There wasn’t a soul around who thought Jack Hoffman would fail to become a star in the Big Leagues. This kid had it all. He’d been a standout second baseman for Bettsville High School for four straight years. If a game was played with a ball, Jack excelled. He was equally as celebrated on the hardcourt, helping to catapult the Bobcats to the state tournament his junior year in 1938.
In essence, Jack was the kind of kid every parent hoped for. He was polite, quiet and well-liked, even by his competitors. As a youngster, he faithfully attended the Methodist church, and in Boy Scouts, he earned 9 merit badges. The little boys in town were thrilled when the 18-year-old was promoted to assistant scout master of Bettsville’s Troop 34.
But baseball was Jack’s life. There was no question that he wanted a shot at the majors, and it looked like he was well on his way when he landed a spot on the acclaimed semi-pro Fremont Green Sox of the of the Ohio State Baseball League. The Green Sox started out as a farm team for the Cincinnati Reds. Back then, those bush-league teams gave a whole new meaning to the term “a diamond in the rough.” There were occasional bench-clearing fist fights, and a plethora of practical jokes, but those teams also saw a lot of talented players rise through the ranks. Jack was ready to be one of the chosen few. In fact, he was one of the league’s top prospects.
Then Sept. 28, 1940 happened.
After graduating from Bettsville in 1939 and spending a year at Ohio Northnern University where he was an honor student, the young man needed money. Baseball wasn’t yet a paycheck, so in an effort to earn a few extra bucks, Jack got a job at the nearby Basic Dolomite stone quarry in Maple Grove, where he was assigned to work as a brakeman on the quarry’s gondola train cars.
Whenever Jack’s name came up after that fateful day, his uncle, Bob Hoffman, always emphasized that his nephew never should have been working on those cars. A brakeman was a dangerous job for a seasoned professional, and Jack had been employed at the quarry only 2 weeks.
That Saturday was relatively uneventful – until about 2:30. Jack was standing on the couplings on one of the gondolas while the cars were being towed by a crane.
Without warning, he lost his balance and slipped.
It was over so quickly, and poor Jack probably never realized what happened. He was killed instantly. The exceptional athlete was decapitated, and one arm and shoulder were severed before the train could be stopped. His Uncle Bob was one of the first to reach the grisly scene. What he saw would haunt him for the rest of his life.
People from all the small cities and villages came to pay their respects the day Jack was buried. His best buddies from childhood carried him to his final resting place in the family’s burial plot in Findlay’s Maple Grove Cemetery. Future Seneca County Common Pleas Court Judge Harry Lee Bozarth was one of the pallbearers, as were Don Simpson, LeRoy Craun, Russell Semer, Gene Baker and Robert Jeanette.
Jack’s teammates from the Fremont Green Sox, along with members of the Zeta chapter of the Sigma Pi fraternity of Ohio Northern University served as honorary pallbearers.
His parents, Forrest and Dora Hoffman were devastated, as were his sisters, Peggy (Gangwer) and Jean (Gamertsfelter).
The baseball world lost a potential star that afternoon. But more importantly, the people of Bettsville, Fremont, Fort Seneca, Old Fort and the surrounding area lost a loyal friend. In our family (Bob Hoffman was my grandad and Jack was my mother’s cousin), the story of Jack’s death – but more importantly his life – was repeated often, punctuated with a wistful, “What might have been.”
If only …