Joe Gambino loved being the life of the party.
Not in the traditional sense. Quite the opposite, in fact, as Gambino was the last guy to ever draw attention to himself in a crowd.
Gambino’s party took place on a field, with bases, a pitcher’s mound, dugouts and a bunch of boys having fun. It’s where he loved to be and it’s where a lot of young baseball players loved having him.
That is the legacy Gambino left behind when, at age 56, he lost a two-year, six-day battle with multiple myeloma. He died on Dec. 30, 2016.
The magnitude of his impact, particularly in Ewing and Hopewell townships, came into clear view at his Jan. 4 viewing, when grieving admirers of all ages stretched out the front door of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Ewing for four solid hours. The church was nearly filled for a service the next day and most of the attendees continued on to the cemetery burial.
He had done so much for them, and now they wanted to give back by showing their appreciation one last time.
That’s how it often is. Those who quietly gave the most during life, get the most back once they are gone.
“Joe was a completely unselfish person,” said lifelong friend John Schragger, who delivered the eulogy. “He made the players or the participants always more important than the winning and the losing. He was very inclusive with everyone. He just loved to be involved. He was constantly trying to make things better and figure out how to make things work. He always put himself second, everybody was always ahead of him, and he loved to talk baseball.”
Gambino is survived by his wife, Liz, and three sons. Joe attends Montclair State, Anthony is at Mercer County Community College and Dominick is a senior at Hopewell Valley Central High School. Dominick, a member of the HVCHS baseball team, played for his dad throughout his career in the Hopewell Baseball Softball Association and then in the Hopewell-Ewing Babe Ruth league.
“My teammates enjoyed my dad’s presence, as he brought a sense of confidence and security to the team,” Dominick said. “Nobody was afraid to talk to him because he kept an open mind about anything and everything, and they knew he always had the best interest for each player. In every player, he saw some sort of potential, even if it was minimal. He would work hard to guide them in the right direction to improve. He also had great patience, especially at the younger ages.”
‘Joe always put family first, and then baseball, but he was like a big brother to me.’
Unlike so many parents, who get into coaching to maneuver their kids into a starring role, Joe never played favorites. That did not mean his son was not his favorite, of course.
“My dad always and will forever have more confidence in me than anyone I will ever meet, including myself,” Dominick said. “Whenever I would begin to second guess myself with anything in life, especially baseball, he was always there to keep me going. He knew how to connect to me and get to me more than anyone ever will.”
Hopewell Post 339 legion manager Mike Coryell, who is credited along with Gambino for the merger that formed the Hopewell-Ewing Babe Ruth League, also grew up with Joe and remained friends for life.
“Joe is very easy going and would do anything for the kids,” Coryell said. “He was not about daddy ball at the very least. He was a very big proponent of outside people coming in to coach teams if possible so there would be no conflict with their kids. He was always very laid back, but very intense when it came to getting things done.”
Gambino was the only child of Joseph Sr. and Kathryn, who everyone just calls Bunny. Growing up in Ewing, he showed an early penchant for baseball and starred in little league, at Ewing High and in Babe Ruth and American Legion ball.
Schragger was two years younger, and Gambino took him under his wing, giving him rides to games when he got his license.
“Joe always put family first, and then baseball, but he was like a big brother to me,” said Schragger, who lives in Hopewell. “Joe’s dad was the rec manager of the Babe Ruth team and he would take us to games. But the neighborhood stuff started before that. We would all be playing something and the other guys were older and Joe would always say ‘I don’t care if John is nine, he’s still playing with us.”
That relationship could have gotten sticky in legion. As an 18-year-old, Gambino was the incumbent starting leftfielder but the 16-year-old Schragger beat him out for the job. What could have led to jealousy or bitterness never even blipped the radar. Joe got moved to third base since his bat was so important, and the team was better. It was a trait Gambino never lost.
“I lucked out not having to feel bad,” Schragger said. “Joe would do anything for the team. He just accepted it and never said a word about it.”
A lifelong state worker, Gambino retired last September after 31 years with the Civil Service Commission as chief information officer for the Division of Information Technology and Management.
He moved to Hopewell after marrying Liz in 1993, and when they started a family Gambino got heavily involved with the HVBSA. He served as player agent and on the board of trustees and his biggest passion was coaching. He coached Joe and Dominick but, like any good father, did not demand his sons play baseball.
“Dad was always supportive of whatever we wanted to do,” Anthony said. “I wasn’t into baseball but he knew I loved music and he always showed his support for me by going to whatever show I played, no matter where it was.”
Gambino’s most lasting legacy will his role in merging the Ewing and Hopewell Babe Ruth leagues. Rather than two dying organizations both disbanding, they came together three years ago to give nearly 200 kids a chance to continue playing baseball. Coryell handled it from the Ewing end and felt secure dealing with Gambino on the Hopewell side.
“There’s a lot of trust in a merger like that because everybody is so afraid of the unknown, and you don’t want to give control to someone if it’s not going to be good for your kids,” Coryell said. “Joe and I had a history, we knew each other, we trusted each other. I was talking to a bunch of people I didn’t know, but the fact Joe was there made it OK. It was a leap of faith and if Joe was not involved, I don’t think it would happen.”
Thankfully for baseball players throughout Ewing and Hopewell, he was always involved.
When it came to baseball, kids and family, Joe Gambino never wanted the party to end.