The Greatest Uncle
A legacy of service, leadership, and love comes to a close
In the midst of its signature yearly tournament, Little League lost one of its dearest volunteers.
Long-time World Series uncle Fred Plankenhorn passed away Thursday morning, just two days after his 70th birthday. For the past 44 years, Plankenhorn had served as a host for the young teams that participate in South Williamsport each August. He was unable to serve as an uncle this year due to his declining health.
Uncles like Fred are responsible for relieving the teams' managers of several administrative duties, which is extremely helpful as teams can easily be moved between multiple practices or games, photo shoots, and interviews throughout the day.
Most important—and what the kids best remember them for—is the uncles' relationships with the ballplayers, making them feel at home while performing in front of large crowds and a world-wide television audience. In an environment where kids become instant rock stars, the uncles push away the distractions and help them have fun.
According to any uncle you talk to, Fred was far and away the best uncle any kid could ask for.
"He set the standard for all of us", said Paul Weaver, who is in his 40th year as an uncle and served as Fred's partner for 28 years.
"No doubt about it," added Mike Knight, an uncle whom Fred and Paul took under their wing six years ago.
Weaver and Knight sat in the Chinese Taipei dugout before the start of Wednesday night's Pool D championship game against Panama and told tales—some of them taller than others—of their favorite uncle.
A Williamsport native, Plankenhorn began working at his grandfather's printing company in town right out of college. He would work there until he retired at age 65 as its owner.
As dedicated as he was to his family's business, Plankenhorn also took great joy in hosting a weekly radio show, which he would record from a studio in his own home.
To say that Plankenhorn was a master in longevity would be an understatement. Fred first hit the radio waves at age 15, giving him 55 years as a disc jockey, almost 50 as husband to Ann, 44 as an uncle, and over 40 in the family business. He has also served as Lycoming County Commissioner and has been on the board of directors for the local airport and a local bank.
"Committed" might be an adjective thrown around by some, but it's very safe to say that Fred Plankenhorn was a humble man dedicated to the people he served. "Sensitive" and "understanding" seem to fit the bill as well.
Plankenhorn was a very popular DJ from start to finish, growing with his audience over the years.
"I think he discovered long ago that people like to hear more than just music," said Weaver. "What he does is he takes a certain year—'44, '56, '72, whatever—and he does research on what were the top songs and what happened that year in politics, in Williamsport, whatever."
Weaver feels that what Plankenhorn did with his radio show is reflective of his personality as a whole. Being able to see more than what's right there—in this case, with the music—and gracefully adapting to his audience are gifts that make those who know Plankenhorn eternally grateful to be his friend.
"He is simply just excellent," said Reverend Gary Weaver, an uncle for the Latin America champs from Panama this year who is in his 13th tour of duty in South Williamsport.
Rev. Weaver also sees similarities between Plankenhorn's radio career and his time as an uncle.
"He's seen a lot of change around here," said Rev. Weaver. "And he's always been able to adapt because his focus has always been on the kids and not on all the changes around him."
He added, "I can't imagine that any of his players have gone home from here not having had a great time."
Even though he remained in Williamsport his whole life, Plankenhorn left a mark on many from around the world.
In 1967, Uncle Fred hosted a team from Linares, Mexico, which finished fourth in that year's World Series. In 2007, several of the players from that team made a return trip to South Williamsport, where they made a point to see Uncle Fred before they saw anybody else.
"That just tells you the impact that Uncle Fred had on those players and coaches, that they'd be willing to—before anything else—find Uncle Fred," said eighth-year host Denny Logan, who worked with the Northwest champs from Auburn, Wash., at the 2010 Series.
Little League Baseball is not solely responsible for Plankenhorn's world-wide influence, however. In fact, sometimes Fred is better recognized than the world's largest youth sports organization.
Dr. Creighton Hale, former president of Little League Baseball and Softball, discovered this in 1984 when he was invited to a dinner at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles hosted by ABC. When Dr. Hale sat down at his table, an ABC official curiously asked if the "Williamsport, Pa." on his nametag was his hometown.
Prepared to field a question about Little League Baseball, Dr. Hale was shocked when the ABC official burst out, "Do you know Freddie Plankenhorn?"
Because Fred's radio station was an ABC affiliate, the official actually knew Fred and was a fan of his work. Dr. Hale laughed and lamented that he had to fly all the way to California to hear about Fred Plankenhorn.
That kind of enthusiasm is more the rule than the exception when people talk of Fred.
"To me, he's one of the reasons I'm here," said Frank Missigman, Rev. Weaver's hosting partner. "He's just a wonderful person."
Some uncles have been close to Fred longer than others, but everyone seems to gush in equal amounts when speaking of one of the longest-serving Little League uncles.
"I think what I love about him is that I live out of town and I'm only here for two weeks a year," said Rev. Gary Weaver, who hails from Hershey, Pa., but looked forward to seeing Fred each summer. "There's such a wonderful bond there that instantly reconnects like you've been seeing him every day."
Other stories sound different but end up with the same result.
"I knew him in [high] school, and I tell him, 'You know, going to school you were a real pain in the [rear], but here you're a real good guy!'" Missigman said.
That kind of kidding around is all part of the environment that Fred loved to foster.
"He's just the backbone of the core," Missigman continued. "He has such a good sense of humor. He just keeps everything loose. There's never anything negative from him; it's always the positive. We just looked forward to him being here so much."
One of the reasons the uncles appreciate Plankenhorn is the unique way he would be a straight shooter with people. For much of the past decade, Plankenhorn has served as the Dean of the Uncles, meaning he has had the responsibility of holding all the uncles to the highest standards.
This role never caused uncles to shy away from interacting with Uncle Fred.
"He is a very approachable person," said Knight. "If you didn't know what all your responsibilities were, you could go over there and he would seriously lay everything out for you. He was very good at explaining what you should and shouldn't do, as well as kind of that unwritten stuff, the rules beyond the rules."
"He truly does know how to balance making this fun and enjoyable, and getting the job done, without getting caught up on either side," added Rev. Weaver, referring to Plankenhorn's roles with both the kids and the other uncles.
Though every uncle is appreciative of Plankenhorn's friendship and leadership, Fred's highest marks come when the uncles speak of the reason they know him in the first place—his interactions with the kids.
"What he's done with the kids over the years is remarkable," said Missigman.
Paul Weaver recounted his favorite example of this in a 2008 interview with Little League World Series special correspondent Allie Weinberger:
"We had Taiwan one year, and in Taiwan young people respect their elders," Weaver explained. "They're very serious about it. They don't give any adult guff. So the first game we played we won, and as the boys started to head off the field, Freddy was at the steps like he always is and gave a kid a hug. And the whole team froze. The interpreter, a lady from the embassy, was Taiwanese but her English was perfect. So she quickly ran out and told the boys, 'That's ok—that's an American custom.'
"We didn't think anything of it. So the next day, we went to practice, and after practice the kids all lined up to march back here, and the interpreter came over and said the boys won't go back until they got their hug!" he continued. "And that became tradition—every place they went they had to have a hug."
And that included their very last day in Williamsport, when the Taiwan team invited their beloved uncles up for breakfast.
"They wouldn't get on the bus to go home until Uncle Paul and Uncle Fred gave them a hug," Weaver said with a smile.
Weaver seemed to be at a loss for words when trying to sum up his partner's legacy at the Little League World Series.
"His personality, his intelligence," he started. "What am I trying to say?" he asked Knight in the Chinese Taipei dugout on Wednesday.
"He was really a decent person, you know?" Weaver continued. "He loved kids, loved Little League. I don't know, 44 years, you have to like it to keep coming back."
Every year, Fred's birthday has fallen squarely in the middle of the World Series. August 24 is a day all the uncles look forward to as the day when they can celebrate a man who asks for no recognition.
Rev. Weaver began to tear up as he spoke on Fred's birthday of his absence.
"So what [we] do is sing happy birthday and have a cake, and he tries to play that down because it's about the kids," he said. "That really speaks highly to who he is. It's very interesting not having him here on his birthday. It is hard."
"We're really upset about Freddie," added Paul Weaver. "But we gotta keep going. Can't let the kids down."
As soon as Weaver said this, a Chinese Taipei hitter singled through the left side.
"Hey, there we go!" Weaver exclaimed, briefly halting the interview to cheer on his kids.
And perhaps that is the greatest testament to the legacy of Fred Plankenhorn. Though things have drastically changed behind the scenes at the Little League World Series, the men who have looked up to him for so long now carry on his tradition—putting the kids first at all times.
Their tireless efforts to serve the kids will never make the uncles into rock stars of their own. But if you're a guy like Fred, that's just the way it should be.