I Never Hit a Home Run

by Bob Sharpe

I Never Hit a Homer
by Bob Sharpe

…Just hit the ball

And touch them all

A moment in the sun

It’s gone and you can tell that one goodbye John Fogerty….”Centerfield”

The old man loved sports. Anybody who met him for the first time and spent more than ten minutes talking with him would see that. He enjoyed basketball and football…but start talking baseball and you may never get another word in edgewise.

Joe “Chappy” Sharpe was born in the family house on West Philip St. in Coaldale in February of 1910. The fourth of six boys for William “Sam” Sharpe and his wife Annie Fisher Sharpe. Chappy often mentioned accompanying his father across the street to the Coaldale High School field on a Sunday afternoon to watch his father’s youngest brother, Charlie Sharpe as he and his teammates banged their “leatherhead” helmets together as members of Casey Gildea’s “Big Green” semi-pro football team. In that field he spent most of whatever free time he had playing various pickup games of football, baseball, or whatever other improvised games the neighborhood boys thought up.

Little did he realize then that six decades later this field would be named for him and legendary Coaldale High coach Tom “Doc” Ramer. Back then it was just a place where he and his friends could safely play, under mother Annie’s watchful eye.

Joe ( his relatives hardly ever called him Chappy) went to St. Mary’s parochial grade school and then St. Mary’s High. He spent all of his four years of high school as a member of the basketball, football, and baseball team. He wasn’t a star player on any of the teams. He never set any records in any of the sports…but Lord, he loved the game. He was fortunate to be awarded a partial scholarship for baseball to Mount Saint Mary’s College in Emmetsburg, Maryland. Scholarship requirements were different back in the late 1920’s. A relatively minor injury took him off the team in his sophomore year; and with that, his scholarship was taken away.

After college, Joe returned to Coaldale and got involved with many sports-related activities around the Valley. He coached baseball and basketball at St. Mary’s and helped found the Tri-County Basketball League in the area. He married his high school sweetheart, Mary Panchura in 1940 and the newlyweds move to Fayetteville, North Carolina. Joe found employment at the USO organization linked with Fort Bragg in town. Not surprisingly, he was their athletic director. With the outbreak of World War Two, he enlisted in the US Navy and was stationed to the Lakehurst, New Jersey Naval Air Station….as an athletic director. It wasn’t an assignment that allowed for bragging rights at the American Legion bar, but then again…he made sure neither the Germans nor the Japanese got anywhere near Lakehurst. He returned to Coaldale again and became involved with the Church league baseball teams of the forties.

Not many know this, but Chappy nearly left Coaldale permanently after war’s end. He applied for a job at Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska and was invited to join the staff. He and Mary ultimately decided to stay in Coaldale. I suspect that Mom didn’t want to leave her family. She was the oldest of six and with the Panchuras being fatherless since 1923, they had grown dependant upon her. Dad never held a grudge about that, but I think he was disappointed nonetheless. I suspect the 1938 movie “Boys Town” with Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracey peaked Dad’s interest in the place. I remember that every November he always got his envelope of Christmas Seals from Boys Town and sent back a donation.

All of this is a prelude to a small clipping I found from the Tamaqua Courier newspaper back in April of 1946. One of the local sports writers had written “Word has it that Joe “Chappy” Sharpe has just become father to a future shortstop. Congratulations, Chappy”.

Looking back on that grainy, slight out of focus 3-minute movie clip, I’d guess that I was about age 4. I was decked out in mom’s homemade ‘Yankees’ uniform and wearing a small fielders glove. Dad was throwing the ball to me from off-camera while I was mostly missing and running after the ball. My return throw was some type odd sidearm fling with no idea of where it might go. Chappy was smart enough to be using a sponge ball. He finished up with a close-up of me smacking the ball into my glove several times.

Many times over the years we played “catch” along 4th Street by Harold’s Store and I started to develop enough hand-eye coordination to learn the basics. One time we had to cut the session short after I stopped the ball (now a real baseball) with my forehead. He tried to calm my mother as she began to panic about the large knot on my head.

“I threw him a grounder that took a bad hop and caught him in the face”. Mothers are like that.

One thing he taught me around that time was how to score a baseball game. I remember us sitting down on Saturday afternoon on front of the TV when he put this strange looking book on a table in front of me. The Yankees were hosting the Orioles and the game was on WPIX in New York. We carefully filled out the lineups for each team. He told me we had to watch every at-bat carefully and record what happened. We also had to keep track of all the men on base and what happened to each.

“Every position has a number…1 through 9. That is how we identify where the ball was hit and what that player did with the ball. For example 4-3 means a ground ball was hit to the second baseman, who threw to first for the out. A ‘K’ is a strikeout…..’BB’ is a base on balls. A slash mark is a single. Two slash marks together is a double, etc. If the player scores a run, we fill in the little diamond in the center”.

And there was a lot more to cover beyond that. He also impressed me with the fact that a scorekeeper can affect the stats on a player. The scorekeeper has the final word on whether a batter is given a ‘hit’ or the fielder is charged with an ‘error’ on a given play. Chappy kept all those books for all the years he was involved with baseball in Coaldale. Throwing them out was akin to throwing out the family bible. I still have them all and one of them has the Yankees/Orioles game in it.

After our stint in Little League my cousin Mike ‘Punch’ Panchura and I were official scorekeepers for their games. Chappy worked the second shift at Bundy Tubing in Hometown at that time and didn’t get home until midnight. Once, reading the Tamaqua Courier’s account of the game the previous afternoon, I realized that something didn’t make sense. When I got home with the book, I tallied the results and filled out the box score on a form the newspaper had provided. Yet, reading an account of the game, I realized that there is no way they could have described the game in such detail without actually being there. After that, I began looking through the stands for a reporter from the paper. Finally I asked Dad about it.

“No, they don’t send a reporter to the game. I write a short description of the game when I get home and send it in with the box score”.

“But Dad, you were at work. Do you have somebody writing this for you at the game”?

“Yes…you and Michael. I look over the scorebook when I get home and write a brief story about some of the better plays. Didn’t you realize that I could write a complete summary of the entire game based on what you two have done in the book”?

Even now, I could actually get on the radio and ‘recreate’ a ball game played 60 years ago. All I’d need are some appropriate background crowd noises and a bit of faking it on the ball/strike count. Otherwise I know exactly what each player did and how it affected the other base runners. It’s too bad hardly anybody listens to a ball game on the radio any more.

The stage was being set for “Chappy Junior” to assume the shortstop position in the lineup. For many years after that, baseball was something all the neighborhood kids got involved with to some extent of other. As I had earlier written about…these games were mostly improvised versions of the basic theme. We hardly ever found 18 kids available to field an entire team matchup, but there was always some variation which still allowed for honing one’s skills at fielding, pitching, and batting. Our introduction to the real game began in the mid fifties with a rebirth of the Church League. St. Mary’s was my team and I was in about 6th grade at the time. I got the chance to play with schoolmates from about 5th through 8th grades. This was the same age requirement for all the teams. Our managers were George ‘Super’ O’Brien and John ‘Midnight’ Kozak, whom we all knew from CYO Basketball. This was the first time we were using real Louisville Slugger bats (not broomsticks) and Rawlings baseballs (not sponge balls).

Dad had a special baseball glove which he kept carefully wrapped in a duffle bag in the cellar. It might very well be the glove he was using in the picture above. I had seen it several times before, but he figured that now was the time to hand it off to me. It hardly had a scuff on it and probably cost a good bit when he purchased it. For me the big problems were its size and its construction. It was definitely from an earlier time when ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson and Mel Ott always fielded the ball with two hands. The glove was definitely oversized, compared to then-current models. There was really no web pocket between thumb and index finger and the heel of the glove was greatly over-padded. It also lacked the ‘hinge’ in the corner of the heel opposite the web portion. The at hinge allowed you to close the glove around the ball. Essentially, you had better be sure the ball hits right in the pocket and that your ungloved hand it ready to trap it there. Chappy got the message when he saw me borrowing other guy’s gloves rather than using his. Reluctantly, Dad realized I was at a disadvantage vis-à-vis my teammates. There would be no outstretched grab at a line drive or a single-handed scoop of a hot grounder into the hole with this glove.

Off we went to Ridge Street in Lansford and to the ‘Mecca’ for sports enthusiasts in the Valley…D&E Sporting Goods…right next to the Dime Bank and Cory Breslin’s Drycleaners. Behavioral psychologists often say that the human sense that triggers the most vivid remembrances of things past is the sense of smell. If I was led blindfolded into D&E Sporting Goods….not being told where I was, I’m sure that even to this day I would identify the store. The smell of tanned cowhide coming from a hundred new gloves is hard to miss. I think the same could be said for many of the stores we remember going into as kids. It’s not something that can be put into words, but if you think about a certain place, you’ll remember that it probably had a distinctive aroma. I probably tried on every glove they had and finally found that perfect Spalding fielders glove that fit me like….well….a glove.

Being one of the younger members of our team, I didn’t get a lot of playing time, but that was ok. I got to watch the older guys and study their moves. I finally had the chance to learn how the game was really played…not just made-up rules. Super and Midnight were very patient with the younger kids and the managers of all the teams had an informal agreement that we were all there to have fun, not just to win games. Typically, every player got into the game at some point.

At this point Chappy got together with the men involved in the league and decided to incorporate the process into one unified organization. The name they agreed on was CHOSE. For those who don’t go back that far into Coaldale history, the name is an acronym for Church, Home, Organizations, School, Environment…five key components which affect a youngster’s growth and maturity. The following year CHOSE petitioned for a Little League franchise. The Little League fit in between the Church League and the Minor League, so that more kids would have more playing time against others their own age. I qualified for my first…and last…year of eligibility according to the National Little League rules in 1958.

School was still in session when the word went out that all boys fitting Little League age requirements were to report to the East End Field on Saturday morning for try-outs. Four teams were planned. Colts, Tigers, Merchants, and Seek would be the team names and the managers would be there to select their respective teams. Basically it was a draft, with each manager taking turns. I was glad to find myself on the Colts, mostly because the manager was Midnight Kozak from St. Mary’s. We decided to modify that 1946 Courier sports writer’s prediction about being a shortstop when Midnight saw I didn’t have the arm for that position. I was still pretty good with fielding so I became our starting second baseman. Midnight had the patience of a saint and continually drilled his infield on how to play your position. It depended on where the ball was hit; how many men Midnight Kosak were on what bases; and how many outs there were.

“OK….listen up! Men on first and second…one out….ready”?
Midnight hits a grounder to short near third base. 𠆊ngel’ Donovan fields it and throws to third. Bob Cipko gets the force out at third and then quickly throws to me covering second for the force. A double play. Side retired

“OK…same thing….once again.”

Except now Midnight hits it to the left side of short..near second base. Angel fields it again, only this time flips it to me for the force out at second. Then I pivot and throw to Charlie Keer at first for another double play.

If only it worked that smoothly during the game.

Turning a smooth double play always gives the infielders a good feeling. A triple play would be cause for an impromptu celebration but I never was a part of one myself.

Midnight had me as lead-off batter for most games. There is some bit of pride in having that designation. You are NOT a power hitter. A lead-off hitter’s job is to get on base any way he can and to be fast. From that point you get into the power of your lineup. If all goes well, your clean-up hitter (fourth) comes up with the bases loaded and smacks a grand slam homerun. Now you have a 4-run lead and the other team is demoralized. Game over (almost) in the top of the first inning. I had a pretty poor batting average that year, but a fairly decent on-base percentage. I was willing to work the count and take a base on balls. I was also willing to take an inside pitch on the arm for a free pass. I had a pretty good take on opposing catchers and second basemen/shortstops and had my share of stolen bases. Getting into scoring position quickly puts a few extra runs on the board.

I’m finally getting around to the title of this chapter. The season went forward for most of the summer. The Colts had their share of successes and failures, but we all had fun and learned the values of discipline and teamwork. That, of course, was the whole purpose of the game then. Baseball is rather unique in the list of typical team sports that a young boy plays. The two other sports that were common back then were basketball and football. Basketball is obviously a team sport, but the scoring opportunities of each player are a bit more defined. Scoring leaders are usually the forwards and centers; while guards are expected to set up scoring opportunities for those guys. Yes, guards can shoot and score also, but are not expected to have that role in most plays. Football is even more well-defined as far as roles are concerned. The backfield is usually the group putting on the points; followed by the ends. Interior linemen should never even touch the ball if every play goes as planned. Yes, an offensive guard can pick up a fumble and take it in for a score but it is a very rare occurrence.

In baseball, a team sport comes down to two individuals staring down each other with every at-bat. You are going to thrown me the very best pitch you can and hope I miss it; while I am going to focus on your every move on the mound and then make a split-second decision on whether or not to swing this 35 ounce cylinder of ash wood at that ball. Nobody else on either team can affect this showdown.

It’s just you and me.

Even if I fail to do my job 70% of the time, I’ll still have a 300 batting average and be called a Slugger.

In baseball, every player (with the exception of the pitcher in the American League) has this opportunity presented to him several times per game. A great fielder may rob me of a legitimate hit, but there is one fail-safe way of not having that happen. There is a 90-degree angle formed by the arc between the first base line and the third base line. If you keep that ball between those two lines and hit it far enough to clear the outfield fence, nobody will be able to stop that thrill of jogging around those bases at your own pace. You can almost tell it happened as soon as you make contact with that fastball low and in the strike zone. You can hear it. The loud sharp crack of the bat. You can feel it…or perhaps I should say…you can’t feel it. Hitting the ball on the ‘sweet spot’ of the bat is a smooth almost effortless swing. There is no wrist-rattling vibration, as there usually is when you hit it too high or too low on the bat. If is wasn’t for the sound, you might think you didn’t hit it at all. You immediately say to yourself, “This one is all mine”! Along the way to first base, you glance over at the pitcher, who is usually mumbling some obscenity at the ground. Turning the corner at second base you get to smile at the infielders. Headed toward third you see your coach smiling and clapping his hands as you make the turn. A nice pat on the butt is in order at that point. Ahead of you is home plate, where several teammates await your return. A short jump in the air as you land both feet on the plate seals the deal and the umpire then makes it official.

I know all of this because I was there many times to greet a teammate coming down the third base line. I’ve also been there at second base to offer a snappy comment as the homerun hitter rounded the base.

“Your Mom says that’s all you’re getting for Christmas”.

It was near the end of our season. We were playing the Tigers and the Colts were at bat in the bottom of the sixth (Little League played six innings). We were down by two runs; had a man on second; down to our last out: and the top of the order was coming up for the Colts. I was the top of the order. Their pitcher was showing signs of tiring but Manager Joe Pisanic decided to let him finish. As I approach the batters box, I hear the call I’ve heard many times before from opposing managers.

“Outfield!.....Move in”!

They knew I could make contact with the ball, but typically anything out of the infield would be a bloop fly ball that a deep outfielder couldn’t play. I took a called strike and a couple of balls…and then there it came!

I was, at this point, determined to show them that the kid could get a hold of one. Just as I had described earlier, I heard that crack and felt that sweet spot. This was finally it! My moment in the sun. I didn’t stop to admire the ball as it arced up into the sky. I was taught to run at full speed no matter how or where it was hit. It was headed for the fence in right center field and there was nobody within 100 feet of it. As I headed for first I saw it drop quicker than expected and hit the fence, staying in play. Heading for second I really kicked it in as hard as I could. An “inside the park” home run was almost as good as a ‘real’ one…without the leisurely jog around the bases. A quick glance to the right and I saw the center fielder grabbing the ball for a relay to the second baseman. Approaching third base, Midnight was standing there with both hands raised high. That was the ‘stop’ signal. Midnight was a hard man to miss, but he saw that I was ignoring him as I came toward third, ready to make the turn for home. He quickly moved about 15 feet down the base line and just stood there…hands still raised screaming “BACK!” There was no way past him, so I retreated to third. There I glanced past him and saw Tiger catcher “Coogie” Terry holding the ball and standing 5 feet off home plate on the base line. I knew there was also no way past Coogie either. The meat of our lineup was coming up now. Charlie Keer walked and then stole second base. He was followed by “Bogie” Griffith who sent a line drive deep into center. Both Charlie and I scored to win the game.

Midnight never said anything to me while I was on third, but called me over after our winning celebration had finished. He knew I was upset about being sent back to third instead of having my moment and wanted to explain it to me.

“Bobby, you did all that you were expected to do…and more….but the chance of you beating that throw and/or getting past Coogie was very slim. Your attempt would have meant that we would have lost by one run instead of two. Because you avoided being the final out, we got our chance to win it…and we did”.

Even then, the message didn’t sink into my brain. I could have finally had my moment but was prevented by my own coach. It finally hit me later that day when I got to thinking what a sports writer would have said about it.

“Sharpe surprised everyone today by hitting a solid triple. He drove in a run, but then was out by a mile trying to get past his third base coach to score. He was the final out for the Colts, who lost the game by a run. Sharpe was obviously thinking only about himself, rather than the team”.

There were other seasons to follow and other chances for that moment, but it never happened. I suppose I wanted that moment for Chappy as much as for me. He never pressured me to be the best, but deep down, I was sure he would have been proud. It would have been something to tell his buddies down at the Legion as they talked about their boys.

At one point a few years later, Chappy was there at a game watching me in center field this time. As had happened years earlier, I again stopped a ball with my face. He took me to the local optometrist who announced “The boy needs glasses”. It was at about that point that I decided it was time to hang up the spikes.

Chappy hung up his spikes for good in August of 1988. His death was very unexpected, but fortunately very peaceful. He and Mom had just returned from a short vacation and while Mom went shopping for food, Dad sat down in his favorite easy chair to watch TV. A half hour later Mom found him slumped over in that chair. The paramedics were unable to resuscitate him. His death for fortunate in that he never suffered with any long-term illness or pain. It was unfortunate for the rest of us that he went from a relatively healthy 78 year-old to nothing.

Dad was never one to show much emotion. It’s not that he had none; it’s just not the “Irish” way of handling feelings. Most who know me would probably say, “Like father…like son”. My only wish was that we might have had some time to talk about life in general and us in particular. But as they say…..”there are no re-rides in this carnival of life”.

Within a year after Dad’s death, a movie came out that didn’t attract much attention. Little-known director Phil Robinson did a film based on a book by W.P. Kinsella. The book was titled Shoeless Joe and the resulting movie was Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones, and Ray Liotta. I’d like to say I ran right out to the theater opening day to see it, but in fact I didn’t see it until years later on TV. I was never really into movies and the title certainly didn’t attract me either. I’m not going to write a movie review here. You can find plenty of them online. Suffice to say….there is a 90% chance you’ll love it and a 10% change of hating it. Few people will give this movie a 5 out of 10. If you ever played baseball and/or had a relationship with your father..either good or bad…you will relate to this film.

I am basically a fact-based person who doesn’t enjoy flights of fantasy which make no common sense. This should be a movie I walk out from half way through. There is no attempt whatsoever to explain how Shoeless Joe appears in a cornfield in a 1980’s Iowa farm. Maybe it’s just that in growing older I am willing to suspend common sense in favor of a chance to remember a simpler time in my life.

I never had any of the issues that Kevin Costner’s character had with his father…at least I don’t think I did. Chappy and I butted heads a few times as I let it be known that I was not only a product of his upbringing, but also a product of the 1960’s culture. I remember once while we were visiting Coaldale in the late 1970’s Dad suggested the two of us go down to the Legion for a few beers. My first reaction was ‘no, thanks’ but then a kick under the table from my wife, Gale made me reconsider.

I consciously made every attempt to avoid any confrontations with the men at the bar. After a few opening welcomes and general questions about my post-Coaldale life, one of the regulars brought up two words I hoped not to hear… “Viet Nam” and “draft”. Yes, in the 70’s I did have an occupational deferment as a math teacher in a ghetto school near Washington, DC. And yes, I fully respected and saluted what my contemporaries had done…including sacrificing their lives. I tried to make light of it by saying, “At least in Viet Nam they gave you a gun to shoot back. In the ghetto all I got was a piece of chalk”!

It didn’t work. I was just a draft-dodging coward.

I told Dad I was going to walk the few blocks back home. I know he felt bad too.

I’ve promised Gale that I will not plow up our back yard to build a baseball field in hopes that “he will come”. What I do hope for is that Shoeless Joe has found room in his field for the Slovaks, Greeks, Congies, Irish, Russians, Lithuanians…and all the Coaldale Leagues…to play the game they all loved so much. Maybe some day they will also invite a not-so-good second baseman on the Colts to join and finally have his “moment in the sun”.