Gordie Gillespie: Coach the Kid at the End of the Bench
by Raymond Coughlin
In the 60 years Gordie coached, his teams won 2,410 games in three sports; it almost seems surreal. More important to Gordie than this number, however, was the number of athletes that he coached, which is over 2,000. Many remained good friends through the years. Sometimes people talk about the 9 significant championships Gordie won; four national collegiate baseball titles and five Illinois State High School football championships. Even Gordie would admit that the championships get much of the press and people like to retell the dramatic stories of the games that led to the championships, but one of Gordie’s constant mantras that he tried to pass on to coaches in every talk he gave is that it should not be the championships that count most to a coach. At best, a championship should be just icing on the cake. It’s the cake that’s important.
That is what this book is about.
Gordie’s talks often centered on this idea that he wanted to pass on to coaches: Every season can be a “championship” season for the players on your team, even if you finish in last place, if you do it right.
When Gordie would be introduced to a gathering, it could take a while to mention the sixteen halls of fame he has been inducted into, including the College Baseball Hall of Fame, and the four NAIA national baseball coach of the year awards he won. Gordie would counter that those are merely a reflection of teams that had loads of talent and who worked their keisters off to become as accomplished as possible, and the cards fell in fortunate ways. He would add that he was lucky enough to take sixteen teams to the NAIA World Series from the years 1962 to 1995 and his 1,888 wins in collegiate baseball made him the winningest coach of all-time. He would also love to add, “What they don’t tell you, though, is that I’ve also become one of the losingest coaches of all time. It means that I’ve been around a long time.”
Often he would start his talks with a description of why he loved to coach:
Why did I stay so long? Because of the kids. I love my kids. I want to be around them all the time. I want to see them grow and become someone special. I firmly believe that the lesson they learn on the ball field or on the court will help them forever. When they come back several years after graduation and realize this and sit down to share what they’ve done – and say thanks for the memories – that’s the greatest award a coach can get.
So it’s not about the wins. It’s not about the championships. The number one measure of a coach’s season should be: How many of my players will come back to me in 10 years and say ‘Thanks, coach, for the life-long lessons you taught me.’ That’s why the ball field is the greatest classroom there is.
I. Three Notable Seasons
- Chapter 1 Baseball Beginnings: Lewis, 1962
- Chapter 2 Football Beginnings: Joliet Catholic, 1976
- Chapter 3 The Miracle Season: St. Francis, 1993
II. The Fabulous Four Years
- Chapter 4 Early Years
- Chapter 5 First Four Championships
- Chapter 6 A Tale of Two Presidents
- Chapter 7 The Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Championships
III. Gordie’s Lessons for Us All
- Chapter 8 The Speech
- Chapter 9 How to Apply Gordie’s Ten Commandments
- Chapter 10 Pass It On
Chapter 1 Baseball Beginnings: Lewis, 1962
The Sam Houston State Game II
After a two-day, stupefying rain delay spent playing cards and eating snacks, Gordie finally got an evening call that the field was ready and Lewis had another date with Sam Houston State.
Here is how Lewis second-baseman, captain and sparkplug, Kenny Malarski, remembers the start of the game.
We were sick of looking at each other, sick of the weather, sick of our motel rooms and chomping at the bit to play a game. It had rained mercilessly for two days. The call finally came at 10:00 at night. The minor league field in St. Joseph was a quagmire and didn’t look like it would be playable until the next day, but the tournament directors were probably as fed up as we were, so they called us to the park for an 11:00 pm start.
We were thrilled. We had lost our first game, 3-2, to Sam Houston State. They were the top seed in the tournament, one of the largest state schools in the country, and one of those “southern” teams that firmly believe that if you are from a school north of the Mason-Dixon Line you aren’t fit to carry their bat bag.
We hurriedly put on our uniforms and grabbed our mitts and spikes and started sprinting to the cars. Gordie popped his head into our room to make sure we were ready and Bob Bachman, our center fielder, said to Gordie, “Wait, Coach, I can’t find my first baseman’s glove!”
“Why are you looking for your first-baseman’s mitt?” asked an incredulous Gordie.
“You told me to bring it in case ‘Stretch,’ (Tom Kennedy, our senior leader, mentor, captain, first baseman) can’t go on his bum ankle.”
Gordie retorted, “Forget the first baseman’s mitt, you’re going to pitch.”
So here in the biggest game thus far in Lewis baseball history, facing elimination in their first trip to the big dance, going up against a school whose enrollment was 20 times Lewis’, Gordie gave the ball to a guy who hadn’t pitched in two years. It’s the stuff of legends – if it works.
Even in the evening the Missouri heat was oppressive. Bachman’s physique was that of a wiry speedball – most grandmas would want to feed him on the spot. He made Stretch look full-bodied. The heat would take a huge toll on him.
Gordie probably hoped he could get four of five innings out of Bob.
Bachman was on fire. He had a shutout going after five innings, having given up only two singles and no walks. But Lewis couldn’t score either. As Bob trudged back to the dugout after the fifth, Gordie asked him, “Can you give me one more inning?”
“Sure, coach,” Bob replied. He had probably lost 5 pounds already. He was pitching on heart over stamina. But Sam Houston couldn’t touch him. After the seventh inning, with the game still scoreless, Gordie again asked him for one more, and Bob agreed to try. The same quick conversation came after the eighth and ninth innings; the game was still in double shutout mode.
In the top of the tenth inning, Sam Houston had runners on first and second with two outs, one of the few times that either team had a runner in scoring position.
To understand what happened next, you have to understand three remarkable things. First, one of the three umpires had taken ill and left the game in the early innings. Let’s call him the phantom umpire. With runners on first and second, this phantom umpire would have been behind second, with another umpire behind the plate and the third stationed at first. If the ball is hit to the outfield the phantom umpire will watch the ball and the others will watch the runners tagging the bases. But the phantom isn’t there in the tenth inning.
The second key is a quirky aspect of the ballpark. It was a minor league stadium that had a fence surrounding the playing field, but the outfield light standards were actually positioned inside the fence, with the fence being about 40 feet behind the light standards. A ball that got by an outfielder would actually roll into the dark.
The third notable aspect of the game was that when Gordie decided to give Bachman the ball to pitch, he moved the regular right fielder, Charley Schwarz, to center field. Gordie moved the usual left fielder, Tom Thillens, to right field.
Who played left field? At a reunion about 40 years later, Bob Calamari, one of the aces of the pitching staff, posed that question to 15 of his teammates; no one could remember, even Gordie. Bob calmly said, “I did. It’s a good thing no one hit the ball to me.” It was another daring Gillespie move.
Bachman was pitching on fumes in the tenth. Up stepped the cleanup hitter for Sam Houston State with runners on first and second. He drove Bob’s pitch into deep right center field. Tom Thillens in right field and Charlie Schwarz in center took flight after it. Schwarz looked like he was drawing a bead on it. He leaped into the dark, out of sight of everyone, including the players, the umpires and the smattering of fans still on hand in the wee hours of the morning. All held their breath for several seconds. Out of the dark ran a shrieking, dancing Schwarz, thrilled that he made a miraculous catch. Tommy Thillens was trying to hug him. The Lewis players let out a rip of a cheer.
The Sam Houston runners, all three of them, rounded the bases. Lewis assumed they had made the third out; the game will go into the bottom of the tenth still tied at 0–0. Sam Houston assumed they had a 3–0 lead and were still batting. All of a sudden, as if on cue on a movie set, everyone became silent, almost motionless, and turned to the two umpires. Each umpire had been watching the runners tag the bases, each subconsciously believing that the phantom umpire was watching the ball.
The entire park was dead still. The umpires sheepishly looked at each other, shrugged, and admitted they hadn’t seen the play. They each forgot that the phantom umpire, who normally would have watched the ball while they would watch the runners, was not there. Neither saw the catch. The home plate umpire, the crew chief, finally said something to the effect, “Well, I guess it’s a hit. Three runs score.”
The Lewis players roared their disgust. Charley Schwartz was seen kneeling with his chin in the umpire’s groin, begging, “Honest to god, ump, I caught the ball, I caught the ball.”
After the mayhem subsided a bit, the umpires decided to go out beyond second base, away from the melee, and discuss the matter. They huddled for several seconds that seemed like hours to each side. They undoubtedly discussed which decision does the least bit of harm; if it’s an out Sam Huston is “cheated” out of 3 runs; if it’s a hit, Lewis falls way behind. They finally turned and declared it an out.