Mendall Altman dropped out of New Castle High School.
He had no other choice.
The Great Depression ended about seven years before he became a sophomore at New Castle, and times were tough for most of America — and they were even worse for someone with 13 siblings.
“I quit school because my dad couldn’t support the whole family — we had 14 kids — so my sister and I kind of ran the family,” Altman said. “So, I quit school and in ’48 I joined the Army.”
Altman bounced around from Texas to Germany to New Jersey over the next 10 years, but he always knew his final destination.
“Oh, I knew I’d always end up back in New Castle,” he said. “This is my home. I couldn’t even think of any other place to live.”
It’s a place Altman has called home ever since.
Altman has coached and umpired in New Castle for more than 50 years. He started off coaching the 13-14-year-old Croton Pony League team in 1959, just a few months after he returned from the Army. He then coached sports at St. Vitus Church for 28 years and worked as an assistant coach for the New Castle High basketball team from 1993 to 2007, a span in which the Red Hurricane won four WPIAL titles.
He hasn’t slowed down even now at age 82. He umpired 61 games in 2010 — more than any other umpire in the Tri-County Umpires Association. He umpired 60 last year and is back at it again this season. He dabbles into a little coaching as well. One of his three sons, Paul, called him just last week to help with a 9-10 year-old baseball team in Bessemer.
“He called me last week and said, ‘How would you like to come out of retirement?,’ ” Altman said. “I said, ‘What?’ But I went over and helped him a couple times already.”
It’s that everlasting spirit that has led Altman to receive the Lawrence County Historical Society Sports Hall of Honor award April 29 at the New Englander. His brother, Gerald “Cowboy” Altman, was a Hall of Fame inductee in 2009.
“I was shocked,” he said of the announcement. “It’s a great honor — a great honor.”
While Altman is being lauded mainly for his coaching and umpiring, he was quite the player as well.
During his 10-year stint in the service, Altman played for the Army at a time when numerous big-league players were participating in such a league because of World War II. In fact, Altman hit leadoff for his team and scored quite a few runs because of the big bat that followed him in the lineup: future hall of fame shortstop Ernie Banks. They also turned quite a few double plays together with Banks at shortstop and Altman at second base.
Banks, who Altman said was about 19 at the time, hadn’t yet burst onto the scene. The two ended up becoming close friends and still talk on a monthly basis.
“He was in our organization and he went out (for the team) the same time I did,” said Altman, who played a one season with Banks. “I made the statement when he left, because his time was up, I said, ‘He’ll be in the majors this year.’ And he was. He made it with the Chicago Cubs.
“You couldn’t ask for a better guy at short. He was something else. Man, he could hit the ball, too.”
Banks thought pretty highly of Altman, too. In a previous interview with the New Castle News, Banks said, “He was a good ballplayer. He had good speed, a good fielder, a great leader — he was a really fine ballplayer. I’m surprised he didn’t make it to the majors after he got out (of the Army).”
Altman said that was a difficult task at 5-2 and 105 pounds, but he found other ways of impacting the world of sports. He was scheduled to play baseball in Colorado, joining a team with future New York Yankee great Phil Rizzuto, but he was held in New Jersey, and it was there that he began coaching. He was discharged about a year after and returned to his roots in New Castle.
Altman said he never cared to try his hand in high school baseball coaching, mainly because he enjoyed shaping the way kids play, a trait that begins in youth league.
“They’re learning and that’s what it’s all about, teaching them how to play and the fundamentals,” he said. “I never considered myself a coach. I considered myself a teacher.
“We had some good teams, we had some bad ones. We had some good times. But you know what, at that age group, it’s not win or lose. It’s to teach the kids to play the game and sportsmanship.”
He seems to have succeeded in that area.