Kezal, John (2012)
John Kezal’s baseball playing days began modestly in the summer of 1945 with the Pine Street Gold Sox of Rumford. Relegated to playing JV baseball as a freshman and sophomore at Stephens High School due to the abundance of WWII Vets returning to high school after the war, Kezal nonetheless caught the baseball fever, and finally made the varsity as a junior while spending summers playing for the Virginia Bees in the newly organized Oxford County League, the precursor to the Pine Tree League.
Kezal served in the U.S. Coast Guard from 1951-54, never missing the chance to organize a baseball game when in dry dock. Returning to Rumford following his discharge, John went to work for Oxford Paper Company and promptly set about what would become a five-decade career of organizing, coaching, umpiring and promoting baseball in the River Valley. He either organized, played for, or managed, sometimes performing all three roles for the same team, the Rumford Hobos, Rumford Point Athletic Association, Bryant Pond and Norway-South Paris, all competitors in the Pine Tree League. Kezal especially recalls the memorable seasons playing alongside Maine Baseball Hall of Famer Leon “Stubby” Truman. “We always had a great group of guys, as well as players, and enjoyed many good times on the field and at outings at Stubby’s house or mine,” said the affable Kezal.
Available records indicate Kezal had a lifetime batting average of .340 in the Pine Tree League. Veteran pitching opponent and Pine Tree icon and Maine Baseball Hall of Famer Bitsy Ionta described his at bats as “challenging and difficult.” Bitsy went on to say, “In any line-up there are certain batters that a pitcher has to really bear down on when facing them. John was that type of hitter.”
Lewiston Sun Journal sportswriter Bob McPhee estimates Kezal played on more than 75 baseball fields in Maine and New Hampshire during his Pine Tree League career. If the opportunity arose to schedule a game with a new opponent, Kezal was eager to do so, and his teams traveled to Lisbon to take on the Roberts 88ers and trekked to Gorham and Berlin in New Hampshire for cross-border rivalries.
In 1978, Kezal hung up his spikes but remained as involved in the game as ever, devoting much of his time to umpiring and organizing youth leagues. He served as Commissioner of the North Oxford County Little League for 10 years and became a certified umpire with the Central Maine Board in Auburn and the Androscoggin Board of Approved Umpires. John umpired full time through 2000 and officiated many games at all levels, often for no charge. Though he often personally knew players from both teams, John was regarded as an eminently fair and accurate umpire and could always be counted on to be “completely even” for both teams.
In 1979 Kezal became the Athletic Officer for the Napoleon Ouellette American Legion Post 24 in Rumford and was instrumental in starting up a legion baseball team sponsored by Post 24. Largely through his drive and persistence, the team remained viable throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Former coach Jerrold Cohen commented on Kezal’s contribution: “Without his efforts, there would have been no legion team available for the many players anxious to take part in summer baseball. Many of these players have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, policemen and other professionals. Some are now baseball coaches themselves. John Kezal had a very positive effect on all their lives.”
Since 2000, John has been the liaison chairman for the South Paris Veterans’ Home and just last month was appointed a trustee for the Maine Veterans’ Homes.
Former UMO head football coach and member of the Maine Sports Hall of Fame, Rumford native Walter Abbott summed it up best when making the case for John Kezal’s induction into the Maine Baseball Hall of Famer: “Being involved in sports at many levels for the past sixty years, I have grown to appreciate the folks that go above and beyond the call of duty so that others can have an opportunity to have the joy of competing in sports. John’s commitment to baseball was a driving passion. He was always there behind the scenes working for the betterment of the great game of baseball.”
From The Maine Legionnaire . http://www.mainelegion.org/media/download_gallery/JulyAug2012_2.pdf
RUMFORD Corner — The opportunity to play baseball
began innocently for John G. Kezal, however, the sport
took on another persona and evolved into a passion that has
lasted a lifetime and is being recognized by the Maine
Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Rumford native is slated to be inducted into the
MBHOF during ceremonies on August 5th at the Holiday
Inn by the Bay in Portland.
Kezel was relegated to playing JV baseball as a sophomore and junior under Coach Jim Sullivan at Stephens High
School because of all the guys that left school to join the service during World War II. It was during this time that Kezal
caught lust of performing in America’s pastime and played
organized ball in 1945 in the Oxford County League and
played in that league until he graduated. This league later
became the Pine Tree league.
While serving in the Coast Guard (1951-54) he played baseball with the late
Bernard Drury (Dixfield) at Fort Hallibard in Maryland. When he returned to
Maine he played and coached full time through 1982. “It was a great time playing back then,”Kezal said, who has a twinkle in his eye while recalling numerous events and
personalities. “I’d come home from work, pack a lunch and off the family (wife, Ann,
and children, Pam and Steve) would go. I met a lot of great people throughout the years.” During his 37 year career, available
records indicate that Kezal had a lifetime.342 hitter; including
career-best .400-plus for the Norway team in the 60’s.
Whenever a team needed a coach, it was Kezal who was sought
out. “It helped provide others with a chance to play,” Kezal
said, who was employed by the Mechanics Institute (now
Greater Rumford Community Center) from 1955-62. “It was
during that time Claude Belyea coached the Rumford Rams
and there was an abundance of guys in River Valley who were
interested in playing baseball, so we formed a B team and
scheduled different teams.”
This commitment to baseball was always geared toward
making the experience enjoyable for all. These organizational skills became well-known and his goal was to assure
every player was getting enough playing time. He always
scheduled additional games outside the league every week.
“My son Steve was still a teenager,” Kezal said. “I’d put his
name on the roster. It was a good thing, because work schedules and such would prevent guys from being at games, so
some times Steve was the ninth man.”
During his Pine Tree career, Kezal has played baseball
on more than 75 fields in Maine & N.H. if the opportunity
arose to promote the sport, Kezal was eager and his teams
traveled everywhere to play and enjoyed many games in
Gorham & Berlin N.H. This included playing the Roberts
88ers in Lisbon with Stan Doughty and George Fergurson,
plus a visit to the Maine State Prison in Thomaston. “I knew
the guy who ran the recreation programs at the prison,”
Kezal said. “He asked about playing, but he stipulated that
they didn’t travel, so we needed to go there. Well, down we
went and what memorable experience.”
The field was located in a pit and the high left wall resembled the green monster at Fenway Park. The guards,
equipped with rifles, encompassed the field.
“The games were well played,” Kezal said. “There were
basketball courts in right field, so Harris Elliot had to wear
sneakers. My brother Mike, who was 12 at the time, joked
that he was the youngest person ever to go to prison.”
Kezal served as commander of Napoleon Ouellette
American Legion and organized the Post 24 baseball teams.
The retired paper mill worker had 43 years of service. In
1982, he stepped down from coaching/playing full time and
through 2000; he devoted most of his time to coaching
youngsters and umpiring baseball & softball games. He was
a certified board umpire on the Central Maine Board and
the Androscoggin Valley Board full time through 2000 and
over saw many games at all levels for no charge.
Kezal believes strongly in ‘better serving the community’
and has taken on numerous civic duties. Since 2000, he has
been the liaison chairman for the South Paris Veterans
Home and a member of the Board of Trustees for the Maine
Veterans’ Homes. He still does volunteer umpiring, but his
commitment to the Maine Veterans Homes does not afford
him the time to be certified and scheduled.