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Harris "Shooky" Fink


Posted By: Errin Wilker (email)
Date: 3/10/2007 at 00:55:00

He Keeps New Albin Kids At Bat
By Kenneth Pins
Photos by Harry Baumert

Shooky Fink's world is 300 feet down the lines, 345 in the power alleys, bounded by a backstop and a picket fence.

It's located in what used to be his father's garden, on the south edge of a northeast Iowa town, just a line drive from Minnesota, and only a mile or so from Wisconsin.

There, in New Albin, population 609, something deceptively simple has been going on for generations. Shooky Fink has been batting and throwing and cajoling self-esteem and a winning baseball tradition into a ragtag collection of lads, in a town that has no other real claim to fame.

Officially, Shooky Fink is janitor at New Albin Grade School. In reality, he is the best friend most kids in New Albin ever had -- a funny older man who's dead-serious about baseball; one of the most uncharacteristic youth idols you'll ever find.

His passion for life revolves around the cowhide-covered sphere that he teaches kids to hit and catch as soon as they can pedal their bikes over to his diamond. There, he combines discipline with a genuine understanding of how young minds work.

"I really like working with kids," he shrugs when asked why he's given a large chunk of his life to youth baseball.

He coaches PeeWee, Little League, American Legion and adult town teams in tiny New Albin, and local feed store owner Bob Bulman says, "He'd like to coach the high school too, but he doesn't have the credentials."
That's OK. The high school team plays on his field, and Fink is at nearly every game, safely behind the screen offering unsolicited advice.
He has credentials of another sort.

Fink's players and teams have collected more than 600 trophies in the past 25 years. Three times his Little Leaguers have won the Stars of Tomorrow Tournament at La Crosse, Wisconsin, a tournament that draws teams from all over the upper Midwest, including the Chicago and Twin Cities areas. For several years, they were one of the only teams at the tournament without uniforms, an indignity that has now been corrected, although Fink knows that flash never won a ballgame.

Once past their growth spurts, his teenagers go off to play for Kee High School at Lansing, 11 bumpy miles to the south, where they have helped Coach Gene Schultz's teams win five Class 2A state championships in the past 10 years. The National High School Sports Record Book is laced with entries confirming Kee High's baseball prowess. Former Kee High players share the pages of the book with names like Vida Blue, Bob Horner and Walter Johnson.

Once finished at Kee High, they go on to play college baseball, or return to New Albin to play for Shooky's town team, and have children who start the whole cycle over again. "It would be interesting to see what would happen to kids' baseball here if Shooky wasn't around," said Schultz, 36, a talented and demanding coach who has been the beneficiary of Fink's policy of putting a bat in a kid's hand at an early age. "It would probably keep going for a couple of years and then die out."

Die out? In New Albin? Over Shooky Fink's dead body.

Harris "Shooky" Fink, 66 -- the nickname acquired so long ago he's forgotten why -- has an uncluttered personal credo that includes the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule and a belief in the primacy of baseball over life's other activities -- and not necessarily in that order.
On a sunny Saturday morning earlier this year, the keeper of the flame, one of the oldest boys of summer, was out early dragging his diamond, mowing the outfield and fretting over some "goofy grass" that was growing into the third base path -- pampering the ground where he lays the groundwork for baseball excellence.
By 9:30 the first player, Brian Imhoff, 11, showed up for the 11 o'clock Little League practice, his glove slung by the wriststrap over a bicycle handlebar, a technique kids everywhere employ innately.

Brian's uncle, Tom Imhoff, pitched and hit the New Albin Little Leaguers to the championship of the Stars of Tomorrow tournament in the mid-'70s, and then led the Kee-Hawks to the state high school title -- a team that was lopsided with graduates of Shooky Fink's baseball school. Tom Imhoff is now an all-conference infielder for the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, where he hit a blistering .342 last season. Brian Imhoff is a second baseman who, too, would like to become a skilled player of the game.

By 11 a.m., a collection of about 25 kids -- some of whom had biked more than five miles into town from surrounding farmsteads, others whom Fink had arranged to get out of church school for an hour -- had shown up at the field waiting for their coach to put his lawn mower away and return with his baseballmobile, a rusty Ford LTD with an oil warning light that remains constantly on, and a trunk full of bats and mitts and shin guards.

A few minutes late, as usual, Fink pulled in and the youthful crowd swarmed around his trunk. "Hey Shook, you got a left-hander's glove?" one called. "My brother left mine out in the rain."

Not to worry. Fink rooted around for a while, retrieved a dusty old lefty and tossed it to the boy, then chased his players out onto the field with a "C'mon, let's get going. We need some practice." And practice they did. Fink dropped a bunt in front of the plate, and like clockwork, the catcher pounced, the first baseman charged and the second baseman hustled to first to take the throw. The basics were being drilled into perhaps future state champs. "Atta boy," Shooky approved.

Later, a lazy fly ball making its way to left field popped into and back out of 9-year-old Chad Mitchell's glove, and a sullen expression came over the boy's face. "Spit in it, Chad, spit in it," his coach instructed.

Mitchell, who stands about half as tall as Dave Winfield's bat, made his best major league spit and repeatedly pounded it into the pocket of his glove. The next time a ball flew out to left field, Mitchell drew a bead on it and hauled it in with the ease and grace of a day-old colt on roller skates. The placebo had worked. Chad beamed. His coach applauded. Shooky Fink had solved another of the menacing problems facing a 9-year-old learning the game of baseball.
"Confidence," Fink responds when asked. That's the fundamental lesson he tries to teach young ballplayers. It's a lesson he's been teaching kids most of his adult life.

Fink loves to tell the story about when, as boys, he and his brother would hoe into the family garden, now the ballfield, until they were obscured by sweetcorn, and then take off somewhere to play baseball. He grew up loving the game, and became good at it, but never made it big in part because of a "bad ticker," a heart valve problem that he said made his chest "gurgle" when he ran.

The malady kept him out of the military during World War II, and he went to Chicago to take a job as a machinist. In his free time he played catch with neighborhood kids on a lot where a church had been torn down near his apartment building.

"God, they liked to play ball," Fink says. "When I'd get home from work, they'd be waiting for me on my steps." A noise complaint from a neighbor who worked nights brought Chicago cops to Fink's makeshift ballfield, but after investigating, they figured out it was the constant ballgames that helped hold down vandalism in the area, and they ended up trying to give Shooky a commendation rather than a citation.

Eventually, Shooky moved back to New Albin and took up the baseball program there in the late 1950's. The enthusiasm came with him.

At the end of that Saturday morning practice, as bats and helmets and borrowed gloves were going back into the trunk of the LTD, one kid piped up: "Hey Shook, let's have practice every day from now on." "OK, but not on Sunday," he said, facing a rising protest. "You gotta rest your arm one day," he insisted.

It's not just young people here who appreciate what Shooky Fink has done for kids, although Shooky wears friendship pins from a couple of girls at the grade school in the laces of his blue tennies. Vandalism and juvenile delinquency have never really caught on in New Albin, and adults recognize why.

Earlier this year Shooky Fink was presented with the Iowa Juvenile Probation Officer's State Award for his selfless contributions to kids in New Albin. Folks there responded by paying for a full-page "Wanted" poster in the Allamakee Journal, with front and profile views of the coach, announcing he was the probation officer's most wanted man in the state. Success hasn't gone to Shooky Fink's head.

While nearly everyone in town recognizes him as the best thing that ever happened here, most have their favorite Shooky Fink story to tell.
Banker Ray Whalen, who says Shooky hasn't changed his coaching signals in 25 years, jokes about how Fink is a one-man­show at his baseball diamond.

"The other night he was coaching at third base, and when people turned around he was gone. Somebody said, 'Where's Shooky?'" Whalen recounted. A feeble search ensued until Fink returned to his ball diamond with a box of hot dogs. "He had gone downtown to get some hot dogs because they had run out at the lunch stand."
Then there's the house Shooky built, a testament to Lorraine Fink's patience. It took more than eight years to finish, and folks began calling it Iowa's biggest birdhouse, because some bluejays had moved in for the interim.

Fink, himself, offers an anecdote explaining what took so long. "One day I was working on the fireplace when two kids came by and said 'Shook, let's go play ball.' Pretty soon there were 30 kids out there, and by the time we were done I was too tired to work on the fireplace." Still, he proudly shows off the house and jokes he'd go into the business full time, but at the rate he builds them, "I'd flood the market."

Heywood Hale Broun came to New Albin a couple of years back to feature Fink and this baseball-mad corner of the state for the CBS Sunday Morning program. Fink, whose mile-a-minute diction causes his words to run together like an infielder's C'monbigfellaNobatternobatter chatter, confounded CBS technicians who couldn't get him slowed down to at least a blue streak. Finally, in desperation, they played back a videotape for him, and Shooky had to admit he couldn't understand himself either.

In 1980, the upscale readers of The Atlantic Monthly -- a publication usually reserved for the more cerebral matters of political biography and David Stockman's private assessment of Reaganomics -- got a taste of Shooky's ballpark philosophy, too.

Shooky Fink has been getting a lot of attention from adults lately, but that's not what makes 9-year-olds spit in their gloves and try harder the next time. They do it to win the approval of this funny, uncomplicated man. They understand, better than adults, that deep inside that 66-year-old body is a boy trying to get out again, ready at any time to drop his hoe or his chimney-building project to go "play some ball."
Perhaps Shooky Fink said it best himself. "If I want to live to be 100 years old, I've got to be out there. If I'm not out there, I'm dead."

Source: Des Moines Sunday Register, Des Moines, Iowa, 7 August 1983

_____ _____ _____

Heywood Hale Broun Visits with Shooky Fink

Maybe you thought we were kidding in last week’s paper when we announced that Heywood Hale Broun, CBS·TV sports commentator, would be in New Albin to tape a segment for that network’s "Sunday Morning" program.

Broun is shown talking baseball with Shooky Fink, on the left, while "Sunday Morning" producer Roger Sims looks on before the trio moved to the New Albin ball diamond, where Broun’s interview with Fink was taped. CBS will air the show about Shooky and Kee High baseball on April 26.

~Allamakee Journal, Lansing, IA, Hand-Dated 1981

_____ _____ _____

Shooky Fink is Nominee for Special Award

When Allamakee County juvenile probation officer Helen Beardmore asked a pair of youngsters what they planned to do in the summertime to keep occupied and out of mischief they replied, “Play baseball for Shooky.”

That reply, one frequently heard over the years by the probation officer, has resulted in a “Working in the Interest of Youth” award nomination for Harris "Shooky" Fink, New Albin Elementary School custodian.

The award is given by the Iowa Juvenile Probation Officers Association for an individual who has shown extraordinary interest in working with young persons. Fink has become the nominee for the northeast quarter of the state and will be considered with three others representing other sections of the state for the final selection.

Fink has become legendary in this northeastern Iowa community of 500 for his single-minded devotion to youngsters and athletics, baseball in particular. Citizens refer to him as “the built-in recreation program” because of the time he spends with youngsters, all without charge. Anything that has to do with youngsters is sure to find “Shooky” in the thick of it.

All previous winners of the award have been persons in the professional field related to working with children. “Fink is the first ‘non-professional’ to be considered,” Beardmore explained.

Final selection for the state honor will be made March 23, and the presentation will be made at the state meeting to be held in Davenport in May.

~Allamakee Journal clipping, hand-dated 1983

_____ _____ _____

Special State Award Goes to Shooky Fink

The Iowa Juvenile Probation Officers’ Association Friday named Harris "Shooky" Fink, New Albin Elementary School custodian, as their statewide winner of an award made to individuals who have made an outstanding contribution in working with youngsters.

Fink had previously been the nominee from the northeast portion of the state. In Friday’s balloting by members of the association’s executive board, he was selected as the overall winner for the state.

The award to Fink will be made officially on Thursday, May 5, 1983, at the annual spring meeting of the probation officers' association at Blackhawk Hotel in Davenport, Iowa.

Fink is widely respected in this area of the state for his tireless efforts in working with community youngsters in unpaid recreational activity for over 25 years.

Source: Allamakee Journal, Lansing, IA, April 1983

_____ _____ _____

I submit these articles with fond memories of "Shooky". One of those friendship pins mentioned in the article probably came from me. I was smitten with this funny old man, and remember him with a smile. The article doesn't mention that, though girls weren't allowed to play on any of the teams, we were allowed a few swings during recess where "Shooky" would always have a game going. Good or bad as those few swings may have been, he always had something nice to say to make you feel good. What a great guy he was!!!



Shooky Fink passed away October 10, 1988


Photo credits:
~Color photos are from Des Moines Sunday Register, Des Moines, Iowa, 7 August 1983

~Bottom photo is from the Allamakee Journal, Lansing, IA, April 1983. Pictured is Shooky with young admirers:
Back: Errin Lee(the contributor of these biographical articles) and Lana Welper.
Front: Jessie Kohlmeier, Karla Colsch, Shooky, Sarah Jane Sires and Heather Lee.

~Photo on the far right of Shooky & Heywood Hale Broun is from an 1881 issue of the Allamakee Journal



Allamakee Biographies maintained by Sharyl Ferrall.
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