Anyone affiliated with sport knows that team connections can last lifetimes; lessons learned on the field have an everlasting impact. I witnessed this with the teams I played for and coached. However few teams can compare to the extraordinary bond created by the 1950-51 back-to-back Illinois Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship baseball team that my grandfather coached at Northern Illinois University.
At that time no one could imagine that seven decades later those same ball players would stay in contact, reuniting annually to play golf, swap stories over a meal and commemorate their time as Huskies playing baseball for Coach Mac. “The tradition has gone on for 40 some years,” Grant Cummings, an outfielder, said, “We have been getting together for so long no one can remember when we held our first of the first reunions.”
“We revered your grandpa,” Bill Eiserman, First Team All Interstate Athletic Conference catcher and captain, told me. “We won a lot of games, but he taught us that being a good person is more important than winning. He built character.”
“He taught a lot of lessons,” Bill continued. “But that was the greatest. I tried to impart that in all the teams that I coached. Everybody loves to win – not every team has the talent to win – but everyone can still take that valuable lesson away from the game.”
McKinzie, a seven time Hall of Fame Coach served as head basketball coach where he also won 3 state conferences in 8 years, before becoming head baseball coach. He also served as tennis, track and field coach, as well as an assistant football coach and athletic trainer at NIU from 1940-63. Though he officially retired from NIU in 1963, he continued coaching football into his nineties at his own alma mater, Eureka College.
Every year until my grandpa’s death at the age of 96, my dad, a dedicated son also part of that team, made sure Coach Mac made it to the annual baseball reunion.
Once a year the guys rally past personal setbacks, the loss of loved ones, and limitations due to declining health, to gather in celebration of not so much their ol’ double plays and home runs, but to honor the memory of the coach who shaped their lives and the camaraderie that developed under his leadership.
“Every spring we drove down to New Orleans for a tournament, stopping to play games along the way,” Cummings told me, a trip that I found remarkable for that time period.
“I wasn’t a drinker,” my dad said, “so I ordered a coke on our night out on the town. The guys still razz me; my coke cost more than those fancy cocktails everybody else was drinking.”
Typically, college stadiums are named for big-time alumni donors. My grandpa, son of a tenet farmer, lived modestly even donating his coaching salary back to Eureka College in his later years. He never made a fortune coaching, but he sure made friends.
In the late 80s, fueled by Bill Eiserman, Jack Brumm, Bud Nangle, former SID at NIU, and including the support of my grandpa’s Eureka College football player, President Ronald Reagan, the 1950-51 NIU team instigated naming the NIU baseball diamond, Ralph McKinzie Field. Mike Korcek, who can still recount the win-loss record of every team during his tenure as NIU’s sports information director, and Cary Groth, one of the first female large college athletic directors were also instrumental in the process.
On May 8, 1993, at the dedication ceremonies, my dad threw the game-opening pitch. “Poor Bill scooped my pitch out of the dirt,” my dad said and chuckled. “Bill kept me from looking bad, my pitch never made it cross the plate. I was an outfielder, not a pitcher.”
My grandpa won countless honors; the NIU baseball field and Eureka College football field bear his name. But accolades aside, what made my Coach Mac proudest, was seeing what kind of men his players became.
Each member of the 1950-51 NIU team became successful in his own field, as high school and college teachers, coaches and athletic directors and exemplary civic leaders in business and education.
My grandpa also played a key role in my life. I miss him to this day, so I find comfort knowing his name lives on in the hearts of his former athletes.
These ol’ ball players have done him proud in turn by serving their family, community and country. The field may bear Ralph McKinzie’s name, but it carries the spirit of the 1950-51 ball team.
Athletes that step up to the plate at NIU today have no idea who Coach Mac was, still I hope that my grandpa’s moral standards seep into their souls through the diamond dust on that field of dreams.