By BOB ETTINGER
To fully understand Elmer Lehotsky and everything he’s done for young athletes in his 86 years, you only need to listen to one story he tells.
“Back in ’57, we usually had an end-of-the-year banquet (for the Little League teams),” Lehotsky said. “Nobody wanted to do the banquet because we had won the championship game. In the heat of the moment, I said I’d do it. I got the high school, which was over on Satin Street, to put a canvas cover over the gym floor.
“We fed more than 400 people at no real expense. The Sheets sisters prepared the meal and I got the older brothers and sisters of the players to wear white tops and black pants and skirts. Once everyone was seated, they brought out the food and served it family style.”
Lehotsky summed up everything he had done for that banquet very simply.
“You see, when people are crazy, they do crazy things.”
Which just might be the explanation for everything he’s done in life.
Working for the Jefferson Gazette, Lehotsky received an assignment that would forever change his life.
“I was told to go over to Austinburg and give them a 30-word story on them forming a Little League,” Lehotsky said. “The next thing I know, because of the fame I had gained organizing the midget football team, they wanted me to be an organizer.
“I already had a full plate, but I said I’d help out because they thought I had organizational capabilities. I went to the meeting and I ended up as a vice president. I said I’d take it for a short while. That never happened. I got really involved.”
Lehotsky wound up coaching the Jefferson Red Sox between 1953 and 1963.
“It was a very special group of young men over that 10-year period,” Lehotsky said. “They played like professionals. I worked them hard and long. I’m surprised they put up with it. Be the best that we could. That was our goal and we fulfilled it.
“There will never be another group like that again. It was a four-year program back in the ’50s and ’60s, where it’s a two-year program now. That’s why I said there’d never be a team like that again.”
While most teams strove to win games, the Red Sox aim was to eat Dairy Queen sundaes. They did plenty of that, consuming more than 6,000 in the decade. The team motto was “If it isn’t fun, it isn’t Little League.”
“That’s just something he started,” Fink said. “When we’d win, we’d head off to Dairy Queen.”
But the Red Sox also won plenty of games, compiling a 242-45 (.843) record in which their average score was 12-3.
“I was there for three years,” Fink said. “It was like playing in the majors. He took care of us. He took us to buy gloves. We would go to an Indians game once a year and the Red Sox would come over and talk to us.
“(Lehotsky) was quite a guy.”
Much of the success of the Red Sox might be credited to the way Lehotsky coached.
“I attribute it all to Elmer’s coaching,” Fink said. “He was so great at practice. He would pitch to us. He was a great instructional man.”
But Lehotsky was much more than a great practice coach.
“I was 10 years old,” Fink said. “There were probably 10 guys on the team who made me look like a tub. Elmer worked me in against a couple of teams to get me a couple of wins. To me, that was amazing. To me, it was great because I was wondering how I would ever play with those guys.”
Lehotsky makes it clear he didn’t do it alone.
“I’d like to recognize my longtime coach and friend Dan Havens, who did all the gruntwork for me in preparing each team over the years,” Lehotsky said. “He played a major role and I’m so grateful.”
Lehotsky and his former players gathered for the 60th reunion of the formation of the team on Memorial Day weekend.
“I just liked the kids,” Lehotsky said. “Sixty years later, they came to Memorial Field and took some batting practice. Danny Foster could still hit. It’s hard to believe the number who were successful/
“Richard Stevens was from Jefferson, but he was the judge over there in Geneva. Richie Kolehmainen was the top dog for GE up in Syracuse.
“There were doctors and veterinarians and a surprising number of teachers and coaches. Rick Havens was a spectacular coach. It was a good thing. Having the guys there, though they hadn’t seen each in 50 or 60 years, was just like old times.”
The get-together was much appreciated by the players.
“It was so amazing,” Fink said. “Those guys from those first few years were the ones who showed up were the guys from those first few years. The guys who won 49 games in a row. Most of us were there.”
Lehotsky just wanted his guys together to relive some good times.
“I wanted to bring them together to see each other one more time,” Lehotsky said. “Unfortunately, they highlighted me. That’s not what I wanted. The village of Jefferson awarded me a proclamation.”
Havens, aside from becoming a great teacher and coach in Jefferson, was a pretty good ballplayer in his own right.
“The closest to being a professional ballplayer we had was Rick Havens,” Lehotsky said. “I think he was offered a contract by the White Sox. He said that wasn’t what he had prepared for. He had prepared to be a teacher and a coach. He said he didn’t want to go through the maze that was the minor leagues. He become an excellent teacher and coach.”
The motivation behind Lehotsky calling for the reunion was nothing less than what the players would expect from their old skipper.
“That’s Elmer,” Fink said. “That’s the way he thinks. He always thinks of the kids before he thinks of himself. It was great getting together with all of them. I have to praise Elmer for thinking of it.”
The players who played for Lehotsky were an extension of his own family, which included his wife, Jordan, and his seven kids, Alan, Janice, Linda, Terry, John, Scott and Sharryn.
“I mowed lawns up by where he lived on Walnut Street,” Fink said. “I would be walking by and his wife would be sitting outside. I would be invited in even though he wasn’t even there.”
Lehotsky, himself, did look upon his players as sons.
“I enjoyed what I was doing,” he said. “I enjoyed each and everyone of the kids. I loved them like they were one of my own kids — each and every one of them. There were 83 of them and they were just like sons to me.”
Many of those players could be found at Lehotsky’s house as he got home from work.
“My yard had no grass in it,” Lehotsky said. “I would get home from work and they’d be there playing in the yard. And you know 10-years-olds can’t sit still.”
Lehotsky’s influence over his players extended far beyond the time they played for him.
“I’m sure he helped every one of us in our future lives,” Fink said. “I think everyone in that first bunch of players would say the same thing. When they stood up and told stories, you could just tell he had an influence.”
Lehotsky moved to Williamsport, Pa. in 1963 to become a member of the Little League staff where his first assignment was to be a part of the adult training staff, assisting Dr. Clifford Brownell, dean of education at Columbia University.
“Later on (after forming the Ashtabula County Little League), we had formed a second team (in Jefferson), the White Sox, and added some farm teams in ’57. In ’63, I got a call from the national level and they invited me to come on board. I couldn’t believe it.”
In nearly four decades at Little League’s national offices in Williamsport, the home of the Little League World Series, Lehotsky held a plethora of assignments.
“I was there 38 years,” he said. “I would guess that I’m the only guy that had supervisory responsibilities for all four regions of the United States. I was involved in a program involving the care and prevention of injuries that occur in sports. That damn program is still running.”
The Red Sox team motto became a vital part of the Little League statement.
“That damn thing stuck and it followed me all the way to Little League headquarters,” Lehotsky said. “Little League’s PR man, Bob Stirrat, at the national headquarters asked if they could use it. I said it was a simple statement, I didn’t copyright it.”
Though it comes off as if Lehotsky was trying to outrun the statement, that’s far from accurate. The truth of the matter is, he always believed in the statement.
“I always stressed that if it wasn’t fun, we shouldn’t be doing it.”
While serving in Williamsport, Lehotsky took an opportunity to help out his hometown.
“I was involved in putting a committee together to study lighting,” Lehotsky said. “Jefferson called and said they had the state tournament, but they needed lights. I went to a Joe Crookham, the president of Musco Lighting, and said, ‘Joe, we need lights for my home league.’ He asked where and when. Two weeks later, the trucks were rolling in. They finished just hours before the tournament started.”
While working for Little League, Lehotsky spent a decade as PA announcer for Howard J. Lamade Stadium during the Little League World Series.
“Seven or eight days before the World Series, Peter J. McGovern, the president of Little League, told me I was going to be the PA guy,” Lehotsky said. “I said, ‘Golly, I haven’t even done any preparation.’ It worked out very well. I had a good time.
“I got to do the World Series as the PA announcer for 10 years. That was great.”
The task became something of a family tradition.
“Each of my sons, Alan, John and Scott, all did World Series games,” Lehotsky said. “They all did secondary games. That may never happen again.”
Lehotsky retired to Arizona on Dec. 31, 2002. Even in retirement, he didn’t stray far from the job he’d always done. He went to work with the Arizona Diamondbacks, helping to build $250,000 Little League baseball diamonds — 29 of them — for youngsters.
“It was the satisfaction that I had contributed to helping others achieve their dreams,” Lehotsky said. “Working with (Diamondbacks owner) Jerry Colangelo was one of the biggest things I had accomplished. We did Matt Williams’ field. Curt Schilling’s field is just three miles away from me.
“I was called to do something. I had so-called expertise. My fulfillment comes from using the tools the Lord gave me for good works.”
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.