A good friend of Conshohocken’s was laid to rest recently, Big John Casinelli. Many of Conshohocken’s young residents have no idea who Big John Casinelli was, or what he brought to Conshohocken.
I scanned Big John’s obituary and read about his time in the US Marine Corps during World War Two earning a Purple Heart Medal among other medals. The obit also mentions that he was a boxer, loved golfing, ran a business, “Big John’s Tavern,” and his involvement in little league baseball and football. John skipped town for a couple of years following retirement, he wanted to bask in the Florida sunshine, that didn’t last long, something about Conshohocken and his family. John and his wife Frances had four children. Barbara, John, Bruce and Maria.
What the obituary didn’t tell us was what Big John meant to a generation of children, and how children more than a half of a century following his involvement are still benefitting from John’s efforts.
Well I happen to have a little time, and space, and would love to tell you a story about Big John Casinelli! Perhaps a story we can all be thankful for.
The mid 1950’s were perhaps the very best and very worst of times for Conshohocken. The post-World War Two economy was still booming in Conshohocken, Downtown Conshy was a thriving shopping district, the industries along our riverfront were still spilling their pollution with product production, and that product production produced enough jobs to keep Conshohocken residents from standing in the unemployment line. The worst of time for Conshohocken were right around the corner, in the mid 1950’s the cracks were starting to show. Cheaper overseas steel was being produced and shipped to this country, one or two boarded up windows in the business district in the lower end were signs of things to come.
A group of guys sitting around the bar at the Conshohocken Bocce Club, (CBC Club located on West Third Avenue) on a cold February night in 1955, discussed the formation of a little league baseball club.
Emidio Cardamone, Lou Capelli, Charles Butera, Francis Carr, Joe Connelly, Joe Novak, Ange D’Amico and John Casinelli among others decided to build a field behind the CBC Club and form the Conshohocken Little League.
In 1955 more than 200 Conshohocken boys tried out for the league, (sorry no girls back then) The league would be made up of four teams, with 12 boys to a team, only 48 kids out of the more than 200 who tried out would be playing ball. By 1958 league officials recognized the need for a bigger and better playing facility. Ray Gravinese, Big John, Phil Gravinese, Bob Wesley, Frank Palermo Jr., Charlie Jeffries, Frank Burton, Joe Kelly, Jimmy Verrone, Joe Tadeo and a number of others went to work at Sutcliffe Park and started to clear trees and brush from a level field at the park, and this is where Big John and Ray Gravinese provided the foundation of the Little League Complex that our children play on today.
When the 2014 little leaguers take the field this Saturday, April 13, and line up along the base paths, it’s the same field that Big John and Ray developed 45 years ago. In April 1959, more than 350 boys tried out for the little league teams and Big John was instrumental in enlarging the league from four teams of 12 players, to six teams of 12 players, allowing 72 kids to play in what was called the major leagues, but it was Big John who was a founding member of a Conshohocken Minor League system that allowed more than 250 kids to participate in organized little league baseball.
Big John took a lot of pride in helping to develop Conshohocken Little League as we know it today. Big John served as the league’s first two-time president as he served as President in 1960, and again in 1962. He went on to serve in many capacities over the years including Vice-President and numerous other positions on the executive board of Directors.
Even after Big John left the league, he served even more from behind the scenes, it seemed the favors never ended from the big guy. He would be called upon time and time again from his taproom, “Big John’s Taproom,” once located at Seventh Avenue and Maple Street to donate food, drinks and finances to keep the league going. He was the behind the scenes guy who would bus many of the little leaguers to Connie Mack Stadium to see the Phillies game in person, something most the youngsters had never done, see a Phillies game. Big John would arrange for current and past major league baseball players to make an appearance at the annual Little League Banquet. In 1959 Willie “Puddin Head” Jones, a former third baseman for the Phillies and in 1959 was playing for the Cincinnati Reds appeared at the banquet, with former Cleveland Indians star Dick Porter, and a number of others throughout the years, what a thrill for the kids these appearances were.
Big John Casinelli was all about the kids, we don’t need an obituary to tell us that, anyone and everyone who ever met John knows that. My concern is that the youngsters taking the field in 2014 don’t know that, and they should, perhaps it wouldn’t be asking too much to one day honor Big John’s contribution to this borough, this league.
I met John on a number of occasions over the years, the funny thing is, I didn’t ask him for anything, he didn’t offer me anything, but I felt like a better person walking away, for having spent a short amount of time with him!
Ahh Big John, if only I could have had a little bit more time with you, I hardly knew ya, but yet, I feel like I’ve known you my entire life.
Thanks for your contributions to our community, our little league, this opening day is for you, I just hope it doesn’t rain!
Photos Below Include
The group photo was taken on opening day in 1959, just before the very first game was to be played at Sutcliffe Park. League Officials and personnel instrumental in building the field included in back from left to right Ange D’Amico, Bob Wesley, Big John Casinelli, Joe Dennis and Ray Gravinese. Front row from left included Jimmy Verrone and Phil Gravinese.
In the lower photo Bob Wesley, President of the league in 1959, and Big John Casinelli who served as President in 1960 and 1962 share a moment before the opening of the 1959 season at Sutcliffe Park.