My Mentor, Coach, and Friend

It came over the AP wire as a small blurb just before midnight a week before Christmas, 2007.

Jack Lamabe, a former major league pitcher who played on seven different teams in a seven-year career, died earlier today in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The first full-time baseball coach for LSU in history, Lamabe also coached for Jacksonville University and served as a longtime pitching instructor for both the San Diego Padres and the Colorado Rockies. A native of Farmingdale, Long Island, New York, Lamabe, was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1956 and made his major league debut in 1962 for the Pittsburgh Pirates. A year later, he was traded to Boston. While playing for St. Louis, he pitched in three World Series games for the 1967 World Champion Cardinals. Jack Lamabe was 71 years old.

The following morning, messages of condolence filled my inbox at the at Sons of Sam Horn, the popular Red Sox website where “jacklamabe65” is my username, and where and I have written periodically about my personal connection to the former Boston pitcher.

Jack Lamabe first entered my life in 1963. I was eight years old when he pitched in the first game I ever attended at Fenway Park. I got to know Lamabe personally a decade later—he was still a young man, only five years removed from his big league career—when I pitched and worked for him during his five years as head coach of the Jacksonville University Dolphins. We kept in touch during the following three decades.

During one batting practice session in the fall of 1973, I impulsively grabbed a bat and a helmet and asked Coach Lamabe to pitch to me as if I was Tony Conigliaro.

“Low and away then,” Coach laughed as I entered the batter’s box. He buzzed me with a 90 mph heater near my belt buckle. I barely saw the white blur spank the catcher’s mitt after it painted the inner half of the strike zone.

“I just set you up with hard heat, just so I can nibble,” Coach bellowed. I began to tremble as he threw a sharp slider across the outside portion of the plate. I lunged wildly, missing the ball by a foot. “I just broadened the strike zone,” he exclaimed. “Now I have you really guessing, my friend. Remember, it’s always about timing.”

I dug in a third time. Lamabe then threw a curveball that buckled my knees as I helplessly watched it plunk into the catcher’s mitt. I called out, “Okay Coach, I just learned that I can’t hit big league pitching.”

“Neither could I,” Lamabe replied. “That’s why the American League has taken the bats out of the hands of pathetic hitters like you and me!”

That was Jack Lamabe in a nutshell—playful; good-natured; sensitive; informative; self-effacing; humble, and most of all, genuine. “I owe you a dinner, Shaun,” Coach exclaimed. “You just made your old coach look very good in front of the rest of my players!”

The Red Sox’ Tomato

True to his word, Coach took me for a pizza and beer dinner at his favorite local dive, where I asked him how he ended up with the Red Sox.

“I was traded with Dick Stuart to Boston,” he chuckled to himself. “Stu used to call me ‘the throw in.’ I continually reminded him that the Red Sox needed pitching more than hitting at the time.”

In 1963, Lamabe—who had played with future Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, and Willie Stargell as a rookie with the Pirates—found himself on a star-crossed team in Boston. Johnny Pesky was the manager. The squad featured emerging star left fielder, Carl Yastrzemski, and a legendary closer, Dick “The Monster” Radatz. In the midst of a 15 year period of mind-numbing mediocrity, the Bosox were anything but beloved in those days. “I left a model organization in Pittsburgh and stepped into a mess,” Lamabe admitted. The Red Sox lost 86 games, but Lamabe would experience his finest season that year, posting a 7-4 record with a 3.15 ERA. Working mainly as a spot starter and setup man for Radatz, Lamabe was named the team’s “Unsung Hero” by The Boston Globe.

Near the end of that season, Jack Lamabe would also secure a nickname that would follow him for the rest of his life. Former Red Sox manager, Johnny Pesky, recollects: “Dick Radatz first gave him that nickname … he’d call Jack ‘Pizza Face’ or ‘Tomato.’” When legendary Red Sox announcer Ned Martin began calling Lamabe, “The Old Tomato” on the air, the nickname stuck with fans. Given Lamabe’s beet-red, broad face—and the fact that he was a renowned pizza aficionado—the moniker fit perfectly.

Rookie pitcher Dave Morehead came to love Lamabe like a brother: “I always called him ‘Tomatoes’ or ‘Mater’… he had the round face and was always laughing… he would turn all red whenever he laughed! Jack also loved to chew tobacco. I don’t know how he did it, but he used to have a big piece of chew going, a pizza, and a beer, and he would do a thing where he’d be chewing, take a bite of pizza and drink his beer at the same time!”

Boston’s premier starting pitcher in 1963, Bill Monbouquette, recalled Lamabe’s presence on the team that year:Jack was often the set-up guy behind Dick [Radatz], particularly in ’63. Not like set-up guys today either. He’d come in early and go three, four, or five innings, hand the ball to The Monster (Dick Raditz), and it’d be over… we just weren’t a very good club. Less than 5,000 people at most games unless the Yankees were in. So very few people got to see how good Jack really was… Jack never cared. He adored Radatz and just loved to get out there and compete.”

Reflecting back on his career, Lamabe himself stated, “I always relished the competitive aspect of a pitcher out-dueling a great hitter. I loved battling against a Mantle, a Killebrew, or a Kaline.”

Monbouquette remembers: “Jack was a real fireballer. He’d bring it up there 95-97. He might have been the fastest on the club except for Radatz. Jack was fearless too. He’d take the ball in any situation in any game—ahead or behind—and pitch like it was the most important game ever. We loved that about him.” A few months after Lamabe died, 45 years after they first played together, Monbouquette reflected on his teammate’s jovial presence: “Old Pizza Face—we just loved him! He was a great teammate, funny as hell, very witty. No one was better to be around. A great guy to have on the ballclub, especially those ball clubs.

Lamabe: Ballplayer, Student, and Husband

During his three years in Boston, Jack Lamabe made a daily trek, 90 miles west on the Massachusetts Turnpike, to take courses at Springfield College. “I knew that I had to plan for the rest of my life early on. I was determined that my life would not end when I walked off a major league mound for the last time,” Lamabe confided.

His wife, Janet, reflects: “Looking back, Springfield College was the perfect place for him. When you realize the kind of person he was, his education there allowed him to get better at what he loved to do—teach and coach. At Springfield, Jack earned a B.S. in Science and an M.A. in Administration.”

A New Jersey resident who had gone to Ebbets Field numerous times with her Dodgers-loving grandfather, Janet Lamabe first met her future husband on campus: “I was a student at Springfield College and graduated the same year that Jack did in 1965. One day, Jack was leaving for an away game and stopped to ask if he needed a shave… out of nowhere I turned and said, ‘You know that is not the best way to find out!’ The rest, obviously, is history.” The Lamabes married in 1966 and spent the next forty-one years together. “Jack was my best friend and partner in life,” Janet states matter-of-factly.

In his second season with Boston, the Springfield College student started a career-high 25 games, yet ended the season with a disappointing 9-13 record and 5.89 ERA. “I developed shoulder problems in ’64 that affected me the next year as well. I never really pitched well for the Sox again,” Lamabe confessed. “Of course, we also finished 18 games under .500, so there was disappointment all around.”

Before he hurt his arm, however, Lamabe pitched the best game of his Red Sox career—a complete-game victory on Opening Day against the Chicago White Sox, lashing out two hits of his own to boot. “What a thrill that was—Opening Day in Boston in front of 35,000 fans—with President Kennedy’s entire family in attendance as a fundraiser for the JFK Library. It was also great to see Tony Conigliaro hit his first home run as a big leaguer that afternoon on the first pitch he saw at his home ballpark.”

Post-Boston Journeyman

Over the next three seasons, Lamabe would pitch for four major league clubs and two minor league teams in an attempt to recover from a bum arm. For much of 1965, he struggled in the minors after starting the season 0–5 for Boston. Lamabe was rejuvenated with the White Sox in 1966. On May 30, the Old Tomato fired a one-hitter against the Red Sox at Comiskey Park. Former teammate Joe Foy broke up the no-hit bid with a one-out single to left in the ninth inning. “That game was my personal best as a big leaguer, that’s for sure.”

In 1967, the roller-coaster ride continued for Lamabe. After starting the season pitching in relief for Chicago, the Old Tomato was traded to the Mets, where he floundered. Janet remembered being at home in New Jersey one summer afternoon when destiny intervened. “Jack was playing for the Mets. He had already left for Shea. I was on my way to the game, but I stopped off to see Mom and Dad along the way. When I walked into their house, I could hear the TV. The announcer was saying, ‘No, your eyes are not deceiving you that is Jack Lamabe in a Cardinals uniform!’ Jack went to the ballpark as a Met and left as a Cardinal. That is how I found out. He didn’t even have a chance to call me!”

For the rest of that summer, Lamabe was used by St. Louis in every way possible—emergency starter, set-up man, and closer. For his stellar lunch pail work for the Cards, Jack Lamabe was named the National League Player of the Month in August. After St. Louis won the National League pennant, the Old Tomato and his teammates watched four teams battle for the American League pennant in what proved to be the tightest league race in history.

“Imagine my surprise and delight when the Sox ultimately prevailed on the last day of the season,” he gushed a decade later. “I was able to go back to Fenway and got to play in the World Series with some dear friends on the other side of the field.”

In Game 5 of the 1967 World Series, Elston Howard hit a chopper over the first base bag to drive in a ninth-inning insurance run off Lamabe. In Game 6, the Old Tomato came into a 4–4 contest in the seventh inning and ended up the losing pitcher after outfielder Lou Brock misplayed a ball hit by pinch-hitter Dalton Jones. “Bob Gibson actually thanked me for losing that game! We were on the bus going back to the hotel afterward, and he said that his wife needed a car. He said he was going to get it for her by winning Game 7, which, of course, he did when he was named Series MVP.” Jack Lamabe walked off the Fenway Park turf that sun-drenched October afternoon as a champion.

In 1968, Jack Lamabe pitched the entire season for the Chicago Cubs, managed by the mercurial Leo Durocher. “It was a cast of characters, that’s for sure,” Lamabe laughed looking back on his year at Wrigley Field. Working strictly as a set-up man for closer Phil Regan, the Old Tomato compiled a 3-2 record with an ERA of 4.26. It turned out tobe his last season in the major leagues.

Coach Lamabe

Over the next few years, Jack Lamabe toiled for the newly-formed Montreal Expos as a minor league pitching coach and was later employed by Janet’s dad who ran a textile business in New Jersey.

Although he enjoyed working for his father-in-law, the tug of baseball surfaced in 1973. Through contact with his old skipper from the White Sox, Eddie Stanky, Lamabe learned of a coaching job at Jacksonville University that had just opened up.Two weeks later, he interviewed for the JU Dolphins position.

“When I was finally offered the JU job,” Lamabe told me years later, “I just knew that I would never close the door on baseball again. I loved the game too much. When the people at Jacksonville told me I would also be teaching a few classes on coaching and officiating, the old Springfield College student in me got very, very excited.”

Although Jacksonville played a 70-game schedule against powerhouses like Miami and Florida State, the Dolphins varsity field had rickety wooden benches instead of dugouts and the players dressed in their dormitory rooms because there was no athletic facility to house them. Lamabe later admitted, “When I took the job, we were a fourth-rate organization playing an absolutely first rate schedule.”

On September 3, 1973, Lamabe began his first day as head coach of the Dolphins. Fifteen minutes after he sat down in his cramped office, I introduced myself. I smiled as I saw him—he looked identical to the Sox pitcher I had seen in person nine years before.

“Hi, Coach,” I said as I stuck out my hand, “I saw you pitch a masterpiece on Opening Day 1964!”

His emerald eyes glowed; he then took a handful of Redman and fingered it into his right cheek. “Well, what do you know?” he laughed, “I haven’t met anyone in a long time who was at that game! You know, that’s one of my greatest baseball memories, Shaun!”

Over the next several minutes, we reminisced about the likes of Gary Geiger, Bill Tillman, Julian Javier, and Curt Flood. Perhaps because of our initial contact, or perhaps because the new JU coach needed as much help as he could muster, I left his office not only as a left-handed pitcher trying out for his team but as his team’s student manager as well. Thereafter, Jack Lamabe served as both a personal mentor and second father to me.

Friend, Family Man, and Teacher

Throughout the fall of 1973, Coach asked me out to dinner virtually every night, to keep him company before Janet and the children were able to move to Jacksonville. We went to the same Italian restaurant, ate pizza after pizza, and guzzled pitchers of Budweiser while the Old Tomato reminisced.

“When I pitched for the Pirates and a batter hit a shot to right, I never even looked that way. I didn’t have to because I knew that Roberto Clemente would get to it. He had that fierceness about him—that pride—that made him so unique. You know, Tony Conigliaro was made of the same stuff. He would throw himself through a wall to stop a ball from going out.”

Coach Lamabe was well-respected by other baseball men, and a slew of former big leaguers began to visit our various practices over the years. Ted Williams, Robin Roberts, Roger Maris, Ted Simmons, and Earl Wilson made personal appearances, spending hours instructing JU players. When Maris visited the team in 1974 he told me, “What I always have liked about Jack is that he is who he is. You boys are lucky to have him as your coach. He is a man’s man. He will bring the best out of all of you because he is able to bring out the best in himself.”

When Lamabe’s family finally moved to Florida, Janet and his two small children would visit him. They would tag along with their father, whose unyielding love for them was touchingly apparent. “The most important job I have in this world is to be a good husband and father. Loyalty is essential to the success of any family or any friendship. Everything else usually takes care of itself.”

Lamabe’s heady combination of fortitude, humor, generosity, and compassion served as a template to how his players approached baseball and life in general. He would carry his personal bible, Walter Alston’s hardball textbook, The Complete Baseball Handbook: Strategies and Techniques for Winning, from station to station, lecturing, cajoling, and encouraging each of his players along the way. “Sound baseball starts in your mind and spreads to your body, boys. You sit back, and then you have to react in a millisecond. Always, always be prepared, gentlemen.”

A natural teacher, Lamabe was at his best when he veered from the smallest of details to the grandest of pictures: “Don’t rush your pitches—stay up and stay back. Remember, you want to outsmart the hitter; think the opposite, give it your all, learn from your mistakes, and move on. In life, there is always the next batter to face or another problem to deal with.”

Jack Lamabe’s patience, wisdom, and continual encouragement became a template for his players to follow.  As I informed him years later, his sway as a teacher was never lost on me. I became an educator primarily because of his unswerving influence. “Pitching in the big leagues was important,” he once told me, “but the life of a teacher – if done right – is so much more significant.”

JU’s varsity squad experienced rebuilding years in 1974 and 1975, but 1976 was the University’s finest season in 50 years. The Dolphins reeled off 18 victories at the start, ultimately finishing 30 games over .500. In the second round of the NCAA playoffs, Jacksonville upset top-ranked Florida State and moved on to the regional finals where it lost to Auburn. “Baseball really started to become a sport to watch at JU after Jack took over the reigns there,” claims Janet Lamabe. In 2011, Jacksonville University would induct Jack Lamabe into their Athletic Hall of Fame.

After enjoying such palpable success at JU, it was not at all surprising that Coach Lamabe was contacted by Louisiana State University at the end of Jacksonville’s 1978 season. When he decided to accept the Tigers’ offer to become the new head baseball coach, Lamabe said, I will miss this place a lot, but I am doing this for my family.” He was leaving a JU baseball team that was now considered first-class, with a new field, immaculate dugouts and stands, two new batting cages, and three state-of-the-art pitching machines. Janet Lamabe admits now, “It was really tough for us to leave Jacksonville. However, Jack had always had a love for the SEC Conference and LSU. Needless to say he was thrilled to be offered the job. It was a great place—a family place.”

Coach Lamabe spent five years at LSU, working to turn around a program that had experienced a decade of mediocrity before his arrival. “Jack made baseball better at LSU and managed to survive several Athletic Director changes—never an easy thing to do,” Janet Lamabe says.

Back to the Bigs

The pressures of winning in the most competitive baseball conference in the nation eventually cost Coach Lamabe his job, but major league organizations had seen the work Lamabe had done with college pitchers and contacted him immediately.

Over the next decade, Jack Lamabe worked as a pitching instructor for the Padres. While with San Diego he renewed his longstanding friendship with Dick Williams, his old Red Sox teammate, who served as a special consultant with the Padres. The Old Tomato also became acquainted with another Padres employee, hitting legend Tony Gwynn, a kindred spirit, who, like Lamabe, believed that the hard way was always the right way. Lamabe then worked for the Colorado Rockies for a spell before returning to the Padres to tutor minor league pitchers.

Twilight

On the phone, the evening after the Red Sox had secured their first World Series championship in 86 years, Lamabe attempted to put the improbable championship into perspective: “You know, Shaun, it was tough rooting against St. Louis in a World Series, but I did. I am so happy for you and all the good people in New England. You waited a hell of a long time—you all have. I’ve got to admit I got a little emotional seeing Curt Schilling give the championship trophy to my old skipper, Johnny Pesky. No one deserved to hold it more than Johnny. It warmed your old coach’s heart.”

Despite his breezy nature, the shackles of arthritis weighed Lamabe down, but whenever I would phone him, he would invariably sound chipper. His wife marveled, “My Jack just never ever complained!” More than anything, Janet, his kids, and the grandchildren motivated him to savor life to the very end. Jack Lamabe’s last great role in life was as a doting grandfather. His adoring grandson, Alex, even began wearing his old Red Sox number 36 on his game jerseys in cub football and little league baseball.

During the 2007 World Series, Janet called me from Coach’s hospital room. Jack was struggling to hang on. Predictably, he pushed the pain aside—especially when friends or loved ones called—and remained steadfast to his innate sense of optimism. Many who knew him believed that he would somehow persevere through his latest physical challenges. For the Old Tomato, however, his life was approaching the bottom of the ninth. On December 21, 2007, Jack Lamabe died peacefully with his beloved wife and children by his side. He was 71 years old.

Janet later remarked, “My husband is my hero for the courage and faith he had to handle the cards he was dealt. The doctors that attended him would always say they never had seen a case of rheumatoid arthritis like his. They called it a world class case. Jack had surgeries, too numerous to count. In the end, the disease just ravaged his body and his major organs. It was finally congestive heart failure that gave him the peace that he so richly deserved.”

When Janet called me a few days after his passing, she whispered, “You know, the many young men like you who played for him gave him such joy. He loved you like a son, Shaun.”

After I hung up the phone, I stared out onto my snow-covered lawn and recalled a steamy summer’s day in the right field bleachers at Fenway Park back in 1974. The Sox were playing Earl Weaver’s Baltimore Orioles that afternoon. Near the O’s bullpen, I noticed reliever Bob Reynolds leaning against the railing of the outfield wall, gazing in towards home plate. Knowing that Coach Lamabe had tutored him at one time in the minor leagues, I screeched out, “Hey, Bob! Jack Lamabe would want me to say hello!”

The Baltimore pitcher reeled around with a bright grin on his face. “You must be one of Jack’s players down in Jacksonville! He taught me my slider, you know.” For the next 20 minutes, Reynolds and I swapped “Old Tomato” stories. At the end of our conversation, Reynolds fingered his Orioles cap and gestured to me, “Tell Jack that I wouldn’t be wearing a major league uniform if it wasn’t for him. I was a boy when he had me, and yet he treated me like a man. Tell him that I will never forget him and what he did for me. Tell Jack that I will be forever grateful.”

I realized later that Jack Lamabe had touched many others the way he had reached out to me.  His devotion to his students was genuine.  Our admiration and love for him was just as evident.

Lamabe’s devoted daughter, Jennifer, centered on her father’s salient qualities in an elegant tribute written after his passing: “Jack Lamabe was the kind of dad who took you to the park early to let you run the bases, sit in the dugout, discover pine tar, and investigate pouches (when he wasn’t looking) filled with hot ‘flavored leaves.’ Jack Lamabe was the kind of father who received an evening call in the clubhouse, during spring training and was home by morning for an ACL surgery that was thought to be ‘the end of the world’ and then later taught and realized that different kinds of adversity make you stronger. Jack Lamabe was the kind of daddy who held you on his lap holding you forehead to forehead and cheek to cheek to help take away your fever. He was simply the best in every way.”

The last time I talked to Coach—a few months before he died—his normally strong baritone sounded frail over the phone, but the old glint returned when he started kidding me about the Red Sox turning into the Yankees: “With that big payroll of yours, your farm system, and the team’s support staff, the Sox should win a lot over the next several years. No more, ‘Why not us?’ from you anymore, Shaun—do you hear?” he laughed.

Before our phone conversation concluded, Coach began to reminisce about two of his old Red Sox pitching buddies, Earl Wilson and Dick Radatz. After I remarked on their recent passings, Lamabe paused for a long time and then murmured into the phone, “I don’t believe they’re gone. They truly loved the game of baseball, respected it, and gave the best of themselves to it. They were phenomenal teammates in every way. You know, Shaun, they just don’t make men like them anymore.”

He very well could have been talking about himself.

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