pp080220theoptimist

Every name but one on the baseball I found among my Uncle Eddie’s things following his death four years ago was smudged and illegible. But that one, Earl Bechtold, was enough to tell me what I was holding. It was a ball autographed by the members of the 1955 Pittston Little League All-Star team that made it all the way to the state finals.

Pittston Little League achieved that success in just its fifth year. I was only 5 at the time and have no recollection of the excitement that gripped the city that summer, but Uncle Eddie was a coach in the league and so the legend of the ’55 team became as much a part of our family’s history as it did Pittston City’s. Finding that ball was no surprise.

The team’s success inspired a front page in the local paper to rival The New York Post. Men rarely wore shorts in those days, but one did, and that gave editor Bill Watson an idea. With his 56-inch waistline, Ed Goham cut quite the figure in his “Bermudas,” as they were called. Watson dispatched a photographer to snap Big Ed in his short pants standing next to the taps in the bar he ran on Carroll Street. The editor already had a photo of the Little Leaguers, each sporting a wide, All American Boy smile as they posed almost on top of one another after a victory.

The photos ran side-by-side on the front page. Over Goham’s, was the headline: “He’s trying to keep cool.” Over the boys: “They’re trying to stay hot.” Underscoring how unusual it was to see a man in shorts in 1955, the text pointed out Goham once “even took a stroll through town in them.” Scandalous.

The Pittston kids were hot all summer. Uncle Eddie often talked about their opening game when, as pitcher Wes Mugford warmed up, a player on the opposing squad said to his teammate, “We’ll never hit this guy.” He was right. Wes pitched a no-hitter.

Unlike today when a Little League All-Star team can lose a game and still advance, the tournament was single-elimination back then. If you lost, you went home. Pittston eventually did lose, to Morrisville, Pennsylvania, a team that went on to win the World Series. Makes one wonder what might have been.

The players on the team became heroes to us young guys in Pittston, remaining larger than life right through their high school playing careers and beyond. Two, Mugford and Bernie Richards, played Minor League baseball. Two others, Joe Rinaldi and Earl Bechtold, became U.S. Army officers. Joe retired as a major and Earl as a lieutenant colonel. When Joe died in 2018, Earl wrote in an online guest book:

“Joe and I go back to grade school at Fort Pittston. He was a great third baseman. I have a photo of the two of us as little kids in my backyard. We’re wearing sailor hats, which is funny because we both wound up with careers in the army.”

Earl was living in Leavenworth, Kansas, when I tracked him down to tell him about the baseball. Following his 23-year military career, during which he served in Vietnam, Germany and Korea, he earned a master’s degree from Duquesne University and settled in Leavenworth where he worked for Northrup Grumman in military computer simulations. He recalled the players signing baseballs for each other and their coaches in ’55. He said his dad was exceptionally proud of that baseball, but through several family relocations, it had been lost. I sent Uncle Eddie’s ball to him the next day. After receiving it, he wrote, “My youngest son, Mark, and his family are coming from Chicago to visit later this month and I plan to give him the ball you sent me. He intends to put it in the shadow box he had made and hangs in his office with other items from my 1955 Pittston Little League season.”

Earl married his high school sweetheart Peggy Bilbow, known to family and friends as “Poppie.” It was her cousin Patrick Bilbow, a Pittston Area principal, who texted me Friday with the news of Earl’s death. Pat said he was at his son’s game at Pittston Little League when he got the message, which his cousin Sheila took as a sign. Earl had played shortstop there 65 years ago.

Pat sent along a video of Earl’s flag-draped body being wheeled from the hospital. With taps playing, every nurse and doctor lining the hallway rose to their feet, some saluting and some with hands over their hearts. Viewing it, I could not help but cry.

When we talked in 2016, Earl told me he and Peggy had lost track of their old friend Michael Clark, whose friendship with Peggy goes back to grade school. I was able to make that connection. Michael, who lives in Washington, D.C., was broken hearted when I told him of Earl’s passing. “In high school at St. John’s,” he recalled, “Poppie and I were rehearsing for a minstrel. Every night after practice, Earl would be waiting to walk her home to the Junction and then walk back to his house in the middle of town. He was a gentleman even then.”

I know. And we younger guys all wanted to grow up to be just like him.

Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.

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