ROYERSFORD - Assistant coaches are often overlooked in the sports world at all levels, where head coaches receive most of the accolades for winning games and the accompanying publicity.
But this year, for example, there is an exception to the rule in the case of the Pennsylvania American Legion Baseball Hall of Fame.
Phoenixville resident Dick Yochem, a longtime assistant coach at a number of area American Legion and high school baseball programs, has been chosen as one of the inductees for the Class of 2012.
Yochem spent the majority of his coaching career assisting former manager Rod Johnson with top ball clubs at Spring City and later Paoli in the Chester County League. Those teams succeeded at the league level and then during the postseason playoffs in the Region 3, Pennsylvania State and Mid-Atlantic Regional Tournaments at various sites.
Boyertown will be hosting this year’s state tournament at Bear Stadium from July 31-Aug. 4. The annual Hall of Fame dinner is set for Monday night, July 30.
“I was surprised,” said Yochem during this past week’s Region 3 Tournament at Spring City’s Ram Stadium. “I was in shock.
“I found out that I was nominated at the last tournament last year at NorChester. I was helping out on the grounds crew as a volunteer to help Corbin (Stoltzfus). Then I filled out the papers and I received a letter in October that I was voted in.”
Johnson and Spring City president Walt Gadzicki, who are already members of the Hall of Fame, nominated Yochem and boosted his selection with the aid of longtime Region 3 Tournament director Jack Purdy.
“It’s cool,” said Yochem. “It’s something I never expected.”
Yochem actually got his first experience in coaching while serving in the United States Navy. In 1958, the United States team had a championship team that played in the Far East in places like the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan and Okinawa.
After he left the military, Yochem led a fast-pitch softball team through his job in King of Prussia. It was also around that time that his wife, Carol, encouraged him to help coach Little League when oldest son Rick was in his formative years in Phoenixville. The younger Yochem later started as a left-handed hitter and catcher with the Phantoms before being drafted by the New York Mets. Yochem helped lead Phoenixville to a fourth-place finish in the PIAA State Tournament during the 1982 campaign.
His coaching career accelerated after he met Johnson during the mid-1980s while the former Temple University All-American infielder and Cincinnati Reds farmhand coached at Spring City.
They met at a store in Phoenixville, and Johnson told Yochem that he had a catcher at the time who needed some help with throwing out baserunners. Yochem agreed to take a look at the catcher and to offer some advice. That started a long relationship and friendship between the two men as baseball coaches and as close personal friends that continues today.
Yochem assisted Johnson with the Red Sox from 1987-1992. After a year off, they got the coaching itch again and reunited with the Paoli Cardinals in 1994. Johnson and Yochem helped build that franchise from a cellar dweller into a big-time winner.
Yochem remained at Paoli under Darien Threadgill after Johnson resigned. Then Yochem moved on to stints at Conestoga High School, Great Valley and Owen J. Roberts High as well as a year at Haggarty High School near Orlando, Fla., when he took some time down south to visit son Rick after he ventured there, where he still resides. While there, Yochem coached against and beat former Major League Baseball players Joe Oliver, a former catcher with the Cincinnati Reds who has a World Series ring; and Frank Viola, a Cy Young Award winner as a pitcher with the Minnesota Twins. Oliver and Viola coached private schools at that time.
Haggarty was a Class AAA school like those of Oliver and Viola on a scale where 6A represented the largest school enrollments. Yochem’s team played mostly freshmen and sophomores while the opposition fielded more experienced juniors and seniors.
As a pitching and catching assistant coach, Yochem called at the pitches for the Spring City and Paoli teams.
“Every guy I worked with was really good people and really good baseball people, too,” said Yochem. “I was lucky.”
Yochem did his full-time employment at several places, mostly at Uniform Tube before it was sold about five years ago after he retired. Yochem also spent time at Control Date and Proctor-Silex.
As a youngster growing up in the coal mining area of Wilkes-Barre, Yochem played baseball and football, but baseball was definitely his favorite sport. Yochem was a pitcher and also played the infield and outfield. He was a top hitter with line drives who led the league in hitting every year without home runs. He was also adept at stealing bases.
“I was a right-hander who defensively could play anywhere,” said Yochem. “Wherever they needed me, I played. That was my fun. I would get on and steal.”
Like most people back in the mid-1960s, Yochem sought work elsewhere when the coal mines closed in Wilkes-Barre. That is what brought him to Phoenixville in the mid-1960s. Places like Phoenix Steel attracted numerous workers at that time when the companies thrived.
Yochem had family ties in baseball. His father signed with the Cleveland Indians, and his father-in-law was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals and spent time in the minor leagues with the great Stan Musial while he climbed the ranks of the minor leagues in West Virginia.
Wilkes-Barre had a minor league team known as the Barons when Yochem lived there as a kid. In order to get into games for nothing, Yochem would help drag the infield. He also received a hot dog and a birch beer, which was all a big deal for a baseball lover back then as a 10-year-old living near a big field.
Yochem witnessed big names like Satchel Paige, Jim Piersall and Bob Lemon, who actually stayed at his grandfather’s house.
“It was an Eastern League AA team,” said Yochem. “I got to see a lot of players.”
He has maintained working relationships with other Spring City personnel like former manager Todd Clemens, who is now the director of operations for the team; current manager Jamie Scheck, a former star second baseman with the Red Sox when Yochem coached there during the early 1990s and Gadzicki, another former player and manager who has served as president of the organization for a long time as well.
“They are great guys as people and as baseball guys,” said Yochem. “I had a good time playing and coaching. It is a fun game.”
Yochem and his wife have three children, two boys and one girl. Rick was drafted in the fifth round by the Mets in January of 1984. Jim played football at Phoenixville as a starting center and linebacker. Daughter Karen played tennis and now coaches girls tennis at Pope John Paul II in the Pioneer Athletic Conference.