Saint Mark’s High School has won 14 baseball state championships, by far the highest number of any school in the state. The first four title-winning teams were coached by Tom Lemon, and for his accomplishments with the Spartans and elsewhere in the sport, Lemon will soon find himself in the Delaware Sports Museum and Hall of Fame.
Lemon, who spent 37 years as a teacher, coach and administrator at Saint Mark’s, said he was “humbled and honored” when he received the call from David Hughes, a sportswriter who works as the historian at the hall. He coached the baseball team from 1982-97, winning four state titles in eight championship-game appearances.
Lemon, a member of Saint Mark’s first graduating class in 1973, returned to his alma mater a few years later as an employee. How he ended up at the school was happenstance.
In the winter of 1978, Lemon was scouring the classsifieds in the newspaper, “and I saw an ad, ‘Local school seeks a jayvee baseball coach for the upcoming season. Call 738-3300,’” Lemon recalled. “I didn’t even recognize the number. I just thought, ‘Wow, a school is looking for a jayvee baseball coach.’ So, I picked up the phone, and I gave them a call, and a woman I came to know, Mrs. Turnberger, answers the phone and says, ‘Good morning, Saint Mark’s High School. May I help you?’ I almost dropped the phone.
“I went to school there, and I didn’t know the number.”
Lemon, 65, had played baseball for the Spartans under Gene Alessandrini, and he coached under Bob Fischer, two men he called great mentors. By the time Lemon took over the varsity in 1982, he said the Spartans were well on their way to becoming a force. Working with talented student-athletes and with the backing of parents and administrators, the team earned its first championship in 1985.
He said Saint Mark’s had very strong programs in academics, service, sports and the arts. It also was guided by the values of the Diocese of Wilmington. All of that helped the baseball program.
“Those values were very, very important to everything that we did at Saint Mark’s. It certainly carried into the athletic arena. I looked at baseball coaching as an extension of academic coaching. We were coaching and teaching baseball,” he said.
“They were all significant to our success. Every player, every team, whether that team was a state finalist or fell a little short one year. All of those teams were very, very special to me. I still try to keep in touch with many of those guys,” he said.
Another accomplishment was coaching Delaware to victory in the inaugural Carpenter Cup, a tournament for high school players from the tri-state area sponsored by the Philadelphia Phillies.
“It was fantastic,” he said. “We had a great bunch of assistant coaches that year. It was really a thrill to play at Veterans Stadium, where we all had seen our heroes play over the years. To be there, and to have a chance to play, and then to play in the championship game, to receive the Carpenter Cup trophy from (former Phillies owner) Ruly Carpenter at home plate that evening was quite a thrill for our team.”
During his coaching tenure, Lemon’s teams matched up with those coached by a number of Delaware coaching luminaries, including fellow hall of famers Ron Dickerson of Seaford, Larry Wheeler of Brandywine, Oblate Father Robert Kenney of Salesianum, and Vince Filliben of Archmere. Former William Penn coach Mel Gardner will enter the hall with Lemon this fall. He recalls especially fondly the battles against the other Catholic schools.
“Those are all fond memories that I cherish and value, the chance to work with those guys,” he said. “It’s a great fraternity of people who enjoy working in an educational vocation with young student-athletes, striving together. Just a great bunch of people who make it happen.”
His final season at Saint Mark’s was memorable for a few reasons. The 1997 squad defeated Wheeler’s Brandywine team, 6-3, for the state championship. But in April of that year, on the Feast of St. Mark, his father had died. His parents were regulars at Spartans games.
“Even though he wasn’t there in person for the ’97 championship, we always kind of felt that we had an angel helping us through in my dad,” he said.
Lemon had coached his sons, Greg and Mark, in Little League and Catholic Youth Ministry with St. John the Beloved, and again after high school in the Delaware Semi-Pro League, but while the boys were at Saint Mark’s, he just watched the games with the rest of the parents on the hill overlooking the baseball field.
After leaving Saint Mark’s in 2015, he began working at Delaware Technical and Community College as the director of development. He enjoys the work and believes in the college’s mission of preparing students to work in Delaware.
Normally, the induction ceremony is in May, but with the coronavirus pandemic, that has been moved to Oct. 14 at the Chase Center on the Riverfront. Tickets are $65 and includes a social hour, banquet and silent auction. More information is available at www.desports.org/events. Lemon will add the state hall induction to those in the Saint Mark’s and the Delaware Baseball halls. He is anticipating seeing some old friends.
“So many people have reached out to me over the past couple of weeks. It’s been amazing to hear from people that I haven’t heard from in a long time. It’s been very, very gratifying. I really appreciate all the support. I’m just very blessed and fortunate.”