Behind the side door of Jim Balk’s Broomall home is a dimly lit room littered with photos, newspaper clippings and other mementos dedicated mostly to his family’s love for the Chicago Cubs and his more than 40 years spent coaching baseball.
A photo of Balk speaking in front of a microphone at his last game as Radnor High School’s manager takes up much of one side wall.
“There’s two different me’s,” said Balk, dressed in a navy blue Marple-Newtown Baseball pullover. Balk, 76, is the Fightin’ Tigers’ pitching coach. “There’s the coaching me, and the non-coaching me.”
On an early June morning, he pulls himself up from a worn brown loveseat and retrieves some trophies and plaques, placing them in succession on a coffee table. There’s the Sports Humanitarian Award from the Delaware County Athletics Hall of Fame, followed by the John Shelton Sr. Freedom Award from the Chester branch of the NAACP.
He fetches a plaque honoring his induction into the Upper Darby High School Wall of Fame. It reads:
1960s CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST
EDUCATOR AND COACH
To many, Balk is a pitching guru, a baseball man with decades of experience at the high school level. Last season, he helped lead Marple-Newtown to a district title, and this season the team is in contention for a state championship.
But that only scratches the surface: A Jewish man from Delaware County, Balk learned about the atrocities of the Holocaust growing up and dedicated his life to correcting inequities large and small.
“He instilled in me a sense that we have a responsibility, a moral duty to take a stand against injustices,” Balk’s older son, Josh, said. “It’s always the vulnerable and the innocent versus the powerful and the abusers. He’s always helping even when hope seems dim.”
Growing up in Upper Darby, Balk was a target of anti-Semitism and got into fights. But he realized that life in Upper Darby — which at the time “was whiter than a Dairy Queen vanilla cone” — was much different than in other parts of the nation.
As an undergraduate at Temple University, Balk went to Alabama, protesting alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights. Later, he joined Cesar Chavez and the mostly Mexican-American National Farmworkers Association in its protest for higher pay for farm workers against grape growers in California.
He took that attitude to the Radnor School District, where he taught history and was the manager of the baseball team from 1967-2003. He implemented the Chester-Radnor connection, bridging the gap between his affluent school and its less-fortunate neighbor. The partnership paved the way for joint arts programs, friendly football scrimmages and a science exchange program.
Such began his relationship with Chester, a city only 10 miles from Broomall. Balk said it sometimes seems further. From 2012-16, the median household income in Broomall was $78,133, according to the Census Bureau. During the same period in Chester, it was $27,217.
“I can roll out of bed here [in Broomall], and there’s six hospitals within 10 minutes,” Jim Balk said. “What makes my life more important?”
After retiring from Radnor in 2003, he caught on as a volunteer assistant at Chester High School. He noticed the school’s facilities were lacking compared to those of Radnor. So he went to work.
Funded entirely by donations, Jim Balk said, he spearheaded efforts to build a baseball complex in Chester. It’s now used by the Chester High team, the city’s youth programs and Chester Delco, the semipro team Balk owns.
“It’s so touching to see. Those players adore him,” Josh Balk said. “I feel like they’re absorbed in the notion that they’re playing for someone who has a lot of remarkable history behind him.”
Balk might walk a little slower than he once did, his paces small and sluggish. But his passion for inspiring change remains strong. He was moved by the reaction of the student body at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in the wake of the shooting rampage at the school in February that left 17 people dead.
Emboldened by the students’ calls for gun reform, Balk created a new T-shirt for the Chester Delco players to wear under their uniform vest that reads: Chester + Stoneman Douglas.
Balk summed up his guiding philosophy with an old poem: “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.”
“That’s how you play baseball. How you play the game of life,” Jim Balk said. “That’s why I went to Chester.”