The lone figure stood unrecognizably about twenty yards up ahead, on the steps leading to the diamond. The shadow of stadium lights gave the appearance of a halo outlining his hunched form, and a single line of wispy cigarette smoke rose above him.
I asked my father how he could be so sure.
“See that trail of smoke?” Dad said. “It’s him. No question.”
Don Schaly lived at Pioneer Park. No, check that. He was Pioneer Park. The winningest college coach in baseball history spent his lifetime molding major league prospects and accounting majors alike into Division III kings at Marietta College.
I met him for the first time on that hot night in June 1994. We were on our way east for a vacation when Dad saw the beckoning park lights from I-77. He turned onto the gravel road leading towards the field, decided a summer Legion game must be on, and ushered me out of the car.
Thoroughly confused, I asked “What are we doing here?”
Dad didn’t skip a beat: “We’re going to see a legend.”
I remember the pebbles crunching beneath my feet as I made my way towards the iron entrance gates. Marietta College is a little school—just over a thousand full-time students. Yet, Pioneer Park has arguably the third-best baseball lights in Ohio behind the Jake and Great American Ballpark. The stadium rising up before me that night was a monument: “The House that Schaly Built.”
We made our way towards the clanking aluminum steps, and Dad called out to the shadows, “Hey, Ol’ Man! What’s shakin’?”
Turning around now, his face became clear. It was wrinkled, sunburned, and serious. He grinned, but it still looked rather like a frown.
“Ah, nothin’,” he rasped. “I just can’t seem to get away from here for long. Good to see you, Jimmy. Who’s this?”
Dad introduced me as the next great English major at Marietta. I was a rising high school senior, starting the college selection grind.
Schaly smiled, more noticeably this time, then grunted, “You should go here. It’s a nice place. You’ll like it.” That was all he had to say about the matter of my recruitment. I was girl, after all.
In 1964, Don Schaly was a graduate assistant coach for the Pioneer gridders and the new head coach of the baseball program. My father was an Army-veteran defensive end finishing out his eligibility. They were born only two weeks apart, and they would tragically die within four months of each other at sixty-seven.
Friends for forty years, they shared an important love: Marietta College. I remember hearing one side of a million phone conversations in which Dad either called Schaly to give him news on a good area prospect, commiserate when the opposition played without class, or celebrate when the hardware rolled in, ending a banner year.
The victories were plentiful: 1,442 to be exact. Under Schaly’s leadership, the Pioneers brought home three NCAA Divison III National Championships and seven second-place finishes, along with 27 conference titles. He was inducted into the ABCA Hall of Fame in 1995, and Collegiate Baseball named him their Coach of the Century. Schaly never had a losing season in forty years.
Over 100 of his players were named All-Americans, and 39 played professionally. Journeyman pitcher Terry Mulhulland, former Pirates closer Kent Tekulve, and Rockies manager Jim Tracy are all alumni of the Schaly fraternity.
While reigning over the program, he also served 20 years as an assistant AD and 17 as an assistant football coach.
Schaly’s tough-love approach based on seriousness and a passion for decorum was ultimately the reason for the program’s unwavering success. Though a sentimental soft spot existed inside Schaly, the hard shell was infamous.
Current head coach Brian Brewer gave a fabulous picture of Schaly’s living-legend status in a Columbus Dispatch feature. Brewer described a time he came up from a play injured. “The second baseman and I dove for the ball and his spikes caught me right on the forehead. Doc Spears, our trainer, is out there trying to stop the bleeding. There was blood all over the place,” he recalls. “What does coach say? He’s yelling, ‘Brewer, get that jersey off; you’re getting blood all over it.’ Geez, he didn’t even ask if I was all right.”
Dad’s most common words of advice were given to anyone in a rough situation, but particularly to Marietta freshmen. With a knowing gleam in his eye, he’d say, “Hang in there rookie, it’s a long season.” The advice proved especially useful to those who could stick out four years under Schaly’s watch.
When Coach passed away after a short bout with cancer in the spring of 2005—at spring training, no less—former player Mike Meinke noted, “He’d be mad at us because we’re running late for his funeral.”
Jeff Schaly gave his father’s eulogy, saying, “Trying to explain the MC baseball family to an outsider is next to impossible. The only way you can truly understand and appreciate what dad was all about was to experience it firsthand. Only he could use the word ‘dumbass’ as a term of endearment.”
Schaly called it quits in 2003, but never strayed far from his beloved boys in pinstripes. He called his long list of 600 or so former players, assistants, and administrators “The Fraternity,” and designated himself the “Ol’ Man.” Every few months, a blue newsletter came to our door, and within it was a long list of random congratulations as the coach acknowledged births, marriages, promotions, and tidbits about various members of the order.
Rumors abound that Major League teams came calling with managerial offers over the years. Schaly, the story goes, turned them all down in favor of Marietta.
Of his alma mater and lifetime employer, Schaly once said, “My whole life has been this university, and I never found any time to do anything else. I have no hobbies. You know, I’ve had more job offers since I’ve announced my retirement, and by that I mean offers to become an assistant here, such as (with) the volleyball team. I might take them all up. Sounds like fun.”
“Marietta College baseball was just another college sport until Don Schaly showed up,” explains Tekulve. “It is to college baseball what Notre Dame is to college football.”
Like the aura surrounding the Fighting Irish, the forty-year story which unfolded on the banks of the Ohio River will continue to inspire generations of ballplayers in Marietta. Meanwhile, Dad and the Ol’ Man are surely recruiting together from a different diamond. Another winning season is on the horizon. No question.
Photo © Andrea Nay