Norbert Spangler can close his eyes and remember the hard, bumpy August ground in Fourth Ward Park on Janesville’s west side.
It would have been the late 1960s or early 1970s. Spangler would have been about 10. On hot summer evenings, he would stand in a line of 20 other Fourth Ward neighborhood kids who would gather at the park with baseball gloves.
Somewhere in the distance, still in a salesman’s work chinos and polo shirt, Joseph “Chief” Coulter, the neighborhood’s Godfather of Baseball, would raise a baseball bat, toss up a baseball, and smack a ground ball toward the kids. Sometimes, he’d hammer it.
“He watched us close, and he knew who could handle what. He’d hit me a soft one sometimes. His kids got the nasty, broken-nose groundballs,” Spangler said.
Joseph “Chief” Coulter, a longtime booster of youth baseball in Janesville, died May 9 of esophageal cancer. He was 80.
Coulter had been a professional baseball player, but by his pro days were brief. By the time the ’60’s dawned, his heyday was long gone. He had played only a single season year in 1957 in the Nebraska State League as a shortstop for the Grand Island A’s, a minor league affiliate of the Kansas City A’s major league organization. The A’s had signed Coulter, then 19, for $1,000.
In 1957, his lone season as a pro ballplayer, Coulter had nine at-bats. According to Minor League Baseball statistics records, Coulter earned one base hit. That’s it.
Yet he was far from finished with baseball.
Coulter returned to Janesville to work at General Motors, and later, Monterey Mills. In years to come, Coulter transformed into a mentor and a baseball coach for hundreds of Janesville youths.
For some, he was a hero. He bought stickball bats for kids in the Fourth Ward to learn to pitch, hit and field, and he later coached multiple levels of local youth baseball.
Spangler remembers slumping down to the Fourth Ward Park, with wounded pride after he’d gotten cut from the local Little League.
He remembers Coulter, then a stocky, 5-foot, 6-inch fireplug of a man still in the prime of his life, teaching kids how to go after grounders. He showed the neighborhood kids it wasn’t an option to be afraid of the ball.
Spangler said the following year, after that summer in the park and all those grounders from “Chief,” he earned a spot on a Little League roster.
Spangler said he always had a lousy arm. That never improved, but Chief showed him how to get in front of the ball.
“It was his consistency that I remember. Every day Chief did this, hitting grounders, teaching kids in the neighborhood how to hustle. For hours. Girls would walk in to play and he would show them how to play, too,” Spangler said. “And he didn’t have to do any of that. At the time, he was a single guy, taking care of five of his own kids.”
Spangler was one of about 200 people who turned out for a Celebration of Life for Coulter at Sidelines Bar and Grill on Saturday. People walked past a display of Coulter’s trophies, news clippings, relics from Coulter’s past as a multi-sport standout at Janesville High School. He’d been a diver and swimmer, a football player and a baseball star.
Some, including a panel that in 2000 inducted Coulter into the Janesville Sports Hall of Fame, would call the man a local legend.
Coulter never bragged about his short stint in baseball.
“He didn’t talk about it at all except to explain how you should approach things. In baseball, he said he watched everyone closely. The pitcher moved left on the pitcher’s rubber, he moved that way, ready for the hitter to hit the ball that direction. And to him, hustling wasn’t optional. You hustled or you weren’t going to go anywhere,” his son Tony Coulter said.
On Saturday, the day was broken up by spells of drizzly rain. That would have been perfect for “Chief,” his family said.“He would have loved this weather. He would have hit people grounders to the side, made kids dive and get mud all over their shirts,” Jimmy Coulter, another of Coulter’s sons, said.
Coulter’s baseball coaching days spanned the 1970s through the 1990s, and included stints coaching Little League, Babe Ruth and the Janesville Aces, an amateur adult league team.
But it was in the Fourth Ward where Coulter is remembered for spurring a pick-up neighborhood stickball league. At his celebration of life, his family put some of the thin, long stickball bats sat on display. On one, some kid long ago had scribbled “Fire Bat” on the barrel in black marker.
Not on display were scores of trophies Coulter won as a standout high school athlete.
The trophies are long gone. They were given to Fourth Ward kids during some late-summer stickball tournament. “Chief” encouraged the awards getting parsed out, even though he didn’t learn of it until after his sons told him his American Legion medal went to some leather-lunged boy who watched Coulter’s stickball games in the park. Spectator of the Year.
Coulter’s family said he was fiercely protective of his manicured front lawn, and he was a coupon-clipping addict. He listened intently to people, and he was a natural teacher.
Coulter’s longtime friend, former state Sen. Tim Cullen, said Coulter earned the nickname “Chief” from two workers at Monterey Mills who had disabilities. Coulter had taught the workers how to read and write. For that, they dubbed him “Chief.”
Jimmy Coulter said his dad backed the underdog every time.
At his celebration of life stood a poster board-size copy of a grade-school class essay titled “The Coach” written in 1985 by Janesville native Adam Ryan.
Ryan, who now is president of local contracting firm Ryan Incorporated Central, was recovering from a serious illness that summer. Ryan wasn’t much of a hitter. But his coach, an intense, yet patient and kind man named Joe “Chief” Coulter, encouraged him to just go out and swing the bat. Ryan did just that.
In one close game, Ryan finally got a hit. Then, immediately, he got picked off first base.
He returned to the dugout, ashamed. But when he got there, he didn’t get a dressing down from “Chief.”
“The first person to greet me and shake my hand was coach (Coulter). He congratulated me on my hit and made no mention of my mistake,” Ryan wrote in the essay.
Like Coulter, who had collected just one hit in professional baseball, Ryan’s hit was the only one he earned that season.
That part didn’t matter.
“He (Coulter) was smart enough to know that baseball is only a game,” Ryan wrote. “At the very first practice, he told us that if we were not playing baseball for the fun of it, we shouldn’t be playing at all.”