Fran Purnell throws out a ceremonial first pitch to former Major League Baseball pitcher Lee Smith during the dedication of the Purnell Wrigley Field named in his honor in Waterville on April 29, 2017. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

WATERVILLE — In the end, Fran Purnell’s love for the baseball field that bears his name never waned.

“That field was like a child to him,” said Kevin Purnell II, Purnell’s grandson. “A couple weeks ago, I was taking him home from an appointment. He said, ‘Hey, can we stop at the field?’ We couldn’t get in, because there was a rope (blocking the field) but we sat there for a little while. He looked around in admiration and went, ‘It looks good. OK, I’m all set.’ I think that was the last time he saw the place.”

Purnell, a staple in the Waterville youth baseball scene for nearly five decades, died Tuesday. He was 83. Purnell leaves behind his wife of 63 years, Joyce, and three children — sons Chris and Kevin and daughter Debbie Purnell-Poulin. He also had nine grandchildren.

Purnell’s legacy is tied to two major developments in Waterville’s youth baseball scene: The establishment of the Challenger program — an adaptive league for children with disabilities; and the construction of Purnell Wrigley Field, a multisports turf field that is modeled after the renowned Wrigley Field in Chicago.

Purnell Wrigley Field was completed in 2017. The $1.4 million project included $600,000 from in-kind donations.

Alfond Youth Center CEO Ken Walsh, who was a close friend of Purnell’s, said much of the donations came with the help of Purnell.


“About half of this project of $1.4 million was in-kind services,” Walsh said. “Fran was the one who was willing to take the baton and talk to contractors, electricians, plumbers. … That was Fran for you. That was Fran.”

Affectionately known as “Pep” after the old cartoon character Pepé Le Pew, Purnell coached youth baseball and also became president of Waterville Little League — which eventually became Waterville Cal Ripken.

“The passion (for Little League) started when I started,” said Chris Purnell, 62. “There were minimal teams, minimal coaches, minimal children to play. We had that little dirt field across the street, on Oakland Street, on Matthews Avenue. That’s all it was, just a sandlot. After I finished Little League, my sister came on through, my brother came on through. And he just continued with it, because he just found that coaching kids was his thing.”

Fran Purnell points to friend Ken Walsh after being introduced during a Purnell Wrigley Field dedication ceremony on April 29, 2017, in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

Fran Purnell, friends and family said, made sure every player had a place in Waterville youth baseball.

“He never turned kids away,” said Larry Brown, who has coached baseball at the youth and high school levels in Waterville for more than 20 years. “It didn’t matter their financial situation. I know he went out and bought gloves and bats and cleats for kids who didn’t have it. He didn’t worry about them paying their entry fee into the league.”

Purnell’s influence as a coach proved an inspiration to others. Brown said Purnell was one of the key reasons he became involved as a coach.


“If you knew Fran, he just touched you in a way that most people don’t,” Brown said. “You don’t get that relationship with him that you do with everybody. He was just one of a kind. Even outside (of baseball), he wanted to know about your regular life. Every time I’d see him, he’d go, ‘How’s your mom doing? How are the boys doing?’ It wasn’t just about baseball with Fran, it was about your overall being. It was about life and family and making sure everybody was good.”

Mike Violette, radio personality at 1160 AM The Score, grew up in Waterville, but really came to know Fran Purnell when he coached in Waterville Little League about 20 years ago.

“My own son was playing Little League baseball, and undertook the task of coaching his team,” Violette said. “I don’t exactly have the temperament to coach 9- to 12-year-olds, because I’ve been accused of being a (hardcase). I came to meet Fran through that and lean on him, pick his brain and let the Fran Purnell try to rub off on me. … He was just a calming presence to be around.”

Even after Purnell’s retirement from the league, there was no keeping him away.

“He just loved being around,” said Waterville Senior High School football coach Isaac LeBlanc, who worked with Waterville Cal Ripken from 2015 until last year. “Even after he ‘retired’ from Cal Ripken, I’d see him all the time at the ballpark. He’d come up to the press box, walk around. He’d stop on by just to watch random games at night. He was always a pleasure to have around, it was just fantastic.

Fran Purnell throws out the first pitch in the Cal Ripken 12U World Series championship game on Aug. 13, 2022, at Purnell Wrigley Field in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

“Fran took me under his wing and showed me the ropes, especially those first couple years that I started,” LeBlanc continued. “He was helping us out with regional tournaments, state tournaments. We managed to get him out on the field for a first pitch last summer for the World Series, and that was really special.”


Several former Major League Baseball players have visited Purnell Wrigley Field in recent years, most notably Chicago Cubs greats Ferguson Jenkins and Lee Smith. Purnell has a monument in his honor at the field, as well as his picture on the mural in the first base dugout.

Walsh said the process for an endowment fund has begun, to help children in the Waterville community have financial access to equipment or to take care of playing fees.

“This endowment fund is truly the nearest and dearest thing to our hearts,” said Kevin Purnell, Fran Purnell’s son. “Like everything else, it’s gotten expensive to play baseball now.”

“This individual gave his heart and soul, sweat and tears to the community,” Walsh added. “In particular, to help out kids. What he did for close to 50 years was just tremendous.”

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