Joe Gaggero


by Jimmy Custodio

When I grew up on the sandlots of San Francisco, baseball was larger than life.  For many of us it consumed our lives.  Virtually every park or sandlot field in the city was occupied, even for just pick up games.  We would spend all day at the park, pack a sack lunch and wouldn't come home 'til dinner. If we were lucky, we had a nickel or a dime to buy a coke or a small carton of milk.

My first team was called Local 860 out of Bayview Park under the direction of the kind and affable Jack Mooney.  SInce I was soon to enter junior high, I drifted to a sandlot park in the Portola district known to locals as the "Road".  At that park there was, to us, a "giant" of a man who lived across the street from the park.  Joe Gaggero Sr. was his name and baseball was his game.  He had a love of the game that was unparalleled.  His love of the game was only exceeded by his love for teaching kids to play the game and play it with skill and enthusiasm.  He was revered by young and old alike.  In fact, he was a gifted communicator of the game.  His teams were fundamentally sound and incredibly well-disciplined. If he didn't have the best talent, he developed it and won championships at every level he coached. I didn't think much about it at the time, but he coached 3 or 4 teams in different leagues at different levels during the same season.  As an adult, for me, coaching one team was quite a challenge and a time consuming endeavor.  I can't even imagine doing what Joe did and doing it happily, eagerly and with such a flair for coaching and motivating kids.  Adding to that he went into his pocket to supplement sponsors.  He was lucky to get league entry fees and maybe uniforms.  Lots of bats, balls, equipment, etc. were donated by the generous Joe Gaggero.  He was known as "Joe, the coach", and people from the "Road" referred to him as "the mayor", and in our eyes he was much more important than the mayor of San Francisco.  At that time, I'll bet many of us could not remember the name of the real mayor, but everyone knew and respected "Joe".  Father Jimmy Mifsud, an incredibly popular priest, who once played for Joe and also impacted and touched the lives of so many of his disciples in Santa Clara Valley, speaks of Joe in the most reverent of terms.

"Joe was an inspiration, a man we all looked up to and was the consummate teacher and motivator.  Jimmy fondly gave him the name of "The Father of Baseball".
Joe was not only a great coach but a great family man.  His wife, known affectionately as Mrs. G was the "head scorekeeper", our chief rooter and a purveyor of treats.  Even Granny Gaggero was an avid fan.  The Gaggero's raised two of the finest young men you ever wanted to meet Both Joe Jr.  and Ron did the Gaggero name proud as they were star players in high school, college and signed on to the pros.  A few years ago, Joe Jr. joined his father at the big ball park in the sky, and Ron is a retired successful educator living in San Francisco.

When I was barely 13 years old, I had the privilege of meeting the coach I had long held in high esteem.  I never dreamed that I would meet him, let alone play for him since I was a new kid who drifted over to Portola Park where I would play in pick up games, and often Joe would watch.  One day Joe called out to me and said, "Jimmy come her", Joe had an incredibly robust voice. You could hear him clear down "The Road" (San Bruno Avenue), which was 5 or 6 blocks away.  When I approached Joe, my little heart was pounding -- I thought I had done something wrong.  Much to my relief and surprise he said "I've been watching you and I like your hands, your speed and the way you swing the bat for a little guy.  In fact, I need someone like you on my team -- How would you like to play on my Portola Merchant team" ? I couldn't say "sure" fast enough. He then followed with "come to my garage this Saturday and pick up a uniform".  I was delirious with joy, but I stopped to think -- "I didn't own a baseball glove" (I used my brother's).  I told this to Joe referring to him as Mr. Gaggero, and he said, "Jimmy call me Joe and don't worry about the glove."  When I showed up to pick up my uniform Joe handed me a used glove that he said I could use, but he never asked for it back and I eventually wore it out.  The uniform had San Bruno Market on the front, and #1 on the back (my favorite number).  I look back now at that number and it reminds me that I had the privilege of playing for what I consider to be the #1 baseball coach in San Francisco.

In addition to the Portola Merchants, some of the teams Joe coached were Portola Natives, Theisen Glass, Harold's Club, Owl Drugs, and many recreation league teams.  I'm sure his former followers could name additional ones.

I am also sure that there are many other former ball players who can tell some great stories of what it was like to play for this remarkable man who touched the lives of so many and made lasting impressions that enriched our youth and planted seeds for values we would use later in life.

Some years ago, it was time to give something back to Joe.  I believe Joe was about 82 years old when a banquet was given to pay tribute to one of the heroes of our youth.  It was held at a Portola district community center just a few blocks from Joe's house, up the street.  It was a huge gathering of as many players and teams that could be found.  It was a full house consisting of Joe's former players of every age and level. The room was filled with many high school, college and professional stars who were given their start by Joe.  Included were several Coast League stars *huge at the time), numerous other minor leaguers and good number of Major Leaguers as well.

Joe and his family were incredibly moved by the tributes, accolades, awards and testimonies bestowed upon him.  I know that he felt deeply rewarded for the time, dedication and love he had for baseball and the youth whom he so happily, skillfully and proudly served.

The banquet was not the end of tributes paid to Joe.  The next day we gathered at Portola Park across the street from Joe's house, for a ceremony to dedicate the field to him with a nice sign indicating that it was now "Joe Gaggero Sr. Field".  Joe left us many years ago but his fond memories will always be a special part of San Francisco, especially those of us who came from "The Road".

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