Hall of Fame Dad

Hall of Fame Dad

From A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Hall of Fame Dad

To Wendy MacBlain, the second-floor exhibit area at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Coopers town, New York, felt cavernous without its displays. They had been placed in temporary storage so that a new humidification system could be installed. On that winter morning early in 1994, MacBlain moved around the empty room, cleaning up the litter that had slipped underneath and between the display cases. As she neared the spot where the World War II display had been, she noticed a small black-and-white photograph lying face up on the floor.

Picking up the picture she headed downstairs. “I found this,” she said, handing the snapshot to Ted Spencer, curator of themuseum. “Maybe it fell out of one of the exhibits.”

Spencer glanced at the photo. He knew immediately that the man was not one of the 216 baseball giants immortalized at the Hall of Fame—including players such as Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and TedWilliams. Who was he?

Intrigued, Spencer studied the photograph more closely. The smiling stocky man wore a bulky baseball uniform of the 1940s and his bat over his right shoulder, obscuring the team name on his shirt. On his left sleeve, however, Spencer could see a small dinosaur—the logo, he guessed of an industrial league team sponsored by the Sinclair Refining Company.

“This isn’t from any of the exhibits,” Spencer said slowly. So how did it end up in the Hall of Fame? Turning the picture over, he found no name, but a short message written by the man’s son. The signature looked like “Pete.”

The curator was fascinated by the small mystery. To him, the unidentified man became a symbol of many American fathers who play baseball with their kids. He sent a copy of the photo and its message to a friend, writer Steve Wulf, at Sports Illustrated. And in early April 1994, a few weeks after the picture was discovered, an article about the mysterious ballplayer appeared.

Some 150 miles from Coopers town, in the village of Wellsville, New York, Neal Simon read the article. A reporter for the Wellsville Daily Reporter, Simon knew the town had once been the location of a Sinclair refinery. He looked carefully at the copy of the photograph. The rolling foothills in the background resembled those surrounding the valley community.

Hoping to unravel the mystery, Simon began showing the picture to longtime residents. For five days he drew a blank. Sinclair had sponsored teams all over the country. One resident said, “You’ll never find this guy.”

Finally, just as he was about to give up, Simon struck gold. “That’s Joe O’Donnell,” said an older man who saw the picture. “His son Pat runs the Blarney Stone Tavern in Andover.”

Pat? Simon wondered. On the office copier a colleague enlarged the “Pete” signature reproduced in Sports Illustrated. The name was Pat!

He called Pat O’Donnell in neighboring Andover and told him who he was. “I’m trying to identify a photo,” the reporter said. “I think it may be your father.”

“Does he have a bat over his right shoulder?”

O’Donnell asked.

“Yes, he does.”

“Yeah, that’s my dad.”

Simon could tell O’Donnell was fighting back tears. “This is quite a thing you’ve done,” he said gently. “Why the Hall of Fame?”

“Well,” O’Donnell answered, “you’d have to know my dad to understand that.”

And in a halting voice he began at the beginning.

“Let’s see whatcha got!” Joe O’Donnell called out to his son, pounding his big fist in the pocket of his old black fielder’s glove. Nine-year-old Pat went into a windup, drew back his left arm and sent the ball sailing— over his father’s head.

Sighing, Joe stood up and trotted after the ball. He was tired after a long day working at the nearby Sinclair refinery. But it was the spring of 1957, and the baseball season was approaching.

Tossing the ball back to his son, Joe dropped into his catcher’s crouch again. This time Pat threw dead center into his father’s glove, amazing them both. Joe wondered how his southpaw son could throw so wildly one moment and so on target the next.

As the ball sailed back and forth between them, Pat felt a singular closeness with the man on the other end of the throw. The two were in rhythm, synchronized in movement and thought. His father’s total focus made Pat feel proud and important.

The two had been playing catch almost since Pat had learned to walk: The family photo album held a picture of Pat, age two, with a baseball glove on his hand. Now, nearly ten, he’d soon be moving up to Little League. And thanks to his dad and other volunteers, he’d be playing in a brand new ballpark.

Like his son, Joe O’Donnell had fallen in love with baseball at an early age. A heavy hitter on his high school team in Genesee, Pennsylvania, he joined the town team after graduating. “Joe, you ought to think about trying out for a pro team,” manager Harry Hurd had told him one day. “You’re good enough.”

Joe smiled. By then he was married to his high school sweetheart, Mary Charlantiny, and was thankful to have steady work in the Pennsylvania oil and gas fields. Turning pro was a dream he simply buried deep inside.

In 1941 Joe went to work for a Sinclair refinery in Wellsville. He won a spot on the refinery team, playing right field and catcher. Then World War II broke out, and Joe joined the U.S. Army Air Forces. When he returned from the Pacific, he went back to Sinclair. But his baseball-playing days were over.

“I hardly ever get a hit,” Pat complained. In his first year of Little League, the youngest member of the team, he was discouraged.

“Nobody’s going to give you a hit,” Joe told him one day. “You’ve got to want a hit and then you have to go out and get it. It’s jut like anything else in life.”

Several evenings later, Pat stood at the plate, burning with anger and shame. Jim Euken, one of the team’s best hitters, had just been deliberately walked so Pat would come to bat. The game was in the last inning, with Pat’s team down a run and men on first and second—one more out and it would be over. Now came eager shouts from the opposing team: “Easy out! Easy out!”

The pitcher went into his windup and threw.

“Strike one!” the umpire yelled. “. . . Strike two!”

“Time!” Pat called, and the umpire held up his hand. Pat stepped out of the batter’s box and glanced at his father on the sidelines. Joe had a broad smile, and he was nodding. If you want a hit, he seemed to be saying, go out and get it!

Then, stepping back to the plate, the boy took a determined stance. I’m going to blast the next pitch a mile, he thought.

Pat swung hard at the pitch. He felt a solid crack as the bat met the ball. But it wasn’t until he reached second base that it all sank in: The game was over—and he’d driven in the winning run.

Pat’s teammates steamed out of the dugout. Off to the side, Jim Euken’s dad slapped Joe on the back. Pat’s father had a grin as big as Yankee Stadium.

It was Pat’s final year of Little League. Playing center field one day, the twelve-year-old was running toward the fence chasing a long fly ball. Time and again, Joe had said, “Always keep your eye on the ball.” Pat did just that as it sailed out of the field—and he slammed into the fence. Fortunately he only had the wind knocked out of him.

After the game, as Pat and Joe walked toward Joe’s pickup truck, another father caught up with them. “If you keep Pat alive,” the father told Joe, winking, “maybe he’ll make it into the Baseball Hall of Fame.”

On the drive home Pat turned to his father. “Dad, how do people get into the Hall of Fame?” he asked.

“You get there by being the best of the best,” Joe said. “You have to be very special.”

Pat thought of Lou Gehrig, who’d played in over 2,000 games without missing a day. Joe DiMaggio, who’d gotten a hit in 56 straight games. Ty Cobb, whose lifetime batting average was .367. They were special.

The boy looked over at his father. He wished he could have seen him play baseball. Even if Joe O’Donnell hadn’t averaged .367, he was special, too.

Four years later, Pat found himself in a pickup game on the very diamond where his father had played with the Sinclair team many years before. Suddenly he noticed his father watching from the far sidelines and walked over to him.

One of the other boys yelled, “Hey, Mr. O’Donnell, wanna play?” Joe smiled and shook his head. “No, baseball’s for you young guys.”

Pat noticed a faraway look in his father’s eyes as Joe watched the action on the field—a look he’d never seen before. “Y’know,” his father said softly, “I just might’ve had a chance out there. But things just sorta slid away from me.”

Pat knew people had once suggested that Joe try out for a pro team. He might have gone far, he thought. But standing there, he knew nothing he could say would comfort his father about the past, with all its mistakes and regrets. At that moment, staring into his father’s eyes, Pat hoped he would always remember that rule.

On the evening of March 29, 1966, at the age of fifty, Joe suffered a massive heart attack and died. Hundreds of people stopped by the funeral home in Wellsville to pay their respects. Some had known him as a ballplayer, some as a coworker. All knew him as a friend.

Joe O’Donnell’s sudden death devastated his eighteen-year-old son. By then Pat was married to his high school sweetheart and was soon to be a father. His difficulty adjusting to his new responsibilities was compounded by his deep grief. After Pat’s son was born, his marriage fell apart.

Before long, the tensions in Pat’s personal life affected his work, and he lost his job at the steam-turbine plant in Wellsville. With the loss of father, wife and job, Pat felt adrift. Over the next few years he worked on and off, traveling from town to town.

By the spring of 1970, Pat had reached his lowest point. Seeking relief, he visited the one place he’d been avoiding: his father’s grave. As twilight edged toward the darkness, he sat and leaned back against the cool tombstone and tried to think through his troubles.

After his marriage had failed, his former wife and their son, Rick, had moved over seventy miles away. I’m not there for my son the way my dad was there for me, Pat realized. He still hadn’t found a steady job. As he looked down at his father’s grave, the truth hit him like one of Joe’s hardest fastballs. If you want something, he could hear his father say, you just have to go out and get it!

Shortly after that, Pat landed a draftsman’s job, and before long he was moving up in the company. But he’d always wanted to go into business for himself. In 1980 he took the plunge and bought a tavern. After renovating the existing structure, he added one final touch. He had an eight-by-ten enlargement of a small snapshot of his dad hung behind the bar. The photo showed Joe O’Donnell in his Sinclair uniform with a big smile on his face.

Then, in 1987, Pat was married a second time—to Ann Barnes, a vivacious woman who brought new energy and enthusiasm to his life. Pat felt there was only one last loose thread in his life: his relationship with his son.

In the spring of 1988, Rick, now in his early twenties, came to Andover for a visit. Talking with his son, Pat found himself struggling with his emotions.

“Rick, I’m sorry,” he suddenly blurted. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to watch you grow up. I wasn’t there to teach you how to swing a bat or to play catch with you like your Grandpa Joe did with me.”

“That was then and this is now,” the young man said. “And right now, Dad, we’re together—that’s what counts.”

“I love you,” Pat said quietly. As the two hugged, Pat felt the distance and guilt start to melt away.

Several weeks later Rick came by for Pat’s birthday. Getting out of the car, he tossed something to his father. “Here, catch,” he called. It was a new baseball glove. Rick carried another in his hand.

Together, father and son went to the parking lot behind the Blarney Stone. As the ball sailed back and forth between them, Pat once again felt the old rhythm—the closeness, the unity—of father and son.

On a warm, quiet night in August 1989, Pat sat in a hotel room in Cooperstown, looking at a small photograph of his father. Turning the picture over, Pat wrote:

“You were never too busy or tired to play catch. On your days off you helped build the Little League field. You always came to watch me play. You were a Hall of Fame Dad. I wish I could share this moment with you. Your son, Pat.”

The next day, Pat O’Donnell toured the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. On the second floor he found pictures of players in bulky uniforms like the one Joe O’Donnell had worn. At the World War II exhibit, Pat noticed a small opening between the bottom of the display case and the floor. He looked around. There were no other people nearby. Kneeling down, he slid the photo beneath the case. “Now you’re in the Hall of Fame, Dad,” Pat said. “This is where the best of the best get to go. And you’re the best of the best.”

In the fall of 1994, Hall of Fame curator Ted Spencer put Joe O’Donnell’s photo in an envelope, along with the article from Sports Illustrated and Neal Simon’s stories for the Wellsville Daily Reporter. He also enclosed a letter of his own, addressed to any future curator who might come across the envelope and wonder. Spencer then put the package back near where Pat had originally hidden the photograph.

This gave Joe O’Donnell a permanent place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Ben Fanton Submitted by Nancy Mitchell

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