Right-hander John Leister (pronounced Lister) worked in 10 major-league games for the Boston Red Sox: eight in 1987 and two in 1990. He’d been considered for a career in professional football — but baseball proved to be his calling. After his six-year pro career (1984-90) ended, he became a college coach.
John William Leister was born in San Antonio, Texas, on January 3, 1961. His parents were James and Patricia Leister. John was raised in a military family — James Leister served in the United States Army for 28 years, retiring as a colonel. As is typically the case, the family moved around, spending time in John’s youth in Texas, California, and elsewhere.
“At one point [James] commanded a battalion of Hawk missiles. At another point, he was in intelligence at the Pentagon. We were in Falls Church, Virginia when my dad was stationed at the Pentagon. We moved to Fort Bliss when I was in first grade. We moved out of Fort Bliss after fifth grade. My dad had been back and forth to Vietnam twice. And then he got in with NORAD. My mother worked at different times. She was an office manager for a doctor when we lived at Fort Bliss in El Paso and then she was the office manager for Congressman Ron Marlenee in his Great Falls (Montana) office.” By the time John was in high school, the family was living in this town.
“I’ve got a brother. He’s 10 years older than me. Jim Junior. He went to West Point. He actually went to the prep school out of high school and then went to West Point and was on the baseball team but in the second year — when they had the opt-out year — he opted out of the military service.”1
His father James had been a pitcher, too, “in the lower echelons of the St. Louis Browns system just before World War II. He played briefly for Evansville before the Army and a sore arm canceled the major-league dream.”2 That John’s father had been an athlete, and naturally wanted the best for his children, may well have led to his decision to retire from the Army. He had been stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base, just east of Great Falls. That’s where John attended Russell High School. During his sophomore year, Col. Leister received orders to transfer to a base in Alaska, where he would have been in a command position. But John was both active and showing talent in high school football, and so his father had a talk with the high school coach. Was John good enough that he might well qualify for a college football scholarship? Yes, he was told. So Col. Leister retired. He took a position as Congressman Marlenee’s campaign manager.
John had played high school baseball, too, and caught the eye of the New York Mets who selected him in the 20th round of the June 1979 amateur draft. The Mets wanted him, but so did Michigan State. And the Mets didn’t want him to be playing football. John accepted a football scholarship to MSU, beginning in the fall of 1979. He initially played under Coach Darryl Rogers, who had recruited him with the understanding he could play both sports, but a change in coaching occurred and the incoming coach, Muddy Waters, did not want him playing baseball.
Listed at 6-feet-2 and 200 pounds, Leister played three years as starting quarterback for the Michigan State Spartans, and was frequently mentioned in newspaper stories of the day.3 Overall, in 40 games across four years (1979-82), Leister completed 313 of 686 passes for 20 touchdowns and 3,999 yards. The team’s most notable player then was Danish placekicker Morten Andersen, who went on to play 25 years in the NFL.
Leister had had to forego baseball during the term of his football scholarship, but in the spring of 1983 — his senior year — his football commitment was over. Coach Tom Smith urged him to come out for the baseball team. While he had been on the football scholarship, Leister says, “I literally didn’t pick up a baseball for three years. When I was out of eligibility, Tom Smith needed a pitcher and he called me up and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come out?’ I hadn’t thrown a baseball in three years. He said, ‘I promise you I won’t let you get hurt. I promise you I won’t embarrass you. Just come out and see what you think.’”
Leister did — and was impressive enough to pitch for the Spartans baseball team and attract the attention of the Oakland Athletics. The A’s made him a sixth-round selection in the June 1983 draft. The call from the Athletics came as a surprise. “We played the University of Michigan, at Michigan that year. They were really good. They had Barry Larkin and [Chris] Sabo. They beat us. After the game, I’m walking off and this guy walks up to me and says, ‘I’m So-and-So from the Oakland A’s.’ I said, ‘Nice to meet you.’ He said, ‘If we draft you, would you consider baseball?’ Literally. And I’m like, ‘…Sure.’ That was it.”
But he didn’t sign with Oakland, either. Instead, he wanted to pursue his dream of becoming a professional football player. He joined the Pittsburgh Steelers, signing with them as an undrafted free agent and went to training camp with them in the summer of 1983.4 Leister had majored in Communications. Since he had been given the opportunity with the Steelers, he didn’t complete all of his degree requirements at the time. But — mindful of the promise he had made his parents — he went back and got his degree in 1991, shortly after his pro baseball career was over.
In January 1984, in the secondary phase of the baseball draft, Leister was selected in the third round by the Boston Red Sox, whose scouts had been following him. This time, he signed. Chuck Koney was the signing scout for the Red Sox. One of his reports acknowledged that Leister’s first love was football, and a report filed by Lennie Merullo on March 25, 1983, noted that his father had been a minor league pitcher and that his brother had pitched at West Point. “Can come fast,” Merullo wrote.5 The reports show that Leister was seen as a developing talent, one with major league potential. The Red Sox were perhaps taking a bit of a flyer, especially selecting him so high.
At the time, Peter Gammons called Leister “an intriguing draft pick” in that he had gone to camp with the Steelers and was reportedly the last man cut (Pittsburgh decided to stick with the injured veteran star, Terry Bradshaw).6 Leister signed with the Michigan Panthers of the United States Football League (USFL) in November 1983, and was with them at the time the Red Sox drafted him. Gammons wrote, “Boston’s chances of getting him aren’t great.”7
Someone had spoken with Leister. In Koney’s report of January 10, 1984, he reported that Leister was with the Panthers, and that “his 1st love is football and is going all out to make a club.” However, “If by chance he is cut, he said he would be interested in Pro Baseball and be ready to report to Spring Training.”8
The USFL was falling apart. It wasn’t that Leister was cut, but the league seemed to offer, at best, uncertain prospects. He was with the Panthers in camp in Arizona. “When we were in camp, and it was time to get paid, they gave us IOUs. They told us the money was coming. We were told by our agents and the individuals who represented us that the league was in trouble. It just was a mess. When you’re trying to get ready for a season, that’s not what you want to deal with.”
Leister left the USFL at the beginning of February and signed with the Red Sox.9 “I got a phone call in my hotel room from Chuck Koney saying that the Red Sox had drafted me in the third round and asking. ‘Would you consider playing baseball?’ I asked him, ‘Will you pay me?’ He was, like, ‘What do you mean? This is professional baseball.’ I said, ‘I’m not getting paid now.’ He said, ‘We’re not going to get in a bidding war.’ I said, ‘There’s no bidding war. If you’ll pay me, I’ll play.’ I got on a plane the next morning and flew from Arizona to East Lansing. He met me at the airport with a contract. I signed it.”
He added, “I’d never met him until I met him in the airport. I had no idea what was going on. I got off the plane. He was waiting for me. I signed a contract. I went to my apartment, got my baseball gear, spent the night, went back to the airport, and went to Winter Haven.”
Leister was placed with the Winter Haven Red Sox, Boston’s Class-A team in the Florida State League. He compiled a record of 12-12 with a 3.39 ERA, struck out 103 batters in 175 1/3 innings, but also walked 93. The last three games he pitched were all shutouts — a one-hitter, three-hitter, and four-hitter.10
In 1985 he advanced to Double A and pitched in the Eastern League for New Britain, starting 13 games and working in 14 others. His record was 8-6 with a 3.17 ERA; his best outing was a one-hitter on July 4 against the Nashua Pirates.11
Leister singled out his manager at New Britain, Ed Nottle, for special praise. Nottle was later his manager in Triple A too, as skipper of the Pawtucket Red Sox from 1985 to 1990. “Ed was always in my corner. Especially at the end of my career. I don’t think the Red Sox were wild about me. I was older. Ed pushed for me and got me my shot the last time in ’90. Then it was up to me to run with it.
“But Ed was a unique individual. He was very good to me and I’ve always been very appreciative. Managing was just in his blood. One of those guys. He was just a good man. A little rough around the edges, but he was good to me.”
In the fall of 1985, Leister was placed in the Florida Instructional League “to learn the slider.” He showed so well there that he was invited to spring training.12 He took another step up the ladder in 1986, pitching for the PawSox in the International League. At one point he ran off a string of 22 scoreless innings.13 He was, wrote the Springfield Union, “almost ready.”14 After the season he was added to the major-league roster.
Leister began the season with Pawtucket in 1987, but was called up to the majors twice. His major league debut came on May 28, 1987. He’d thrown a three-hitter against Rochester, bringing his record to 5-1 with a 2.67 ERA. The Red Sox optioned Jeff Sellers to Pawtucket and called up Leister. He joined a pitching staff featuring Roger Clemens, Bruce Hurst, and Al Nipper.
“It wasn’t a debut Leister will want a tape of,” wrote Joe Giuliotti in the Boston Herald. “It was short and brutal.”15 He started against the Cleveland Indians at Boston’s Fenway Park. His father was in the stands. Each of the first four batters he faced got a base hit and scored:– ; singles by Brett Butler and Julio Franco, then an RBI single by Pat Tabler, and a three-run homer by Joe Carter over the left field wall. Leister finally got out of the inning, and was pleased to see Jim Rice drive in one for the Red Sox in the bottom of the first. In the top of the second, the inning started in promising fashion with two infield popups but then Franco singled and Tabler homered. Leister struck out Joe Carter to end the inning, but manager John McNamara had left-hander Tom Bolton take over starting in the third. Although the Indians’ starting pitcher was future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, the Tribe was unable to maintain the lead. The Red Sox ultimately won the game, 12-8, and Leister had a no-decision.
Leister started two games at Fenway in June, against the Twins on June 2 and the Tigers on June 7. In the June 2 game, he gave up four runs in 5 1/3 innings, but Boston ultimately won, 6-5. He’d done better, he said, because he had decided to pitch the way he always had — admitting that in his debut game he had “tried to throw my fastball a little harder, I tried to get my curveball to break a little sharper.”16
He had his first career loss on June 7, giving up six runs in 3 1/3 innings. He relieved in two road games later in June, but when Oil Can Boyd came off the disabled list on June 21, Leister was returned to Pawtucket, bearing a 13.85 earned run average. He was hit hard in his first game back in Pawtucket, giving up six runs to Columbus. That was an aberration, as he went on to an 11-5 (3.77) record with the 1987 PawSox.
After Pawtucket was eliminated in the International League playoffs, Leister was recalled to rejoin the big club in September. He started three more games, recording two more no-decisions before ending the season with a loss on October 3. His best shot at a win eluded him on September 20 in the second game of a doubleheader at Baltimore. Leister pitched 7 1/3 innings against the Orioles and had a 3-1 lead when reliever Wes Gardner came in with a man on first. The first batter Gardner faced — Fred Lynn — homered against his former team, tying the score. The Red Sox scored three runs in the ninth and won. The win went to Gardner, not Leister. The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy credited Leister with a well-pitched game.17
Leister left the September 27 game after five innings with a 6-3 lead, only to see Gardner, Bob Stanley, and Calvin Schiraldi surrender six runs. Sportswriter Bob Ryan called him “a creditable major league pitcher.”18
In the 8-4 loss on October 3, Leister yielded six earned runs in five innings against the visiting Brewers. He finished his first stint in the majors with a record of 0-2 and an ERA of 9.20 in eight appearances and 30 1/3 innings.
Leister was at Pawtucket for the entire seasons in both 1988 and 1989. In coverage of spring training in 1988, The Sporting News observed that he had “squandered his chances of winning a roster spot [with Boston] when he gave up nine runs in two innings March 15 against Kansas City…After his first three outings, he had an astronomical ERA of 23.40.”19
Boston outrighted Leister to Pawtucket over the winter of 1988-89. He had pitched some winter ball for Tiburones de La Guaira in Venezuela but developed arm problems after just three starts and had to leave the team. His time there offered an eye-opening life experience. “Once you get on the field, baseball’s baseball. That part of it, I loved. But in Venezuela,” he reflected, “you’re either really rich or very poor. We were living in really nice condos, but the kids coming to the games didn’t have clothes. On Sundays, they would let little kids come onto the field and get autographs. The American players who were there, we took $50 and got all ones, and handed it out to them. The exchange rate was 37 to 1. It was nothing anyone told us to do, it was just — God, these kids…Some of the players we played with had dirt floors. That part of it was a little bit of a shock. When people around here complain, to this day I shake my head and on the inside think, ‘You really have no idea, folks.’
“We went to one place where we had a cooler for water. In the middle of the game, we ran out of water. Through the interpreter, you told the kid in the clubhouse you need water. He disappeared for an inning and a half. He had to go to the well! Then afterwards, we’re going to take a shower? No. No showers.”
Leister was invited to spring training in 1989 as a non-roster player. The PawSox had a losing record again that year, finishing last. Leister’s record was 6-16 (4.31) in 1988, when he started in 24 of his 28 appearances. He improved to 7-7 (3.93) in 1989, making significant progress against giving up the long ball. In 167 innings in 1988, he had allowed a team-high 18 homers (the same number he had allowed with Pawtucket in 1987). In 1989, the home run count fell to just two in 128 1/3 innings. His best game was a late July two-hitter against the Oklahoma 89ers, with 10 strikeouts. It was one of just nine starts in 38 outings.
In 1990, Leister had not been invited to spring training and had thought about retiring. He and his wife Linda had a daughter, born in November 1989. “My wife was the one who said I had to keep going,” he said.20 He did get another shot at big league ball in mid-April when Mike Rochford stumbled in his first start and Wes Gardner developed a sore elbow. The Red Sox pitching staff was in a shambles; they started eight different pitchers in the first 17 games.
Leister was summoned from Pawtucket, where he was the next starter scheduled to pitch. He received a totally unexpected phone call after midnight on April 13 and was told he was starting that night against Milwaukee at Fenway Park. When he arrived at the park, he was asked if his prior experience would help. “The only thing I have from three years ago,” he said, “is that I know how to get here.”21 Joe Morgan was Boston’s manager.22
Leister lasted four innings in a game the Red Sox lost, 9-5, surrendering four runs. Due to a pair of errors behind him on a very chilly evening, only two of the runs were earned. “I couldn’t get my curve ball going,” he said, “and that’s my out pitch.”23 On April 16, he was brought in during the eighth inning of a game against the Brewers. The Red Sox were trailing, 15-0. There was one out and two runners were aboard. Leister gave up a triple to B. J. Surhoff, scoring the two inherited runners; then Surhoff scored on a single by Darryl Hamilton. Leister recovered to get the final two outs of the eighth and set down the side in order in the ninth.
Those were his last innings in the majors. He was returned to Pawtucket where he endured a disappointing 2-10 (5.78) season. Pawtucket was 62-84, again finishing last in the International League’s Eastern Division. That was his last year in baseball. His major league record was 0-2 with a career ERA of 8.50.
For the next 2½ years, he worked for Service Merchandise Corporation in Okemos, Michigan, as a warehouse receiver. His duties included unloading trucks, transporting merchandise into the warehouse, checking inventory, and performing some security work.
Starting later in 1993, he got into coaching at Alma College in Alma, Michigan. The college is associated with the Presbyterian Church and is a member of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA). Alma (population 9,383 as of 2010) is the largest city in Gratiot County. It is located near the center of the state, about 80 miles northeast of Grand Rapids.
Leister joined Alma “in 1993 as an assistant football and assistant baseball coach, eventually assuming the head baseball coaching position in 1997. As baseball coach, he led the Scots to the 1999 MIAA title. During his tenure as offensive coordinator for the football team [August 1994 to December 2011], Leister helped lead the Scots to MIAA championships in 1999, 2002 and 2004.”24 He won promotion to Athletic Director, responsible for all aspects of the athletics department at the college, serving from January 2006 through November 2014.
John and his first wife Linda had two children, Nicole and Jarrett. The marriage lasted about 13 years. Both Nicole and Jarrett are married; each has one child, Jarrett’s son being born four days before Leister’s November 2020 interview with the author of this story. John remarried in the late 1990s and has two daughters — Hailey and Alyssa — with his second wife Michelle. Both are very good athletes.
After Leister retired from Alma, he was able to spend more time with his family. “I was coaching their softball team in the summer and my wife coaches the basketball team. It was just a good, calm time after 40-plus years of going crazy.” He had coached their travel teams. As of 2020-21, Hailey was a pitcher on Northwood University’s softball team and Alyssa had just committed to a basketball scholarship at Wayne State.
A number of friends also called on him to help out with programs with which they were involved. For eight months, he worked in Chesaning, Michigan, as Offensive Coordinator at Chesaning Union High School. Later in 2017, he took a position at Lindenwood University in Belleville, Illinois, serving as assistant head coach and offensive coordinator.
In addition, Leister served as a business development executive with credit card processing company MPX, beginning in December 2018. He went on to become a part-time analyst for Central Michigan University Football, beginning in July 2019, helping out another friend, Jim McElwain.
Leister has kept in touch with several of his former teammates and was among the many Red Sox alumni invited to the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park in 2012. “I’ve got two pretty cool uniforms,” he says. “One’s got the 75-year patch on it and the other one’s got the 100th. That was a pretty amazing event. That was a very, very cool few days. The difference they made in a lot of peoples’ lives — just to be remembered — they’ll probably never know. You keep in touch with some of those guys. We still talk about it.”
Despite a brief major league career, Leister still receives a number of autograph requests in the mail from collectors who are completists. He looks back on his time in baseball with grateful appreciation. “I was lucky. I was really fortunate to be able to do the things I did, and to be able to continue to do the things I’m doing. The Good Lord smiled on me and continues to.”
Grateful acknowledgment to John Leister for his memories.
This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Alan Cohen.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, SABR.org, Sports-reference.com (college football stats), Pelotobinaria.com.ve (Venezuelan stats), and the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, eds.)
1 Author interview with John Leister on November 19, 2020. Unless otherwise indicated, all direct quotations attributed to John Leister come from this interview.
2 David Cataneo, “Leister Success a Family Affair,” Boston Herald, May 28, 1987: 13.
3 See, for instance, Bob Baptist, “QB Leister Leads MSU’s Show Well,” Columbus Dispatch, October 30, 1980: 45,
4 Jim O’Brien, “Two Steeler Free Agents Wonder if Football’s Their Game,” Pittsburgh Press, July 13, 1983: D1.
5 Lennie Merullo scouting report, March 23, 1983. SABR Scouts and Scouting Committee files. Thanks to Rod Nelson for making various reports available.
6 John O’Connor, “A Rising Star?” Richmond Times-Dispatch, May 4, 1986: 6. The Boston Herald said that Leister was “the final player cut by the Steelers last August.” See “Sox Sign Righty Leister,” Boston Herald, February 14, 1984: 46.
7 Peter Gammons, “K.C.’s Davis May Be West’s Best Rookie,” The Sporting News, February 6, 1984: 40. See also “Leister Draws Raves,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 20, 1985: 44.
8 Chuck Money, “Free Agent Report,” January 10, 1984. SABR Scouts and Scouting Committee files.
9 “Sox draftee leaves Panthers,” Boston Herald, February 2, 1984: 64.
10 Peter Gammons, “Red Sox Farm System Has Crop Still Growing,” Boston Globe, September 8, 1984: 27.
11 “1-Hitter for BritSox,” Boston Herald, July 5, 1985: 57. See also “Britsox Paced by One-Hitter,” Hartford Courant, July 5, 1985: D4.
12 Peter Gammons, “Royals Do It Again Overcoming Adversity,” The Sporting News, October 28, 1985: 17. The slider was mentioned in the November 2020 interview.
13 “Around the Minors,” The Sporting News, August 18, 1986: 24.
14 Garry Brown, “When the Red Sox are in Doubt, They Call Ed Kenney,” Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), June 8, 1986: 64.
15 Joe Giuliotti, “Red Sox, Indians Slug it Out,” Boston Herald, May 29, 1987: 11. It was not actually that short; Bob Sudyk clocked his first inning alone at 30 minutes. Bob Sudyk, “Evans Has 6 RBI as Red Sox Catch Indians, 12-8,” Hartford Courant, May 29, 1987: D3B.
16 Stephen Harris, “Sox Take Twins in 9th, 6-5,” Boston Herald, June 3, 1987: 100, 105.
17 Dan Shaughnessy, “Leister’s Fine Outing Gets Lost in the Shuffle,” Boston Globe, September 21, 1987: 47.
18 Bob Ryan, “There’s No Relief for the Sox,” Boston Globe, September 28, 1987: 34.
19 “A.L. East,” The Sporting News, March 28, 1988: 44.
20 Sean Horgan, “Red Sox Demote Leister; Hetzel Summoned to Fill No. 4 spot,” Hartford Courant, April 20, 1990: E1.
21 David Cataneo, “Leister has Big Shoes to Fill,” Boston Herald, April 14, 1990: 21.
22 In the November 2020 interview, Leister said: “Joe was always a step ahead of me. He had been at Triple A when I was at Double A. And then Joe got called up. I knew him from being in minor-league camp but I never played for him until once I got up.”
23 Sean Horgan.
24 “John Leister Resigns as Athletics Director at Alma College,” November 10, 2014. http://almascots.com/information/Leister. College president Jeff Abernathy said, “I am grateful for John’s dedication and 20-year commitment to Alma College Athletics. As athletic director, he oversaw significant facility improvements, including renovations to the Hogan Center, Scots Park and Bahlke Field, and the expansion of the athletics program from 18 to 23 varsity teams. John leaves a solid foundation for the future success of Alma’s athletics program.”