By Joel Alderman
Jean Kaas may not have been well known to current and recent generations, but she is fondly remembered by a large number of middle age and older area sports fans, especially those from West Haven. In earlier times she was known as an athlete. Later. she became a mother figure to countless young baseball players who were new to the professional ranks. Jean was a resident of a retirement community in Wallingford, when she died on June 19th at the age of 90.
She richly earned the title Minor League Mama for the interest and hospitality she demonstrated toward minor league baseball players who made West Haven their home away from home in the 1970s.
Before then, however, she was an athlete herself. Her game was fast pitch softball, when it thrived in the Connecticut. She played third base and was captain of the Tel-Belles when they went undefeated in 27 games in 1947. The Tel-Belles were organized the year before under the sponsorship of the Telephone Society of New Haven, which handled athletic and social affairs for employees of the old Southern New England Telephone Company. The players all worked for SNETCO, mostly as switchboard operators.
Jean learned to love baseball through her father, Roy Steenhoff, who played second base for the same phone company’s other team in the popular New Haven Industrial League. Roy was good enough to be invited to spring training with the New York Yankees. According to his grandson, Glenn Kaas, he told Yankee owner Col. Rupert, “No thank you. The phone company pays better, and I have a family to support.”
Roy taught Jean how to keep score and took her to many games in New York. From then on she became a fan. She met her future husband, Ove Kaas, who was from Denmark, at SNET, and they moved to West Haven in the 50s.
Her love for minor league baseball started in 1972 when the New York Yankees placed their Eastern League Double-A farm team in dilapidated Quigley Stadium. They won the league championship that season under the developing managerial skills of Bobby Cox, the same Bobby Cox who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer.
Among those who played for the West Haven Yankees during the nine seasons of their existence was future, New York Yankee star pitcher, Ron Guidry. In a 2003 article she wrote for the Meriden Record Journal, Jean said “looking at him you’d never predict that he was going to be a big leaguer, because he was a skinny, scrawny kid and he was a relief pitcher with a high earned run average.”
Around 1975, she and Ove were helping players find housing. They would also invite them for picnic dinner at their home at 487 Ocean Avenue, on the shore of Long Island Sound in West Haven. The house, which still exists, had a glassed-in spacious porch, ideal for serving a group of 15 to 20 hungry ballplayers. That happened frequently after weekend games that were played in the daytime.
And what did those young ball players do on the lawn of the Kaas’ house, right after being in a baseball game? They played whiffle ball.
Some even lived with the Kaas’ for a short time, until they found their own lodgings. “My kids were all out of the house by then, and we could host five players at a time,” Mama Kaas said.
She remembered Dave Righetti, whose career highlight would be a no-hitter against the Red Sox in Yankee Stadium. What impressed her the most about Righetti, when he was with the West Haven Yankees, was not his pitching but his appetite. “I never saw anybody eat as much as he could,” she said.
Among the players and managers she befriended were some who would reach the major league as managers, one as a coach and another as an executive.
In addition to Bobby Cox, the ex-West Haven managers who would do the same in the major leagues were Doc Edwards and Stump Merrill. Edwards led the Cleveland Indians for three seasons and Merrill had the Yankee job in 1978 and 1979.
One of those who became a manager was Grady Little, a player-coach for West Haven in 1972-3. He managed for two seasons in Boston, where he was much maligned for not taking out a tiring Pedro Martinez in the 7th inning of the final playoff game with the Yankees. He also managed the Dodgers for two years.
Apart from Cox, the best known of the West Haven Yankee alumni to become a major league manager was William Nathaniel Showalter, who later became better known as “Buck” Showalter. Buck has managed four teams in the majors, and is currently the skipper of the Baltimore Orioles. Although he never played in the majors, he was an outfielder-first baseman with West Haven in 1978 and 1979, and had a .284 batting average in 252 games.
It is because of Cox’s long career in the dugout, for Toronto and mostly the Atlanta Braves, that he is going to the Hall of Fame.
According to Glenn Kaas, one of Jean’s sons, Cox did not attend many of those team festivities at the family house. But he does recall that after the team bus left on a trip to Three Rivers, Que., Canada. for the playoffs in September 1972, Cox had it pull up to the Kaas home on Ocean Avenue for a pre-trip picnic.
Another of Mama Kaas’ “adopted” West Haven Yankee players, was Joe Lefebvre. He has a six year career and is currently the hitting coach for the San Francisco Giants.
Then there was a player named Doug Melvin, who never played in the big leagues, but today is the general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. “He studied the game,” she recalled, so he knew a lot more about the other team than any of the other players.”
Not all was pleasant or easy for Mama Kaas in her role of surrogate mother. There was one young man whom she helped get through an emotional time while getting a divorce. Another needed dental work, so she took him to her dentist, who “never charged him a penny,” she said. Gaining the confidence of many players, she had come to conclude that the owner of the New York Yankees, George Steinbrenner, had hurt some of them very badly, but she did not say just how.
When the team moved out of West Haven after the 1979 season, it was hard on Jean and Ove. Later, they retired to Clearwater, Fla., and became avid fans of spring training games. Her husband died in 1997, and she moved back to West Haven.
Jean wrote a manuscript called Minor League Mama: A Personal Look at Eastern League Baseball in West Haven, Connecticut from 1972 to 1982. It was never published, because of its limited appeal. However, a copy is preserved in the library at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
During those years in West Haven, Jean provided the players “with a memory, so they could look back and say they were made comfortable at a hard time in their lives. . . The ball players needed a little maternal care, and I got the satisfaction of seeing them do well. Whenever they hit a home run, they’d look at me in the stands. We sat in the same seats behind home plate for 11 years. I look back on it as a real great time in my life.”
She and her husband started their informal association with the EL-Yanks, as the local press often referred to them, as season ticket holders at Quigley Stadium. That was in the team’s first season, 1972, when they easily won the league’s American Division, then swept the playoffs in three games over the Three Rivers Eagles, a Cincinnati farm team that included such future major leaguers as Ken Griffey, Sr., Will McEnaney, Dan Driesen, Joel Youngblood, and Ray Knight.
Arguably the best team ever to represent West Haven, they won the first game of the playoffs 1-0 in 16 innings on a two out double by Otto Valez, and never looked back
In 2011, at the age of 88 Mama Kaas was honored by the West Haven Twilight League. At the time Buck Showalter told the late Dave Solomon of the New Haven Register,
“I don’t even know if the West Haven Twilight League knows who they’re honoring to the full extent. You wish you could drop everything and be there. She’s very worthy of being recognized on a lot of levels. She and her husband were always there for us. It wasn’t about anything other than having a good heart and doing something nice for a lot of young men who were away from home, many for the first time.”
Jean kept several autographed baseballs and scrapbooks in her home that included newspaper clippings, game programs, photos and hand-written thank you notes from the players. Unfortunately, her later years had not been kind to her. She suffered from a mental impairment that made her unable to remember what she did with that treasure trove of West Haven memorabilia. Family members believe it went into a scrap heap. Fortunately, one of those personally autographed baseballs was saved, and it is in the possession of Glenn. The signer was Ted Williams.
Her loving offspring includes a daughter, Karen Carlson, who lives in East Berlin, Conn., and is an office furniture manufacturer’s representative. Glenn Kaas was a police officer in Hamden for 13 years, then a state prosecutor. He is still in West Haven and is now retired. The other son, Gary, had a 36 year career in the U.S. Army. His home is in Sierra Vista, Ariz.
Jean’s actual children are just one of her families. Karen, Glenn and Gary still have to share the happy memories of their biological mother with the recollections that so many from the old West Haven Yankees still have of her. They are the ones from her other “family.” They also claim Jean Kaas as their mother, or, more accurately, their “Minor League Mama.”