- Associated Press - Sunday, May 7, 2017

LOWELL, Ind. (AP) - It was May of 1967. Gary was a vibrant community, where a large portion of the Region made a living in the “Steel City.” Kids played in parks, then. Summer sunshine was the overhang for youth baseball games.

While much has changed, there still is a romantic link to those glory days here and there.

Phil “Hambone” Hamilton is such a link.

Wanting to own a “cool” Hornets’ letterman’s jacket, he became a manager for Lew Wallace High School’s football, wrestling and baseball teams. He got the dope threads, but got something else out of the experience.

He would umpire the Wallace inter-squad baseball games and his life changed dramatically.

“I fell in love with it, I really enjoy it,” Hamilton said. “People call me up all the time and ask me to do ballgames. I’d do it seven days a week. I love being with the kids.

“I really have fun with it.”

‘A junkie’ for baseball

After graduation from Wallace in 1967, where he was a classmate of longtime IHSAA official John Goss and Merrillville athletic director Janis Qualizza, Hamilton started calling baseball games.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of his working his first game. While he doesn’t not recall the exact day he first donned the mask, he knows it was in the first week of May in 1967.

He started in the West Lake Park Little League in Gary, then moved on to Junedale in Glen Park. Then, it was many calls and games all across the United States.

In his time behind the dish, the 69-year-old Hamilton has worked for four future major league ball players from the area, including Lloyd McClendon, Ron Kittle, LaTroy Hawkins and Kenny Lofton.

But he doesn’t make much difference between MLB All-Stars and others. For five decades, it’s just been about kids playing a game.

Just ask Griffith High School baseball coach Brian Jennings. Hamilton called games Jennings’ played in decades ago in Whiting. Now, Hamilton occasionally shakes his hand before an IHSAA game.

“He’s never been out there to get to a state championship game or to get to the MLB,” Jennings said of Hamilton. “It’s never been about that stuff with him. He just loves the game. He was doing this when I was a kid in Little League. Now, it’s high school. No one really knew his name. He was just ‘Hambone.’

“He’s just out there because he loves baseball. He’s a junkie.”

Dedicated through and through

Hamilton’s done baseball for 50 years, softball for 36 years. He is in his 28th year as a baseball and softball umpire for the IHSAA.

“As I’ve gotten older I respect him even more,” Jennings said. “Nothing’s changed with him. He’s the same guy he was in 1981. We need more guys like that. We need baseball, softball guys. He has zero ego. He just likes to do games.”

Hamilton worked at U.S. Steel for 36 years on a crane crew. He eventually asked for a straight midnight schedule to free up his days on the diamonds. He’d work. Go home and take a nap. Then, grab the gear and be off.

His last eight years they put him on a 4:30 a.m. morning shift. But even that couldn’t keep him away from the games.

“I didn’t get much sleep then,” he said. “I don’t think there were too many guys who could do what I did for those eight years. But I wasn’t going to miss it.”

One summer he umped 300 games. A couple of other times he was the man in blue for 299 games. He said he couldn’t even come close to counting all the games he has done.

Great way to spend a day

As a youngster, Hamilton went to Wrigley Field and watched Dutch Rennert behind the plate. His voice was so loud that Hamilton could hear him from his seat near Billy Williams in the outfield.

It influenced the guy the kids call “Hambone,” a nickname his brother gave him many years ago in Gary.

Hamilton was at an umpiring clinic in a local school cafeteria. He was asked to make his balls and strikes calls very loud. The leaders were taping each ump and critiquing each effort.

“One of the guys said, ‘Hambone, I want you to holler strike,’ ” Hamilton said. “So I did it very loud. It echoed around the cafeteria. A couple guys actually left the building because it was so loud.

“But another guy heard me and he came over and hired me for a tournament in Kentucky the next weekend.”

T.J. Degiulio has been umpiring for 19 years in the area, both softball and baseball. Like Hamilton, Degiulio works every level. The two have had a friendship for the past 15 years.

Recently, Hamilton was at another clinic and Degiulio noticed his body following the pitch location sum, which is a no-no. Staying still and following the ball with your eyes is the goal.

Degiulio spoke to Hamilton about it, and was impressed in how the ump who’s been calling games longer than Degiulio has been alive took the words of wisdom.

“He was so receptive, so thankful for the feedback,” Degiulio said. “After all these years he was still willing to get better.”

On May 6 in Warsaw, Hamilton will have a 50-year celebration honoring him. Yes, of course, the cake will be cut around a tournament schedule.

Hamilton is a cancer survivor, but he’s never had back or knee problems, which is rare for an umpire. He isn’t about to quit anytime soon.

“I loved it then and I love it now,” Hamilton said. “I’m going to keep doing it as long as I can. Kids playing a game, it’s a great way to spend a day.”


Source: The (Northwest Indiana) Times, https://bit.ly/2pxWhy6


Information from: The Times, https://www.nwitimes.com

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