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Hometown Heroes: Whitney High School Baseball Coach Neil Freeman Looks To Future, Even at Age 85

Coach Neil Freeman, still going strong at age 85.  Randy Economy Photo

Coach Neil Freeman, still going strong at age 85. Randy Economy Photo

By Brian Hews

Note: Hews Media Group-Community Newspapers will be highlighting long time local residents and community leaders in a new on-going series called “Hometown Heroes!”  This week we feature Neil Freeman, age 85, who has been a icon in youth baseball for more than 50 years.

In the world of big time high school sports, one local hometown hero has been coaching “kids” as he likes to say for more than the last fifty years.

For Neil Gordon Freeman, now 85, and the current head baseball coach of Whitney High School’s baseball team located in Cerritos, high school baseball is more than a way of life, it is a passion.

Born on July 18, 1928 in Wisetta, Minnesota on the shores of Lake Minatonka, Freeman has helped guide the lives of student athletes from the Norwalk, Cerritos, La Mirada area communities for three generations.

“We lived in a town with less than a thousand people, and it seemed like everyone worked at the factory that manufactured Criss Craft boats.  It’s wasn’t a poor community, it had some of the richest people in Minnesota living in the area,” Freeman said in a sit down interview with Hews Media Group-Community Newspapers recently.

Freeman was raised by his grandparents during the Great Depression. L. E. and Sarah Christ worked in Minniapolisis while his mom was a telephone operator for Greyhound Bus, and his father was an auditor at two hotels at the famous Nickolette, and Raddison.

“We use to joke, that my grandfather was known as the ‘Commissioner of Baseball’ in the area.  It was farm country, no big towns around,” Freeman said.

“I would have to go get water out of a well, and would take the buckets to the players dug out by delivering water, heck I would even make money during the games,” he joked.  Freeman said he pocketed around “a dime a game.”  Freeman quipped, “Do you know how much candy I could by for a dime each day back then.”

Freeman said he was raised to “be honest, be fair and treated the way you wanted people to be treated. Those were bad times back then, but my Grandfather made my life pretty good. His grandfather was also a banker but when the crash took place he ended up becoming a local Judge in the community,” Freeman said.

Freeman also remembers the “ice weather” that the Great Lakes area is known for.  “I would be responsible for getting the firewood to keep our house warm in the subzero weather.  We always put the wood pile between the house and the outhouse so I could bring the wood back inside for our fireplaces.”

“The cold air was brutal.  I can remember playing outside when it was 25 to 35 degrees below zero.  It was probably colder, we didn’t have a weather gage back then,” Freeman said.

He moved west in 1939, eventually landing at an apartment near Western and Wilshire in Los Angeles.

“My mother managed apartments when I went to Virgil Middle School and Belmont High School,” Freeman said. He graduated in the Class of 1946 from the well-known local institution.

“I played baseball and football at Belmont High School.  Back then you could only play two sports each year.  I would have played in every sport if I would have been given the opportunity,” he said.

Freeman, said he “didn’t know that girls existed back then,”

“I’ll I knew was sports, it was the center of my life, and it taught me so much about basic lessons of hard work, honesty, competition, and how to become a well-rounded person,” he said.

Freeman also recalled working at several local newspapers here in Los Angeles “back then,” including the Wilshire Press, the Downtown Shopper, and eventually got into the magazine business. S

“I sold newspapers in front of markets; the LA Daily News, the old LA Herald Examiner and the LA Times. Yep. 5 cents each and I made a profit of 3 cents for every paper I sold,”” Freeman said.

One of his “big purchases” he recalled was buying my mom and dad a card table from Sear’s and Roebuck. “The funny thing is, that I still have that card table, and I break it out once in a while just for the heck of it, to remind me how simple life truly is,” he said.

Freeman has found love in his personal life as well.  He met is first wife Jean Schwab, and we going married when we were “around 19 or 20.” “We connected as good friends.  I took a bat and a ball everywhere I went, it drove her crazy,” he said.  The two divorced after 11 years of marriage.  “I was working graveyard shifts on the printing presses press.”

The two had two children, Jay Freeman, who is now 61 and Kathy, who is now 65 who lives in Crestline.

Neil said that his son Jay followed him into baseball and is now a Scout for the New York Mets.   The proud pop said he still likes to remind his son that when he was the quarterback for Norwalk High School, they never went to the CIF Playoffs because they had three tied games. “Can you imagine playing football in your senior year, and ending up with three ties? It was crazy back then,” Neil said.

Jay, like many of other successful local athletes, went to Cerritos College and played for legendary Coach Wally Kincaid and eventually played baseball at Cal State Fullerton under another legendary coach Augie Garrido.  Jay Freeman was named the first “MVP” that Garrido ever coached and ended up playing minor league ball for the Kansas City Royals.

“When you see a lot of baseball, it gets into blood,” Neal said.

Freeman continued his work as a press man in a Vernon newspaper company where he met his second wife Elaine. The two dated for six years, wedded, and remained married for 45 years.  “I was literally was adopted by Elaine’s family, it was amazing,” Neil fondly recalls.

Elaine recently passed away after suffering from Altimezer’s.

“It was horrible to go through this illness with her. She had a heart as big as she was. I had a great marriage. We did everything together. I miss her dearly,” Freeman said.

NORWALK’S FIELD OF DREAMS

Freeman said that today, Norwalk is one of the “best places in America” for organized youth baseball, but it wasn’t always that way.

He remembers that back when he was President of Norwalk High School back in 1966 to 1970. All of the fields in Norwalk were in disrepair and were looking at moving into the Norwalk Tank Farm. “I am not a leader, trust me on this one.”

“We could have used the Norwalk Tank Farm for baseball fields.  I eventually located then Rep. Chet Holifield and asked him to help he secure the funds for the park.  There was a number of acres that was adjacent to the park that was available. Holifield then met with Freeman and told him that he had secured the space for the field.

“All of a sudden we found our selves figuring out how we can build a park at Holifield.  Pete Fogarty was a local councilman and former Mayor of Norwalk. The city had no idea who owned the land, who controlled the land, and how it could be developed.

Fogarty push for a study on how to build the park.  The study went forward. I don’t think Norwalk ever had a city council meeting that big.  It was packed.  The city council at the time was Art Gerdes, John Zimmerman, Bob White’s brother Bill White was a member of the Southeast Parks and Recreation District.  Zimmerman worked for Cerritos College.  Gerdes, Zimmerman White, opposed.  Valdez and Fogerty voted in favor.

The three guys who voted against the park, now all have parks named after them.

Fast forward to Prop. 13 passes in 1977, Howard Jarvis, Paul Gann and Jimmy Cristo worked to get the historical initative passed.  The SE Parks and Recreation Authority fell victim to the massive state cutbacks.

Became a thorn in the side of Carl Fry, who oversaw the development of

First thing we did was re did the parking lot, cut down a huge tree that was in the way.

I now print and pass out the programs.  No one really knows who I am or what I did to be part of the past.

Dave and Sandy Smith deserve “all the credit in the world” for making Holifield Park what it is for the past 20 years.

Freeman was eventually appointed to the Norwalk Parks Commission by former Mayor Margaret I. Peg Nelson. He served on the commission for 15 years. Freeman was reappointed to by Brennan, Eleanor Zimmerman, and Bob White.

Freeman’s tenure as a Parks Commissioner in Norwalk ended when Councilwoman Cheri Kelley captured a seat on the city council.

“I got a call from city hall and was told not to come to the city council meeting that night because Kelley decided not to reappoint me,” Freeman said.

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