Mike Gambino was just about to walk onto the field to begin work with his Boston College baseball players that Don Becker, the longtime leader of the Newburgh Nuclears, had died.
The news stopped him cold and he sent his assistant coaches out to the field while he processed the information.
“I’ve always known the impact he had on my life and that knowledge buckled me,” said Gambino, a graduate of James I. O’Neill High School and a three-year member of the Nuclears, who is now the head baseball coach at Division I Boston College. “I know so many of us that played for the Nukes think about making that team as a pivotal point in our lives.”
Becker died on Monday, Sept. 14, at the age of 74. He was a volunteer and general manager of the Nuclears for over 50 years. He also was an assistant scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was the attorney to the town of Newburgh for 16 years until retiring from the law to serve as co-owner of two Ann’s Hallmark stores, founded by his mother, Ann.
“I am heartbroken,” said John Martin, who coached the Nuclears’ senior team for 10 years between 1998 and 2008. “It wasn’t just what Donnie had done for baseball, but what he had done for all of us growing up. I had known him since I was 16 and he was always there for you when you needed it no matter what it was.”
Martin said his greatest satisfaction was the ability to deliver two New York State American Legion Baseball championships. The first was in 2000 with five players that went on to sign professional contracts. They won their second state championship in 2004.
“He had already seen a couple of his peers accomplish that,” Martin said. “I know they were very special for Don and for myself and the program.”
The year before, Becker led an army of volunteers to host a Mid-Atlantic Regional Tournament at Delano-Hitch Stadium. Entering the tournament as the host team, the Nuclears in a tournament that featured heavy rain, the Northeast Blackout and long games, advanced to the finals, losing to New Jersey’s Andrew Bailey, who went on to win Rookie of the Year with the Oakland A’s.
“We had a talent time, and we were only the second host team to make it to a regional final in all the years they had set up that format.”
Becker joined the Nuclears in 1969, taking over as general manger 10 years later when Sal Ciaccio retired to Arizona in 1979. He dedicated nearly every summer for about the next 30 years running the program, organizing seasons, sending out game results and making sure all the players were taken care of.
His health had declined in recent years, but he was back with the program for the last five years helping the program, which is now under the eye of Shea Ceriello. He was in touch with Becker after the American Legion baseball season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, always meaning to meet up with him to walk around Chadwick Lake, but couldn’t get it done.
“Donnie Becker taught me how to be selfless,” Ceriello said. “It wasn’t just about baseball. It was about the fraternity; it was about the kids; it was about those who didn’t have the means. It was about giving back and creating the brotherhood that these kids will take with them through the rest of their lives.”
Gambino said he has worn a Newburgh Nuclears shirt underneath his uniform at every level from his playing days at Boston College and his two years in the Boston Red Sox organization.
Gambino was teammates on the Nuclears with Marlboro High School graduate Dee Brown, who was drafted in the first round in by the Kansas City Royals in the first round of the 1996 Major League baseball draft. He spent parts of the 1998-2004 seasons with the big-league teams before playing his last two seasons in Japan with the Seibu Lions in 2010 and 2011.
“He always treated me with first class,” said Brown, who said he had a long emotional conversation with Gambino following Becker’s death. “It’s a local all-star team, but he always made sure I was OK. I wasn’t around money and he would treat me first class. He would get on me and would always kid with me and make me feel special.”
One of Becker’s traditions was he allowed Nuclears players when they turned 18 to drive his Mercedes Benz.
“He could have easily said ‘no’,” Brown said. “We would always meet up at Cronomer Park and whoever I came with would hop in the Benz with Mr. Becker.”
Never Don, even though he would try to get his graduated players to call him by first name.
“I couldn’t do it,” Gambino said. “I just had too much reverence for him. He was always ‘Mr. Becker’.”
Bob Bell, the father of Newburgh’s Rob Bell, who was drafted in the third round of the 1995 Major League baseball draft by the Atlanta Braves and finished his career in 2007 with the Baltimore Orioles, remembered Becker’s calm during a chaotic trip to Cincinnati for Rob’s Major League debut.
Their flight was canceled out of Stewart International Airport.. They had to drive to Westchester County Airport and then light snow fell as they arrived in Cincinnati and had to take four different cabs to get to the ballpark.
“I always recall the calm Don displayed and the reassurance that it would work out OK for us all that day,” Bell said. “He had that outer appearance of coolness and resolve that was always there.”
He did more than just run the program. He also spent countless hours on the phone with college or professional scouts to get them to look at a player. He would also take boys on college visits who didn’t have the means to do it on his own.
“It was a communal selfless act,” Ceriello said. “If anyone involved in youth sports can have the effect on one child other than their own the way Don Becker had the effect on hundreds or even thousands, this world would be a greater place.”
Becker always shunned the spotlight. When the Junior Nuclears started the annual Don Becker tournament, he objected to the name.
“It was in my house that we decided that, and he had a fit and he hated it,” Martin said. “Whenever we wanted something, we had to drag him out of the scorers’ booth to come down and take some credit.”
Speaking of credit, Gambino and Brown credit Becker for the careers they’ve had. Even through he didn’t break into the big leagues the way Bell and Brown did, Gambino said he wouldn’t be Boston College’s head baseball coach if not for Becker, who had no immediate family of his own.
Ceriello said he feels a debt to Becker who believed he had it would took to steer the organization and run it the way it had always been.
But his fingerprints will also be on the Nuclears’ program.
“I know the community will never have another man like Don Becker,” Martin said. “My heart goes out to his family. They’re all friends of mine. Baseball will never be the same without Don Becker.”