The letter was kept in a drawer for years, a reminder of glory days before hair started graying and disappearing, and knees didn’t creak when climbing stairs.

Ralph “Pops” Riggitano wrote it.  He penned it in 1976, a few days after he saw a Lower Cape May Regional High School pitcher toss a no-hitter.

The kid’s father had been unable to attend the game, which was played at Ocean City.  Pops, who was scouting players for a new summer league baseball team called the Lower Township Whalers, stood behind a fence near the visitor’s dugout.

As the innings passed and the bases remained empty, the superstitions and mojo that accompany a no-hitter kicked in.  Caper Tiger teammates and legendary coach Jack Weeks made no mention of it.  Pops, who had started shouting encouragement to the kid early in the game, delivered the same pep talk before each inning.

“Let’s go,” he said. “Just throw strikes.”

After the final out was recorded, the kid flung his glove into the air while teammates rushed the mound.  He looked over toward the dugout, where Pops nodded and smiled.

A few days later, an envelope arrived at the house.  It was a congratulatory note from Pops, who wrote about how thrilled he was for the kid and how happy he was to have witnessed such a rare feat.

It was part of a long-standing bond the kid had with Pops, who passed away on March 3 at age 85.

They first met in the early 1970s, on a baseball field that was adjacent to the canal behind Channel Apartments.  Most games between the Pirates and the Mets involved spirited debates between the kids’ father, who was the Pirates’ manager, and Pops, who was the Mets’ skipper.

The kid wound up playing for Pops when the Whalers were created in 1976.  The team got its name from the once-vibrant whaling community that flourished in the Town Bank section of the township in the 1600’s.

The Whalers were initially composed of current and former Lower Cape May players.  Pitcher/shortstop Frank Ackley, pitcher Clark Batchelor, third baseball Art Fournier, outfielders Joe Fulcher, Brendan Rosenberg, and Jeff Rutherford, and second baseman Carl Roth were members of LCM’s 1973 Cape-Atlantic League Championship team.

The roster also included infielder Don Mumma, who was an Army recruiter, and infielder/pitcher John “Suds” Vogel, who worked with the kid at Steger’s Beach Service in the summers.

The kid, who had graduated from LCM a few weeks earlier, was among the younger players.  Pops primarily relied on the veterans for most games, but seemingly had a soft spot for the kid and used him as a reliever and spot starter.  Pops even gave him a trophy as the team’s “Most Improved Player” at the end of the second season.

Photo courtesy of Dave Weinberg, Sports Columnist for 973 ESPN
Photo courtesy of Dave Weinberg, Sports Columnist for 973 ESPN

Pops, who also served as Wildwood Catholic High School’s baseball coach in 1978-79, loved baseball, in addition to horse racing and Philadelphia’s sports teams.

He grew up in Philly as an Athletics, Warriors and Eagles fan, back in an era when hometown hero Wilt Chamberlain was starring for the Warriors and Steve Van Buren was leading the Eagles to back-to-back NFL championships in 1948-49.

When the Athletics moved to Kansas City in 1954 and the Warriors headed to the West Coast in 1962, he began rooting for the Phillies and 76ers, respectively, along with the Eagles and Flyers.

Like most Philly sports fans, he rejoiced when the Eagles delivered a championship in the 2017 season, for it provided a brief break from a heartache that never healed.

Thirteen months before Nick Foles and company beat the Patriots in Super Bowl LVII, Pops’ eldest daughter, Laura Riggitano Walker, had passed away from cancer.

Pops had spent the last decade or so living with Laura and her family in Pennsville, though Cape May County remained a part of him. He proudly watched his son Frank coach the Middle Township High School football team and got a chance to reunite with some members of the Whalers three years ago.

Photo courtesy of Dave Weinberg, Sports Columnist for 973 ESPN
Photo courtesy of Dave Weinberg, Sports Columnist for 973 ESPN

That group included the kid, though they never really lost touch.  They stayed in contact through the years via the occasional phone call and on social media, where Pops would offer his Kentucky Derby picks and opinions on the Eagles and Phils.

They last communicated on March 1, when the kid had chatted with Pops on Messenger about a former Whaler.  Two days later, Pops passed away in his sleep.

His funeral services included a final visit to Pops’ favorite hangout, the “Woodstown Hotel.”  Frank and the family reserved his favorite seat at the corner of the bar where they placed a pack of Pall Malls, The Daily Racing Form, and a Samuel Adams Lager.

His ashes were inside a special urn shaped like a bowling ball that was covered with an Eagles’ helmet and logo.  It also included an inscription that perfectly described a passionate, loyal and colorful man.

Ralph “Pops” Riggitano


F**k Dallas, GO BIRDS!!

Photo courtesy of Dave Weinberg, Sports Columnist for 973 ESPN
Photo courtesy of Dave Weinberg, Sports Columnist for 973 ESPN

I was unable to attend the services but I’ll always remember Pops in my own way.

The letter he sent me was lost long ago, but I still have the trophy, along with memories that will never fade.

Rest in Peace, Pops. I’ll keep throwing strikes.


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