John Lonsdale is no ordinary volunteer. Words like extraordinary were created for someone like this 83-year-old Santa Monica legend.
The 2010 Santa Monica Little League season marks Lonsdale’s 57th year of involvement with the organization as a coach, a board member, or a sponsor. He is easy to spot around town, usually adorned in a sweatshirt of his beloved USC Trojans and a Giants baseball cap, the team he currently assists in SMLL Majors Division with Richard Krop.
“As a screenwriter, I tend to draw comparisons to movies,” said Stephen Grosscup, a retired postal serviceman and screenwriter living in Santa Monica. “John is like a great supporting actor in a great film. If I were to cast someone to play him, I think it would be Dustin Hoffman.”
Lonsdale and Clyde Grosscup’s friendship began in 1951, while coaching youth football and basketball at The Boys Club. In 1953, Grosscup asked Lonsdale to join him as an assistant coach on the Santa Monica American Lions team. Grosscup’s son Stephen was playing his final year of little league ball.
“He asked if I would help him coach his team that year,” recalls Lonsdale. “I told Clyde I knew nothing about baseball. He said it wasn’t a problem. He said I was good with kids and he would teach me the game.”
All it took was that one year. After the Grosscups departure to Pony League the following season, Lonsdale took over as manager of the Lions team and led them to the 1954 City Championship. From 1954-63, Lonsdale’s Lions reached the playoffs nine consecutive seasons, capturing an amazing seven City titles.
Back then, there were only five leagues in Santa Monica Little League. Lonsdale remembers carrying 15 players on a team before there were minimum-play rules. In fact, he helped introduce those rules before the rest of the country was forced to. In almost six decades of service to SMLL, he said the changes to the quality of the league are minimal. The biggest difference is the bats.
“I would like to see the kids using wood bats, but I understand that metal bats make more sense financially” Lonsdale said. “As far as the quality of players is concerned, they’re about the same.”
Lonsdale was raised in Santa Monica and graduated from Samohi. He served in the Army from 1944-46 and was stationed in the Pacific. He attended Santa Monica Junior College and USC before landing a job in accounting at Douglas Aircraft. During that time he also worked as a volunteer at The Boys Club in various jobs. When Douglas moved its headquarters to Long Beach in 1963, former Boys Club Director Mel Ortman offered Lonsdale a full-time job as assistant director. In his early years at The Boys Club, he and Ortman introduced flag football to Southern California.
“In those days, we only played touch football,” said Lee Grosscup, a retired ABC college football commentator. “I remember John wearing many hats. He was a coach, a referee and, when needed, I even remember him playing in our games when there weren’t enough players. He helped me in a lot of ways. He was a tireless volunteer who seemingly forever stays in touch with people in his life.”
Lonsdale retired from the Boys & Girls Club in 1990 and continues to volunteer with the organization. He helped to start a recycling program to raise money to help fund a two-week rafting trip on the American River in Northern California for club members ages 12-14. That program was so successful that Lonsdale continues to do it on his own, everyday, spending hours around the city collecting cans and bottles.
He set up a separate bank account for those proceeds and donates all of the money to local youth organizations including SMLL, Santa Monica Pony League, North Venice Little League, and Samohi. SMLL Sponsorship Director David Eby said Lonsdale’s annual sponsorship check comes in like clockwork every season and is generally the first check received.
“His is a what I call retro-volunteerism and it is what he was meant to do,” said Stephen Grosscup, who is not surprised by Lonsdale’s continued service to the City’s youth programs. “There’s a real altruism in what he does. He really loves it. To this day, he still sends me Christmas letters as well as flyers for pancake breakfasts to support the The Boys & Girls Club.”
Lonsdale can’t recall the number of teams or players he has coached, but it obvious he has no plans to stop anytime soon.
“The is a great joy for me. I can’t go anywhere without bumping into former players. Just recently I had breakfast with two of my former basketball players, Tim Leary (former MLB star) and Terry Bevington (former Chicago White Sox manager). It reminded me of why I love doing this so much. If I’m lucky, I’ll keep doing it until I’m 120.”
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