As the baseball season begins, it seems appropriate to salute the career of coaching legend John Winkin. From 1955-2008, his teams at Colby College, The University of Maine at Orono (UMO) and Husson University won over 1000 games, 1,043 to be exact. Over the years, 92 of his former players signed professional baseball contracts.
Spring comes late to Maine, which is why John Winkin’s record as a baseball coach is so amazing. Forced to practice indoors, Winkin developed an indoor training program that stressed fundamentals and conditioning. His teams were also fortunate that UMO had a field house, which, at the time, was one of the largest in country. Interestingly, one of the four books Winkin has written about the sport is titled “Maximizing Baseball Practice Indoors.”
When I spoke with current UMO coach Steve Trimper he told me the 92-year-old Winkin still comes to games occasionally and sits in the dugout. I asked Steve how he managed the short Maine springs he replied; “you have to be creative.” Of course, it also helps that the team has a turf field outdoors where they play games and an indoor domed facility where they can practice in bad weather. Steve said his teams “haven’t had to cancel a game in years.” Last year they played four days after a sixteen-inch snowfall.
Steve Trimper told me that shortly after Winkin arrived to coach the Black Bears baseball team in 1975, he became an instant campus hero: he persuaded the college president, Howard Neville, to have a two-and-a-half-week spring break beginning in late February. The students loved having an extended vacation and it gave the baseball team time to go south to practice and play games in warm weather.
Trimper has also continued another Winkin tradition: “John always wanted to schedule the toughest opposition he could find, to show his players they could compete on any level.” Steve said his current team opens its schedule in Florida in late February against nationally-ranked powers Clemson and Florida State.
Winkin was a three-letter man at Duke, graduating in 1941 with a degree in education. After graduation he joined the Navy and was aboard a destroyer heading for Pearl Harbor when a storm delayed their arrival until the day after the December 7 attack. Winkin served in the Pacific theater for the remainder of the war, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander.
After the war, Jack Coombs, his baseball coach at Duke, suggested he go into coaching. At the urging of his parents, however, Winkin decided to give journalism a try. In 1946 he went to work for MacFadden Publications, which led to his becoming a founding editor of Sport Magazine. His reporting connections led to a broadcasting position with the New York Yankees, where he hosted a pre-game show along with famed announcers Mel Allen and Curt Gowdy. During this time he also became friends with Joe DiMaggio.
In the early 1950s Winkin went back to school. He earned Master’s and Doctorate degrees in education at Columbia while coaching high school football in New Jersey. One of the teams he competed against was coached by future Green Bay Packer legend, Vince Lombardi. Winkin, however, wrote his doctoral thesis on “The Statistical Probabilities Of The Double Play,” so we know baseball was never far from his thoughts.
In 1954, Winkin took a job at Colby College, where he stayed for 20 years as baseball coach and athletic director. During this period he also scouted for the Boston Red Sox, where he got to know Ted Williams, who he considers the best pure hitter in baseball. In 1965 he was named National Baseball Coach of the Year. Winkin’s final year at Colby was 1974, when he served as president of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics.
John Winkin replaced Jack Butterfield at the University of Maine who retired in 1975. Thus began an outstanding era for the Black Bears’ baseball program. Spring weather in Maine has always been unreliable for baseball. Under the circumstances Winkin’s record of 642-430-3 as head coach from 1975-1996 is remarkable. During one 11-year stretch from 1975-1986, his teams advanced to the College World Series six times, once finishing as high as third place.
Although Winkin’s teams never made it to the finals of the College World Series, their ability to compete consistently with high-level baseball programs from the south and west impressed many observers. In 1983, Winkin was chosen to coach the 1983 U.S. National Team that included future big league slugger Mark McGuire. Two years later, the Black Bears set a school record for victories with a 38-17 record and a win over perennial baseball powerhouse University of Miami.
In 1996 Winkin left the University of Maine when his contract was not renewed. Undaunted, he accepted a position at Husson University, a Division III school, in nearby Bangor. He was a baseball assistant until 2003 when he became head coach at the age of 83. Still coaching at age 86, Winkin was believed to be the oldest active coach in the NCAA, in any sport.
That same year he became the 44th collegiate baseball coach to reach 1,000 career victories. The next year, Father Time caught up with the legendary coach when he suffered a stroke while power walking. Although confined to a wheel chair, Winkin has mostly recovered his speech.
I only met John Winkin once. It was a raw Saturday in January at a baseball coach’s clinic in Philadelphia. Although he shared billing with Phillies pitching stars from the 1950s Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons, it was obvious that most of those present were there to hear the leathery old coach talk baseball. What came through loud and clear were Winkin’s uncompromising work ethic and his reverence for the game’s traditions. “I play awfully hard to win,” he said of his old-school coaching style. Just hearing him talk, the high school coaches listening attentively would agree.
Harry Gratwick coached high school baseball in Philadelphia for many years. His teams won more than 300 games and seven league championships.