Wednesday, July 22, 2009

From a field of dreams to the Hall of Fame

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 7, 2007


Like many kids, John Haar learned baseball playing catch with his father. On summer evenings, after a full day of repairing equipment for the telephone company, the tired man and the eager boy would go to the park.

“He'd hit me fly balls and ground balls and think up little fun games of baseball for me,” Mr. Haar said. “That's where I started.”

From so modest a beginning — tossing the ball with his dad in eastside Vancouver — grew a career that will be recognized on June 23, when Mr. Haar will receive the highest honour his homeland affords a ball player through induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame at St. Marys, Ont.

The ceremony will also recognize the late Sherry Robertson, a Montreal-born infielder, and George Lee Anderson, a middling middle infielder but a brilliant field manager, better known to baseball fans by the ageless nickname, Sparky.

As it turns out, Mr. Haar was a better coach than player himself.

For 13 seasons, he ran the National Baseball Institute program out of Vancouver. Eight of his players graduated to The Show, as the major leagues are known by the fraternity.

A spot on a big-league roster eluded Mr. Haar. It was not for lack of trying.

At 63, he still flashes the shy, boyish grin visible in photographs from his playing days, when short-cropped hair left his ears exposed to the elements. These days, his hair is as white as a fresh chalk line.

Over time, the summer evenings spent with his father grow warmer and longer in the retelling.

When the boy was seven, a fleet young outfielder from Oklahoma joined the New York Yankees. Mickey Mantle became John's boyhood idol, a hero whose swing he imitated in Little League and whose thoroughbred gallop inspired a boy's pursuit of his father's fly balls on the neighbourhood field at Begbie Annex (now Thunderbird Elementary).

Mr. Haar studied physical education at the University of British Columbia, where he also won a spot on the infield of the varsity baseball team. The coach was Frank Gnup, a stocky American of fire-plug physique who chewed cigars and about whom it was said the first letter of his family name was silent, if not the man himself.

Football was Mr. Gnup's game. He coached the Hamilton Wildcats and played for the Toronto Argonauts, but also played and coached baseball in a semi-professional circuit in Ontario. At UBC, he handled both sports. Mr. Haar was an infielder on the diamond and a kicker on the gridiron.

In spring, after final exams were written, the coach loaded the ballplayers into station wagons for a tour along the Pacific Coast.

The students played top American college and amateur teams in daily doubleheaders, like barnstormers, only without pay.

“At the end of the week,” he said, “we'd have some tired bodies and some tired arms.”

The southern exposure led to several players being signed to professional contracts. Mr. Haar was snagged by the San Francisco Giants, who dispatched him to a Pioneer League farm team at Twin Falls, Idaho. He was to be the new third baseman of the Magic Valley Cowboys.

The Giants organization released him at the end of the season.

Happily, he was snatched by the New York Yankees. The new boss assigned him to Johnson City, where a summer under the Tennessee sun would spark a lifelong appreciation for iced tea, not to mention corn muffins.

In the locker room, Mr. Haar was handed a hand-me-down uniform from the parent club. The number on the back was 7 — Mickey's famous number.

He had moments when he felt worthy of the great Mantle. One day, he smacked four doubles. After the last of those, as he sagely advanced a base on a fielding miscue, he remembers sliding into third base to see his skipper holding up four fingers, one for each double. He might never have been happier.

“At the end of the season when we were turning in our uniforms I wanted to ask to keep mine,” he said. “I felt this would not be the proper thing to do. I was shy. The manager and I got along swell, so he probably would have let me have it.”

He still regrets letting the uniform go.

Mr. Haar returned to Vancouver, completing his degree in physical education before picking up a teaching certificate and finding a job at a school in the Okanagan, where he would meet the woman who would become his wife.

By the late 1970s, his father, Rud Haar, had begun a second career as the groundskeeper of Nat Bailey Stadium. The home of pro baseball in Vancouver, once known as Capilano Stadium, it had been left to rot for several years. The elder Mr. Haar called on sweat labour and his own agrarian instincts to tame a field where only weeds had grown for so long.

The gardening won admiring comments from players and coaches. It was common for Mr. Haar to be told his field “played well” — high praise from ballplayers whose promotion to the big leagues could be scuttled by an errant hop of the ball.

Mr. Haar cultivated a lawn as green as a wide-eyed rookie. The grass, a blend known as Park Special, was trimmed to a crew-cut tidiness. He used clay from a special source in the Fraser Valley that he shaped into a pitching mound. When rains turned the surrounding dirt into a gumbo, the groundskeeper would get down on his knees with a blowtorch to dry it out.

He recruited four retired Japanese-Canadian fishermen to hang netting to protect spectators from foul balls.

Their amateur baseball careers had been interrupted during the Second World War, when their own government forced them to abandon jobs and homes for internment in the B.C. Interior. He was sympathetic.

Rudolph Maxmillian Haar was born in 1916 to immigrants from Austria-Hungary. His father had arrived in Canada a few years earlier to help open a pulp mill at Woodfibre, a company town on Howe Sound.

With the Great War raging, the family faced terrible prejudice.

Woodfibre could not be reached by road and the newspapers from Vancouver arrived by boat a day late. As a paper boy delivering one of those day-old editions, he read a banner headline he would never forget: Yanks win; Ruth hits 3 HRs. From then on, the boy was hooked on the Babe and baseball.

His own dreams of baseball glory were thwarted when he was rejected after a tryout for a spot on a senior-league team.

Instead, he taught his only son what he knew.

John Haar developed a knack for spotting a tiny hitch in a swing, or a minute quirk in fielding a ball. Baseball is a game of endless refinement and Mr. Haar knew how to tinker.

He runs clinics and coaches an elite youth team on the North Shore.

Every spring, some of his former players can be found in Arizona and Florida preparing to extend careers made possible in part by his coaching.

In November, Rud Haar died at home, aged 90. Last month, John Haar lost his father-in-law.

“A rough end to 2006 and a rough start to 2007,” Mr. Haar said.

While in mourning, he got the telephone call from the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.

Good news came at a time of grief.

His first thought on the phone was that if a Haar was entering the hall it should be his father. Then, he cried.

2007 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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