Merced County lost three big sports figures in the past week with the deaths of Richard Juarez, Bob Hobbs and Joe Alvernaz, known as “Sweet Potato Joe.”
Juarez coached the Merced High School baseball team for 22 years, leading the Bears to a 29-1 record in 1978 and a Sac-Joaquin Section championship.
Hobbs was an all-star athlete at Dos Palos High School in football, basketball and baseball. He had coaching stints at San Joaquin Memorial High School, Coalinga, West Hills College and Cuesta College before coaching at Merced College and Merced High.
Alvernaz helped start youth baseball programs in Livingston, started the Atwater-Livingston Yams American Legion baseball program and also announced Livingston High School football games for 50 years.
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“It’s shocking to lose all three of them so close together,” said Merced College baseball coach Chris Pedretti. “All three had a huge impact on Merced County. They touched a lot of players and athletes in the past 50 years.”
Hobbs died on Oct. 31. Juarez and Alvernaz died on Nov. 1.
Juarez became the first person inducted into the Merced High Baseball Hall of Fame in March.
Juarez was hired as a physical education teacher and baseball coach at Merced High in 1967 and coached until 1989. He led the Bears to 10 Central California Conference championships.
In high school, Juarez was a four-sport star at Livingston High in football, baseball, basketball and track. He was drafted by both the San Francisco 49ers and the Chicago Cubs out of high school and received football and baseball scholarship offers from UC Berkeley.
“During my four years at Merced High he was like a dad to me,” said Rollo Adams, who played for Juarez for three years before graduating in 1975.
Juarez was 74.
There will be a service for Juarez on Saturday, Nov. 16 at St. Patrick’s Church in Sonora at 1:30 p.m.
Nearly 400 people crammed into the Central Presbyterian Church in Merced on Friday to remember Hobbs, not only as a coach but also for everything he did as a member of the Merced Sunrise Rotary Club.
Hobbs made trips to Honduras and Ecuador to deliver wheelchairs and later traveled to Somoto, Nicaragua, to help bring clean water and generators for birthing units.
“He just touched so many lives,” said former Merced High principal Tom Scheidt, who was friends with Hobbs for 34 years. “He was involved with so many things in the community. He helped put together a playground for handicap children at Alicia Reyes Elementary School. He worked with at-risk kids and at-risk parents to make sure those kids had the best opportunity. And then through coaching he touched so many other lives.”
Hobbs was 74.
The Livingston High baseball field is named after Joe Alvernaz for all his contributions to the community.
Alvernaz was given the nickname “Sweet Potato Joe” by his friend and actor, Brian Keith, while they were both in the Marine Corps.
He became the voice of Livingston in 1946 when he began announcing football games. He was the Wolves’ announcer until 1996. He also announced baseball games.
“He was the epitome of class as an announcer,” said Livingston High baseball coach Matt Winton. “He loved his Wolves, but most important he was fair and knowledgeable about the opponent, often telling them stories about their own town and teams.”
Alvernaz would entertain the crowd by telling them how many chickens were processed daily at Foster Farms.
When announcing a baseball game at Memorial Ballpark in Atwater, Alvernaz would promise an all-expenses-paid trip to any player who hit a home run off the water tower.
He would announce a crazy attendance figure, such as 71,000 peopl,e at Livingston football games.
He was famous in Yountville for giving away boxes of sweet potatoes to any player who hit a home run at the American Legion State Tournament.
“Joe funded travel baseball before there was travel baseball,” said Scott Winton, who graduated from Livingston High. “Kids that could play did not have to worry about finding an extra chunk to be a part of the Yams (legion team). If you were good enough you got to wear the hat. And believe me, the Sweet Potato Council of California team hat was, and is, a badge of honor. Not only because it meant you were one of the better players in the area, but it meant you were one of Joe’s playersyou played for Sweet Potato Joe.”
Alvernaz was 93.
A service for Alvernaz is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday in Atwater at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church.