Baseball Men - The Mentor

Our "Baseball Men" interview series continues with Rod Dedeaux, Collegiate Baseball's ‘Coach of the Century' – former coach of All-Stars and Hall-of-Famers including Mark McGwire, Tom Seaver, Randy Johnson and many more.

The numbers are staggering, and deceptive.

 

When you talk about Rod Dedeaux's place in the world of college baseball, you have to talk about the .699 winning percentage that yielded 1,332 wins, 41 winning seasons, 28 PAC-10 conference titles, and 11 national championships over 45 years.

 

Sure, it's easy to get caught up in the gaudy numbers, to say that no one will ever approach Dedeaux's College World Series records for titles (the runner-up has 5), winning percentage (.789), games (76), and overall wins (60). It's no stretch to say that we'll never again see a six-time Coach of the Year or a worthy candidate to replace Dedeaux as head coach of the all-time CWS team. That stuff is obvious. The longtime University of Southern California skipper has been to the National Pastime what his Los Angeles compatriot, John Wooden, has been to basketball - utterly legendary in his victories and honors alike.

 

As with the Wizard of Westwood, however, the otherworldly numbers and championship hardware only begin to describe the coach's extraordinary tenure.

 

Beyond the stats, you have to talk about the man's longevity, the fact that Rod Dedeaux has lived so much baseball history. When Dedeaux won his first varsity letter as a USC sophomore in 1932, Major League Baseball was still 25 years away from its West Coast debut. When he made it up with the Brooklyn Dodgers for a cup of coffee late in the 1935 season (one RBI single in two games), Dedeaux's ball club was led by a second-year manager named Casey Stengel and playing against a league featuring Babe Ruth. When Dedeaux first headed the USC varsity in 1942, the College World Series' inauguration was still five years away.

 

Beyond all the victories and history, though, the coach has been special for still another major reason. The measure of his life has been in the lasting impact he's made on others.

 

It's no stretch to say that today's baseball world would be unrecognizable without the coach and the players he's guided. After all, he served as a mentor for hundreds of prospects at USC, including more than 60 future Major Leaguers. Try to imagine a Pastime without disciples including Sparky Anderson, Pat Gillick, Tom Seaver, Tom House, Dave Kingman, Fred Lynn, Randy Johnson, Mark McGwire and many more, in every franchise and on every level. Try to imagine a game without a guy who has influenced every LA-based prospect, sponsor, scout, and charity there is to know.

 

Just how connected and beloved is Rod Dedeaux, the person? At a February birthday party, more than 250 former players, family, and friends arrived from every corner of the country, reunited just to pay their respects to a man many regard as a second father. Talk about a winner - that may be the most staggering number of them.

 

Today, 19 years after he resigned as head coach at USC, Collegiate Baseball's ‘Coach of the Century' is as active as ever. Dedeaux still makes annual appearances at the booming CWS in Omaha, offering encouragement to the kids and some spirited complaints about those newfangled aluminum bats. He still keeps a hand in as USC's director of baseball operations and just finished organizing another international tournament (the leader of USA's 1984 Olympic squad started off in the global goodwill movement more than 40 years ago). Dedeaux, a great grandfather, still advises Dart Entities, the successful LA-based trucking and shipping business he founded more than 60 years ago.

 

One personal note about the following conversation:  They say that one of the things about a life in baseball is that it keeps you young. I'm inclined to guess that may be a myth, but I do know a couple things:

 

A)  When I talked to the coach recently, the voice on the other end of the call possessed the kind of focus, energy, and good cheer that any 30 year-old would envy.

 

B)  Rod Dedeaux is 90 years old.

 

 

When you did first get interested in the game?

 

(laughs) At birth. I had a baseball instead of a rattle.

 

Your parents were fans?

 

My father was a great fan, loved the game. The whole family encouraged me all along the way. We always thought baseball.

 

When did you first start thinking of yourself as a future Major Leaguer?

 

That wasn't until I was about ten. By ten, I was convinced.

 

You were a three-year letterman at USC from 1932 to 1935. How would you have rated yourself as a young prospect?

 

I think I was a Major Leaguer. At the time Bob Quinn was the General Manager, and he was highly respected - he told me I'd be their shortstop for the next year [1936]. I got hurt my first year and it was quite serious one, a broken back.

 

I got hurt prior to joining the Dodgers, right at the end of the Minor League season. I was still recuperating at the Minors at the very end of the season. When I was recalled, though, I didn't want to say no.

 

During your brief time with the Dodgers, you got to know two future Hall of Fame managers. Al Lopez was the team's catcher and Casey Stengel, of course, was the skipper. Did you know them very well during your brief stint with the Dodgers?

 

I had such respect for Al Lopez and had got to know him quite well as a rookie. And, of course, Casey was my mentor since high school. Back then, he was the manager for the Toledo Mud Hens and was interested in signing me. My college career came along, though, and he strongly advised going to college first.

 

Did Lopez and Stengel have any influence in your future career as a manager?

 

Not Lopez, I didn't see that much of him afterwards. But Casey encouraged me.

 

How did you get started as manager at USC?

 

I was always close to USC baseball and even when I was playing local semipro ball, I was managing and picking the team. Sam Barry was my coach in college and happened to be a close personal friend and godfather to my son, so it wasn't a major transition [to join the team as co-manager].

 

Why did you choose the college game over the Minors?

 

I think there's so much to be said for it. I think college baseball has great coaching, but the one thing about it. Our college coaches are outstanding - they devote their lives to it and they're teachers.

 

Also, in college, there's time to develop the total man, and not just between the foul lines. An education is a career and baseball is a career and, if you can combine them, it's almost a perfect background. If you take one away, it's a handicap. I'd say - if you are really good and you're college oriented, why not do both? I haven't known of any USC players, as an example, who were sorry they came on campus.

 

Well, once you did choose the college game, you started winning almost immediately. I guess one of your first landmark teams came along in 1948, when the Trojans beat George H.W. Bush's Yale team in the College World Series. What was that like?

 

That was a great one, yeah. That'll live forever as, probably, the most significant moment in all College World Series history.

 

The play itself was of such great significant for the fact that it was the beginning of a true College World Series championship, with a champion of the west playing a champion of the east. While it wasn't publicized, there were outstanding teams. And, believe me, there were outstanding ball players on both teams, including the captain and first baseman for Yale. He's on my all-time opponent team.

 

You've said that USC's comeback against Minnesota during the 1973 tournament was one of your memorable wins. That game being the one where pitcher Dave Winfield had a one-hit shut out against the Trojans through eight, only to lose a 7-0 lead when your USC ball club scored eight runs in the ninth inning.

 

There were more than just a few memorable ball games over the years. There were so many exciting ball games, come-from-behind games, or frustrating games.

 

Of course, the Winfield game was of particular significance. It's never been duplicated Many people say it was the best comeback in college baseball history, coming back with eight runs in the bottom of the ninth inning. The real story was that it involved, on the other side, the greatest athlete in the United States. Dave Winfield has become a good friend and we always remember those days.

 

Some have said that, with all those wins and titles, there will never be another Rod Dedeaux dynasty on the college level, if only for the fact that there are fewer scholarships out there for ball players nowadays. Do you think that's true?

 

Well, I would take exception to that notion. That was so, so far removed from the facts.

 

We were extremely limited in grants-in-aid, and we were boiling mad that we couldn't take the guys we wanted. I could name another three of four championships we could have won, without any question, if we could have taken the individuals we recruited. We wanted them, we needed them, they wanted to come, but they ended up elsewhere [because of the lack of scholarships]. In fact, several times, the same players ended up winning championships with other teams.

 

Well, whether due to that scholarship limitation, or for any other reason, were you ever tempted to leave USC to take a job in the Majors?

 

There were clubs that talked to me, but it was no secret that Casey was sort of grooming me to be his successor, eventually, with the Yankees. That was quite an honor.

 

[By the time Stengel was fired in 1960] however, I had started my own trucking business with all the money I had left from baseball, $500. It was finally growing and I felt a strong obligation to all the people who had come on board with that. I thoroughly enjoyed USC, but I would have enjoyed finding out what I could do from on high, with the Yankees.

 

Part of the challenge in your job as a college coach seemed to be in the fact that you had to help these young players make one of the biggest transitions in their lives. In the college game, you're talking about taking raw 18-year-old talents and helping them transition to being away from home for the first time and face tough national competition.

 

You're totally, totally correct there. It was a battle, because, coming out of high school, we were after the same kids Major League baseball was after. They were already stars in their own right. They knew the physical part of it but they didn't really know how to play the game.

 

One time, I can remember, a new recruit said ‘Gosh, I didn't know how to play catch'. And that was true. Most of them didn't know how to follow through on a throw.

 

How did approach your role as a college coach?

 

The dominant motivation was a love for the game. I loved to see it played it correctly and liked to think our men knew how to play the game and understood it.

 

The thing that strikes me is your sort of balancing. Your former players remember you as a perfectionist, but at the same time, a very genial guy who could also be very lighthearted, who would encourage players to think of themselves as family and friends.

 

Oh, it wasn't any pre-planned thought. You have to have fun, you have to love the game. If you have fun doing it, you're going to play better. So, we worked hard and we played hard.

 

Another thing - your team sung together after every game. It's something I just can't imagine a college football or basketball squad doing.

 

(laughs) You are probably saying to yourself, ‘Thank God' for that.

 

We enjoyed it. Again, it was fun doing it. I heard the song ‘MacNamara's Band' by Dennis Day and I really loved it, it was invigorating. It was sort of spontaneous, but after every game, the team would sing ‘MacNamara's Band'.

 

The guys enjoyed it. Some of them, it might have taken awhile. But we sang. Loudly!

 

Something that Pat Gillick, one of your former players, remembered about you was your habit of sometimes going into ‘Stengelese' double talk as well.

 

When I double-talked to umpires, they were never quite sure what I said, so I'd never get thrown out of ball games. I guess I got reasonably good at it so it sounded legitimate, you know (laughs). It was mostly for afterwards, so everyone could stay loose.

 

Out of your educational process, was there any player that stood out for the fact that, you know, he might not have the best physical tools, but he worked and learned how to be a great player at USC?

 

If I had a quick answer, I'd have to throw out the name Donnie Buford. He came on to the campus as a very average junior college player. He wanted to play, he had great desire.

 

We couldn't give him any financial aid at all, so he said ‘Maybe I should go out for football'. I had to plead with our football coach to let him come on to spring practice as a 17th-string halfback. He was a tackling dummy, basically, except tackling dummies were more expensive. I just wanted to keep him around, but that year he made all-Coast that year and turned out to be a very good Major Leaguer as well. He worked.

 

I was wondering if you could tell me about some of your students, and how you knew them as 18, 19, 20-year-olds and might still know them today.

 

Sure.

 

Okay. Dave Kingman.

 

Outstanding. I still see him all the time. He became a great person and a great friend and a great success.

 

He came in as a pitcher and he needed some convincing to make him believe he could be anything other than that. We didn't force it on him; it was just a very genteel little push along the way.

 

Tom Seaver.

 

Very top of the line, Tom Terrific was and still is. I just love the guy, he's family. He roomed with my son [Justin Dedeaux]. You couldn't have a better personality or better example of perfection. He typifies what I think our athletic program at USC is all about.

 

Bill Lee.

 

Billy Lee. I hear from him all the time. I heard from him last week.

 

Billy Lee was very sharp, a very good student. I remember once, the head of the geometry department hear that he was some kind of a flake. He was incensed. He said ‘Lee is the smartest guy in our class'. A very sharp individual.

 

Fred Lynn.

 

Another pitcher, and a football player. We inspired him to think about what he could do with baseball. Freddy is a perfect gentleman and is having a fine career off the field. He was such a daring player in his diving after balls; that was his way to play.

 

Randy Johnson.

 

Randy was a very, very raw guy when he came into school. When he pitched he looked like a guy falling off a windmill, all arms and legs. After he started putting it all together, you had to call him one of the all-time pitchers. 

 

Finally, how do you remember a guy who's very much been in the news this year, Mark McGwire?

 

Loved him to death. Can't say enough about Mark. He came from a very large family - his father was a big guy, his brothers were all six and a half feet tall. They were just big, big people.

 

Mark was a pitcher who became an outfielder and then an infielder. He grew an awful lot between the time he was in high school and senior year. A perfect gentleman and an outstanding individual. Believe me, he'd never do anything wrong for the game, for his team, or himself as an individual.

 

With your players, what came first - ensuring their contribution to a winning team or developing them on an individual level?

 

I think it was both. Number one, we were aiming to eventually become the best team. But I always felt it was my job to make the players the very best they could be. We knew that we weren't going to make mistakes. The other team would, but we wouldn't.

 

At the same time, I always had a close relationship with the individual, always have and always will. There was no greater thrill than seeing our people become successful in their careers. Hopefully, it could be in baseball, but it could be in education, in the ministry, in various professions, we've had successful people. And I mean the top of their profession. So, I always thought about our players as individuals throughout their whole life. Baseball, at best, is only going to last a certain time, but the development of individuals was a real thrill.

 

We've never had a bad guy. I can truly say that. When I think about our players, I'm just thrilled, because I loved every one of them.

 

I guess that's, finally, another area where you've been exceptional. Nowadays it's routine for powerhouse NCAA teams to go through all sorts of legal and ethical problems, but for all the winning over the many decades, you never had a hint of scandal at USC.

 

We would never stand for anything improper. Believe me, I was just a baseball coach. It started with our university president and on down.

 

[The players] all had to have a great upbringing - I'd always say, ‘Show me your parents and I'll show you who you are'. I may have helped in their development, and in that I am extremely proud, but we just expected them to act like gentlemen who were there to do a job that involved proper dress and good grades and attitude.

 

They did become outstanding people. We expected nothing less.

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