New Richmond and the father of baseball in Coal Creek
Sunday, July 06, 2014 10:00 PM
New Richmond and the father of baseball in Coal Creek Township, Byron Alexander
Ladoga never played New Richmond in baseball, so I don't remember anything about their baseball field. Fred Johnson remembers playing Little League and Pony League at New Richmond and says that it was a small field north of main street and behind the school. Rick Haas echoed Fred's words and remembers it as being a very nice field in the east edge and town and a block north close to the Christian Church. Like other fields in the County, it was wide open with no fences. Roger Kunkel's father Ralph remembers that there were corn fields around the field. One of the early sluggers was Albert Perry who used to hit the ball so far that they would lose the ball. Since the early teams only had one or two good baseballs the opposing teams started walking the hard-hitting Perry which made him mad because he wanted to hit. I haven't found any record of New Richmond winning a County Baseball Championship, but I did find a picture of the Cardinal baseball team of 1915.
Every small town had one person or a couple of men who dedicated their life to baseball in that town. As you have already read, in Darlington, it was Marion "Runt" Maxwell. In Linden, it was "Doc" Airey, Jack Warren, and "Red" Vail. In New Richmond and Coal Creek Township, it was Byron Alexander. He started the Little League program in New Richmond and tutored the early players on the great Coal Creek teams of the early 60s.
Byron Alexander was a member of the New Richmond basketball team in 1928 and remained a key supporter of athletics in general and baseball in particular in Coal Creek Township. I asked one of his players, Mike Spencer to share some memories of Byron Alexander. Here are Mike's words:
"Byron Alexander was raised by his uncle and graduated from New Richmond High School in 1929. He was a fairly decent athlete and went on to officiate and referee basketball games. He became a very good umpire and before long was calling Big Ten games. One time, he caught a fast ball right in the mask. The ball was thrown by Bob Friend who later pitched for the Pittsburg Pirates. (Friend also pitched for West Lafayette HS and Purdue University). Byron kept the mask. The ball lodged in his mask leaving a quite prominent indentation. Byron worked his way up and eventually made it to AAA baseball, but as fate would have it, he would advance no further as WW II broke our and he was drafted. While serving in combat, he was wounded in one or both knees. That ended his umpiring days, but not his love for baseball. When he returned home to New Richmond, he ran a barber shop, the pool room and a very successful furniture store.
He could not stay away from baseball, however, and sometime around 1955, he formed the New Richmond Little League. He got the American Legion to sponsor the program and they provided equipment and uniforms for many years. The little league had a farm club composed of 7 and 8 year olds, a team composed of 9-12 year olds and later a Pony League team consisting of 13 and 14 year olds.
The farm team and little league practiced together and practices were very intense, usually starting around 5 and ending at 8. We hit three times around and then had infield and outfield practice. Byron was very intent on fundamentals and we took ground balls and fly balls time after time until we did it right. Turning two was a passion of his and if we didn't pivot correctly, you heard about it and did it again. Players did not miss practice and it was every day of the week except on weekends and game days. On rainy days when we couldn't practice, we would meet in Kunkel's garage or sit in the dugout and have what he called 'skull sessions.' He would discuss situation baseball and play situations, going over certain things that could happen in a game and telling us where and how the play should be made. He reminded us who should cover second on a throw and how to rotate on a bunt. There were very intense discussions all about the game and fundamentals. We won a lot of games and a couple of championships along the way. When we got to HS, there were five of us starting as freshmen and by our sophomore, there were seven.
Byron coached baseball in New Richmond for more than 20 years. Coal Creek became a power in baseball thanks to him and his dedication to the youth of Wingate and New Richmond. I remember Rollie Hackerd and his father Paul going to White Sox games with Byron and meeting with Bill McKinley who had been on the same crew as Byron in AAA and was now an American League umpire. No doubt Byron would have made the majors had he not been injured during the war.
Byron was also trustee of Coal Creek Township and was very instrumental in bringing in some very fine teachers. Some of them went on to have very successful careers in education. All in all, a really good man who kept a lot of young kids out of trouble because he kept them too busy or too tired from baseball to even think about getting into trouble. Those are days that we from that era cherish and will never forget."
Mike Spencer was a member of the powerhouse Pony League that gained "Alex" Coach of the year honors in 1960 as they beat all the other County teams on the way to an 8-0 record. That team outscored its opponents 121-11. They were lead by Mike Bridge who walloped eight homers. The other players were Rollie Hackerd, Dick Inskeep, Ron Minick, John Bacon, Randy Fenters, Spencer and Jimmy Allen.
One final note: take a look at Byron Alexander's tombstone in the New Richmond cemetery. You will notice that the stone has a complete baseball team etched on it. There are nine fielders, a batter and an umpire. In the bleachers to the left, there is a solitary fan. She has to be the umpire's wife. The inscription reads, "Today umpiring at home plate, Alexander." That stone is the gift of Richard Hillenberg to Byron Alexander. If you want to see it, go to the New Richmond Cemetery, turn into the first drive, and look to your left. It is on the first row. This was a man who truly loved baseball and the boys who played it.
Bill Boone is a 1956 graduate of Ladoga High School and played baseball and basketball at Wabash College. He is an historian of Montgomery County sports and will contribute a column each Monday focused on looking back at what sports in the county once were.