The same Pirates players Joe Lonnett waved home in the 1979 championship season gathered in Pittsburgh from all over the country a week ago to send Mr. Lonnett home for the final time.
The third base coach and major league catcher died Dec. 5 after a battle with Alzheimer's disease. He was 84.
"Everybody loved him and he would do anything for you," said pitcher Grant Jackson.
Pitcher Kent Tekulve remembered Mr. Lonnett as a coach who was always ready to pitch batting practice, work with a catcher, offer advice and support players in any way. But it was his character that shined through.
"Everything that he did he did in a very professional manner and he never ignored or forgot about who he was or what he meant to other people," he said.
Mr. Lonnett, of Brighton, Beaver County, was born and raised in Beaver Falls, where he grew up dreaming of playing for the Pirates. In 1947, shortly after he finished high school, he was picked up by a Reds farm team in Rockport, N.J., and began a lifelong professional baseball career.
He made it to the big leagues in 1956 and played with the Philadelphia Phillies as a reserve catcher for four seasons.
He had stints coaching the Chicago White Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays, and finally made it to the Pirates as a member of manager Chuck Tanner's coaching staff in 1977.
Mr. Tekulve said his locker in Three Rivers Stadium was next to the coaches when he was called up to the majors in 1974 and he became close with Mr. Lonnett.
"He was that universal personality in the clubhouse who would make you happy just looking at him," he said. "You would be happy about being a Pittsburgh Pirate. You would be happy about being part of this team and you would be happy about getting to work with Joe Lonnett."
The last time he saw Mr. Lonnett at a team reunion in 2004, he said he had "that same smile on his face."
Pitcher Jim Rooker said that Mr. Lonnett was like the father he never had.
"It doesn't matter what I say," he said. "It will be totally incomplete for the kind of person he was."
He remembers Mr. Lonnett as a great catching instructor and a very knowledgeable third base coach. "Joe was a very intelligent guy about the game of baseball," he said.
In the clubhouse, Mr. Lonnett became the subject of the players' practical jokes.
"He would just laugh and yell at us, throw a few expletives at us, and then all was forgiven," he said.
Mr. Tekulve wasn't sure if he fell into the pranks or was just too good-natured to stop it.
"I never really could figure out if the was just that gullible or if he knew we enjoyed doing it so much that he let it happen," said Mr. Tekulve.
Pitcher John Candelaria said Mr. Lonnett was a pleasure to be around, a good man with a smile on his face, who earned his nickname "Fred Flintstone" because he resembled the cartoon character.
"Joe was easygoing, just a gentleman," he said.
Tito Francona, a journeyman first baseman/outfielder in 15 major league seasons, grew up in New Brighton and as professional players coming from the same area, they became friends and worked out in the winter at Beaver Falls High School during their years in the minor leagues.
In their older years, they would get together and have a luncheon around Christmas every year at the Wooden Angel in Beaver. Old friends like Tanner, who died in February, were always in attendance.
Mr. Lonnett's friends said he was proud of his family, his wife of 56 years, Alvida Pisani Lonnett, his five daughters, and their families.
"There are people with big hearts, but Joe he had a mega-heart," Mr. Rooker said. "He was such a wonderful person."
Mr. Lonnett's daughter, Barbara Lonnett of Leetsdale, said he always put his family and his extended family at the Pirates before himself.
"He would do anything for anybody," she said. "It was never about my dad. It was always about what he could do for somebody else."
In addition to his wife and daughter Barbara, Mr. Lonnett is survived by daughters Maria Lonnett Burgess of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass., Judy Lonnett Morgan of Brighton, Joyce Schaughency of Brighton, Nancy Lonnett Roman of Beaver; and six grandchildren,
Noll Funeral Home in Beaver handled Mr. Lonnett's funeral arrangements.
Correction/Clarification: (Published December 17, 2011) In an obituary of former Pirates coach Joe Lonnett printed Friday, Kent Tekulve said in a quote about practical jokes that "I never really could figure out if he was just that gullible or if he knew we enjoyed doing it so much that he let it happen." The quote was attributed to the incorrect person.
Taryn Luna: firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published December 16, 2011 5:00 AM