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When the Arlington Senators won last year’s All American Amateur Baseball Association Tournament in Johnstown, Pa., the Baseball Hall of Fame asked the team to send one of its jerseys for use in a display. That’s an honor accorded every winner of what has become, over the last half-century, the nation’s premier amateur wood-bat championship.
Teams generally send a player’s shirt to Cooperstown. But the Senators, who have won four of the last five national titles, told the hall to hang their No. 1 jersey, which belongs to Harry “Jake” Jacobs. He isn’t a Senators’ player. He’s the team’s resident legend.
Now 84, Jacobs has played or coached in area sandlot, high-school, American Legion, and Clark Griffith Leagues for more than seven decades. He’s been with the Senators since the early ’90s as a coach and motivator. Lately, his former ballplayers and/or teammatesan incredibly reverent bunch who now number in the thousandshave been passing along updates on the health of a guy they watched sprint from the dugout to the first base coach’s box and back, inning after inning, for all these years. The news hasn’t been good.
Jacobs, a Falls Church resident, missed nearly every Senators game last season while fighting battles with prostate cancer, pneumonia, and congestive heart failure. Everybody who knows Jacobs knows he’s always up for a fight, and you could say he fought those foes to a draw. He’s faring less well, however, against this year’s top opponent, diabetes, a disease he’d controlled for most of his life not with insulin, but with diet and discipline. On Monday, doctors amputated one of his legs because of complications from diabetes. At press time he remained hospitalized, with no release date scheduled.
His friends admit that accepting that Jacobs isn’t indestructible has been hard.
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“Jake keeps surprising people [who work] at the hospital by the way he bounces back,” says Bill McGillicuddy, team president for the Senators and a friend of Jacobs since the late ’50s. “Yes, we know that a day is going to come that he’s not going to bounce back. But for people that know him, that’s going to be the surprise.”
Jacobs grew up small and poor in Southeast D.C. His love of baseball came from his father, a cop who died when Jacobs was 12. By then, the kid was working for the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium, as both a number-changer on the hand-operated outfield scoreboard and as a clubhouse boy for the visiting team. Perhaps every player Jacobs has ever coached has heard a tale of the day he ran into the great Babe Ruth in the dugout before a game. The Babe called him “scrawny.”
Ruth may be the last guy who insulted Jacobs and got away with it.
“Jake isn’t big, but he loves to fight,” says Bob Menefee, the Senators former general manager and a guy who has coached with or against Jacobs since the mid-’60s. “He’d fight anybody, from when he was a kid to this day. And you could see that toughness in his teams. I remember coaching against Jake in an American Legion game. He’d tell the kids, ‘You gotta eat a can of guts if you’re going to play this game!’ The whole game his third baseman was yelling at our batters, ‘Hit the ball to me! C’mon! Hit it to me!’ It was crazy, but if you know Jake you’d understand. He was the guy everybody wanted to play for. He was the legend.”
Jacobs played in area youth leagues and became a star at Eastern High School (class of ’38) by mastering the steal of home plate. A World War II tour with the Navy took him off the diamond, but after V-J Day he returned to his hometown and signed on to play for and coach the sandlot team sponsored by Washington Gas and Light.
At the time, sandlot sponsors provided players with work. And when sandlot baseball died out, he kept his job with the gas company and coached high schoolsmainly St. John’s and O’Connellin the spring, and numerous American Legion and Clark Griffith teams in the summer. He won at every level. Jacobs’ daughter, Patricia Kadel, says that the Gas and Light job and fears of failure prevented her father from considering offers to coach in the pros.
So Kadel grew up on small-time local ballfields, not major-league ones. Though her father toiled at levels far below the big time, there was nothing amateurish about his approach to the game. Sprinting to the coach’s box and back was but one sign of Jacobs’ on-field intensity. Among McGillicuddy’s favorite Jake storieshe’s got tons of ’emis the one about the alumni game brouhaha at O’Connell, where McGillicuddy played in the pre-Jacobs era of the early ’60s.
“Jake took over the O’Connell varsity around 1973, and guys organized a game between his kids and a team of older guys who played there when I did,” says McGillicuddy, who played for the alumni. “So late in the game, the alumni team is at bat, the game’s tied, and we’ve got the go-ahead run on second. A guy named Billy Collins, one of the all-time great sandlot players in this area, comes up to bat. And Jake tells his kid to intentionally walk him! That really gets Billy pissed, he thinks you don’t do that in that sort of game, and he yells at Jake, and Jake, of course, runs out of the dugout at him, and we’ve got the next two or three minutes just separating everybody. I remember Jake yelling, ‘There’s no [bleeping] way I’m letting him beat me!’”
Then there was a particularly memorable on-field scrape at a Clark Griffith game, when Jacobs punched the commissioner of the league in the face. “And they were best friends at the time,” says McGillicuddy. “It was nothing personal with Jake. It was always about the game.”
McGillicuddy recalls Jacobs’ being banned from the league for a year for punching his friend the commissioner. A more positive sort of notoriety has come Jacobs’ way in recent years. The baseball field at O’Connell, for example, was renamed the Jake, and a plaque with a bust of the school’s longtime manager now hangs at its entrance. The Senators retired his jersey last year, and earlier this season at a ceremony in Bethesda, it was announced that no Clark Griffith player would ever again wear No. 1, in tribute to Jacobs. Next week, he will be inducted into the AAABA Hall of Fame in Johnstown.
The induction ceremony in Johnstown will coincide with the 2003 AAABA championship. If the Senators are to defend their national title, they must first conquer their Clark Griffith rivals in a four-team tournament that begins this Monday. Jacobs won’t likely make the game, but he will still have a presence in the Senators’ dugout.
“Even at 80-something years old, that guy was sprinting out to first base and back,” says Dan Raley, the Senators’ 36-year-old third-base coach. “There’s so much more to Jake’s teaching, but you have no idea how strong a message that sends out to a team. He is one of those guys kids never forget. That’s what I strive for as a coach: I want kids to look back when they get older and say, ‘Hey, I learned from that guy!’”
Folks attending the Clark Griffith playoffs should have no trouble picking out Raley. He’ll be the guy sprinting to the coach’s box as the Senators come to bat. Dave McKenna