The young boy, Andy, age 8, eyed the baseball arching high in the air down the right field line into foul territory as it left the sandlot playing field.
For most of the crowd watching the baseball game that summer Sunday afternoon in 1926, the ball was out of sight, out of mind. But not for Andy, the nascent baseball enthusiast — at that moment a temporary truant of St. Michael’s Orphanage, which had been established in 1896 on the edge of Hopewell Borough. It housed slightly more than 400 children on 340 acres of farmland bordering the town.
In 1926, Hopewell was 150 years removed from local farmer John Hart’s signing of the Declaration of Independence and the British army’s searching the nearby Sourland Mountains for the town’s brave patriots, and just six years shy of experiencing the nation’s “crime of the century,” the kidnapping of the infant son of world famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. The Trenton diocesan orphanage was respectively hometown and home for Andy and his younger brothers, John and Charles.
But now the orphanage had one child missing. Andy, his absence yet unnoticed, had a good reason. He was on a mission. He and his baseball buddies needed a ball for their daily pickup games. This foul ball was the fortuitous moment he had been patiently waiting for.
Andy rose, his eyes tracking the ball’s flight across the cloudless blue sky before descending into a blanket of green — a bordering cornfield. The wayward ball had sailed a good 35 feet into the field and disappeared, coming to rest approximately 300 feet from home plate.
“Yes,” he silently declared. “This is it.”
He sprinted into the cornfield, disappearing among the multiple rows of the eight-foot stalks of corn. Spying the ball, he snatched it, jammed it into his front pocket, and then ran barefoot (the nuns would not reissue shoes to their charges until summer’s end in September) without stopping, as fast as his legs could carry him, to the orphanage.
Andy loved baseball. In time he would pass that love of the game, and the game’s guiding principles, on to his family, friends, and the many players he coached throughout his life. Andy was a melting pot child of early 20th century America, a product of immigrant diversity. His father was Italian, his mother, Irish. Andy and his younger siblings ended up in St. Michael’s soon after the untimely death of their mother, before her 30th birthday.
But this is not a story of lifelong disadvantages. Rather, it’s a quintessential American story of how baseball — America’s pastime, its national game — melded values into Andy, a parentless boy, and of how a rural, small town in America, inculcated with old-fashioned patriotism and a hardscrabble work ethic, served up to Andy a slice of Norman Rockwell’s America, and forged for him an America worthy of love, veneration and preservation.
Andy never returned that errant baseball. But he did return to Hopewell as a 24-year-old adult to raise a family, start and operate a retail gasoline business, help found the local Little League Baseball program, and organize and coach a local town baseball team. In fact, Andy was considered by many to be the Branch Rickey of the neighboring Hunterdon County Baseball League. In the 1950’s, with his Hopewell town team, he introduced the first Black players to league play.
In WWII, he had joined the U.S. Navy, leaving a wife and two children behind, and served in the Pacific Theater aboard a PT Boat that sank two Japanese destroyers in battles in the waters of New Guinea and the Philippines. For Andy, America was not just worth loving, it was worth fighting for.
The intrinsic values of baseball and the community cohesiveness of Hopewell — literally, Andy’s world — are captured in the following nine truisms that Andy espoused and lived by. They sprng mostly from the great American playbook that is baseball, and are rooted in the small-town sensibilities that were Hopewell.
They’re what makes America great. They make America worth revering, worth heralding, worth celebrating, worth loving.
1. No one bats a thousand, but never stop trying. Failure is not condemnable, but failing to try is.
2. Run 90 feet. Home plate to first base is 90 feet. Give 100% effort; run 90 feet.
3. When you get your pitch, jump on it. Don’t let opportunity pass you by.
4. Take two, hit to right. Hit the ball where it will do most toward achieving success... in baseball, scoring runs; in life, completing your assigned task.
5. Let your bat and glove do your talking. Perform. Deeds, not (boastful) words.
6. Hustle, always hustle. Give every endeavor your best effort.
7. Recognize meritorious efforts of others. Give credit to others. Your competitor, your fellow worker, he or she is trying to be the best he or she can be as well.
8. Look for two, look for two. Look for the opportunity to go for the next base. One’s reach should always exceed one’s grasp.
9. Make something happen. Both baseball and America reward tireless effort and perseverance. In order to succeed, you must do more than show up (apologies to Woody Allen). You must make something happen.
Andy’s son, John Monteleone, is a 1960 graduate of Hopewell Valley Central High School. He edited Branch Rickey’s “Little Blue Book: The Wit and Strategy of Baseball’s Last Wise Man.” He lives in Brandon Farms with his wife, Rosemarie.