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A Lunch-Pail Coach

Ralph Silva Rolled Up Sleeves, Racked Up Wins

  • Ralph Silva, left, as Charlestown High's basketball coach in 1963.
  • Ralph Silva at Stevens High's baseball coach in 1978.<br/>Valley News file photograph
  • Ralph Silva as a Stevens High football assistant coach in 2011.<br/> Valley News file photograph - Tris Wykes

Claremont — Ralph Silva might have been the headmaster of the old school. He could be gruff at times, he could be demanding at times. But he wasn’t mad ... he was just a perfectionist. And he couldn’t — for the life of him — understand why no one else saw things — or did things — the way he did.

Didn’t you want to be better? Didn’t you want to win?

It’s funny, in a way, because here was Silva trying to squeeze an ounce of perfection out of generations of teenagers.

But somehow it worked. For 37 years Silva coached and prodded his young charges around the baseball diamonds of the Upper Valley from Charlestown to Stevens High of Claremont.

That legacy of perfection, of victory and of success is what we all will be talking about today after news of Silva’s passing cloaks the city in its mourning clothes.

Ralph Silva died Wednesday night after a short illness. He was 82.

As sports editor of the Claremont Eagle Times, I saw Silva at his high points, and sometimes at his low points.

He coached basketball and football, but his legacy will always be baseball. He coached two state championships at Fall Mountain Regional High and one at Stevens High. Those were his benchmarks.

Baseball and Ralph Silva were the best of buddies for decades.

When Silva coached at Charlestown High, later swallowed up by the Fall Mountain school district, the team played on a piece of farmland and his teams played a 12-game season.

When Carlton Fisk — his star player at Charlestown — was signed by the Boston Red Sox, he was sent to Waterloo, Iowa, where he played 52 games. It was more games than Fisk had played in his high entire school career.

Silva coached for 37 years and had 363 wins, the majority coming at Stevens, where his teams won 228. In his three championship years, he was blessed with an ace pitcher. Back then, with a three-game playoff system and no inning or pitch limit, Silva was able to use the same pitcher all three games, in the span of less than a week.

In his Fall Mountain championship years, he had Scott Willis and Conrad Fisk (Carlton’s brother) as his go-to pitchers, and on the 1978 Class I champion at Stevens he had Dave O’Hara.

While Silva retired with more than 300 victories, there were still years at Stevens when the wins came hard. He was dismayed when fundamental baseball was absent. He would stand in the third base coaches’ box, just shaking his head. That lack of fundamental baseball knowledge sent him back to the Claremont Little League program where he became a coach at that level while still coaching the high school program.

Silva was not one to boast, and he had a special feeling for the less talented, but harder working, players. He often talked about his catcher, Timmy Griffin, from his Fall Mountain days. Griffin was no star, but he was a grinder and the kind of player Silva had a special place in his heart for.

But sometimes, that heart was broken.

On a warm July Sunday in 2000 Silva stood on a large piece of farmland in Cooperstown, N.Y., with thousands of others awaiting the induction of his most famous student — Carlton Fisk — into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The inductees were allowed 15 minutes to speak — Fisk spoke for 45 minutes — in that time acknowledging the contributions Silva made as his high school baseball coach in Charlestown.

That was nice. But on this day, one of the most celebrated in Silva’s career, something else occurred to spoil the moment. Before the ceremony began, Silva walked past me and headed for the roped-off area where the family and friends of the inductees were gathering for the ceremony.

“I have a seat with the family,” he said proudly. Moments later he came past me again, now going in the opposite direction — back onto the farmland and away from the roped off area.

“What happened?” I asked him.

“I was told I had to leave. There was no seat for me,” he replied.

Silva himself is in a hall of fame — in 2005, he was inducted into the New Hampshire Interscholastic Association’s Hall of Fame.

One of Silva’s hardest days as a coach came not on the diamond, but on the gridiron, on a muddy, wet football field at Hanover High on a November day in 2005.

It was the NHIAA Division IV state championship game against host Hanover, a game the Marauders eventually won — aided by a late flag for pass interference that kept the final, winning drive alive.

The referee took the side judge aside and asked him if he really wanted to make that call. He did. The call stood and Hanover booted a field goal to win the game, 15-13.

To this day, that game is still referred to as “The Call.”

“You have to ask the guy up there, because I have no idea,” Silva said after the game. “I thought we’d won the ballgame.”

There were other hard days that pierced his tough exterior. His first wife, Sylvia, the mother of his four children, was killed by a drunk driver while driving to work. His next two wives also passed away. He also lost one son, Tony.

He is now survived by his fourth wife, June.

Years ago, Silva was diagnosed with cancer. He would beat the disease, but while he was recovering he would spend his time driving from his house near the Claremont airport to the downtown Claremont stores. He would make the trip many times a day, explaining: “My wife left me a grocery list with 12 things on it. I’m getting them one at a time.”

Silva stepped down as a head coach in 1997, but he was never very far away from the sidelines. When his son Paul took over the Stevens baseball team seven years ago, Silva once again put the uniform on as Paul’s assistant and one of his base coaches. He continued to hit infield until this season when — suddenly — his hands wouldn’t work.

“I can’t even hold a cup of coffee,” he said from the dugout late in the season, the sadness in his eyes displaying his emotions. “My wife had to dress me for the game.”

Barnes Park will never seem to hold the same charm now that Silva is gone. It remains a grand old ballpark with its wooden grandstand and vast outfield.

But something will be missing.