Back in the early 1970s I was a volunteer baseball coach for the Owatonna Park and Recreation. It wasn’t my first experience coaching seventh and eighth graders.
We couldn’t hit
This particular team of players resulted in many a sleepless night. We had a strike-out ratio that was disheartening. On the other hand, when it came to defense these guys were super good. They were fast. They were ball-hounds. Their throws were accurate. And, they had a special sense of how to play the game…they seldom made mental errors while on the field.
When the first half of the season ended, we were at the bottom of the league standings. Why? Because for every fifty batters, no less than twenty-five would strike-out. If a batter hit the ball, it usually dribbled to a defensive infielder for an easy out.
We got help
I knew Noel Jenke because he was a member of St. John Lutheran. In 1969 he had been drafted in the first round by the Boston Red Sox. In the early 1970s Noel was playing for the Louisville Colonels (AAA baseball team) located in Louisville, Kentucky.
It was the weekend of July 4 in either 1970 or 1971. Noel came home. He was on the disabled list. He had burned his hands while making popcorn.
When I saw Noel at the worship service, I wondered: would he be willing to spend an hour teaching me about hitting? After the service, I asked him. He said, “Sure!”
I telephoned every member of the team and asked them to appear for batting practice. I also told them that a professional baseball player would be teaching them hitting. The name Noel Jenke didn’t meant much to them, but when their fathers’ heard the name, the son was at that special Sunday afternoon practice.
“We were taught”
Noel took a bat. He stood as if he was going to hit the ball. Then he began to teach. Imprinted in my mind, his words: “The big toe on the front foot is an essential. Dig it in to demonstrate to the pitcher and catcher that you are ready to hit. Then wind up your body as if it were a spring in a clock…turn those hips, stretch those shoulders…crouch down like you mean it. Here’s how you set your arms…get ready to whip those wrists. Now relax and say to yourself, ‘There’s nothing this pitcher can throw that I can’t hit’.” As he talked, he demonstrated what he was saying by moving his body. He went through it once, then twice, then a third time.
He asked several of the boys, one at a time, to repeat what they had learned.
The following week during practices, I noticed a new attitude. When one of the boys took his turn at batting practice, he would hear the words, “Remember what Jenke showed us.” When the bat hit the ball the guys would shout, “Atta boy (words Noel had used)!”
When the second half of the season ended, this team stood on top of the standings. They were in the championship game.
Though we lost that game, I won’t ever forget Noel Jenke – a man who instilled the love baseball and of life into a group of young boys.