By Jared Olar
The death of retired physical education teacher and coach Gerald R. “Jerry” Sea at the age of 76 on Feb. 12, 2016, was not only a loss to his family and friends, but also marked the passing of a Pekin sports historian who chronicled and preserved the memories and records of the Celestials, a professional baseball team that made Pekin its home in the early 20th century.
Sea was a P.E. teacher for 30 years in Pekin Public Schools District 108 as well as a teacher and coach for Tremont High School, and a member of Sunday morning baseball leagues for more than two decades, pitching for and managing three Illinois Valley Glass Championship teams in the 1970s. In addition, he spent more than 25 years in the Mackinaw Valley League and Kickapoo Valley League.
To earn his master’s degree, he researched and prepared a history of the Pekin Celestials. This column has twice previously featured Sea’s baseball history, first on March 24, 2012, and again on April 27, 2013. In Sea’s memory, following is a reprint of the From the Local History Room column from three years ago.
We’re a month into the 2013 major league baseball season, so this is a good time to take another look back at the history of professional baseball in Pekin.
As we recalled in this column on March 24, 2012, for a three-year period a little more than a century ago – from 1909 to 1912 – Pekin had its own minor league baseball team, named the Celestials. In pursuing his master’s degree in 1972, now-retired Pekin physical education teacher Gerald R. Sea prepared a history of the Celestials, “The History of Professional Baseball and Professional Baseball Players from Pekin, Illinois,” a copy of which is part of the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection.
As we noted last year, one of Sea’s chief sources for his history was Walter “Spider” Diehl, outfielder with the Pekin Celestials all three years of its existence. Sea interviewed Diehl when the former Pekin outfielder was in his 90s.
Sea has recently supplied the library with copies of vintage photos from the Celestials’ three-year run, as well as some old newspaper clippings from a series on Pekin’s professional baseball history that Sea wrote for the Pekin Daily Times. In one of his articles in that series, Sea tells the story of the Celestials’ first game in Pekin on May 11, 1909, against Canton’s minor league team.
The game drew a crowd of more than 2,000 fans, including Mayor William J. Conzelman, who threw the first pitch. The mayor had declared the day a public holiday, and all the schools and the city offices had closed at noon. A grand parade preceded the game, with the members of both teams, city officials and community leaders marching behind Gehrig’s Band up Court Street, and then back to the P & PU railroad station at Third Street, where a special train took the teams and coaches to the ball park.
“The great day was made a complete success when the Celestials defeated Canton 5-2 behind the pitching of Joe Jenkins, who was to compile a minor league career pitching record of 200 wins and 75 losses and have brief stays with the immortal manager John McGraw’s famed New York Giants in 1911 and 1914,” Sea wrote in Part Five of his Pekin Daily Times series.
In the same article, Sea tells a story from the career of Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. It’s an episode from 1909 that was dramatized in the 1952 movie, “The Winning Team,” starring Doris Day and future U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who played the role of Alexander.
“It was the day, July 27, when the young Alexander, only 22 at the time, was almost killed by a thrown ball,” Sea wrote.
“The game that day was a wild one. Earl ‘Shakey’ Hill, a native of Tremont, was pitching for Galesburg and had hit three Pekin batters with pitched balls. Several other players have received serious spike wounds. These were the days when the game was played, as they say, for ‘keeps.’
“Alexander, playing right field instead of pitching, led off the eighth inning with a single and the next batter hit a ground ball to second. Chief Edwards, the Pekin shortstop, took the throw to get the force at second but on his relay throw to first in a double play attempt hit Alexander, running to second, square in the temple.
“Alex shook off the effects of the blow and staggered to his outfield position where he promptly collapsed.
“Pekin’s Walter ‘Spider’ Diehl, noticed that the future baseball immortal was turning blue in the face, caused by strangulation from blood running into his throat.
“Diehl picked Alexander up by his feet and a ball of blood regurgitated, enabling him to breathe. He was taken to the hotel, where the old Pekin Post Office now stands, and laid there, bed-ridden, for seven days.
“Alexander’s condition was so grave that his father came all the way from Nebraska to be at his bedside. At first it was thought Alex would lose the sight in one eye. He didn’t, but altho he recovered, Alexander played no more baseball that season.
“However, it was from this injury that Alexander was to suffer severe headaches and eventually epilepsy. Had it not been for the injury, perhaps ‘Old Pete’ would not have almost been washed up before his time by imbibing alcohol in order to ease the pain from his headaches. And, had it not been for the quick thinking of ‘Spider’ Diehl, there may not have been any Grover Cleveland Alexander around to strike out Tony Lazzeri and be the hero of the 1926 World Series,” observed Sea.