BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Ben Smookler, Berkeley Heights' own baseball legend, passed away Tuesday, May 26 at age 73. Smookler brought collegiate level baseball to Berkeley Heights by making Snyder Avenue Field home for his Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League (ACBL) Jersey Pilots team.
Born in New York City, Smookler has been a resident of Berkeley Heights since 1975. He was an accomplished baseball player with a college scholarship to C. W. Post. He enlisted in the United States Navy and was a veteran of the Vietnam War. He was honorably discharged in 1986 as a Lieutenant Commander. Before his retirement Smookler was employed as a Salary Analyst for Lucent Technologies.
While he worked at Lucent to pay the bills to support the family, "The Pilots is what he really enjoyed, it brought him so much joy," said Smookler's son Mike Smookler.
In 1973, while still in the Navy Reserves and working full time at Lucent [formely Bell Labs], he joined a friend who was the General Manager of a collegiate summer baseball team on Long Island as his assistant GM, according to a NJ.com article. This led to being asked to fill an open General Manager's position for the Bergen Pilots in New Jersey.
Smookler had been involved with the collegiate league for over 40 years and the Pilots were like a family. "He loved his family and he loved the Pilots -- the team is like my big brother," said Mike Smookler.
He will be remembered for giving these young baseball players the chance to be looked at by professional scouts. "It's the opportunity to show your stuff -- it can make or break you," said Mike Smookler.
Smookler would recruit and select his team with the motto of work hard and make a name for yourself, said Mike Smookler. "That's what the league is about -- to be seen by the scouts. My dad really enjoyed doing what he could for the kids."
Chris Roof, a GL graduate and current GL Head Baseball Coach, played for Smookler and the NJ Pilots for three summers (93-95). "Mr. Smookler, right from the get go, took me under his wing," said Roof. "I really grew up and I owe a lot of that to Mr. Smookler."
Smookler would call upon Roof asking if he knew of any local standout college baseball players looking for a place to play summer ball. He even asked Roof to coach the team on a few occasions. "I was very appreciative that Ben thought to ask me these things," said Roof.
One of Smookler's treasured accomplishments was bringing the NJ Pilots to his hometown of Berkeley Heights. "I'm so happy he was able to enjoy this the last couple of summers. Ben will be sorely missed by so many people, but especially me," said Roof.
Smookler had comfort knowing that the team was in good hands with Head Coach Aaron Kalb and he was assured that there would be a season.
When Mike Smookler addressed the team after his dad's passing, he asked the players of one thing: "Represent the team well because it meant so much for my dad, that would be tribute enough."
This year's season will be dedicated to Ben Smookler and the June 7th home game against Staten Island will be "Ben Smookler Day" in honor of the legend that brought the ACBL to Berkeley Heights.The game will be played at Snyder Avenue Field at 6:30 p.m.
A memorial service will be held on Monday, June 1 at the VFW Post 6259 on Locust Avenue in Berkeley Heights from 3 to 5 p.m.
Ben is survived by his beloved wife of 48 years Gwen and his loving children: Michael Smookler and Mari Levitan, dear brother of Betty Fogler and Stan Smookler and was the cherished grandfather of Benjamin and William Smookler.
Click here for full obituary. Funeral arrangements are under the direction of Paul Ippolito Berkeley Memorial. For additional information or to send a condolence please visit www.ippolitofuneralhomes.com.
Visit the NJ Pilots team page for complete schedule of games.