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Hometown Heroes

There Once Was A Time

When Every Town Had A Team

Every Team Had A Star

Every Boy Had A Dream

     This is the fifth in my series of baseball card themed stories.  As a boy growing up in Saranac Lake, despite the long, cold winters and short playing season, baseball was always my favorite sport.

     I began collecting baseball cards in 1974, when I was eleven years old.  I’ve been collecting cards ever since.  I’m the kid whose mom never threw his cards out.

Left to right: 1952 Topps Willie Mays, 1941 Play Ball Joe Di Maggio
1953 Topps Mickey Mantle 1911 Mecca Double Folder Christy Mathewson

     Sitting on one of my many display shelves of what has become a massive lifetime collection, alongside the likes of such legendary baseball heroes as Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, and Saranac Lake’s own Cure Cottage Immortals, Larry Doyle and Christie Mathewson, are cards of a lesser-known baseball legend, Saranac Lake’s own Hometown Hero, Pete Camelo.

     To be clear, growing up, I never knew Pete. We’ve never met. In fact, if he ever read this story he’d most likely say

“Who the heck is Dick Monroe?”

Which would be quite justified on his part.

     Pete was a senior at Saranac Lake High School in 1978.  I was nothing more than an anonymous freshman. He had absolutely no reason to know who I was.  In the 1978 Saranac Lake High School sports world, Pete Camelo was Mr. All Saranac Lake Redskins All Everything. Everybody in Saranac Lake knew who he was.

     While Pete was busy setting athletic records and getting ready to head off to a collegiate career at Appalachian State, I was busy getting cut from Saranac Lake’s JV baseball team.

1978 Saranac Lake Redskins Varsity Baseball Team
1979 CANARAS Yearbook Photo

Coach Fisch cut me the next year as well. In fact, I got cut during baseball tryouts my first three years of high school.  So, instead of chasing my baseball dreams, I had to run track instead.

     Even on the football field, where Pete helped lead Coach Raymond’s Saranac Lake squad to NAC glory, I had not yet debuted. I was still sitting in the bleachers banging a base drum and cymbals as part of the SLHS high school band pep squad.  Pete was well on his way to catching the eye of major league scouts by the time two years later when I made my Redskins football debut as “Monk”.

     I knew who he was though. I suspect most kids my age did. We held our breath and gave him wide berth out of respect as he passed by us in the hallways, while we marveled at his athletic achievements on the gridiron, basketball court and baseball field.

     Pete was likely never even aware any of that was going on.  I suspect most high school athletic heroes go through life unaware of the paths they blaze, examples they set and dreams they inspire for the underclassmen who admire them.

     No, by the time Coach Raymond recruited me from Coach Sturgeon’s track team to make my debut on the Saranac Lake Redskins football gridiron as “Monk”, Pete was in his junior year of college, soon to be signed as an outfielder by the Montreal Expos.

     It was a big deal when that happened. As far as I know, to this day, Pete is the only Saranac Lake High School graduate to play professional baseball.  His signing gave hope and inspiration to a whole generation of aspiring Saranac Lake athletes who followed in his footsteps.

     For my part, I was honored when Coach Raymond assigned me Pete’s jersey number. Though I was never a great high school football player, inheriting Pete’s number 26 jersey was a responsibility I took quite seriously.

     It would be another year before, after getting cut three straight years, I finally made Saranac Lake’s Varsity baseball team.  Dick Zerrahn was the coach. I made the SL squad as a pitcher my senior year. Pete’s younger brother Jim, who I graduated with, was our team’s catcher.  Jim was a stellar athlete and ballplayer himself.

Spring 1981
My lone season playing Saranac Lake Redskins baseball.
Adirondack Daily Enterprise Photo

     I did not really distinguish myself that lone year on the baseball team.  Missing three season’s worth of high school baseball put me behind other players in terms of skill set development.

     Still, I gained valuable experience that year that would serve me well later. Coach Zerrahn’s brother John was an Adirondack baseball legend pitching for teams in the Champlain Valley League up around Peru.

     Coach Zerrahn invited his brother to our practice one day. For some reason, John Zerrahn took interest in my mound efforts and spent time teaching me me how to throw an overhand curveball. It was a pitch I would much later put to good use in my own post high school career on the ballfield.

     By the time I graduated Saranac Lake High School in 1981, Pete must have been a college junior at Appalachian State. I remember that he still came home during the summers and played Champlain Valley League baseball alongside Coach Zerrahn and other local baseball stalwarts for the powerhouse Saranac Lake Merchants.

     Though I still had a strong desire to play baseball after graduation, I was nowhere near good enough to play alongside Pete and my other Hometown Heroes on that Saranac Lake team.  So, as had generations of aspiring ballplayers before me, I slid my spikes and glove over my bat and thumbed a ride to another Champlain Valley League team, The Altona Blues, who were a bit shorter on pitching.

     I only played part of one season for Altona, my career literally cut short one night while I was working at Dagwood’s Pizza, which had just moved across the street from what is now Bitters & Bones to the corner of Broadway, just past the stop light, next to the bowling alley.

     On that fateful evening, I sliced off the end of my right thumb cutting ham for a hungry customer’s submarine sandwich.  I was scheduled to start on the mound for Altona the following day. I taped up the thumb, hitchhiked to Altona with my left thumb, and tried to pitch anyways.  However, I couldn’t grip the ball properly and came out of the game with my pitching hand a bloody mess after walking the first three batters.

     Meanwhile, Pete and the Merchants were busy clubbing homers and wins off most every team in the league.  Come to think of it, we never did find the missing end of my thumb.  I’ve always wondered what happened to it.

     Be that as it may, that was the end of my baseball career for the time being. Not so for Pete. I don’t recall if he was drafted or signed as an undrafted free agent, but Pete began his professional baseball career as an outfielder with the Class A Gastonia Expos in 1983.

     By that time Pete was already well ensconced in Saranac Lake Redskins lore as a local sports legend. I was in the midst of a non-baseball playing tenure at Cornell, preparing for life as a U.S. Army Intelligence officer with unfulfilled baseball dreams.

     Despite having both attended the same highs school, played Champlain Valley League baseball, and having had his younger brother Jim as my classmate, teammate and catcher, Pete and I had still never met. Yet, completely unbeknownst to him, his on field accomplishments in the Montreal Expos organization continued to inspire me.

     Pete went on to play for five seasons in the Expos organization, getting as far as Double A. According to online minor league records compiled by STATS CREW, he played his final season with the AA Jacksonville Expos in 1987.

     While doing background research for this story, I spotted an article in the March 12, 1987, UPI Sports Digest Archives stating that Pete signed in 1987 with the American Association’s AAA Indianapolis Indians, but it appears he never actually played for them.

     Still., according to the STATS CREW record book, Pete complied a career batting average of .239 with 86 doubles, 10 triples, 63 home runs, and 269 RBI over his 575-game minor league career.  He had a career slugging percentage of .398, led Gastonia with 17 home runs in 1983, and played with a number of players who went on to major league careers.

     Seems to me those are pretty impressive power hitting numbers.  In today’s power focused game, I suspect numbers like that might be a fast-track ticket to a big league call up. I do not know why Pete never got called up. In any event, that was the end of his professional career as a ball player, but not as an inspiration to others, like me, as things would turn out.

      As fate would have it, I ran into some local baseball folks here in Watertown through my contacts in the Army while I served in 10th Mountain. My thumb long since healed over, I decided that I had unfinished business on the ballfield.

  Far more physically mature and much stronger than I had ever been in high school, despite a nearly 8-year absence from the playing field, I tried out for and made the local men’s semi- pro team. It’s amazing what a stint in a United States Army infantry division can do for a young man’s physique. Long story short, my baseball career was rejuvenated with the Watertown Athletics, who would later become the semi-pro version of the Watertown Indians.

     I went on to an eight-year career of my own as pitcher/player/manager with that franchise. During my career I was fortunate enough to play alongside and against numerous former pro players, including a few former major leaguers. I even managed to finagle a pitching try-out in front of our local Class A Cleveland Indian’s scout at the ripe age of 33, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

     I finally hung up my own spikes and retired from semi-pro baseball in 1999, though I went on to play Men’s Senior League baseball for three more seasons.

     I’ve collected baseball cards now for over half a century, nearly all my life. I have nearly a million cards in my collection. They represent some of my most cherished memories of both baseball and life.

     It’s funny where we find our heroes, how we connect to them, how they can influence us through life. I suspect most of those who inspire us do not ever realize the effect they have on those around them.  The successes they have on the field set an example for others. This is probably especially true for young high school athletes.

     I have display shelves replete with cards of Major League Hall of Famers and stars, from Babe Ruth to Ty Cobb to Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Hank Aaron. Each card stokes a cascade of childhood memories and dreams. They all were my heroes.       

     Mixed in amongst my many famous baseball hero cards, sitting in its own display on a shelf, sits the card of a far lesser-known player.  Though we’ve never met, for me, as a baseball player, he belongs amongst them.

  To the best of my knowledge to this day the only professional baseball player ever to come out of Saranac Lake High School.  The Saranac Lake Highs school athlete whose football jersey I inherited and baseball footsteps I tried my best to follow. 

My Hometown Baseball Hero,

Pete Camelo.


Until Our Trails Cross Again: