Gerald Bark, a highly respected pitching coach who in his youth had perfected a devastating curveball on the playgrounds of Northwest Baltimore, died of cancer Saturday at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. The Pikesville resident was 61.
Mr. Bark, who was known as Jerry, was born in Baltimore and raised on Towanda Avenue, not far from the playground where he began playing baseball -- a game that was to become a central part of his life.
"Jerry and I played Little League baseball together. He was short and skinny and was the only 10-year-old kid I ever knew who could throw such a curveball," said Mark Schlenoff. "I can't remember where he got it or how he learned it, but it took me half a season to figure out how to catch it."
At City College, he played varsity ball and received All-Maryland honors. After graduating in 1963, he attended the University of Maryland on an athletic scholarship.
His stardom continued at College Park, when in his first outing against the University of Maine, then ranked No. 9 in the nation, he struck out 14 batters in 4 2/3 innings. The next week he pitched a no-hitter but lost in the 11th inning.
"Some of his records for pitching at Maryland are still unbroken," Mr. Schlenoff said.
After he had helped pitch Maryland to an Atlantic Coast Conference title in 1965, Mr. Bark, then 20, was drafted by the New York Mets and assigned to the Auburn farm club in the Class A New York-Pennsylvania League.
"An arm injury and the birth of a son in 1968 forced him to call it quits," said his younger son, Robert M. "Robbie" Bark of Owings Mills.
Mr. Bark then went to work in 1968 as an advertising space salesman for Yellow Pages. Since 1992, he had been sales manager for Data National in Hunt Valley.
However, the love of baseball remained a constant. He enjoyed coaching his young sons -- both of whom went on to play at North Carolina State University, with Mr. Bark attending many of their games. His elder son, Brian S. Bark of Palm City, Fla., also pitched for minor league teams -- and made it to the majors in 1995 with three brief appearances in relief for the Boston Red Sox.
In his eulogy read by the rabbi at Mr. Bark's funeral Monday, Robbie Bark recalled various times when his father was rewarded with cuts or bruises for helping his sons in baseball practice.
"You can't imagine what it is like watching your 45-year-old father catching a 90-mph fastball. I surely wasn't going to do it. He didn't care. He seemed to love every minute of it."
Mr. Schlenoff recalled attending a 1999 game in Salisbury, when Mr. Bark was struck in the forehead while coaching third base. "It was split wide open, and I held him for 20 minutes until help arrived. I think it took 40 stitches to close the wound."
After work during the week and on Saturdays, Mr. Bark went to Grand Slam USA in Lutherville, where he helped young baseball players who wanted to improve their pitching.
"Jerry was a firm believer that you don't have to be a big guy to be an effective pitcher. He was 5 feet 8 inches tall, never a big guy, and had been throwing major league curveballs since he was 14," said Bill Greenwell, owner of Grand Slam USA, where Mr. Bark had worked since 1992. "He taught that location and movement was more important than versatility. The Jerry Bark technique was the two-seam sinker. That was his trademark."
Mr. Bark worked until 10 o'clock at night and no fewer than five hours on Saturdays.
"He did it because he loved the game, and he loved teaching kids," Mr. Greenwell said.
Mr. Bark would sit on a little stool in the cage while closely observing his students.
"He'd watch their windups, balance, delivery and follow-through. He could analyze what a kid was doing wrong in four seconds," said Mr. Schlenoff, retired athletic director at Polytechnic Institute.
Even Mr. Bark's style of dress was baseball-inspired.
"From the waist up, he was dressed like a coach," said his son, Robbie. "On Mondays, he'd wear the shirt, jacket and hat of the Atlanta Braves, and on Tuesdays, it was the Red Sox, followed by N.C. State on Wednesdays."
For better or worse, Mr. Bark's wife of 40 years, the former Susan Shernan, shared his enthusiasm for baseball.
"He was with my mom since they were 14, and they were quite a couple," his son recounted in the eulogy. "My mom has seen 10 times the baseball that any normal person should have to bear."
Those who knew Mr. Bark said that the two most important things in his life were his family and baseball. In recent years, he enjoyed watching his grandchildren play T-ball.
"He was such a proud guy," Robbie Bark recalled yesterday. "He always said he wanted to wind up in the Hall of Fame, and in my eulogy, I said, 'Dad, you'll always be in our Hall of Fame.'"
Also surviving are a sister, Barbara Sachs of Pikesville, and three grandchildren.