by Pete Janny, Sports and Managing Editor
Baseball has always been more than just a game in New York City. Around these parts, it’s a tradition; a way of life for many. The beautiful simplicity and patriotic disposition of the sport makes it easy to be romantic about. And here, in New York, baseball’s brightest moments have poetically come during the darkest of hours. In many ways, New York and baseball have grown up with each other.
Yankees fans share a profound appreciation for Lou Gehrig and his powerful 1939 farewell address. Dodgers fans were gifted with a trailblazer in Jackie Robinson who in 1947 persevered against the destructiveness of racism. Mets fans will never forget that emotional night in 2001 when Mike Piazza gave thousands of mourning New Yorkers a reason to cheer with one swing of the bat.
In a city rich with baseball lore, these are just a few of the stories in the city’s baseball history that are so inspiring. And here, at Manhattan College, it was the impact of one kid who forever left his imprint on the school’s baseball program. The slightest mention of this one kid to this day — even 47 years after his arrival on campus — never fails to bring joy to the faces of those who knew him and came to learn about him.
That kid is Joseph Coppo ‘75: a true gentleman and righteous servant of the game of baseball.
Coppo was everyone’s friend. The type of young man whose respect for the game of baseball and pride of being a Jasper would have made the great Brother Jasper proud. From 1973 to 1975, Coppo represented the Manhattan College baseball program by way of virtue; his team-first attitude earned him the respect of his teammates and coaches. For his senior season in 1975, Coppo was given the honor of team captain by then head coach Dave Curran on the merit of his leadership and rectitude.
Not to mention, Coppo, the baseball player, was pretty special as well. Known for his pitching prowess and power at the plate, Coppo paced the Jaspers in ERA (3.32), innings pitched (46.2), and slugging percentage (.493) his senior season.
Away from the diamond, Coppo had a loving nature about him that was irresistible. He was wise and mature beyond his years, making him the ideal role model for just about anybody. Despite his commitments to baseball and academics, Coppo was also an RA and was a natural fit for the role given his calm and warm demeanor.
“The most balanced and mature guy,” said Kevin Monaghan ‘77, a former NBC Executive who was a resident student of Coppo’s. “He was an all-American type that would help people; was nice to kids on the team; was a leader; and just a great guy.”
After he graduated Manhattan College in 1975 with a degree in marketing, his charitable outlook on life only grew stronger. In fact, the true measure of Coppo’s warmth was the life he lived after college. In 1973, Coppo met his future wife, Pat, and the couple went on to having four kids: Kathleen, Joe, Matthew and John. Prior to meeting Coppo, Pat had no connection to baseball. But once the two started dating, she often found herself watching his games with a scorebook in hand, signaling to her the type of magical effect Coppo had.
“Joe and I actually met at Manhattan in 1973, so I have a special place in my heart for Manhattan College, as well as for the mutual friends who introduced us,” Pat Coppo said. “When we first started dating, I knew virtually nothing about baseball and truthfully didn’t have much interest in watching it. But that was part of Joe’s magic. You wanted to be a part of whatever was important to him. So before I knew it, I was sitting at Van Cortlandt Park, watching the Jaspers play ball. Not only was I watching the game, but Joe had me learning how to keep score. He gave me my own personal scorebook, and I spent inning after inning filling in symbols, letters and numbers. To this day, I remember that dreaded backwards K symbol and what Joe’s mood would be like if he struck out looking.”
As a fledgling businessman, Coppo moved out to California for his career in 1976, and stayed out there for 13 years working in the bond business. In that time, Coppo made stops in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and started a family with Pat. He also developed a close bond with John Salter ‘79, who was a business partner and a fellow Manhattan alum. Naturally, Coppo became an important mentor for Salter, showing him what it took to be the best possible family man and businessman he could be. According to Salter, the key words that gave away Coppo’s identity at the beginning of every phone call were “hello sunshine,” which summed up the warmth he radiated.
“Joe loved to heal and he loved to teach,” said Salter, who chose Coppo as the godfather of his daughter Genevieve. “His belief and the way he treated people spoke volumes to his business acumen. He had an ability to get along with so many people and he was the type of person that you want as a friend, a business partner, a teammate, and an associate. He was never one looking for praise. This was a tenet I try to follow myself.”
“He was one of the best people you would ever want to meet. He would give you the shirt off his back. Every time he answered the phone he would say ‘hello sunshine.’”
Although appreciative of his time in California, his heart was always in New York, home to so many friends and family. New York was also the backdrop of his childhood years, having grown up on Long Island in a small town called Baldwin before attending Maria Regina High School in Uniondale. When the opportunity arose in 1992 to relocate for work, the Coppos moved to New Canaan, Connecticut, a quaint town located 35 miles north of New York City.
Joe was finally back home, working in New York City.
New Canaan proved to be a natural fit for the family. The children enrolled in good schools and played sports in town. And Coppo, firmly established in the municipal bond business by now, would make the reasonable commute to the city each morning for work before making the quick turnaround to get home in time for his coaching duties in the evening. Fittingly, fatherhood enabled Coppo to forge a new bond with baseball, this time as a coach rather than a player. This second act in baseball, as a coach, seemed to be even more meaningful to Coppo, for it provided him an outlet to teach valuable life lessons to his own children and many others. Coaching was Coppo’s way of giving back to baseball and his preferred method for mentoring children. It was never about wins or losses with Coach Coppo – what mattered most was teaching and encouraging the youngsters who were lucky enough to play for him. This style of coaching helped endear him to many in town.
“Joe had a life-long love of baseball that grew into something more important than his own enjoyment,” Pat Coppo said. “He became passionate about encouraging children to enjoy playing sports at whatever skill level they possessed. He didn’t care if they were the least athletic in the town – he simply wanted a child to have the opportunity to play and have fun, all while learning a new life skill. More than anything, I think that he wanted them to know the meaning of teamwork.”
Those who were closest to Coppo had no trouble tracing the origins of his loving heart. The way Coppo lived his life aligned with the example set forth by his parents, Joe and Eugenia Coppo. From an early age, Coppo was precocious and humble, making him seem like an unofficial assistant coach for his Little League teams his father coached. And even though he was the best player on most ballfields growing up, there was not an entitled bone in his body.
Tim Sheridan, a Little League teammate of Coppo’s during their childhood years in Baldwin, will never forget the generosity of Joe and his family. Having known both Joe and his parents, he knows exactly who Coppo emulated as a kid.
“He [Joe] mentored me on how to be a ball player which boiled down to how to stand in the field and what to watch out for when being pitched to and all the little nuances,” said Sheridan, a practicing attorney in North Carolina. “Once my mom got her masters degree she started looking for a job. She started doing a lot of substitute teaching and subbed all over the place. I learned that it was Mr. Coppo who got her into the Baldwin Public School System. I don’t know how it worked out but it became my mother’s career for 15-20 years in Baldwin. When it really hit home for me was when Mr. Coppo passed away.. It was a snowy day when my mom said ‘I’m going up to the funeral home.’ When we got there Mrs. Coppo [Joe’s mother] and my mother had a discussion that I was privy to hear. She told my mom, ‘Mrs. Sheridan you didn’t have to come all the way up here. We appreciated your thoughts and got your flowers.’ My mother, with tears in her eyes, looked at her and said, ‘I owe everything to your husband.’ She was so ever grateful what he [Joe’s father] did for my mom and my family.”
By late 2000, Coppo’s track record of success in the municipal bond market led to his hiring as vice president for municipal bonds with Cantor Fitzgerald: an honor that befit his work ethic and good character. Nevertheless, Coppo’s mindset stayed the same, in that no matter how well things were going for him in his professional career, his family and friendships were always his top priorities. And so, carrying with him the spirit of family and friends, Coppo would report to the 104th floor in the north tower of the World Trade Center every day for work. No stranger to consistency, he would make the same trek from New Canaan to the World Trade Center with the help of a 6:45 a.m. Metro North train. At 48 years old, Coppo was living the rewarding life he had always deserved.
But on September 11, 2001, one of the darkest days in the history of this nation, Joseph Coppo, and 2,752 other innocent lives at the World Trade Center, were taken from us far too soon.
Those voids left behind can never be filled. How could they? Those were our heroes.
Joe was a constant source of inspiration to those that knew him.
On the night of September 22, Mike Piazza’s home run at Shea Stadium provided an emotional boost to a city that was hurting beyond belief. The moment allowed for a temporary escape from the stretch of emotional days that both preceded and followed it. The very next day, September 23, was set aside for Joe, who you can only imagine must have been smiling down on Shea just the night before. With heavy hearts, around 1500 people packed St. Aloysius Church in New Canaan to bid farewell to a man who did his part to make the world a better place. Not everyone there knew Joe, but everyone shared in the heartbreak of having lost him. On this day, his ability to bring people together was on display one last time, in a way only he knew how. And through the rush of emotions, there was one specific moment that encapsulated the beautiful life Joe lived: during the presentation of the gifts, the U13 baseball team he had coached that summer — featuring his son, John — journeyed down the aisle bearing baseball equipment belonging to Joe. The gesture was a reminder of the confluence of baseball and mentorship that enhanced Joe’s life.
Sports journalist and bestselling author Mike Lupica was in attendance that day. Lupica became familiar with Coppo through Little League coaching circles during his time as a New Canaan resident. So moved by his story, Lupica has written a series of 9/11 reflections about Coppo in the New York Daily News that captures his impact on New Canaan and the unforgettable scene at his funeral mass.
“Through the fog of memory, I believe Joe’s funeral was on a Saturday morning,” Lupica said to the Quadrangle in an email statement. “And I remembered at the last minute that it was the day of his funeral. I jumped into the car and drove into town and stood at the back of the church. And then I saw the kids from his last team in their uniforms and understood completely in the moment that while this was an occasion of tremendous loss, especially to Pat and the kids, it was also a celebration of Joe’s life, and the life of our town, and how he had enhanced the lives of not just the players on that team, but all the teams. I had no plan to write a column until I saw those uniforms, and the kids going up to present the Gifts. It is the single most beautiful moment I ever saw in that church. I will never forget it. Not will anybody who was there that day.”
Coppo seemed to have a way with people that allowed him to leave a lasting impression on them. No matter who you were, you always felt a sense of comfort and belonging while in his presence. Years before his fast ascent up the college basketball coaching ranks, current Louisville men’s basketball assistant coach Luke Murray crossed paths with Coppo. Murray played football with Matt Coppo. Prior to that, Murray — accompanied by his father, famous actor Bill Murray — would spend time with Coppo on the sidelines at St. Luke’s football games back when Murray’s older brother and Joe Coppo III were teammates at the school. Like he did with most people, Coppo left a lasting impression on Murray with his friendliness and upbeat manner.
“He had a real warmth of character and it was just something you felt every time you were around him,” Murray said. “I didn’t know him until high school but it felt as if I knew him forever. He had an ability for leaving people to feel better about themselves.”
Murray was also in attendance on that somber day at the church. Despite the overwhelming grief felt in that moment, there was one eulogy delivered that struck a chord with Murray. To this day, the message has never escaped him.
“Our offensive coordinator at the time was a guy named Dave Benko, and he had known Mr. Coppo forever. It’s something I have never forgotten, when he was speaking on the altar he said that ‘I wasn’t Joe Coppo’s best friend but he was mine,’” Murray said. “And it was really powerful to think that Joe probably had a lot of people he was really close to and that he felt really strongly about and maybe I am further down the pecking order in his mind, but he is at the top of it in mine. I have carried that with me and I think about it all the time. It’s one of the most special things I have heard someone say about another person.”
One of the most beautiful parts about sports is the hope and inspiration they impart during the hardest of times. Coppo used sports, specifically baseball, as an outlet for showing his truest desires. He was an exceptional teammate and a loving coach. Fittingly, some of the deepest reminders of his goodness have come during triumphant moments in sports.
“The whole sequence of his passing and that season we had that year have always been really important to me,” Murray said. “Matt and I’s first game that year  was against Long Island Lutheran. We played on the road out on Long Island and I remember the feeling in that nothing compared to the sort of ferocity and energy and spirit we had going into that game and it was all for Matt. Nothing has ever felt that way in a game.”
“We probably felt like we could have played Penn State that day and we won like 65-0 and it was a feeling that I never had before where we were going to give everything we had in his honor. We ended up winning every game that year and the New England Championship… it was all driven by Mr. Coppo.”
Then, there are the memories of Piazza’s home run and the World Series in the Bronx, which will forever be synonymous with the city’s incredible spirit of resiliency in the aftermath of 9/11. It is with these moments that we can best understand why such a good man like Coppo gravitated to baseball.
“I actually just finished a column about sports in the midst of the coronavirus for the Daily News; about how sports brought us together after Sept. 11 but can’t do that right now, because we are forced to be apart as a country,” wrote Lupica. “But those of us old enough to remember what it was like the night Mike Piazza hit that home run at old Shea when baseball returned to the city that night. And no one around New York in October, and then into November, will ever forget how three comeback wins for the Yankees lifted the spirits of a wounded city. I went down to Ground Zero for a column the night of Game 6, before flying to Phoenix the next day to be there for Game 7, and listened to that game with first responders on a car radio. And they all told me the same thing: What the Yankees were doing uptown didn’t change what had happened downtown. But it sure made people feel better for three hours or so, over those three nights. That winter I was at a party with Joe Torre, and we were recalling those games, and he said that ever since the Yankees lost that Game 7 in the bottom of the ninth, people kept consoling him for his loss. Joe said, “What did we lose?” It summed up what sports can do. How it can bring us together and make a great big place like New York feel like a small town. I always figured Joe Coppo would have understood all of it completely.”
To this day, Coppo’s loving memory lives on in many w
ays, especially in the realm of sports. In 2004, he was posthumously inducted into the Manhattan College athletics Hall of Fame, a prestigious club composed of just over 250 alums. And, in 2002, Coppo was forever immortalized in the New Canaan community when Waveny Park Little League changed the name of its field to Joe Coppo field. It was their way of properly thanking Coppo for his tremendous service to the league.
Bobby Valentine, former New York Mets Manager and current Athletic Director at Sacred Heart University, joined in on the celebration that day to memorialize Coppo. Valentine will always remember that field for being a source of inspiration to the New Canaan community to carry on Coppo’s loving example.
“I have been to the park [Waveny] many days since and I always think about that day when many kids are playing out on that field,” Valentine said during an interview call with the Quadrangle. “I think about how elated the [Coppo] family was and what a great job Mike Lupica did that particular day in presenting… and hopefully the namerights and the memory of everything that Joe did for the community will live on forever.”
In a lot of ways, it feels like destiny that Coppo wound up at Manhattan College and left the type of seismic impact on this place that he did. His path to the Bronx was far from direct. Out of high school, he was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds, but instead pursued a collegiate career. After starting out at Saint Francis University, Coppo transferred to Manhattan for his sophomore year and the rest is history. Thankfully, Coppo ultimately found his way to the Bronx.
In 2021, the Jaspers’ baseball program will return to Van Cortlandt Park for the first time since switching their home field to Dutchess Stadium back in 2015. As a token of their appreciation, Alumni and administration have created a proposal in hopes of getting the ball field named in honor of Joseph Coppo. The overarching goal is for Joseph Coppo Field at Van Cortlandt Park to serve as a playing space for not only the Manhattan College baseball team, but for local youth teams as well. This vision, to dedicate the Jaspers’ ball field to a man who loved being a Jasper and loved mentoring children, was spearheaded by Rob Walsh, a special advisor for strategic partnerships, and President O’Donnell himself. Given the field’s location within a public park, the success of the proposal is contingent on approval from a few important community entities, including Bronx Community Board 8 and the New York City Department of Parks. The alumni and administration leading this campaign are calling on the rest of the school community to rally around this project in honor of a special man and a special family. A petition has been created at change.org to allow people to endorse this initiative.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of people who have been working tirelessly on this project for so many months. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by great friends like Kevin Monaghan and Fred Marro who have never forgotten Joe for a minute, but having President Brennan O’Donnell and Rob Walsh be so enthusiastic and supportive is extraordinary – and very humbling,” Pat Coppo said. “In general, Joe just tried to make things better – better fields, better fundamentals, better opportunities. For Joe to know that children from all parts of the Bronx would have a dream field to play on would thrill him.”
Manhattan baseball is coming back home to the birthplace of their brand. It is here, at Van Cortlandt, where they have given us the most magical of moments. Coppo’s playing days in the 70’s are a flashback to the glory days of Jasper baseball, and to simpler times in this world. His presence has graced this place before, and now, his field of dreams — Joseph Coppo Field — should be the face of our baseball program’s glorious return home.