carrying my baseball glove," Hart said. "They were one player short. The coach saw me up in the bleachers with my glove in my hand. He told me to head to right field, where he felt I could do no harm."

Soon, Hart said, a player tried to go from first to third on a hit to right field and Hart threw the runner out.

"The burly white coach came running toward me in right field," Hart said. "He asked my name, where I lived and if I was a friend of someone on the team. I told him I was a friend of Cary Gagan and that I attended Smiley.

"He immediately came up with a plan. He would give my address as the same as Cary's so I could play on the team."

Hart said it was the first time in his young athletic life that he could play in an organized league and wear a real uniform.

"We won the city and state Little League titles," Hart said, "and I never told my parents of the subterfuge."

Gagan and Hart went on to outstanding athletic careers at East Denver High School, where Hart said that Gagan became the quarterback on the football team, the shortstop on the baseball team and the point guard on the basketball team.

Hart kept a team picture from one of those East Denver basketball teams. Gagan is the only white player.

The story takes quite a side trip here.

If you are from Denver or followed the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the name Cary Gagan may ring a bell. Gagan has often been in the news as a self-proclaimed informant, who said he knew about the upcoming bombing and was ignored by the FBI when he warned them weeks before that it was going to happen at federal buildings in either Oklahoma City or Denver.

The FBI has dismissed him as unstable and his story as lacking credibility. Gagan has served prison time for insurance fraud and has been in frequent litigation battles with government officials.

Hart said he lost contact with Gagan years ago. He said the recent Little League scandal brought memories of his own Little League years, and his ongoing amazement over what became of Gagan.

"Of all of us," Hart said, "he was the one with the best chance to succeed. He was the white kid with some family money. We were middle-class black kids. You know what the usual perception is there."

Hart said he went to a class reunion at East Denver a few years ago, and "Cary was the elephant in the room." He said he has wondered if he should seek out his old friend, and isn't sure why he hasn't.

"I'm not sure what I'd say to him, what I'd ask him," he said. "I want to know, but then, I kind of don't want to know."

Hart said that, at the reunion, he suggested that the class somehow get a message to Gagan that they were thinking about him. That suggestion went nowhere.

It is often strange how things work out, how the lives of two 11-year-olds, temporarily linked by an illegal Little League arrangement, can go in such different directions.

In 1995, the year of the Oklahoma City bombing and all the controversy it brought into the life of Cary Gagan of the Park Hill Little League champions, Phil Hart of that same Park Hill Little League champions was inducted into the University of Colorado's Distinguished Alumni Gallery, along with the likes of Dick Anderson of the Miami Dolphins, Chris Fowler of ESPN and Steve Wozniak of Apple.

In addition to the flow of memories, the Jackie Robinson West forfeiture left one other cloud hanging over Hart's head.

"I am wondering," he said, "whether I should tell my 93-year-old mother in Denver the real deal about those trophies still in our family home."

bill.dwyre@latimes.com.

Twitter: @DwyreLATimes.

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