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Friends, peers remember longtime Reading Eagle writer and editor Tony Zonca

Tony Zonca played tennis with Pete Carril, sparred verbally with Muhammad Ali and talked hitting with Ted Williams.

He wrote about the Philadelphia Eagles, Phillies and 76ers and Reading High boys basketball, among other subjects.

But Zonca’s most lasting impact perhaps is the guidance he and his wife of 63 years, Banny, gave to young people, particularly in Reading.

“My parents did a lot of things under the radar,” said Chris Zonca, their son, “like giving back to Reading High and helping people. My dad’s legacy, in a way, will be his writing. But it also will be his mentorship, like providing meals and shelter and doing different things through the years.

“They would have the team out to the house for pizza to take them away from an environment that maybe is not always the best. He and my mother touched many lives.”

Zonca, 84, of Muhlenberg Township, died Monday at Laureldale Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation Center after a two-month illness.

A sports writer, columnist and editor for the Reading Eagle from 1968-2002, he will be inducted posthumously later this month into the Berks County chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.

He was inducted into the Carbon County chapter of the state Hall of Fame in 2023 and into the Berks Tennis Hall of Fame in 2021.

“Tony was a remarkable writer,” said Mike Zielinski, retired sports editor and columnist at the Reading Eagle and Times. “He was very talented and creative. Sometimes we used to compete with each other because we covered similar things (Zonca for the Eagle and Zielinski for the defunct Times).

“He was an extraordinary writer. He was very insightful and had a great knowledge of all sports.”

Zonca and Zielinski spent much time covering Ali, the late heavyweight boxing champion, at his training camp in Deer Lake during the 1970s and ’80s.

Together they interviewed Williams, one of baseball’s greatest hitters, with Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez and Reading native Charlie Wagner in the same room. Williams was in the area to honor Wagner, his roommate with the Boston Red Sox who spent seven decades in baseball as a pitcher and scout.

“It was one of the most extraordinary nights that both of us had,” Zielinski said. “Ted Williams was terrible with the media over the years, but he was so expansive that night. We had a wonderful time. We were pinching ourselves.”

A native of Lansford, Carbon County, Zonca was assistant basketball coach at Reading High, Muhlenberg and Alvernia. He once served as assistant general manager and public relations director for the Hamburg Bullets of the Eastern Basketball League.

He helped establish the Duke DeLuca Memorial All-Star Basketball Games and ran it for several years. He hosted a Saturday morning call-in radio show on WEEU during the 1980s.

After his retirement from the newspaper, he wrote game stories and features for the then-Reading Phillies for eight seasons.

Zonca’s last project was something he wanted to do for a long time. He wrote a book on the history of Reading High basketball that was published in 2021 and titled “60 Years of Reading High Basketball: (Pete) Carril to (Rick) Perez.”

“He was the bridge to everything,” said Perez, who guided the Red Knights to three PIAA Class 6A titles. “He encouraged us to go where we were going, but also taught us to slow down and remember where we were and remember who we are.

“He made sure that the foundation and the thread of Reading High basketball was embedded in us. He wanted to make sure that the past propelled us. He educated us on every single aspect of it.”

Zonca covered the Philadelphia Phillies for a long timne and became friends with such players as the late Darren Daulton. He would often stand behind the batting cage at Veterans Stadium before games talking with Philadelphia hitting coach Denis Menke or at FirstEnergy Stadium talking with Reading hitting coaches John Morris and Frank Cacciatore.

“He was a professional journalist,” said Larry Shenk, retired vice president of public relations for the Philadelphia Phillies. “He loved the game and respected the game, which I think was huge. He was like a walking encyclopedia.

“I enjoyed him when he was around. I enjoyed talking baseball with him. He was a great person who had a great personality.”

Away from the sporting arena, Zonca enjoyed guiding young people, especially those in need. He and his wife invited Rick Cabassa, one of Chris’ Reading basketball teammates, to stay with them after his mother, a single parent, passed away in 1990.

The plan was for Cabassa to stay for a few weeks; he wound up staying with them for five years. He became like a third son to them, along with Chris and Tony Jr.

“He was a true leader of kids on and off the court,” said former Reading and Alvernia coach Mike Miller. “If a kid in the Reading School District needed help, they knew where to go. Banny had a lot to do with it, too.”

Zonca also served as a mentor to many Reading Phillies players from 2002-09, offering them advice when he felt they needed a lift.

“He’d talk to the guys and tell them stories,” said Rob Hackash, former public relations director for the Reading Phillies. “He really had a good grasp of how hard the game is. Guys would enjoy talking to him because he’d bring them up.

“He wouldn’t just talk to a guy who was going good. Sometimes he’d find humanity in the struggle. He was almost like a fatherly or grandfatherly figure.”

Zonca conducted youth baseball camps and hitting clinics over the years. His most prized pupil, though, was his only grandchild, Catie, Chris’ daughter who’s in eighth grade in Piedmont, Calif.

“She plays softball and has more power as a 14-year-old than I did,” said Chris, who played baseball at Reading, West Chester University and in the Phillies minor league system. “My dad had many hitting sessions with her here in the backyard.”

A Mass of Christian burial will be celebrated Monday at 11 a.m. at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, Reading. Friends may visit from 10 to 11 a.m. at the church.

Source: Berkshire mont

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