This Bond of Men – By J. Persico and R. Casey

Johnston HS Baseball Team 19631963 Johnston High School State Baseball Champions

Some stories shout to the world to be told.  Other stories whisper.  This story is of the latter kind.  It took place back in 1963 in a small obscure part of the world called Johnston, R.I.  Far overshadowed by events like the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam war, I hardly noticed it occurred.  I would not even be telling you this story now were it not for some recent events involving the men whom it happened to.

Partly it is a David versus Goliath story.  We all like these stories and they grab our attention because we love to see the little guy kick the big guy’s butt.  Perhaps the two most famous stories I can recall in this vein are the defeat of the Russian Hockey team by the US team in the Olympics.  On Feb. 22, 1980, the United States beat the Soviet Union 4-3 in an ice hockey game at the Lake Placid Olympics.  It was one of the biggest upsets in sports history.  They called this the” Miracle on Ice.”  The USA team went on to win the gold medal.  Herb Brooks, the coach. was from Minnesota and was well known in our town of St Paul.  He died in a car accident in 2003 and was posthumously inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2006.

The second story which most of us know is the story of Muhammed Ali versus Sonny Liston.  Sonny Liston or the “Bear” as he was known was a terrifying hulk of a man whom it was said had killed men in the ring with one punch.  Muhammed Ali (Cassius Clay at the time) was a young promising upstart of a boxer with quick hands and an even quicker mouth.  He disturbed boxings notion of what a fighter should be and do and most boxing fans wanted to see him get his head handed to him and fully expected that he would.

The fight for the Heavyweight Championship of the world was held on February 25, 1964, in Miami Beach, Florida.  Muhammed Ali (an 8–1 underdog) won in a major upset.  This fight turned the boxing world upside down.  It became one of the most controversial fights in the sport’s history.  “Sports Illustrated labeled it as the fourth greatest sports event of the twentieth century.” — Wikipedia.

The first fight between Ali and Liston barely registered on my antenna at the time.  I was finishing high school and wondering what I was going to be when I grew up.  I had little or no chance of going to college and was considered one of the biggest disappointments at my high school.  I was attending Johnston High School where the event that I am about to describe took place.  It happened nearly sixty years ago in 1963.  I am telling you this story now not because it is simply another David beats Goliath tale but because the story happening after this event is even more significant than the event itself.

Johnston High School opened in 1960.  My family had just moved from Woonsocket, R.I. to Johnston R.I. for reasons that I will never know.  In the years that followed, I went from being an A student to a student barely passing my classes.  Teachers and other students regarded me as intelligent but lacking discipline.  In my four years of high school, I achieved only one noticeable success.  I did not join any clubs.  I played no sports.  I participated in no school activities.  I went to no school sporting events.  I took no doe eyed damsels to a single prom.  I was twice arrested.  Once for breaking and entering and once for drag racing on a public highway.  My single success in high school was derided by the head of the English department as “A dark day for Johnston High School.”  I won first place in a school-wide writing contest that I had loudly insulted and laughed at.

Johnston was actually “West Providence” by another name.  It lay between the borders of Massachusetts and Connecticut.  It would take you less than an hour to drive across the middle of R.I.  We had North Providence, South Providence, and East Providence but no “West” Providence.  Instead, we had Johnston.  I often assumed Johnston was simply an afterthought or a poor stepchild for R.I.  Comprised mostly of working-class blue-collar Italians, it was just a suburb of Providence.  In 1952 when this story really begins, Johnston was a rural area with dirt roads, streams, and many farms.  Today the population is over 30,000.

My friend Bob thought the town was a great place for kids to grow up.  It had a volunteer fire department, a “keystone” cops police department, and an average school system although no high school until 1960.  The town had approximately 5000 residents.  Today the town has almost 30,000 residents.  The most important (For this story anyway) part of the town was its recreation department.  It offered barebones opportunities in respect to sports but it had managed to establish a little league baseball association and a teener league baseball association.   You probably do not remember now but back in the fifties “Baseball” and not football was the “All American Sport.”

1958 Little League

1958 Little League in Johnston R.I.

Every kid wanted to be like Joe DiMaggio (1936-1951) or Mickey Mantle (1951-1968) or Whitey Ford (1961-1965).  Trading cards of baseball players were like finding gold and young boys spent hours collecting and trading their cards to get their favorites.  The American historian Jacques Barzun said, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” 

Before Johnston High School opened, most of the kids in Johnston went to other high schools around the state.  In 1963, Johnston H.S. was barely three years old.  It had maybe 400 students enrolled.  It had no history of “Esprit de Corp” or reputation for anything.  Nevertheless in 1963, Johnston H.S. won the R.I. State High School Baseball championship.  At the time, there was no divisions by size for the finals in baseball, so Johnston won against much bigger and well-established high school teams.  It was pitted against a Goliath (La Salle Academy) in the semi-finals for the State Championship.

La Salle Academy is a private Roman Catholic college preparatory school run by the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in Providence, Rhode Island.  It was founded by the Christian Brothers in 1871.  Today it has an enrollment of 1,478 students in the sixth through twelfth grades, and hosts sixty-four teams in 18 sports.  In May 2005, Sports Illustrated magazine cited La Salle for having the best athletic program in Rhode Island.  The schools list of alumnae would stagger you and take up the rest of this story.  The same is true for its list of State Championships in football, baseball, soccer, and other sports.  Back in 1963, any notion or idea that Johnston High School could beat La Salle in anything would have drawn hysterical laughter.  The odds would have been fifty to one against it.

Johnston High School beat La Salle Academy 2-1, in a best-of-three state final series.  The Johnston Panthers then proved that the win over La Salle was no fluke and beat Barrington High School 5-0 for the Final Championship.   A miracle perhaps but the real miracle took place in the years following this event.

Athletics and the sports world in general love to regale the public with stories of how sports have made a difference in the lives of others.  I am sure that you have heard how sports builds character and helps to mold the lives of young people.  As often as we may have heard these claims, we have seen repeated stories of spoiled young athletes.  Athletes who think the world owes them something and who squander any character building that their coaches might proclaim.  I am critical of the ability of sports to instill character, but I also stand ready to acknowledge that there are instances where it does happen.  That is the moral of this story.  A time when character was developed.

In 1963, fourteen ragtag baseball players, two team managers and two young coaches banded (nay bonded) together to put together a championship team.  That this event has been little heralded and perhaps less remembered by most of the world is not important.  For the players on this team, it was a galvanizing influence on their lives.

Several years ago, a popular novel was the “Band of Brothers.”  This story told of the bonds that were forged in the military during combat among the men of a platoon.  There have been many tales of battlefield bonds that were forged between men of great diversity in ethnicity and ideology.  The battlefield is a catalyst for such bonds.  To some extent, a team represents the possibility for such bonds.  A popular trope is that “There is no I in team.”  Unfortunately, there are too many I’s in too many teams.

I knew many of the men that played on the Johnston baseball team of 1963.  It may seem callous of me to say this, but I doubt that any of them were MLB material.  One outstanding player on the team was kicked off by Coach Edward Di Simone for swearing.  Di Simone said that the athlete, Robert Casey, was the most gifted man he had ever coached.  Unfortunately for Bob, there was too much “I” in his demeanor at the time and he left the team for good.  Later in life, Bob proved the words of Di Simone many times over by repeatedly winning the R.I. Handball Championship.  Handball is not a team sport.

Bob and coach Di Simone later became good friends and maintain a friendship to this day.  Bob Casey also remained friends with several of the men on the baseball team whom he had once played with.  Why did this team of average players go on to win against teams with players who did go to the major leagues?  I think it attests to the fact that Di Simone created a true team with men who bonded together with a common passion to play and minus the common passion to stand out and be a “superstar.”  They were men who looked up and listened to coach Di Simone.  The lack of ego among the players contributed to a desire to work together.  As D’Artagnan said in the “Three Musketeers”, “All for one and one for all.”  Senator Hubert Humphrey said that “Democracy is a system that achieves extraordinary results with ordinary people.”  Great teams like the ones that Di Simone and Brooks coached were remarkable because they created bonds that laid a foundation for extraordinary results with ordinary men.

1961 Pony League

1961 Teener or Pony League 

The bonds that developed between the men on the Johnston High School Baseball team were forged over many years of playing together.  Years before any of them would step foot in Johnston High School, these boys had played together in the Johnston Little League and then the Johnston Teener League.  They had learned to work together.  They had learned what strengths and what weaknesses each player had.  There were no super stars in the group.  Just a bunch of kids who loved to play the game of baseball and wanted to excel at everything they did.

Coach Eddie Di Simone was recently out of college and only about ten years older than most of his players in 1963.  He inherited a group of boys who had been playing baseball together for nearly five years.  Bonds had already started to develop but these were honed and polished by Coach Di Simone.  He believed that it was not enough to be a good ball player.  He strove to instill in his team his belief in four main values.  These were Simplicity, Honesty, Integrity, and Fair Play.

Coach Di Simone believed in these values, and he wanted his players to believe in them.  He demonstrated them on the playing field both with his own behavior and with his expectations for the team.  He was someone who practiced the values that he taught his players.  Imagine any Coach today kicking one of his best players off the team for swearing?  Coach Di Simone knew that after life with baseball, each of these men would go out to face a very different playing field.  On the “field of life” his values of simplicity, honesty, integrity, and fair play would be much more valuable than skills at hitting, throwing, catching, and running bases.

Sixty years later many of the surviving members of the Johnston High School Panthers baseball team are still meeting regularly with their former Coach Di Simone to remember the day that they won the championship.  However, they celebrate the specific day and its memories of winning less than they do the events that followed.  They have not been “stuck” in the past of 1963 when they put on their cleats, took their bats and gloves, and walked out on the ball field.  They have not spent the past sixty years trying to relive their “glory” days as it seems so many former high school athletes do.  What they celebrate when they meet with their former coach and now friend is the bond that was forged between the team and its Coach Di Simone.  It is a bond of men forged over a fire of values.  The values learned on the playing field helped to make the members of the 1963 Johnston High School championship team into the successful men that they have become in life.  That is the real story here.

Coach Di Simone is now 89 years old.  Amazingly, 12 of the original 14 team members remain alive and in their late seventies.   A few weeks ago, at one of their meetings they bestowed a plaque on Coach Di Simone commemorating the 1963 championship and what Coach Di Simone has meant to them.  As I write this, there are plans for a December meeting at Coach Di Simone’s house and dinner afterwards.  The affection for their former coach is very evident in his former players.  (NOTE:  This meeting took place in December of 2022)

The end to this story will be written in the future.  To paraphrase Abe Lincoln, “The world will little note, nor long remember what I say here, but it should never forget the real reasons why these men became who they are today.”  In a world awash with narcissism and egotism, it is comforting to find that upstanding values can still be the basis for an unshakeable bond between people as well as a basis for successful lives.

By the way, if you want to have some fun, see how many of the players you can recognize on the above pictures who are in each picture.  It is interesting to see the changes from “Kids” to “Young Men.”

Appendix: Date:  April 10, 2023

I have listed the names of the 14 men that were on the original 1963 Championship team along with their two coachs.

  • Kenneth J. Ainley, first base
  • Thomas J. Donnelly, third base
  • Richard A. Esposito, utility
  • William G. Geremia, utility
  • Alex M. Giarrusso, catcher
  • Frank E. Jasparro, left field
  • Scott Moore, pitcher
  • James J. Petteruti, center field
  • Daniel Pisaturo, third and second base
  • Ronald P. Ricci, utility
  • Edward A. Skovron, second base and shortstop
  • Melvin D. Steppo, third base
  • David P. Taraborelli, right field
  • Michael R. Ursini, utility
  • Coach Ed Di Simone
  • Coach Bob Smith

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jilldennison
    Apr 10, 2023 @ 12:57:59

    Fascinating and uplifting story!!! Thank you!



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