You've probably never heard of Gordon Gillespie, but he was one of the greatest baseball coaches in the history of the game. Gordie, as we called him, officially announced his retirement this week after 59 years of coaching baseball. He leaves behind a legacy that includes 1,893 wins, the most by any coach in college baseball history. But more important than the wins was Gordie's approach to the game and the way he taught and loved the players he coached. This is something I can personally vouch for, having played under his wing for four seasons while attending Ripon College in Wisconsin.
In many ways, Gordie was old school. No facial hair during the season. All players wore their uniforms the same, socks up or socks down. However, in many ways, Gordie was ahead of his time. He believed wholeheartedly in the importance of pitching and defense. On offense he always looked to play for the big inning. Gordie was not the type of coach who would bunt a runner over in the first inning and he never let up or allowed his players to stop playing the game, no matter what the score. He preached plate discipline and frequently scolded his hitters for swinging at first-pitch breaking balls.
Gordie never used a curse word and his antics could be comical at times, but when he needed to get his point across, you listened and you listened hard. Sometimes just one look from his antique eyes told you everything you needed to know.
More than anything, however, Gordie put his trust in his players and stood behind them 100 percent, through slumps and hot streaks. You always knew exactly where you stood with Gordie, and if things were going bad he'd always have something positive to say to try to pick you up. As long as you worked hard in every practice and played hard in every game, you'd always have a place on his team. One of my favorite memories of playing ball under Gordie was when our smallest player, Rick Pell, perhaps 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds when his hair grew out, got into a blowout game his senior year and did something he had never done before.
Rick had been one of the hardest workers on the team for all four years. His playing time was sporadic, but this never stopped him from working his butt off. I remember being in the on-deck circle when he got the call to pinch hit. On a day where the wind was blowing out and baseballs were leaving the yard like a Josh Hamilton home run derby show -- for our team at least -- Rick told me he was just going to go for it and try for a home run, something he had never done in his life going all the way back to Little League. When the ball flew over the right-field wall the entire team went crazy. It was like we had just won the Division III World Series. That's how Gordie's teammates felt about each other and that's how Gordie felt about his players. You could see the immense pride in Gordie's eyes and the warmth in his heart as Rick rounded the bases.
Gordie loved his players. While winning was always the team goal, making sure all of his players performed in the classroom and grew as men was always his personal goal -- a goal he achieved with brilliant frequency. He was also a successful high school football coach, leading Joliet (Ill.) Catholic to four straight Class 4A state titles from 1975-78.
Now, at 85 years of age, Gordie Gillespie hangs up his cap and steps away from his post at the University of St. Francis to spend time with his wife and family. Eight years ago, he used to tell his people, "At my age, I don't buy green bananas anymore," a phrase I'm sure he still uses to this day. I hope he finds piece in life without coaching, though I'm certain there will be a little hollow feeling inside when baseball season comes around.
Someday someone might break Gordie's all-time wins record, but no one will ever replace what he has given to his players. I never enjoyed playing the game of baseball as much as I did during my four years at Ripon College. For that, I will forever be in debt to Coach Gillespie, the greatest coach I have ever known.