This article was written by Doug Skipper
This article was published in the The National Pastime: Baseball in the North Star State (Minnesota, 2012)
In a sport now dominated by teams from sunnier climates, the University of Minnesota baseball program has had a considerable amount of success over the years. The Golden Gophers have won three College World Series Championships, 22 Big Ten Conference championships, and have had 30 players go on to play in the major leagues.
In a sport now dominated by teams from sunnier climates, the University of Minnesota baseball program has generated its share of warm memories in the Upper Midwest. The Golden Gophers have captured three College World Series (CWS) championships, finished third once and placed sixth once in 30 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament appearances, the most by any Big Ten Conference school. Minnesota has captured 22 Big Ten Conference championships and eight Big Ten Tournament titles through 2011.
More than 30 former Golden Gophers have played major league baseball, including Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor. The Gophers have also boasted first-team All-Americas 27 times.
Three coaching legends, Frank McCormick, Dick Siebert, and current manager John Anderson, all members of the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) Hall of Fame, have driven the program forward, primarily with home-grown talent. McCormick built the foundation in the 1930s, Siebert made Minnesota a national power for three decades, and Anderson implemented creative measures to maintain the quality of play and to carry on the tradition of a nationally competitive Minnesota baseball program.
Two other coaching legends launched their careers after playing baseball for the Golden Gophers: National Football League Hall of Famer Bud Grant, and Jerry Kindall, elected to the ABCA Hall of Fame after winning three CWS titles at the University of Arizona.
Among the other notable Maroon and Gold alumni are Heisman Trophy runner-up Paul Giel, who served as the University of Minnesota’s athletic director after a stint in the major leagues, and Bobby Marshall, one of the first two African Americans to play in the NFL.
THE PIONEER YEARS (1876-1905)
While citizens of the United States were preparing to celebrate the nation’s Centennial in the spring of 1876, a baseball team represented the University of Minnesota for the first time. The overmatched college team suffered a 91–39 setback at the hands of the St. Paul Saxons, a club that had successfully represented the Lowertown area of St. Paul for a decade. Two years later, the University nine won two of three games from the Minneapolis Millers, a squad made up of men who worked in the nearby flour mills along the Mississippi River (the city’s minor league team would later appropriate the nickname). Minnesota played at least one game a year through the 1880s against local colleges, high schools, and town teams, and hosted a nine from Omaha, Nebraska. In 1891, the Minnesota baseball team traveled out of the state for the first time to play at Beloit, Wisconsin, and at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Minnesota fielded a team on a regular basis through the 1890s, and by the end of the 1899 season, had posted a 51–42–2 record in games where the outcome is known. Minnesota posted three straight winning seasons between 1900 and 1902, but then failed to field varsity teams in two of the next three seasons.
THE BIG NINE YEARS (1905-1921)
The squad returned in 1906 and competed in the Big Nine, the forerunner of the Big Ten, for the first time (though a charter member of the conference, Minnesota did not compete in baseball the first 10 seasons). For two seasons, the Gophers were led by first baseman Bobby Marshall, a talented athlete who also who also boxed, played ice hockey, and competed in track, but was best known for his feats on the gridiron.
A Milwaukee, Wisconsin native, Marshall was the first African American to play football in the Big Nine. In Marshall’s three football seasons, the Gophers posted a 27–2 record and shared two conference titles under legendary head coach Henry L. Williams. Marshall starred at end, and in his senior season, drop-kicked a 60-yard field goal to beat a powerhouse University of Chicago team. He earned all-conference and All-America honors, and in 1971, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
After he graduated, Marshall played professional baseball and football. Blocked from Organized Baseball by the color barrier, Marshall starred for regional teams, and in 1909, played a key role when the St. Paul Colored Gophers knocked off Rube Foster’s Chicago Leland Giants in a matchup of the nation’s top African American teams. Marshall also played for several regional football teams, and when the league now known as the National Football League was formed (for two seasons it was known as the American Professional Football Association) in 1920, he and Fritz Pollard became the league’s first two African American players. Marshall played for the Rock Island (Illinois) Independents that year, the Minneapolis Marines for three seasons, and the Duluth (Minnesota) Kelleys for a year, before he left the NFL after the 1925 season.
Meanwhile, in 1908, a year after Marshall played his final season at Minnesota, Walter Wilmot became the program’s first official baseball coach, the first of five men to hold the position over the next seven seasons. Two members of the 1911 freshman squad, Ralph Capron and Henry “Heinie” Elder, were the first Gophers to make it to the major leagues, but there was no team in 1912, and the program shut down after the 1915 season
After a six-year hiatus, University of Minnesota baseball was reborn in 1922, and the Gophers resumed play in the conference that had become the Big Ten. Lee Watrous Jr. served as the program’s first full-time coach in 1923, but managed just a 32–39 record over the next four seasons. In 1924, the Gophers embarked on their first early spring southern road trip, playing in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. The Minnesota nine played in Texas the next two springs, but when Watrous was replaced by George “Potsy” Clark in 1927, the Gophers started three straight seasons with swings to Ohio and Kentucky. In 1929, Minnesota hosted its first international competition and defeated the Meiji team from Japan. Arthur Bergman coached the squad through the 1930 season, when the Gophers made an early season trip to Mississippi and New Orleans before they returned home to register wins over Minneapolis Shoe Service and Bohn Refrigeration, in a schedule sprinkled with games against local amateur teams.
THE McCORMICK YEARS (1931-41)
After more than a half century of a coaching carousel and sporadic play, the University of Minnesota finally achieved prominence in college baseball with the arrival of its first baseball coaching legend, Frank McCormick. A South Dakota native who had played pro football, McCormick served as head coach of the baseball program and as assistant coach for the Gopher football team from 1930 to 1941. McCormick, who was elected to the ABCA Hall of Fame in 1967, built up the program and guided the Gophers to a 140–89 overall record and their first two Big Ten conference titles.
McCormick’s first squad started the season with games at Mississippi and Louisiana State, then returned to take on an assortment of squads sponsored by area merchants, a team from Japan, and then a tough Big Ten and regional schedule. Minnesota finished with as many losses as wins that year and again in 1932, but in 1933, playing a schedule that included only college teams, the Gophers posted a 12–2 record and won their first Big Ten title with a 6–1 mark. McCormick’s charges captured the conference flag again two years later, and posted a winning record each year for the rest of his reign, with the exception of the 1938 campaign, when the squad posted an 11–11 mark. The Gophers opened each season between 1936 and 1941 with a swing through Mississippi and Louisiana.
THE MacMILLAN YEARS (1942-47)
Named full-time athletic director after the 1941 season, McCormick picked David MacMillan as his successor. MacMillan had coached Minnesota’s basketball team from 1927 to 1942 and won the 1937 Big Ten championship behind All-America Martin Rolek and John Kundla, who would later coach the Minneapolis Lakers to six titles. MacMillan managed the Gopher baseball program for six seasons, posting a 66–36 record, and topping out with a second-place Big Ten finish in 1943.
THE SIEBERT YEARS (1948-78)
In the summer of 1947, McCormick launched a legendary coaching career when he hired former major league All-Star Dick Siebert to take over the program, still considered a “minor” sport at Minnesota. Later known as “The Chief,” Siebert had played first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers (1932, 1936), St. Louis Cardinals (1937–1938), and Philadelphia Athletics (1938–1945). Siebert coached the Gophers for the next three decades, posted a 753–361–7 record (a winning percentage of .676), captured 11 Big Ten titles, and led Minnesota to five College World Series and three national titles.
The Gophers opened Siebert’s first season in Texas, their first southern road trip since the outbreak of World War II. They would make the early season journey to the Lone Star State in each of Siebert’s 31 seasons. Outfielder Harry Elliott, a junior from Watertown, and center fielder Bud Grant from Superior, Wisconsin, led the team to a 14–12 mark, but Minnesota finished with a losing record the next two years.[fn]Armand Peterson and Tom Tomashek. Town Ball, The Glory Days of Minnesota Amateur Baseball. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).[/fn] Grant went on to play pro basketball with the Minneapolis Lakers, and pro football with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and played and coached the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers before embarking on a legendary coaching career with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.
Siebert began a string of 11 straight winning seasons in 1951, and the following year coached his first All-America, second baseman Gene Elder. That same year he welcomed Paul Giel, a great all-around athlete from Winona, Minnesota. Giel earned All-America honors in 1953 and 1954. He was also spectacular as the quarterback of the Golden Gopher football team. He was a first team All-America in 1952 and 1953, earned the Chicago Tribune Silver Football Award as the Big Ten Most Valuable Player twice, and finished second in the Heisman Trophy Award voting. Giel, who was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1975, chose baseball over football, and jumped directly to the major leagues. After his playing days were over, Giel was a radio broadcaster, and then served as the University of Minnesota athletic director.
A year after Giel’s departure, the 1955 Gophers, led by infielder Jerry Kindall from St. Paul, posted a 23–9 record, and finished second in the Big Ten. In 1956, Kindall led the Golden Gophers to a 33-9 mark, a Big Ten title with an 11–2 conference record, and Minnesota’s first appearance in the NCAA Baseball Tournament. After they dropped the first of a three-game series to Notre Dame in the opening round at home, the Gophers bounced back to win the next two games. They swept two games from Ohio University in the second round at Athens, Ohio, to earn their first College World Series berth. Fielding a roster with 16 of 18 players from Minnesota, the Golden Gophers opened with a win over Wyoming, then defeated Arizona, Mississippi, and Bradley to land in the finals of the double-elimination tournament at Omaha. Minnesota, which needed to win one of two games to earn the title, suffered a 10–4 setback in the first game with Arizona, which had come back through the loser’s bracket, but won the second game 12–1 behind New Ulm’s Jerry Thomas, who pitched a five-hitter to secure CWS Most Valuable Player honors. Thomas and Kindall earned first team All-America honors. A month later, Kindall joined the Chicago Cubs. After his major league career, he served as an assistant to Siebert, and later became the coach for the University of Arizona baseball program, where he won three CWS titles. Kindall remains the only man to have won the CWS as both a player and head coach. Like Siebert, he is enshrined in the ABCA Hall of Fame.
The Gophers posted a winning season in 1957 behind George Thomas, Jerry’s brother, and then won three straight Big Ten titles from 1958 to 1960 and advance to the NCAA Tournament each year. Fred Bruckbauer, born in New Ulm, raised in Sleepy Eye, posted a 16–5 record for the Gophers in 1958 and 1959 and outfielder Ron Causton earned first team All-America honors.
In 1960, Siebert guided a Gopher team made up of 18 Minnesota natives to the school’s second CWS championship. Minnesota opened NCAA Tournament play at Midway Stadium in St. Paul with a win over Notre Dame in the first round, and then swept the University of Detroit to qualify for a second trip to Omaha. At the CWS, Minnesota defeated North Carolina, Arizona, rallied from an 11–2 deficit to defeat USC, 12–11, and topped Oklahoma to reach the championship round against USC, which had advanced through the loser’s bracket. Minnesota needed just one win in the final round, and again lost the opener but bounced back to win the second game and the NCAA title. Jim Rantz, who went on to become the director of the Minnesota Twins’ farm season for more than 25 seasons, tossed a four-hitter in the 2–1, 10-inning win. Two Gophers, pitcher Larry Bertelsen and pitcher-first baseman Wayne Knapp, were first team All-Americas.
In 1964, Minnesota finished 31–12 overall, won its seventh Big Ten title with an 11–3 mark and captured the school’s third CWS. The Golden Gophers opened NCAA Tournament play with a sweep of host Kent State in the NCAA District 4 playoffs, to advance to Omaha, and then made another impressive run through the tournament field, defeating Texas A&M, Maine, and USC. Once again Minnesota met the winner of the loser’s bracket, and needed just one more win. Once again, Minnesota lost the first game of the finals, then bounced back to beat Missouri in the second contest, 5–1. Catcher Ron Wojciak was named a first team All-America, and captain Dewey Markus and first baseman Bill Davis also played key roles.
Siebert’s next three squads posted winning records behind future major leaguers Frank Brosseau, a Drayton, North Dakota, native, Bobby Fenwick, who was born in Okinawa but attended Anoka High School, and Richfield High product Mike Sadek. First baseman Dennis Zacho from White Bear Lake earned 1967 All-America honors.
Minnesota posted a 105–37 record between 1968 and 1970, won three more Big Ten titles, and played in the NCAA District 4 Tournament each year. First baseman Mike Walseth of St. Paul Park and outfielder Noel Jenke earned All-America honors. Jenke, from Owatanna, also earned letters in hockey and football, was drafted in all three sports and went on to play four years in the NFL.
Before the 1968 season, Delta Field, the Gophers’ ancient home park, was renamed Bernie Bierman Field in honor of the legendary coach who led Minnesota to five football national championships between 1934 and 1941. In 1971, the Golden Gophers moved to an adjacent new 1,500-seat facility, which was also named Bierman Field.
All-America Dave Winfield of St. Paul, who also starred in basketball, guided Minnesota to a 31–16–2 overall record, a Big Ten title, and a third place finish at the CWS in 1973. Minnesota defeated Miami of Ohio in the opening game of the NCAA District 4 playoffs, at Carbondale, Illinois, and then swept Southern Illinois to advance to the CWS. At Omaha, Minnesota upended Oklahoma, lost to Arizona State, and defeated Georgia Southern to advance to the semifinal round. Minnesota led defending champion USC 7–0 through eight innings behind Winfield, who had allowed only an infield single and had struck out 15. But he had thrown more than 160 pitches. Winfield finally tired in the ninth, the Gophers stumbled in the field, and the Trojans rallied for eight runs to win. Winfield was selected fourth overall in the in the baseball draft and in the later rounds of the NBA, ABA and NFL drafts (though he had not played college football). Winfield signed with the San Diego Padres, jumping straight to the major leagues. In his 22-year big league career Winfield became the nineteenth player in to collect 3,000 hits (he finished with 3110), hit 465 home runs, and was enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001.
The Golden Gophers captured a share of the Big Ten title and defeated Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio) to open the double-elimination 1974 Mideast Regional in Minneapolis, and needed just one more win to eliminate SIU to earn another trip to Omaha. The Salukis won the first game of the final round to force a deciding game, which they also won.
Minnesota returned to the playoffs in 1976, and won two games, but was eliminated by Arizona State at the NCAA Rocky Mountain Regional at Tempe, Arizona. St. Paul native Paul Molitor earned All-America honors. Led by Molitor and pitcher Dan Morgan, both of whom earned All-America honors, Minnesota won the Big Ten title outright in 1977 and finished sixth in the CWS. Minnesota defeated Central Michigan and Florida twice to win the Mideast Regional in Minneapolis, lost to Cal State Los Angeles in the first game at Omaha, then defeated Baylor before Arizona State put an end to the Gopher season. Molitor went on to play 21 years in the big leagues, became the twenty-first player to collect 3,000 hits (3,319 total), and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004. Duluth’s Jerry Udjur and Richfield’s Brian Denman, both future major leaguers, also played key roles.
Minnesota posted its 16th straight winning record in 1978, Siebert’s final season. On December 9 The Chief passed away at the age of 66. Bierman Field was officially renamed “Siebert Field” on April 21, 1979.
THE THOMAS YEARS (1979-81)
University of Minnesota Athletic Director Paul Giel promoted assistant coach George Thomas to replace Siebert. Thomas led the Gophers to a 95–43 record over the next three years. In 1981, Minnesota won the Big Ten title, split four games in the first ever Big Ten Tournament, then lost to Miami and Florida State at the NCAA Southern Regional at Coral Gables, Florida. After the season, Thomas stepped down to re-enter private business.
THE ANDERSON YEARS (1982-PRESENT)
When Thomas resigned, Giel turned to 26-year old John Anderson. Anderson had come to Minnesota from Hibbing State Junior College (now known as Hibbing Community College) as a pitcher but did not make the Gopher squad. Instead he was named student manager by Siebert, a role in which he became so highly regarded that in his senior season in 1977, he was voted the team’s Most Valuable Player. Although Anderson himself was sheepish about the award, Molitor, the team’s best player, told biographer Stuart Broomer that the student manager deserved the honor: “John Anderson embodied what we had in mind that season. He did everything except play. He was a groundskeeper, equipment man, assistant coach, and even a confidant for many of the players. He was very exceptional, so we decided he should get the award.”
Known as Walt, a high-school nickname, by the players, Anderson earned his degree that spring and joined Siebert’s staff as an unpaid graduate assistant. The next season he became a full-time assistant when Thomas was hired as head coach. Three years later, Thomas endorsed the 26-year-old Anderson to be his replacement. “I saw in John an ability to get along with players,” Thomas said. “He was good at the public relations end of it [coaching] and the practice part of it. One time, I just said to myself, ‘Hey, this fella keeps getting better every year.’”[fn]Rich Arpi, “John Anderson.” In Minnesotans in Baseball, edited by Stew Thornley. (Minneapolis: Nodin Press, 2008).[/fn]
Despite his youth, Anderson earned Big Ten Coach of the Year honors his first season. The Golden Gophers posted a 33–22–1 record in 1982, finished second in the Big Ten West Division (The league was split into East and West Divisions between 1981 and 1987), won the Big Ten Tournament with four straight victories, defeated Oral Roberts, but fell to host Oklahoma State and Middle Tennessee State at the NCAA Midwest Regional in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Minnesota was led by first team All-America catcher Greg Olson, an Edina High School product, and the Steinbach brothers from New Ulm, Terry, Tom, and Tim.
Terry Steinbach was the 1983 Big Ten Player of the Year, and the Gophers won the West that year and again in 1984. In 1985, Minnesota won the Big Ten Tournament and advanced to the NCAA Midwest Regional at Stillwater, Oklahoma. The Golden Gophers captured the Big Ten West title in 1986 and again in 1987, and played in the NCAA West 1 Regional at Palo Alto. They won the conference tournament in 1988 to earn another NCAA appearance, this time at the West Regional in Fresno, California.
In earlier years, the Golden Gophers had won with homegrown talent, but by the mid-to-late 1980s, Anderson and his staff needed to recruit nationwide to stay competitive. While players from Minnesota like Minneapolis product Tim McIntosh and Bemidji’s Bryan Hickerson, continued to form the backbone of the team, the coaching staff also brought in future major leaguers Denny Neagle from Gambrillis, Maryland, and J.T. Bruett from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. By the mid-1980s, the Gophers were using both Siebert Field and the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, which had opened in 1982, for home games.
Minnesota missed out on NCAA play in 1989 and 1990, but posted 67 wins in two seasons behind two All-Americas, catcher Dan Wilson, a Chicago-area product, and second baseman Brian Raabe, from New Ulm.
After the two-year absence, the Gophers made four consecutive NCAA appearances between 1991 and 1994, led by a pair of All-America infielders, Brent Gates, a shortstop from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who was the 1991 Big Ten Player of the Year, and Mark Merila, a second baseman from Litchfield who was the 1994 Big Ten Player of the Year and later served as the San Diego Padres bullpen catcher. Several future major leaguers also contributed to the run, including Northfield’s Jeff Schmidt, Park Cottage Grove High School product Kerry Ligtenberg, and Minnetonka’s Jim Brower.
Minnesota made four straight NCAA regional appearances between 1998 and 2001, and returned again in 2003 and 2004. Among the standouts for Anderson’s teams in the late 1990s and early 2000s were Rob Quinlan, the 1999 Big Ten Player of the Year from Maplewood’s Hill-Murray School, Jack Hannahan, the 2001 Big Ten Player of the Year, from St. Paul’s Cretin-Derham Hall, Stillwater’s Glen Perkins, who was Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and earned All-America honors in 2004, and South St. Paul’s John Gaub. (Gaub went on to become the 32nd Golden Gopher to play in the major leagues late in the 2011 season).
The Golden Gophers played in the Big Ten Tournament championship game for the seventh straight year in 2007 and returned to the NCAA Tournament, where they scored a victory over the host team, fourth-ranked San Diego.
On May 14, 2009, Anderson became the thirty-ninth Division I coach to win 1,000 games and the twentieth to do so with one program when Minnesota won at Penn State 7–6. All-America second baseman Derek McCallum from Shoreview and outfielder Eric Decker from Cold Spring led the Gophers to NCAA regional play at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where they split a pair of games with Baylor and beat Southern before eventual national champion Louisiana State ended their season. Decker went on to become a starting wide receiver for the NFL’s Denver Broncos.
Minnesota captured the 2010 conference regular season title, won the Big Ten Tournament at Columbus, Ohio, and the first two games of the NCAA Regional at Fullerton, California. The Golden Gophers downed Cal State Fullerton and New Mexico, but lost the next two to the host Titans. The NCAA appearance was their ninth in 13 years and 17th under Anderson.
Minnesota played the first ever game at Target Field, the new home of the Minnesota Twins, on March 27, 2010. After heavy winter snows caused the Metrodome roof to collapse, the Gophers split their 2011 home games between Target Field and Siebert Field. The roof collapse also played havoc with a tradition established during Anderson’s tenure. Since 1985, Minnesota has hosted an early March tournament, generally with ranked and highly regarded teams. With the Metrodome unavailable, the 2011 tourney had to move to Tucson, Arizona.
Minnesota’s Pro and Legends Alumni game was played at the Metrodome each year between 1992 and 2007. Over the years, the game featured a number of major leaguers, including Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor, who returned to their alma mater to take on the varsity team in an exhibition game before Spring Training. The event, which benefitted the Dick Siebert Scholarship Endowment Fund, was discontinued after the 2007 season because of an NCAA rule change that mandated that the college baseball season could not start until the last Friday in February, by which time the professionals were at Spring Training. When the rules changed again, Minnesota resumed the Pros and Legends Alumni game in 2010, and though the 2011 game was cancelled because of the Metrodome roof collapse, the game returned as a Minnesota tradition in 2012.
Both the early season tournament and the pro-alumni game were implemented under Anderson, who joined McCormick and Siebert in the ABCA Hall of Fame in 2008. Anderson entered the 2012 campaign with an overall record of 1063–699–3 over 30 seasons, and ranked first among all Big Ten coaches in conference wins with a 482–276 record in Big Ten play. The Golden Gophers had made 26 Big Ten Tournament appearances, won nine championships, and finished second 11 times under Anderson through the 2011 season. He led Minnesota to 40 wins in a season nine times, and at least 30 victories in 27 of his first 30 seasons.
DOUG SKIPPER is a marketing research, customer satisfaction, and public opinion consultant from Apple Valley, Minnesota, who reads and writes about baseball and engages in father-daughter dancing. A Colorado product who has resided in Wyoming and North Dakota, he has been a SABR member since 1982. He researched and wrote four biographies for “Deadball Stars of the American League,” and has contributed to several SABR biographical publications. Doug and his wife, Kathy, have two daughters, MacKenzie and Shannon.
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