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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Lawrence Gripka: a coach for the ages

Monday, July 12, 2010

At left, Lawrence Gripka poses with the Puppy Dogs and the commemorative blanket they presented to him this season. In the front row, from left, are: Lawrence Gripka and Daniel Jackson. Second row: Darren Essary, Donald Essary, Chad Estes, Randy Carrele and Josh Gray. Back row: JP McCaffrey, Jarvis Sheridan and Richard Judy. Chris Rusher and Wes Sheridan were absent from the photo.
"I learned to play catch when I was 5 years old," Lawrence Gripka recalled with a wry smile. "Got on a team when I was 14, been at it ever since."

"Ever since" spans a period that includes the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Desert Storm and the current conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. Seventeen different United States presidents have served during Gripka's lifetime. Just two months shy of his 94th birthday, there is little that has passed since the end of World War I that escapes his keen memory.
But what he remembers most is baseball.
"My favorite player growing up was probably Babe Ruth," he said. He also spoke fondly of trips to St. Louis to see Dizzy Dean and the Cardinals' old Gashouse Gang.
Although Gripka's legendary status in southwest Missouri was earned from his decades of coaching softball, he still remembers his youthful playing days.
"We played mostly hardball, even when I was in my 20s," he said. "It was only later that we changed to softball."
The reality of World War II ended any dreams of Minor League baseball, and he headed off to war like so many of his generation.
"Eight weeks of basic training, and eight weeks of crash training to be a medic," Gripka said. "I was in Europe the whole war, spent a lot of time nursing the concentration camp survivors."
Gripka remembered vividly being at one concentration camp, and said, "We took showers in the same building where they gassed the prisoners."
Back home, Gripka found refuge and peace in the game he had always loved, only this time his role was more often as a coach.
"I've coached for 50 years I guess," he said, "the last 40 of them with the Monett Puppy Dogs. I've probably coached over 50 men."
Gripka has coached so long that he has mentored multiple generations of some area families. While the years rolled slowly past, he continued to coach in relative obscurity,while the complexion of America's game changed. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Roger Maris eclipsed Babe Ruth's single-season home run record and players like Lou Brock and Pete Rose changed the way the game was played.
While Americans grew weary and frustrated with player strikes, spiraling salaries and ticket prices and the scandals of gambling and steroid use, it seemed that the only honor left in the game came from small town icons like Gripka.
The Puppy Dogs weren't the first team that Gripka coached, but they became his life's work.
"The Puppy Dogs are a slowpitch softball team," he said, "and they were always called the Puppy Dogs. You have to be 18 years old to play, but after that it's just a matter of making the team."
Gripka himself made cameo appearances in games well into his 70es.
"They were afraid to let him pitch anymore," said his daughter, Rita Cartwell. "They were afraid his reflexes weren't fast enough to handle the line drives."
But his well-meaning friends couldn't get him out of the coaching box.
"I just like the game," said Lawrence. "I like keeping my team focused in a game, keep them from making mistakes and help give them a chance to win."
Most seasons, the Puppy Dogs played in the Monett City League but moved to Pierce City some years when Monett didn't host a softball league. Tournaments always represented some of the most fun for the team.
"We played in a lot of tournaments in a lot of towns," said Gripka. "We played quite a bit at Aurora. Aurora and Joplin were about the farthest we ever went to play."
Gripka's teams were very successful over the years, winning a number of league championships and tournament titles.
"I've got a whole drawer of T-shirts I saved from the years when we won the championship," he said.
Ninety-four years have slowed even this indomitable spirit. These days, Gripka lives with his daughter, Rita, and her husband, Tom Cartwell, in the little town of Wentworth, midway between Pierce City and Sarcoxie. The walls of his room are covered with awards and recognitions for his many years of service to local communities.
Directly above his bed is a photo of his late wife, Louise, who passed away some 18 years ago.
"Even after Mom had a stroke, he would take her to every game in her wheelchair," said Rita.
Folded neatly at the foot of his bed is a commemorative blanket presented by the 2010 Puppy Dogs. Bright red with black lettering, it says simply, "Lawrence's Puppy Dogs" and is emblazoned with the names of the players: T.J. Bohanan, Darren Essary, Donald Essary, Chad Estes, Randy Garvale, Dan Jackson, Richard Judy, J.P. McCaffrey, Gary Meyer, Chris Rusher, Todd Ryan, Jarvis Sheridan, and Wesley Sheridan.
Gripka is very much aware of his declining health, recognizing there are a lot more games behind him than in front. The cancer that robbed him of the end of this season has his full attention.
"I could go any time, but I think if I can get through this surgery I could be alright," he says matter-of-factly. "My health being what it is, all the teams are praying for me, praying that I can get well. Everybody likes to play with me. Even the teams we beat, they still like to play with me."
The emphasis on the word "with" used instead of "against," says a lot about Lawrence Gripka's outlook on life and on the game of baseball.
"To all the players and coaches, I just want to say: keep having fun, whether they win or lose."

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