On opening day for Homewood Baseball & Softball this year, one of the ceremonial first pitches was high and inside.
But it was pretty good for an octogenerian arm.
The pitcher was Marvin Austin, who was given the first-pitch honor for his role as one of the founders of little league baseball in Homewood.
“It was a brush back,” he joked, referring to a pitch purposely thrown close to a batter.
Austin is the last survivor of the four coaches who fielded teams in 1951 and began building the organization that would come to be one of Homewood’s most cherished institutions.
Austin’s team, sponsored by the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter, won the championship the first two years of the fledgling league’s existence.
But to those who remember Austin’s influence on baseball in Homewood, his success is measured not by victories but by the influence he had on the kids he coached.
One of the members of that 1951 team, Joe Dee, of Chicago Heights, helped escort Austin to the mound for that ceremonial pitch.
“He was a great coach,” Dee said. “He showed me things I still remember. And I had four sons. I coached a lot of teams in a lot of sports. I used him as my example all the time.”
Dee said Austin had a talent for coaching that went beyond teaching the basics of the game.
“He was a great mentor,” he said. “He knew a lot from his days of playing and he knew how to get it across to kids.”
That ability might have been related to his tendency to pay close attention to the kids on his teams. When current Homewood Baseball and Softball President Steve Anderson introduced Austin, he made reference to a book chapter in “Growing Up With Baseball: How We Loved and Played the Game,” edited by Gary Land.
In the chapter “Marvelous Marv,” Dennis Brislen, another player on that 1951 team, shares good things about Austin’s coaching.
“I later played on a college team that won three consecutive league championships,” he writes. “I never learned anything from my college coach that Marv hadn’t already taught me.”
But it was Austin’s tendency to recognize the needs of individual players that impressed him most.
Brislen tells how frustrated he was the first season by his poor hitting performance. He was good at other aspects of the game and knew he had a good swing, but he wasn’t hitting well.
Austin suspected Brislen might need glasses and suggested he get his eyes tested.
It took a while to convince his parents, but they eventually relented. Brislen got glasses, and the next season, facing the best pitcher in the league, Bill Ormsby, Brislen finally saw the ball clearly and got four hits in four attempts.
“My parents went to Marv after the game and told him they’d never doubt him again,” Brislen writes.
Another indicator of Austin’s influence is the loyalty his players have for him. During an interview earlier this year, his wife, Marilyn, said they were expecting two of his former players to visit later that day.
“Two of the kids who played ball for Marvin are coming around,” she said. “I say ‘kids,’ but they are 72. We keep calling them kids.”
That’s a long time to keep in touch with a little league coach. But as Brislen describes it, the Austins treated the boys as if they were part of the family.
Austin remembers well the beginnings of the league. He said there really weren’t many organized sports for Homewood kids back then. The creation of Homewood-Flossmoor High School was still almost a decade in the future, so local kids went to high schools in neighboring villages.
“It was sports that brought village kids together,” he said.
After coaching baseball for about five years, he moved on to help with the local youth basketball program.
That’s where Ron Adams met Austin. The two are regulars at Mayor Richard Hofeld’s Meet the Mayor open sessions each Saturday morning at Village Hall.
“I played there because everybody that showed up could play,” Adams said.
Austin said he is proud of that early basketball program, for its inclusiveness and the fact that the kids who participated tended to stay out of trouble.
A trainer of firefighters
Adams would later work for 17 years with Austin on Homewood’s volunteer fire department. Austin had joined the department in 1952 and served as its training officer for many years.
At the fire department, Austin had the same reputation as a good teacher and mentor as he had on the ballfield and basketball court.
“Marv probably taught me more than anybody else did,” Adams said. “He was pretty tough.”
Serving as the fire department’s training officer was a natural extension of Austin’s career as an inspector and manager for a fire insurance rating bureau, where his task was to assess the fire safety measures taken by businesses and communities.
Over the years, he had some memorable moments as a firefighter, too.
One story involves a fire at Washington Park Racetrack — not the big fire that destroyed the facility in 1977; he left the fire department two years before that historic blaze.
The earlier, smaller fire started in a women’s restroom, he said. When he arrived, he relieved another firefighter, who went to check on another area.
“The smoke is getting thick,” he said. “And this voice along side of me says, ‘You need any help?’ I look over. It’s Marge Everett, the owner of the place.”
With her supervision, Austin and the other volunteers extinguished the fire.
Austin also responded to several historic blazes, including the ones at Surma’s, a popular restaurant that was located where Balagio is now, and Wally’s Tap on Dixie Highway near where Melody Mart is now. Firefighting was very different in those days, he said.
“We got a dollar a call, and if we had to use the big hose, we got a dollar and a half,” he said.
“They would have done it for nothing,” Marilyn added. “They all really loved their fire department.”
A life of service
Austin was inducted into the Homewood Hall of Fame in 2006 for his service to the community.
In addition to his service to youth sports and the local fire department, Austin was long active at First Presbyterian Church and served one term as a village trustee, a job he recommends others try. He said it’s the best way to learn about the community.
“When they asked me to run again, I said no. I thought that someone else that lived in Homewood should get to know their village,” he said. “You learned about the water system. You learned budgeting. We used to discuss public works for hours.”
Although age and health issues have slowed him down, Austin has not stopped serving his community.
These days he continues to visit Homewood Village Hall almost every Saturday morning. Anyone who stops to talk will get a handshake from Austin, and when they look down, they’ll find they have a couple of mints they didn’t have before.
Whether residents come by to convey a concern to the mayor, pitch a new business idea or just chat about the latest happenings, everyone gets a greeting and a mint or two from Austin.
It’s the continuation of a ritual that has a hallowed place in small-town America — old timers sitting around a public meeting place, swapping tales and jokes. And in the process, they pass along local history and culture.
“It’s like sitting around the potbelly stove,” Hofeld said. “You learn the history of the town. He can tell you what used to be where. It’s always nice to have that sense of history.”
In a way, Marvin Austin is still coaching.
This story first appeared in the first print edition of the Chronicle Dec. 1.
Photos and video by Eric Crump/HF Chronicle.