By John Goralski
Jim Koeller’s shadow seemed to strike fear in the hearts of batters when the hard-throwing big man took the mound in 1976. Just to foul off a fastball was reason to celebrate.
Koeller was as good as anybody that’s ever set foot on a Southington mound, and every credible short list of Blue Knight pitchers has his name battling for the top spot. He struck out just under two batters (1.78) each inning as a senior and allowed just 10 earned runs over 88 innings. Few pitchers in state history have struck out more batters in the postseason (43), and if it wasn’t for a blister on his throwing hand in the ninth inning of the championship game, Southington might have won the title in 1976.
There was no question about it. Koeller was one of the most dominant pitchers to take the mound for the Blue Knights.
“He looked like he just stepped out of the Georgia Swamps,” said former Blue Knight coach John Fontana. “He was a big guy. He had big hands, big feet, and when he grabbed the ball, you couldn’t even see it. At that time, nobody had guns, but I’ll tell you. He could throw.”
He wasn’t bred to be an all star pitcher. He wasn’t trained by top coaches or brought up through the system. Koeller honed his skills on the sandlots of Southington, taking whatever was offered by the older kids in the neighborhood. He’d play infield or shag flies. He’d catch if that was needed. He did whatever he could to play the game that he loved because, until the time that Koeller turned 12 years old, the future all star was cut from the roster at every Little League tryout.
“Our neighborhood was actually split down the middle. One side would go to Memorial Park, and the other side would go to Recreation Park,” he said. “Memorial was actually closer to me, and I was able to ride my bike there in the summer for farm league since I wasn’t in Little League at the Rec. Guys would always ask me where I was during tryouts, and I would have to explain to them that I never got picked at the other league.”
It didn’t seem to matter. In his Berkeley Avenue neighborhood there were plenty of chances to compete, so Koeller honed his skills against the older kids in neighborhood contests. When Little League cut him, Koeller threw himself into farm league games, playing whatever position coaches needed in order to play his part.
“We used to play in the morning, come in for lunch, and go back to play in the afternoon. We’d go back home to eat and go back out until after dark. That’s just the way it was,” he said. “Whatever the season was, we did. On Berkeley, they have that courtyard. When football season was on, we’d be playing tackle football. Somebody always had a basketball hoop in their yard, so after baseball season, before it got too cold, we’d be out there playing basketball. It was always something.”
Even when he did make a Little League team, Koeller wasn’t an instant star. The next season, a dog bite kept him out of senior league tryouts, but his name was picked out of a hat to fill the quota for 13 year olds. It wasn’t until the following year that a new coach, Frank Mauro, gave him a chance to play every day. He started as shortstop, took some turns on the mound, and helped lead his team to back-to-back titles in the league. By the time Koeller was a 15-year old veteran, he earned his way onto the all-star team as the highest vote getter in the league.
“I just wanted to play,” he said. “I didn’t care if I was pitching, catching, or playing shortstop.”
Baseball soon crowded out his interests in other sports. In junior high, he balanced his efforts on the DePaolo team with his senior league pitching. By the end of his sophomore year of high school, he quit the basketball team to focus on his pitching. Koeller went from being an average junior varsity pitcher as a sophomore (2-3 record) to getting a chance on the varsity team as a junior.
“I was the low person on the totem pole, but Jimmy Gugliotti hurt his ankle. Al Rousseau had something wrong with his shoulder from football, so that’s where I got my chance,” he said. “I wasn’t really that good. It wasn’t until the middle of the year that I finally found the glitch, and it sort of took off from there.”
Koeller never shrank from a challenge. He finished with a 7-2 record as a junior and started practicing year round in the gym before school. Baseball was his only focus until gridiron coaches dragged him onto the practice field at the start of his senior year.
“We probably should have won those first four games, but we lost because we didn’t have anybody that could kick a field goal,” he said. “I was in the cafeteria one day, and Fontana came up to me and said, ‘Come on.’ We went out on the football field, and I kicked and kicked. They dressed me the following week.”
Koeller scored five extra points in six games that season as the Knights made a late run. He kicked a 20-yard field goal with 20 seconds remaining to beat Newington, and he hit another one right before halftime on Thanksgiving Day that helped propel the Knights to an upset over Plainville.
“It was a lot of fun because special teams were full of those guys that were just crazy,” he said. “They didn’t know the plays. They were just on the kick off return, kick off team, or extra points. Russ Barry was my center. Jim Gugliotti was the quarterback, and he held for me while I kicked. The baseball team was the one kicking those extra points and field goals.”
Still, it was on the baseball diamond that Koeller was going to leave his lasting legacy. In 1964, the Knights rallied to a perfect 18-0 record. Koeller was the ace, but the top three guys were interchangeable as starters, relievers, and closers. In one game, Koeller started, played an inning in the field, and came back to the mound to close out the win.
“We all did that. Sometimes we started. Sometimes someone didn’t have it and you’d have to go in,” he said. “It really didn’t matter. There was no set rule. You just did whatever was needed to win. Everybody wanted to play, and everybody did what we had to do.”
In the season finale between Southington and New Britain, both teams entered the game with undefeated records. Fontana wanted to rest his ace, but ended up calling Koeller in for the final inning after a short argument with New Britain’s coach.
“I didn’t want to use him because we were going to open up on Tuesday for the tournament, but I got so mad that I turned around and yelled to him. I told him I didn’t want anything but strikes. I wanted him to strike out every guy, and he threw nine pitches,” said Fontana. “Nine pitches? He was throwing hard. We had no lights. It was getting dark, and I think that when he threw the ball guys were afraid to dig in. Those balls were amazing.”
The momentum carried into the postseason. Koeller struck out 14 batters during a 4-2 win over Westhill in the opening round. He struck out 13 to secure a 5-3 victory over Trumbull in the next round. When Southington reached the championship game, they turned to their ace once again. Koeller struck out 15 batters through nine innings until Fontana was forced to pull him from the game. Shelton went on to win the game in 15 innings.
Fontana still says that one of the toughest decisions he ever made was pulling Koeller off the mound.
“Nobody was getting on base. He was striking everybody out, but I saw him looking at his hand in the dugout,” said the coach. “I asked him what happened, and he told me about his blister. That freaking thing was all bloody and broken. I told him that he wasn’t going to be pitching any more, but he told me that he could still pitch. I told him no, but he really wanted to pitch. He was crazy.”
Koeller never got another shot in the big game. He had a chance to play for the University of New Haven after graduation, but a surgery struck him from the lineup in his first season. A shoulder injury in Florida during the next preseason forced Koeller off the college mound for good.
He went on to play three years of Twilight baseball in Hartford and 18 years of travel softball, but Koeller never did get his chance at the major leagues. Still, it’s no surprise that Southington fans have not been able to forget their star hurler. In 1987, he was inducted into the SHS Baseball Hall of Fame. This fall, members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee named Koeller as a member of the Class of 2014.
“Sometimes, I feel like I don’t deserve this,” he said. “Honestly. You watch some of these guys on TV, and they were three or four year players at their high school. They really did a lot, but I only did it for a year and a half. Do I really deserve it?”
His former coach dismissed Koeller’s protests. “I think if you ask any of the guys that saw him throw, he ranks right up there with [Rob] Dibble and [Carl]Pavano,” said Fontana. “There’s no doubt in my mind. He’s got to be one of the top pitchers that I’ve ever seen in this state. If he went on to play [at the next level], I’m sure that he would have been a star. I know that he would have made it because he was so strong. His arm never hurt. He could throw forever, and he was quietly tough.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 12, Koeller will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville. To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9640.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com. Jim Koeller, Sports
By John Goralski