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Renny Malach stands on the fenceline of Field 1, Renny Malach Field, at the Westside Little League complex Wednesday, where he was instrumental in converting an abandoned gravel pit into a complex of baseball and softball fields. On Thursday, Malach will receive the 2014 Missoula County Parks and Trails Steward award for his more than 40 years of work on the fields and his "dedication to generations of Missoula youth."

If ever a park had a steward, it's the Westside Little League complex on Spurgin Road.

Renny Malach was a young father and baseball coach in 1973 when he brokered a lease agreement with Missoula County on land on the north end of what's now Big Sky Park.

A year later, he coordinated the leveling of an old county gravel pit and construction of the first two fields, which witnessed their first calls of "Play Ball" in 1976, when Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford were vying for the presidency.

More fields followed as Senior Little League baseball, girls' softball and tee ball came into vogue. Field 1 was named for Malach in the 1980s, and the entire Renny Malach Westside Little League Complex was dedicated in 2000. Still Malach's devotion to the park has never lapsed.

Over the years, he served as Westside league's business manager, president and groundskeeper and, for a decade, as district administrator of all Western Montana Little Leagues. At age 76, Malach is none of those now.  He resigned from his second stint as league president this spring and turned over primary caretaker duties to a younger man.

But the heater for the second-floor conference room of the clubhouse in the middle of the complex was out of oil Wednesday, and there was Malach to refill it before the next meeting of the Big Sky Park Stewardship Committee.

On Thursday, he'll be downtown to receive Missoula County's 12th Parks and Trails Steward award. It'll be presented at the parks and trails advisory board's monthly meeting at 1:30 p.m. on the second floor of the Community and Planning Services building, 323 W. Alder St.

His devotion, Malach joked, is "like a sickness, I guess."

"My wife said I'm going to have to take the cure to get out of Little League. I don't know, I just really enjoy working on fields and getting things done."

A lot of people were involved in building the complex over the years, Malach said. "All I did was, I guess you'd say I was the organizer or the push to get it done. But sometimes that's what it takes. You've got to keep hounding and begging people."

"Renny was, and still is, Westside Little League," said Bill Dahlgren, president of the Big Sky Park Stewardship Committee and winner of the 2008 stewardship award. "So much has been accomplished and so much is due to his organization and efforts."

***

There wasn't much question who'd be this year's recipient, said Christine Dascenzo, program assistant for parks and trails. Dahlgren had been talking up Malach for months, to the point that when the advisory board sat down to make its selection in October, Malach was the lone nomination.

"It was unanimous and enthusiastic," Dascenzo said.

Malach worked at what became the Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. mill at Frenchtown from 1966 until retiring in 2001. When he started coaching his sons in baseball in 1972, it was already apparent that the fields at Playfair Park weren't enough for the burgeoning Missoula Little League scene.

Malach went to county commissioners in 1972 with a plan to use county land to build some fields.

"The land I had in mind was up above where it was level and had nice topsoil, where the (Missoula Equestrian Park) is now," he recalled. "The commissioners said we won't lease that to you but we do have another spot below if somebody would be willing to get that cleaned up."

The gravel pit had included a scales and a hot mix plant for making asphalt. Chunks of concrete and asphalt littered the grounds.

"It was a mess," recalled Malach. 

Heavy equipment operators from Missoula Vo-Tech filled and leveled in 1974. JTL Construction paid the county for $20,000 worth of gravel to widen the strip of land. Belly dumps from Washington Corp.'s Western Transport hauled topsoil donated from the Van Evans mill.

Bob Kelly of Champion International, Malach's employer at the time, arranged for an annual contribution of $1,500 from Champion to use toward the ball fields.

What emerged was, and is, a gem of a baseball/softball complex on county parkland, replete with seven ball fields; a couple more for tee ball; a picnic pavilion; curbed parking lots and the clubhouse that houses a concession stand, storage space, the upstairs meeting room and restrooms.

He won't brag, but Malach is obviously proud of the park that bears his name.

"The whole neighborhood used to come down here and use this as a play area," he said. "To have it turned into a park like this, that the neighbors like and they're glad to see it here ... We try to keep it up as best we can so it's welcome to the neighborhood and not an eyesore."

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian