Over the past nine months, I’ve had the honor of knowing a Major League baseball player. A pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers. The story behind our encounter turned out to be cosmically timed.
My son played freshman baseball for North Kansas City High School last year. I helped the team set up a website and as such was doing some research on the history of the baseball program. The school dates back to the mid 1910’s, but their baseball program only began in the early 1940’s. I knew that Northtown had won district titles in the 1960’s and that my brother played on some good teams in the early 1990’s, but really had no idea what the history was. I stumbled across a website that listed two graduates of North Kansas City had made it to the Major Leagues. The first name I recognized immediately – Bill Kelso. Anyone who’s ever been to North Kansas City has likely stopped into Kelso’s pizza bar for a slice or a beer. He played for the Angels in the 1960’s and while he has passed away, his Angels jersey hangs over the bar.
The second name was familiar, but for a different reason. Joe Presko Sr. Most Northlanders are likely familiar with the name Presko but only as a construction company or a real estate agent. The article stated he was born in 1928 but there was no date of death. Odd. I checked another baseball resource. It stated he was 89 years old. I set out on a search to find Mr. Presko. Turns out I didn’t need to look far.
In the same home he’d lived most of his adult life, Joe Presko Sr. enjoyed opening the mail every day where baseball fans would send him his baseball cards in which he would then sign and return. He always had a supply of chocolate baseballs and Tootsie Rolls on the kitchen table where he and his high school sweetheart Kathleen had been married for over 70 years and entertained their children and grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.
Searching through the yearbooks from the mid-1940’s the baseball team’s season was never over early enough to be included in the annual, which meant there was very little school history known about Joe Presko, Sr. Luckily, I met a niece who loaned me binders and binders of news clippings and box scores of his days in the big leagues. What was missing, however, was any relationship with the high school after he graduated in 1946.
That would change in October, when he was inducted at the age of 90 into the North Kansas City High School Hall of Fame. I had the honor of reading his introduction in front of hundreds of students who gave him an extended standing ovation. He was presented with a Hornets baseball hat. The first Hornets hat he wore in over 70 years.
It was only months after the research began and, it turns out, it was right in the nick of time. Mr. Presko was laid to rest on Saturday. At his funeral, hundreds turned out. He was an American Legion coach to hundreds of kids including David Cone as well as the patriarch of a Northland dynasty.
But at his core, he was a ballplayer. A scrappy pitcher often nicknamed “Little Joe” because of his diminutive stature and his feisty curveball. And when he was laid to rest, on the table next to his coffin laid two baseball hats – one from the St. Louis Cardinals, and one from the North Kansas City Hornets. The one he received just in the nick of time.
(Catch The Landmark’s Chris Kamler on Twitter as @TheFakeNed)