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October 25, 2013

Place where he learned and practiced the game named for baseball legend Tommy John

TERRE HAUTE — The field that witnessed a hometown baseball hero’s early pitches now bears his name.

The City of Terre Haute on Thursday dedicated the ball diamond (now used as a softball field) in the Spencer F. Ball Park on the city’s north side as the Tommy John Field, in honor of the native son and baseball legend.

There is even a new sign and new scoreboard bearing the name.

A plaque that was on display and was read at the dedication told the story of John’s successful career.

“Tommy pitched in two World Series, was a 4X All-Star over 26 years in the major leagues, won 288 games and was known for his historic and pioneering elbow procedure ‘Tommy John Surgery’ that not only lengthened his career, but thousands of more athletes after him, by having this surgery,” part of the inscription states.

After leaving Terre Haute, John joined the Cleveland Indians and went on to pitch for the White Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, Athletics and Angels.

But before becoming one of the greatest left-handed pitchers in major league baseball history, Tommy John played baseball for Gerstmeyer Technical High School at the field that now carries his name.

Field of Memories

And being on that field once again brought back fond memories for John.

“This park was where I first played baseball when I was 8-years-old,” he said.

“On this field, right here,” he remembered one particular game against a team from Danville, Ill., which had a “super, super” pitcher named Steve Kelly. He said he lobbied the coach to let him pitch “ ‘cause I knew that there’s going to be a ton of scouts out here.”

He lost the game, but he pitched well.

“And on this field, that’s when the scouts first noticed that Tommy John may have a future in baseball,” the 70-year-old told the Tribune-Star.

At that time, he was 14 and a high school sophomore.

John’s determination was obvious to one of his former coaches, Bill Welch, who coached him on the Post 346 American Legion Baseball Team in the late 1950s. Welch was present at the dedication.

“He was a young man that wanted to be the best. ... Above all, he had an excellent attitude about athletics and about life itself,” Welch said.

This attitude allowed John to go as far as he did, Welch said.

And John felt good to be back at the field for a special occasion.

“It’s fun to come back and see all my friends here, guys I went to school with. We’ve changed a bit, or at least they’ve all gotten older,” John joked.

Some of those friends were present at the dedication.

One was childhood friend and fellow player, Bill Reece.

“I played with him from the time I was 8-years-old till I was 18-years-old,” Reece said. “This [park] is where we spent our summers. From daylight to dark.”

At the event, Reece stood with another former fellow player, Bill Newton and former Garfield athlete, Jerry Mahan, who played against John.

They all thought naming the field to John was a fitting tribute.

“Good idea,” the group said almost at the same time.

 “It should have been done a long time ago,” Newton said.

A permanent  recognition

More than 70 people — John’s friends, family, city officials, park officials and area baseball players — gathered at the new Tommy John Field for the dedication, despite the cold weather.

One of the highlights of the dedication was seeing John pitch at the field once again. The ball was caught by Brian Dorsett, another retired professional baseball player.  

Naming the field after the baseball hero should serve as an inspiration to young Terre Haute players.

“What I learned about this man was perseverance. And that’s the thing that you young players have to think about,” said Bruce Rosselli, director of recreation for the parks department, who was instrumental in putting the tribute together.

The short ceremony was led by Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett.

“This ball diamond is dedicated to Tommy Edward John for his dedication and inspiration to young baseball players of his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana,” Bennett read from the plaque.

“We wanted to recognize you here in a permanent way,” Bennett told John.

During his public remarks, John spoke about his childhood in Terre Haute and his love for the game.

“Baseball’s been my whole life,” John said. “It’s the greatest game in the world.”

He felt “very proud and honored” that the field was named after him.

“It’s an honor. Usually fields are named after dead people. But I thank that you named it for me, that I’m alive, and I can enjoy it,” John said.

Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or dianne.powell@ tribstar.com.

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