03-12-2020 Tri-City Area History Page

Omar Stineman, Watervliet city worker holds a turtle with an unknown boy. Are you that boy? Have you ever caught a large turtle? If you have any information on this photo or a turtle story to share, please contact North Berrien Historical Museum at 269-468-3330, info@northberrienhistory.org, or stop by Tues-Friday 10am-4pm they would love to hear your stories. From the photo collection at the North Berrien Historical Museum 300 Coloma Avenue, Coloma

The Paw Paw River Journal

If he had only lived… Christmas, 1945… the war was just over and I made it home in time for the holiday season. I was also just in time to go to the funeral of a high school friend. Cleo Van Woert was known as ‘Squirt Van Woert’ by his friends, and he was a lightning fast baseball player – a pitcher, in fact. He was not known for making friends, but we all liked him. One thing that was kind of off-putting was that he was always throwing things. He’d throw tomatoes at a bull’s-eye on the barn… stones at a telephone pole. Every kid in the neighborhood he would ask to catch for him while he pitched. We all tried to get out of it because his favorite was a fireball, and any kid that caught pitching practice for him ended up with a sore hand. He had a kind of strange pigeon-toed walk, and a habit of spitting as we would see professional baseball players doing. We didn’t know it at the time, but something dark and devastating was creeping up on Squirt. His heart was weak and getting weaker as time went by. He also must have been attractive to girls because he dated some of the really nice ones. I only learned in recent years how he got around the heart problem. He didn’t go for the team physicals. But somehow he got a hold of the forms and filled out his own… even forged the doctor’s name. Then he turned them in every year and no one was the wiser. At this stage I wonder if maybe some people of authority knew about it and just looked the other way. I don’t know how he did it when it came to running, but somehow he did it. And those years he was pitching Hartford’s team what it was. Oh, we had other pitchers – and good ones, too. Leo Shindeldecker had a tricky fastball, and was sometimes a little erratic. Dave Moore had arm muscles that bulged and a fireball that was a screamer. But when it came to polishing off the opposition it was Squirt Van Woert that finished things! The only field we had to play on was south of school a couple of blocks. Nothing there but some old bleachers and a field full of sand burrs. I hadn’t remembered about the sand burrs because I never went out for football. But friend Ray Sreboth told me every fall the first football drill was duck waddling across the field in a line while the coach watched them. And they picked all the sand burrs they could see. The day Squirt Van Woert pitched his no-hitter was cool and sunny. Larry Olds got on his protective gear for catching. He told me a pickup backed over the catcher’s mask and bent the cage in a little. If he took one in the face, would surely tweak his nose! But he caught all those fast balls, and I maintain that if Cleo had lived, he would have had a career in the big leagues. It started out as an ordinary game… high schools played seven innings. The away team came up to bat, faced that extraordinary pitcher, and promptly got struck out. Second inning people were starting to watch. Same thing happened! Third inning Squirt walked out to the mound with that unusual pigeon-toed gait. The infield watched him. The outfield watched him. The opposing batters stood with their mouths open as he mowed them down. They were getting anxious now, red-faced, and would swing at almost anything. This helped Squirt psychologically. Then in the quiet something happened that almost blew the whole thing apart. The infielders started a little chatter, and one, I think it was Gordy Kime said, “Atta boy, Squirt… we’ve got a no-hitter going!” Oh, we were afraid it would break the spell. Indrawn breaths! You just don’t do that! Squirt just looked around, took a stance, and calmly struck out the rest of those batters! And so it went the rest of the game. I’ve never forgotten that day. We all went on, were graduated with the dark clouds of war gathering over our heads. I lost track of Squirt Van Woert. I know he couldn’t get into the Armed Forces. So he spent the war years doing whatever jobs he could. I heard he delivered rural newspapers, and he had a girlfriend. Now fast-forward to Christmas, 1945. I came home from the war, sick as a poisoned pup with some tropical