Erie’s Len Kolakowski, 99, hit against Satchel Paige and Eddie Feigner
Len Kolakowski never made it to the big leagues but played with or against some of the best baseball players of the 20th century.
They included Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Satchel Paige and Pee Wee Reese – all members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Kolakowski even batted against the most famous softball pitcher of all time, Eddie Feigner of the King and his court.
“Dad’s job for the Navy in World War II was overseeing a lumber yard in Pearl Harbor, but he ended up playing in a lot of those baseball games to entertain the troops before they went off to fight in the Pacific,” said Kolakowski’s son, Tim. “There were a lot of major leagues in those games.”
Kolakowski, who died May 3 at the age of 99, was a formidable athlete, professional painter, avid dancer and dedicated candy maker.
Obituary:Leonard J. Kolakowski
Born in Erie to a family of 12, Kolakowski graduated from the old Memorial Technical High School and began working as a painter for the Erie School District. When World War II began, Kolakowski was drafted but failed his physical exam.
“He felt bad being rated 4-F,” said Bill Hagan, Kolakowski’s son-in-law. 4-F is a military classification which defined a conscript as unfit for military service for physical reasons. Hagan said he was unaware of the nature of Kolakowski’s 4-F classification.
During the war, Kolakowski worked as a civilian for the United States Navy at Pearl Harbor and was recruited to play in the camp’s high-profile baseball games.
“He knew a lot of those guys who watched the games before they got sent off weren’t going to come back. He said, ‘This might be the last football game some of these guys will see. So we played hard. “
Kolakowski returned home after the war and played minor league baseball. The lanky left-handed first baseman qualified for AAA – the highest level in the minor leagues – in 1946 when he played part of a season with the Toledo Mud Hens.
But that’s when his professional baseball career ended. His future wife, Thérèse, was ready to marry and start a family.
“They had met before the war and he knew it was time to start their life,” said Tim Kolakowski. “But he continued to play baseball and, later, softball.”
Kolakowski defeated Satchel Paige and the King
Kolakowski joined several barnstorming teams that traveled to the area, including one with former Negro League and Major League player Sam Jethroe, who had recently moved to Erie. He beat both legendary Negro League superstar Satchel Paige and former Major League star Paul “Daffy” Dean.
He also played for years in the Glenwood Baseball League in Erie and various local softball teams. Kolakowski once played against Feigner, who traveled the country every year with his four-player “King and His Court” softball team.
“I don’t remember how dad hit Eddie when he came to Erie but I do remember going to the game,” his daughter, Kathy Hagen, said. “It was exciting to watch him play against famous people.”
Baseball and softball weren’t the only sports in which Kolakowski excelled. He won bowling tournaments with some of his brothers, and in his later years was able to shoot under his age at the Downing Golf Course.
“He was such a good dancer”
About a year after Thérèse Kolakowski’s death in 1982, Kolakowski attended a religious gathering for widowers and soon discovered he was the only man present.
“He was handsome, like (actor) Peter Lawford,” said Grace Horton, who attended the reunion. “The nun leading the meeting told him to take me home. We got in the car and he said to sit closer because my window was leaking.”
Kolakowski then called Horton and asked for a date. They remained together until his death.
One of the couple’s favorite activities was polka dancing. They danced at local clubs, including the Polish Falcons, and even went on dance-focused trips.
“We would go to any club that had music,” Horton said, looking at an old portrait of Kolakowski. “He was such a good dancer.”
The couple also spent a lot of time together in their kitchen in Millcreek Township, making sponge chocolate for friends and family.
Shopping with Kolakowski has always been an adventure. Due to his work as a painter, his athletic career – he was elected to the Metro Erie chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame – his memberships in several social clubs, his efforts as an Erie Times Old Newsie, and his penchant for dancing , he gets to know a lot of people in town.
He made a quick trip to the store nearly impossible.
“Dad seemed to know everyone in Erie,” Tim Kolakowski said. “We were always running into people he knew at the store. We were always coming home late because he was stopping to talk.”
I almost hit 100
Kolakowski remained active in his later years, playing golf at Pebble Beach Golf in California for his 80th birthday.
Even when he was at home with Horton, sitting in his favorite chair and watching the “How It’s Made” documentary series, he thought about his longevity.
“I was looking through some of dad’s stuff next to his chair and found a torn article from AARP magazine about how to live to be 100,” Kathy Hagen said. “So it was on his mind.”
Kolakowski almost succeeded. He died less than three months before his 100th birthday, which would have been July 30.
“We’re still going to throw a party,” Horton said. “We will come together and remember him.”