YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – For over one hundred years, Americans have been celebrating Father’s Day on the third Sunday of June. For many, it is a way to honor those men who have influenced and shaped our lives.
For me, the day has more meaning now that I have children of my own. I’m able to take a step back and appreciate all the challenges and triumphs that my father must have had in playing a part in raising my siblings and myself.
I share the same name as my dad – Vince Pellegrini – a Hall of Fame baseball coach at Grand Valley and, as I remember, at McDonald. My childhood was filled with attending practices at the Blue Devils’ gymnasium as snow fell outside in February. When it came to games, I sat on the bench and kept score. I’d ride on the bus with the team. I looked up to these teenagers as if they were professionals. I recall sitting in the living room, listening to my dad call in the box scores and recaps to The Tribune and The Vindicator. Like many of us, my love for sports was born by observing my father.
My dad, the son of Italian immigrants, had a similar but different path. My grandfather worked long hours in the J & L Steel Mill in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, leaving very little time for sports. However, after attending a Pirates’ game, he began listening to Rosey Rowswell and Bob Prince’s broadcasts. Little by little, he was hooked.
My dad, the youngest of three, would say – “Watching a small 10-inch black and white TV, I wanted to be Hopalong Cassidy or The Lone Ranger when I was little.” When it came to sports, he was like a sponge picking up names of players from the 1930s and early forties from conversations with his father. At the age of 5, he went to his first Pirate game with my grandpa. They both were fans of Ralph Kiner – the Pirates slugger at the time. No matter how poor the Pirates were playing, my grandpa would say in the final innings, ‘let’s wait to see if Kiner hits a homer’. My dad was drawn to sports in large part because of his father.
In Aliquippa, little league didn’t start until you were 10 years old. He’d say, “We just had fun playing in the streets. We’d make our own ball field. We just enjoyed being kids. When I was older, I played for the best coach I ever had – Tommy Diaddigo – who was instrumental in my love of sports. Mr. Diaddigo was one of the best people I met. An excellent communicator. He worried about the last guy on the bench as much as the ‘standouts’. That stuck with me.”
After graduating from Aliquippa in 1959, my dad was unsure if he’d even move onto post-secondary education. He recalls, “My family more than anything else, convinced me to go to college.”
He attended college at Clarion – about an hour drive east on I-80 from the Ohio border – where he’d play on the baseball team for his first two years.
After graduating from Clarion, he was offered a teaching job at the age of 22 at Grand Valley in Orwell. “I was on foreign soil (Ohio instead of Pennsylvania),” Dad joked. “Hal Searcy, the superintendent, needed a driver’s ed(ucation) instructor and a history teacher. He really showed a lot of interest in me, even allowing me to start the school’s first baseball team.”
“I had never coached a baseball game in my life,” he recalls. “I remember thinking – is this going to work? My players were almost as old as I was. I could see that they were eager to play. I think that teaching and coaching just made me more mature.”
The Mustangs went onto reach the regionals twice (1969 and 1971) and posted a 120-75 record during his 10-year stay.
In 1974, the need to be closer to home was evident as his family received the news that the matriarch of the family – his mother (my grandmother) – was terminally ill with cancer.
Moving onto McDonald that fall, Dad found himself coaching junior high football. “There wasn’t baseball when I arrived,” he recalled. Pushing for the sport, the decision was made to offer baseball. “I was no shoe-in for the job. Five applicants applied. I got the job in January. Bill O’Dell – who I coached baseball against at Maplewood – was one of the other candidates. Bill and I coached football together that fall. We had agreed that if one of us were to get the job, the other would be the assistant. As it turned out, I got the job and Bill was our assistant. That first team had a great season, falling to powerful Ashtabula St. John’s in the District Final (10-9).”
“My first two years at McDonald were very memorable for many reasons, including a May 4, 1976 game in which three of our pitchers combined to throw a no-hitter,” he says.
“Later that month, we got over the hurdle and into the regionals,” he states. “We were leading the semifinal game versus Garaway going into the 7th inning when our pitching ace – Mike O’Connell – who was a bull on the mound the entire game was hit in the pitching hand and had to leave the game. Garaway won, 4-3.”
Twenty-one years later (in 1997), the Blue Devils reached the state semifinals. “There was a certain chemistry,” Dad recalls. “Among the experienced players and the freshmen that year. We were not a great hitting team. Although our infield was young, we played well defensively. The pitching had to be there. Doug Flere was going to give you a game no matter what. That year, things fell into place. I feel sometimes you have to be luckier than good.”
Since his coaching career began at age 22 in Orwell, my dad went onto win 430 games. His teams combined to advance to 6 regionals. In 2001, he was honored by being named to the Ohio High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame. “Going over 400 wins was nice,” Dad said. “But, I didn’t pitch. I didn’t hit. I didn’t field or run in any of those games. That goes for all of the Hall of Famers. It took teamwork.”
Now in the role of Grandpa to seven grandchildren ranging in age from 2 to 13, he grabs their attention and elicits smiles with humor, music and dance, knowledge and understanding. He’s been employing those same qualities with his own children, his students and with his friends for a long time. All the while, his passion for sports remains.
I am very lucky to have a father who was as involved as mine was and continues to be. On Father’s Day, it is hard for me not to focus on the importance of the bond through sports many of us have with our dads. Although it’s just a game, there’s nothing quite like sports to bring us together.