They call him “Coach,” and have for most of his 94 years.
Not just the baseball players. Everyone. Other Chatsworth High coaches, school administrators, teachers, aides and students who aren’t athletes but know he’s on campus every day and that he seems to care.
Chuck Hatfield has been a fixture at Chatsworth since 1993, when varsity baseball coach Tom Meusborn coaxed him into guiding what was then a new freshman-sophomore team.
“I told him, ‘I’m 72. I’m done coaching,’” Hatfield said. But Meusborn convinced him to stay on, just until he was able to find someone else.
That someone never showed up, “and I’m still here,” Hatfield said with a chuckle.
Now a varsity assistant, Hatfield treats the players to bubble gum and candy, works with the outfielders during practices and charts pitches during the games. He also monitors the players’ grades, offers insights based on his life experiences and makes sure that the grass on the baseball outfield looks like the next best thing to a putting green.
Twice a week, he turns the key to the program’s tractor-sized mower, brings the engine roaring to life and begins painstakingly traversing the expanse enclosed by a fence line that features banners from the program’s nine City Section championships.
As he rides, he occasionally allows himself to ponder his many years devoted to baseball.
Born June 15, 1922, in Franklin, Tenn., Hatfield moved to Guthrie, Okla., when he was 7. By 18, he was playing baseball and got his first coaching job for a YMCA team. He took over because the policeman who had been guiding the team got shot in a leg while working.
“I’ve been coaching ever since,” Hatfield said.
He joined the Navy during World War II, was in Japan during the Korean War and came to Southern California in 1954. He worked for 32 years at the General Motors plant in Van Nuys, starting on the assembly line and later using a computer to locate parts. He started coaching American Legion baseball in Sylmar in 1962.
“Every kid in Sylmar knew who he was,” said Denny Thompson, who played for Sylmar High and later coached there before becoming the principal at Canoga Park High.
“For a lot of us, he was like a second dad. You could always talk to Charlie. He was Mr. Sylmar.”
Hatfield is so popular around Chatsworth that in December he was grand marshal of a community parade.
“Everyone around campus loves him,” All-City catcher Daniel Zakosek said.
Early on St. Patrick’s Day, one faculty member after another drops by to hug Hatfield as he sits in the high school’s counseling office wearing a blue baseball coaching shirt, black pants and black shoes.
On grade verification day, he is using a magnifying class to help him identify papers. Around his shirt collar are green beads given to him by a teacher hoping to ensure “no one pinches you.” But the hugs and fist pumps keep coming.
“You need a pitch counter to keep track of the hugs,” said Fred Pudrith, another baseball assistant.
Hatfield spends weekdays working in the counseling office as a volunteer before he heads to the baseball field in the afternoon. He decided long ago he’d rather work than sit at home and watch television in his one-bedroom apartment about a mile from campus.
A school librarian picks him up in the morning, and after baseball practice he gets a ride home from a coach or player.
As he walks around campus, baseball players greet him. And other students, too.
“They’ll say, ‘Coach!’ and give me a hug,” Hatfield said. “One day I’m up here walking and one of the boys grabbed me, ‘Coach, how are you doing?’ I walked about two feet and another guy came up to me and said, ‘I saw you give this guy a hug. Can you give me a hug?’ I didn’t even know the kid. Sometimes they need it, too.”
A campus security aid, Norma Ortiz, brings Hatfield food and checks on him.
“I feel he’s my grandfather,” she said.
Hatfield’s presence seems to want to make people be courteous, friendly, respectful, kind and helpful.
“He’s the grandfather for everybody,” Chatsworth principal Tim Guy said.
Physically, Hatfield looks much younger than a man who will turn 95 in June. He has no trouble walking. His biggest issue is his eyesight, which has declined to a point that he stopped driving four years ago. He has a pacemaker, but that was put in about 20 years ago.
“He’s like the Energizer bunny,” Thompson said.
Hatfield discussed stepping down several years ago, but Meusborn put a stop to that.
“We won’t let him go,” Meusborn said. “He’s a freak of nature.”
After retiring from General Motors, Hatfield tried playing golf and went back to Oklahoma for 10 days to spend time with two nephews.
“Everything was strange,” he said. “I said, ‘to heck with this.’ ”
Around the Chatsworth baseball program, everyone knows the outfield grass is Hatfield’s domain.
“No one [else] ever cuts my outfield,” he said, smiling. “I think when I was a kid my dad wouldn’t let me touch the grass. That’s why I love to cut it.”
Back and forth he goes on the tractor, starting in right field and following the warning track to left field.
“I can sit back, relax, think about baseball, think about life, think about when I was younger and helping these teenagers,” Hatfield said.
In his apartment, he listens to the “Tennessee Waltz” or “The White Cliffs of Dover,” songs from the 1930s and 1940s that ignite memories of his childhood. But he says he doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the past.
“I don’t go backwards,” he said.
Thompson says Hatfield hasn’t changed much since he first met him in 1962.
“Just a wonderful, wonderful guy. Plus, as a kid, he taught me how to read the Racing Form,” Thompson said.
Thompson also has passed along a life lesson to his grandchildren he says Hatfield taught him.
“I tell them to play hard and have fun,” he said.
Hatfield, in his usual folksy, down-to-earth tenor, says it doesn’t seem like he’ll soon be 95.
“I’ve been around kids since I was 18,” he said. “People say, ‘why don’t you go and enjoy yourself? Retire, travel.
“I did that after I left General Motors. It got tiresome. No more of that. My life is trying to help kids. That’s all I want to do.”