Baseball. That’s all that needs to be said for me. You don’t have to have a lot of words like the weather is warming up, the grass is getting green, or the leaves are popping out on the trees. If you say baseball, I know all that is true.
I am pretty jealous of many high schools today. In the 1960’s, most high schools only had track as a spring sports option. The bigger schools offered baseball, but not Wilber-Clatonia High School. After a disastrous track season my sophomore year in high school, I decided to spend my spring with a glove, ball and bat getting ready for summer baseball.
I wanted so bad to be a good baseball player. I would spend hours throwing a rubber ball at the garage door and fielding it from every possible angle. I would force my younger brother, Roger, and a couple of my friends to play games on an in-town cow lot. Dried up cow pies were the bases.
No matter how hard I worked, I was just an average baseball player with a below average arm and a “punch and Judy hitter.” That meant I didn’t hit the ball, I “punched” it. The ball would sail about as far as a “Judy” would hit it. Another words, I hit it like a girl!
The American Legion was the only baseball organization in town and that was coached by Ernie Bouska. Ernie was an interesting guy. He was a principal at Wilber from 1961 – 1965. The Wilber school district consolidated with Clatonia and Ernie lost his administrative role.
He decided to stay on as a math teacher and in 1965, the first year of the consolidation, I met Ernie. Pretty soon, I was playing for Ernie’s Legion baseball team. I played second base and batted second. The perfect spot for a weak arm and a “punch and Judy” hitter.
Ernie was one of those fun teachers that talked about anything but math the first 15 minutes of class day. Ernie loved to talk sports and he wasn’t afraid to be critical of your performance. I’m not sure I learned much math, but Ernie did teach me how to get the class’s attention before you dove into the meat of the assignment.
Ernie wasn’t married and I don’t think he ever was. When I had Ernie for a teacher, he was in his early 40’s. Somehow, he seemed much older than that. Ernie lived with his mother and never missed a Wilber-Clatonia athletic event. He also was a veteran of World War II.
I’m not sure Ernie was a great coach either. The fun teacher was also a fun coach. Sometimes, you need a little discipline with all that fun. Ernie wasn’t much of a disciplinarian. Our teams never won many games, but it was a great way to spend the summer.
We even had official uniforms, something we never saw in Little League at Clatonia, my home town. Looking back, those uniforms weren’t much to brag about. They were made of a scratchy wool material, but I was proud to wear one.
Ernie’s life was for his students and players. He had his faults but the sacrifices he made more than made up for those faults. Ernie also made great summer memories for many baseball kids.
The one memory I will never forget of Ernie came on a hot summer night in 1969. Wilber was hosting the Nebraska Semipro Tournament. It was a great event that even featured some former major league players.
There were games all day and most of the night. It was July 21, getting close to midnight. There was a clear sky and a sliver of the moon visible. Ernie was announcing the game. I think he announced all the semipro games.
Somehow, he received a message and passed it along to the fans that had stayed for the late game. Ernie announced that Neil Armstrong had just been the first human to step onto the moon’s surface. President Kennedy’s promise of taking a man to the moon in a decade had come true.
Three years later, Ernie missed a few days of school because of the flu. That wasn’t unusual. From what I heard, Ernie had visited the doctor. Sadly, his health took a turn for the worst after he returned home. His mom called for an ambulance, but it was too late.
Ernie died on November 28, 1972. He was only 46 years old. Wilber lost the fun teacher and the fun coach. However, for people like me, the memories of Ernie Bouska will never fade.