New Castle News

January 10, 2013

Larry Kelly: How will I remember John Munnell? As a ‘baseball player’

Larry Kelly
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — It was my first at-bat in the North County League. I was 15 years old.

Up to that point, my career consisted of batting against Pony League pitchers who, at best, threw about 65 miles per hour. Now in my first game — first at-bat — as a member of Clare’s Bears, I would be facing perennial league champion Volant. If that weren’t enough, I soon learned that pitching for Volant that day would be John Munnell — the great John Munnell.

Munnell threw the baseball 90 mph. He threw harder than anyone I had ever seen from 60 feet, 6 inches.

In his career, Munnell won 446 games in the North County League and his team competed in the championship series nine times, winning four crowns.

Munnell was inducted into the Lawrence County Historical Society Sports Hall of Fame in 2003 and the FEK Baseball Foundation North County League Legends’ Club in 2011.

In the world of baseball, the greatest compliment that you can give to a player is to simply call him a “baseball player.” In the baseball fraternity, that term has special meaning. It signifies that you know the game and play it hard. It means that all the little nuances of the game that most people miss are part of your DNA. It means that you are a fierce competitor and have the respect of your baseball brethren.

John Munnell died on Saturday. He was 72 years old. He was a baseball player.

I read his obituary. It was glowing. It spoke of his wife and children and his years of service at Penn Power.

But what it didn’t say was that John Munnell was a baseball player and maybe the fiercest competitor in the history of the North County League.

Vic Sharek, who played in the North County League for 20 years after finishing his college career at Auburn University, said, “John Munnell was so competitive. You knew when you woke up in the morning and you knew that if you had his team that night that your whole day was structured toward that moment. You knew what he brought to the table and if you didn’t bring it in return — you got beat.”

Mark Elisco, a long time North County League player, may have said it best. “In the ’70s, playing in the North County League was like playing minor league baseball,” Elisco said. “You played 40 regular-season games each year at a very high level. The competition was fierce and John Munnell’s team set the standard.

“Games against his team were a war. When he pitched against you, you had to bring your A-game. He was a fierce competitor and he demanded that not only from the players on his team but also from the guys who played against him.”

Elisco played his college ball at Youngstown State University, an NCAA Division I program. He was a walk-on who not only made the team, but started in center field.

When reminiscing about his college career he was quick to give credit to Munnell. “When I walked on at YSU I knew that I could compete at the collegiate level because I felt battle-tested, having played in the North County League against Volant. I believed that if I could compete against John Munnell that I could handle anything that college baseball would put in front of me.”

Other North County League players felt the same way as Elisco. Mark DeMonaco, who spent his college career at Birmingham Southern in Alabama where he set the school record for batting average in a season said, “I’m saddened to hear of John’s passing. He was a baseball player and I’m proud to say that I played against him.”

There’s that word again — “a baseball player.”

I probably batted over a thousand times in the North County League during the 10 years that I played. I don’t remember many at-bats. So why do I remember this one so well?

Maybe because it was my first at-bat in the league; maybe it was because I was shaking in my spikes; or maybe it was because I never saw a 90 mph fastball before. But I remember the at-bat like it was yesterday. I remember that I hit a line drive single to right field on the first pitch that I saw.

But 45 years later, it is clear why I remember that at-bat. It was because that base hit came against the great John Munnell — a baseball player.

(Larry Kelly is a partner in the law firm of Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is a former sportswriter at The News and an occasional contributor to its sports pages).