Early Wednesday afternoon Lyle Krall’s green SUV (vanity plate: “BASBALL”) was parked alongside Elco’s baseball field – a field that bears his name – and he was shuffling about the place, well aware how important it is for an 84-year-old to be up and moving.
It’s hard to envision him anywhere else, for few coaches in any Lancaster-Lebanon League sport have ever been as synonymous with a program. For 58 years — the first 36 as the head coach, the last 22 as an assistant – he has been the Raiders’ rock, as solid as a backstop, as steady as a senior shortstop executing a 6-4-3.
Players come and go, and he remains. As he sat in the first-base dugout Wednesday he marveled at how much kids can develop over the course of their careers, how at first they can seem so overmatched by the game – a game, he observed, that can “drive you crazy” – and how at the end they can at least hold their own.
But if they change, he always seems the same. Always looking like the baseball sage in a Rockwell portrait. The guy with the weathered face and the wizened manner. The guy who talks softly but carries a decent-sized fungo bat.
And always acting like he’s no big deal. Never mind his long years of service, nor (by the way) his five seasons as a minor-league shortstop in the ‘50s. Never mind any of that. Krall is quick to dispense advice to a struggling sophomore, quick to share a story with his fellow coaches on an endless bus ride, quick to needle reporters huddling behind the chainlink on a blustery April afternoon.
“You’re not going to find a finer human being,” said Chris Weidner, Elco’s current head coach.
It is testament to Krall’s dedication that he wanted to remain on staff after stepping down as head coach in 1995, for three years under Tom Eberly and the last 19 under Weidner. And testament to his decency that neither man felt the least bit threatened by him.
Weidner said he runs “98 percent” of his ideas past Krall, and recalled how keenly his absence was felt when he missed a bus trip to Pequea Valley in the spring of 2016, electing instead to drive himself because it was easier on his aching left hip.
“It is weird,” Weidner said, “when he’s not there.”
Weidner is the one who spearheaded the drive to have the Raiders’ home field named after Krall, in 2004. Said he finally got the go-ahead from the school board on his fourth attempt. There is a plaque honoring Krall behind the backstop, and a sign bearing his name hanging from the scoreboard behind the right-field fence.
“That’s one of the proudest things I’ve accomplished,” Weidner said.
Krall is eternally grateful.
“Now,” he said with a chuckle, “I can say I’m ‘out standing’ in my field – ‘out standing’ is not one word. That’s what I do – stand out in the field.”
It’s almost like it was meant to be. Somebody was going through some family photos several years ago, Krall said, when they came upon a shot of the farmhouse that sits across Elco Drive from the field, well beyond the left-field fence.
It’s not clear why the photo was there. The best guess is that Krall’s dad, Frank, once lived in the house. But nobody knows for sure.
Frank and his wife Kathryn raised Lyle and three other boys in Schaefferstown. When Krall tells the current players that he grew up playing pickup ball, that he wasn’t part of an organized team until he was 14, they are incredulous.
After high school he went to East Stroudsburg – then still a college, not a university — where he played basketball and soccer in addition to baseball, and where his career was briefly interrupted by a knee injury. It was repaired by some antiquated means, and all these years later it has somehow held up, even as his other knee and both hips have been replaced.
He earned a spot in the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization through a 1954 tryout and spent those five years in the bushes, playing in places like Hannibal, Mo., Sioux City, Ia. and Peoria, Ill.
And while he hit .290 in that span according to baseball-reference.com, he was given his walking papers after the ’58 season.
“I think I sort of expected it,” he said. “You’re 25 years old, and going backwards (from Class A, then the highest minor-league classification, to Class C).”
He settled back in Schaefferstown, took a teaching job and eventually married — he and his wife of 62 years, Loretta, have three children – while immersing himself in all manner of athletic pursuits. He played and managed (sometimes both) in the old Lebanon Valley League. He coached junior high and junior varsity basketball. He reffed soccer matches.
He did all of that for decades, touching countless lives along the way. Skip Wolf, a local umpire who played for Krall in the Valley League from 1971-91, remembers being immediately impressed by his even-handed approach – how Krall never raised his voice, never allowed his emotions to get the better of him.
The two men grew close, and in recent years have traveled to spring training in Florida, enabling them to do things like keep tabs on such L-L products as Chris Heisey and Derek Fisher. Krall – “just a great, great man,” Wolf said — has also befriended both of them, naturally.
At Elco Krall won 406 games and seven league championships in his 36 years as head coach. Along the way he coached his son, Lon, and served as an assistant on a team that included his grandson, Travis Thome.
And here, perhaps, is the most telling stat of all: 1, as in the number of times he has been ejected. Happened at Donegal in the mid-‘80s, he recalled, after a mild argument over the pace of play.
But the overwhelming majority of the time, he has made his corner of the world a better place. And continues to do so.
“I said when I die, scatter my ashes out here,” he said, looking out at the field from the dugout Wednesday.
He has been informed that violates some local statute or other, but he doesn’t care.
“Well, do it when nobody’s watching,” he said. “Do it on the infield. Stir me around.”
Makes sense, given how long he has been embedded here – how he was part of the place, well before his name was attached to it.
And now, it appears, always will be.