They are men now mostly retired, men who smile every time they hear on their satellite radios the sounds of Paul McCartney singing “When I’m 64,” but once upon a 1970 time, they comprised the Pony League Braves, winners of 14 of their 16 games, including the one every team aspires to win, the last game that clinches a crown.
However, it isn’t that final game that’s at the forefront of the minds of many of these men whose thoughts have drifted back a half-century.
Instead, it was a July 1st game against a first-place team at the diamond at West Junior High, a game their coach Bob Linneman and the players knew they desperately needed if they expected to win the Police League, since they’d already lost twice.
Bob’s son, Pete, was home from his freshman year at Ashland College and helping with the coaching along with his friends Gary Bohnlein and Tom Cullen. Two players’ dads, Don Cygan and Jim Falk, also lent a hand.
Recalls Pete about his father’s commitment to kids, “Of course, having played for Dad through three years of Little League and two years of Pony League, I knew how much of a commitment he made to helping kids. He loved baseball and loved teaching it. To him, each practice was just as important as a game.”
That day’s Braves pitcher, Dan Moening, remembers the tightness of the contest.
“Runs were scarce that day, and we went to extra innings tied at one. In the bottom of the eighth, we got our chance,” he said. “Kevin Tierney drew a walk, and then Charley Gasperetti lined a ball between the center and right fielder that scored Kevin from first for the win.”
There was the instant jubilation that comes with such an outcome. The players and their coaches were happy to be in first place, as were many of the 40 or so people who attended the game.
However, for 11-year youth baseball veteran coach Bob Linneman, the satisfaction of that big win was the final good feeling he would ever experience. Just moments after the bats and balls and catcher’s gear were collected and put into the canvas bag in a ritual following every youth-league game for time immemorial, 49-year-old Bob Linneman collapsed and died of a massive heart attack.
Several former players gathered recently at Dan Moening’s home to reflect on both a season and a shocking moment in time, a moment before any had even seen the inside of their first high school classroom, the first moment they stared death in the face.
Moening, Gasperetti, Tierney, Jay Sheets and Jeff Bailey swapped stories that day of a man they so respected, not because he asked for it but because he expected it.
I spoke at length with Bob Linneman’s son Pete, an LCC classmate of mine, now my age of 69 and a Philadelphia resident these past 41 years. He remembers a father who was “instinctively generous” with his time, willing to coach teams even when he didn’t have a son on the roster.
“I’d just said my goodbyes to Dad, telling him I’d see him later at home and was leaving with Tom and Gary,” Pete said. “Suddenly, I heard some commotion behind me and turned around and saw him lying on the ground by the backstop. Of course, at that time, there were no cellphones, and although someone ran to a nearby house to make a phone call for an ambulance, Dad was gone almost immediately.”
To Pete, his father was pretty representative of so many other men from the World War II era, men that both smoked ever since they saw cigarettes were included in their rations and men who didn’t eat particularly wisely either. In Bob Linneman’s case, despite the mild attack he’d suffered five years earlier, he was still far too quick to reach for another Raleigh or for that second helping of mashed potatoes.
For Pete, his younger brother Matt, who was on that year’s team, and for the rest of the players, the suddenness of the death was numbing. The funeral home services were just a day later, forcing the postponement of the second game on back-to-back days.
Pete recalled, “Hogenkamp Funeral Home was packed, with much of the crowd comprised of both current and former players who’d played for Dad. I think a lot of them knew Dad had a daughter and four sons of his own, so they knew the time he spent coaching them was a pretty rare commitment.”
Each to whom I spoke had his own memory of Bob Linneman. For Pete’s childhood friend, Tom Cullen, it was the memory of Mr. Linneman’s teaching Pete the proper way to keep a scorebook while the two listened to Joe Nuxhall broadcasting Reds games on summer evenings.
It was in Covington, Kentucky, his birth town just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, where Bob Linneman was laid to rest. There, he first developed a deep love of baseball while following the Reds of the 1930s and players such as Ernie Lombardi, Paul Derringer and Johnny Vander Meer.
Despite some early doubts given the tragedy as to whether the season for the Braves would continue, that was laid to rest almost immediately by Pete, and I’ll tell you about that in next Wednesday’s final installment on those Pony League Braves of 1970.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.