Former Zephyrhills High baseball coach John Clements celebrated his 90th birthday on Jan. 17. Photo by Gary Hatrick.
Celebrating the life of baseball coach John Clements
By Kyle LoJacono
ZEPHYRHILLS — For several months each year, John F. Clements Field at Zephyrhills High bares witness to baseball games. While most on the field and in the stands may not know who Clements is, 40 years ago everyone at the Bulldogs’ games knew the name.
“I really enjoyed being the coach at Zephyrhills for so many years,” Clements said. “I loved to play, but coaching was almost as good.”
Clements’ birthday is Jan. 20, but the coach’s family decided to give him a special party at Alice Hall Community Center Jan. 17. Community and family members from around the country came to celebrate Clements’ 90th birthday.
“I told them I didn’t really want anything special done,” Clements said. “Just wanted dinner with no presents. They didn’t listen to me I guess.”
Clements was the Bulldogs’ coach for 21 years before he became the Zephyrhills athletic director in 1970 for two years. The field was renamed in his honor when he retired from the school in June of 1983.
The skipper was nearly an institution at Zephyrhills, but he almost never coached there.
“I only thought I’d coach there one year because it was such a small school then,” Clements said. “It was so small that the principal at the time was trying to just get the average daily attendance over 300 so they’d get all the funding of a regular school.”
Clements said he only expected to be in Zephyrhills for 10 months when he first arrived with his wife, Marvene.
“We didn’t even buy a house for a few years because he wasn’t sure he wanted to stay,” Marvene said. “Then we did and what a great place it has been to live in for the last 60 years.”
The two have been married since 1943.
Before coming to Zephyrhills, Clements turned down the coaching position at Hillsborough.
“I always say the two best decisions of my life were asking my wife to marry me and not going to coach at Hillsborough,” Clements said. “The city is a lot different now because I used to know everyone and everyone waved hello. Now it’s so big that when someone waves at you you’re so shocked that you forget to wave back.”
The coach guided the Bulldogs to two straight State Tournaments in 1969 and 1970. Clements joked that it was too painful to lose again, so he retired from coaching.
Clements’ love for baseball goes back to when he was a child. He was a pitcher who often skipped school to throw batting practice at the St. Louis Cardinals spring training camps in Daytona Beach.
“I’d get five dollars to throw batting practice, which back then would get me a steak dinner, a movie ticket and bus fare with one buck still left over,” Clements said.
The Cardinals signed Clements in 1936 when he was 15-years-old. Less than a year later, St. Louis was forced to release Clements and 400 other players for being too young to sign according to old Major League Baseball rules.
Clements then joined the Marines Corps for several years during WWII. Clements said he never had to fight in Europe or in the Pacific, but that his years in the armed service are ones he will never forget.
Clements re-entered the baseball professional in 1946 when he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies, where he played mostly for the team’s minor league club in Utica, N.Y. While in Utica, the right-hander pitched an 18-inning game against the team from Harrisburg, Pa., but lost 2-1.
“Back then you usually finished every game you started,” Clements said. “If they did bring someone out of the bullpen it was usually the guy who started the last game because they thought they’d be the (sharpest) pitcher back then. That’s what they always did with me and I don’t think it hurt my arm.”
Unfortunately for Clements, his MLB dreams ended in 1947 when he ran into the opposing third baseman while running the bases. The pitcher fell on his hand, which shattered his right elbow. He never pitched professionally again.
Clements’ loss was the gain of hundreds of baseball players in Zephyrhills.
“He is just a great man and deserves a lot of respect,” said Gary Hatrick, member of the Rotary Club of Zephyrhills with Clements.
“I once told a couple of kids at one of our meetings if they knew who the baseball field was named after,” Hatrick continued. “When they said they didn’t I pointed out coach Clements. Hopefully they will tell their friends and more young people will learn about the coach.”
“It’s been tiring sometimes to get to all the games,” Marvene said. “I love baseball so I’ve loved every minute of it.”
Clements said of his time living in Zephyrhills. “It’s been great to live here. There’s no other place I’d want to be.”
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