On the day her dad died, March 2, 1999, Forest Park resident Katie Novak recalls that when she got home from the hospital, the movie Field of Dreams was on TV.
If you build it, they will come.
“If I build a museum, they will come,” Novak said, “just like my dad built his empire and they did come.”
Vince Dierkes’ “empire” was Oak Park youth baseball, which he started in 1949 and which evolved into a program that still today involves hundreds of kids and supplies OPRF and Fenwick high schools with plenty of talent. In the late 1960s, he added softball for the girls (he had two daughters, after all) and in the ’70s he created a soccer program for boys and girls.
He made quite an impression during his 83 years in the village. He was born at 829 Gunderson Ave. on Jan. 11, 1916, across the street from 832 Gunderson, the house where Cubs’ shortstop Joe Tinker lived from 1908-1914. The Dierkes Insurance office was located on the 900 block of Madison Street — first at 912 and later at 904. He took over 906 as well and used it as his youth sports office. Over the years it became stuffed with trophies and other memorabilia.
Vince had a way with baseball. It was, in the overused argot of today, his passion, but in his case the word fit. During his playing days he was a catcher, which, as every baseball fanatic knows, is the team leader. But it also made him an expert on pitching, and Vince could coach pitching like nobody’s business.
As a result, Dierkes Insurance won the championship every year, so Vince promoted himself to coaching only the tournament team, which won the world championship in 1961, ’68 and’69. In the 1950s, when he found the confines of Little League too unfriendly for his tastes, he told them to take a leap and made his own leap — to a competing youth baseball organization just starting in Pennsylvania, called PONY, which stands for Protecting Our Nation’s Youth. It has nothing to do with horses, but Vince quickly extended that motif and all the youth baseball divisions in Oak Park still bear horse names: Shetland, Mustang, Jr. Bronco, Bronco, Pony and, at one time, Colt. And girls softball (12-inch fast-pitch underhand originally) was called the “Filly League.”
Vince was more of a “czar” than a commissioner, and it’s no coincidence that his favorite song was Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” But he loved the kids, was loyal to his managers and coaches, and also had a way with slogans. “Baseball is better than pot,” he would say during the 1960s and ’70s. His letterhead read, “Diamonds are a kid’s best friend.” And the concession stand at Ridgeland Common posted the sign, “Don’t know where mom is, but we have pop on ice.” One of his favorite sayings, according to Novak, was, “Insurance is my wife, but baseball is my mistress.”
(To be fair, his wife helped him run the insurance business — and was his partner in the youth sports activities as well).
Vince did other things, too. Very involved in the local Optimist Club (being Mr. Positive Mental Attitude personified), he would run the annual Optimist Christmas tree lot, often wearing a Santa Claus suit. And according to the Oak Leaves’ sports writer Ted Londos, Dierkes was responsible for reviving the 4th of July fireworks show in the 1960s.
By the time he retired in 1995 (from insurance and commissioning), Vince didn’t just have a sizable collection of trophies and honorary plaques.
He saved everything.
Now his daughter, Katie, wants to create a museum that tells the story, not only of her parents but youth sports in Oak Park.
The collection includes scrapbooks with team stats that Vince put together for most seasons, meeting minutes that go back to 1951, myriad team photos, team banners, a coil of base path measuring string, even his old tournament uniform.
He also put together very specific instructions for teaching kids to play each position, in addition to how to coach and even how to be a parent in the stands (Novak’s favorite).
In terms of outfield positions, he made the following recommendations to his coaches: “In general: Left Field, slowest [runner], weakest arm; Center Field, fastest; Right Field, fast, best arm.”
He handed out these instruction sheets every year and made sure his managers held parent meetings so they knew what to expect.
And he accumulated some other interesting artifacts — every baseball cap from National and American league teams in the late 1980s, for instance, and approximately 35 baseballs signed by Minnie Minoso. He also has two balls signed by the Chicago White Sox team of 1986, the year Vince inaugurated the annual “Oak Park Night” fundraiser at Comiskey Park-now-Cellular Field, which allows all the youth baseball and softball players to walk around the field before settling into their seats. (The 30th annual Oak Park Night took place this year on June 5.) Oak Park Youth Baseball/Softball gets a percentage of ticket sales.
“Dad didn’t believe in kids soliciting door-to-door,” Novak recalled, noting that he actually made his pitch to the Cubs first because, even though he was a die-hard Sox fan, the Cubs were more popular at the time and Channel 44 had just gone under, so the Sox weren’t even being televised.
The Cubs turned him down flat, but the Sox were more than happy to accommodate all those Oak Park ticket-buying families.
One of Vince’s most prized collections was 20 bats from the Louisville Slugger Famous Hitters series. The idea was to choose four top hitters from each team and recreate the bats to precise specifications (weight, length, shape) with a gold-embossed signature by each player. The bats didn’t sell as well as Louisville hoped, so they discontinued the series after five teams (Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, Reds and Tigers). Very few people have all 20 bats, Novak points out. One set sold at an auction house in January, she said, for $6,800. “And that was before Ernie Banks died,” she noted.
Her dad also owned several original Al Hirschfeld illustrations from the New Yorker related to baseball.
“He had it all,” Novak said, and now she has it all, including the video from her dad’s retirement dinner at the former Mar-Lac Banquet Hall on Marion Street in 1995.
She plans to auction the Famous Hitters bats and 31 Minoso-signed baseballs through Hunt Auction Group (www.huntauctions.com) in Pennsylvania to help raise funds to build out the museum. Other items include a Cubs cap signed by Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire in 1998. Bids are being taken through Aug. 26.
She hopes to raise the rest of the funds needed through GoFundMe.com. Novak has some health issues, so she could use volunteers to help organize the collection — and to find a location. Her initial hope of locating it in a storefront on Madison Street (just a block from her dad’s old office), then owned by Charlie Robinson of Robinson’s Ribs, fell through when Robinson sold the property to the village. But Robinson may be buying property on Madison across from village hall and said it’s possible there will be space for the museum there.
Dick Powell, a longtime youth baseball coach who runs Powell Decorating and Construction, has offered to donate his time to build out a space once that is nailed down, and David Manola of Boulevard Fine Arts (formerly of Oak Park, now Clarendon Hills) offered to assist in designing the exhibits.
When this all comes together, Novak plans to donate 20 percent of the museum’s admission price to Oak Park Youth Baseball/Softball.