Six Degrees of Don Lund

March 25, 2010

By Amy E Whitesall

Sometimes, while researching his book "Playing Ball with Legends" (Saint James Books, 2009) author Jim Irwin would ask former University of Michigan athlete and coach Don Lund for someone who could verify a particular story.

Lund, the 85-year-old subject of Irwin's book, would dial up George Kell or Al Kaline or someone equally inaccessible to most mere mortals, and hand Irwin the phone.

Don Lund has connections.

In fact, Lund's connections to people and events in sports and beyond fan out in a sometimes astonishing web -- a reminder that we never know where the threads of our lives might intersect.

Consider this: baseball innovator Branch Rickey earned a law degree from Michigan in 1912. While in Ann Arbor, Rickey coached the baseball team, which came to include a future Major League Baseball Hall of Fame first baseman named George Sisler.

Rickey left Michigan in 1913 to become manager of the St. Louis Browns. Eight years later, according to the Society for American Baseball Research, he encouraged a Cincinnati Reds spitball pitcher named Ray Fisher to apply for the Michigan job, which had come open for the second time since Rickey's departure. Fisher stayed at Michigan 38 years and mentor, among many others, a young man from Detroit named Don Lund.

Rickey eventually became president and part owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Sisler, by then retired from playing, became his trusted special assistant. Sisler scouted Lund, a three-sport Michigan letterman. After Lund's final college baseball game in 1945, Sisler asked if he'd like to go to New York to meet with Rickey. They took the train from Ann Arbor together; within days Lund signed his first professional contract. Two years later, Lund ended up on the AAA Montreal Royals roster with Jackie Robinson. When Rickey promoted Robinson from AAA to join the Dodgers and break baseball's color barrier, he brought Lund up to the big leagues, too.

An historic footnote? Sure. But it's really just the beginning ...

  • Joe Louis

Louis, the reigning heavyweight champion, fought in an exhibition match in Havana after one of the Dodgers' 1947 spring training games. After the match, Lund and Robinson approached Louis, who reportedly warmed up to Lund after Robinson introduced him as "Don Lund from Detroit."

  • Tom Selleck

One of Lund's good friends at Detroit Southeastern High School was a student named Bob Selleck. Selleck was dating a girl named Martha Jagger, whose close friends included Betty Jayne Huff. In the fall of 1939, Selleck and Jagger introduced Lund and Huff (his future wife) at Detroit's Switzer Dairy. Bob and Martha later married and started a family in Detroit before moving to California. One of their sons, Tom, became something of an actor.

  • Chicago "Black Sox"

Lund's coach, mentor and friend, Ray Fisher, pitched for the Cincinnati Reds in game three of the infamous 1919 World Series against the Chicago White Sox. Chicago won game three behind the pitching of Dickie Kerr but went on to lose the series and have eight players banned from baseball for conspiring to throw the series.

  • Honus Wagner

A shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the early 1900s, Wagner was one of the first five players inducted to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. His T206 baseball card is the world's rarest card. Lund recalls meeting Wagner at a banquet when he was in college.

"Honus Wagner's baseball card is worth $200,000," Lund says. "I didn't even think to get his autograph. It just didn't dawn on me. (The banquet) was in the Detroit area, as I recall. I don't know how I was invited, but he was there. He was an older gentleman at time, and I was glad to meet him."

  • Lefty Grove

The woman who lived across the street from Lund's boyhood home happened to grow up in the same small Maryland town as Philadelphia Athletics pitcher Lefty Grove. So one summer afternoon in 1931 when the A's were in town, she invited Grove over for dinner and invited Lund and a friend to join them. Grove autographed a baseball, which was given to Lund. But the eight-year-old boy could not stop fidgeting with the ball, and as the evening wore on, the signature wore off. Grove re-signed the ball for Lund, who still has it.

  • Charlie Gehringer

A Hall of Famer and Detroit Tigers legend, Lund followed Gehringer's playing career as a fan, then played for Gehringer the general manager in Detroit. Later, he learned that Gehringer also attended the University of Michigan, and in fact earned his freshman numerals -- in basketball -- before leaving school to play baseball. He played for the Tigers under player-managers Ty Cobb and Mickey Cochrane.

  • Mickey Mantle

Lund was playing rightfield for the Toledo Mud Hens on July 31, 1951, the night a 19-year-old kid from Oklahoma hit for the super cycle -- a single, a double, a triple and two home runs -- for the Kansas City Blues, the New York Yankees' top farm team. Later in his career, Mantle, who was named after Mickey Cochrane, hit a home run over Briggs Stadium's (also known as Tiger Stadium) rightfield roof that is considered the longest of all time, more than 600 feet. Lund, a Detroit first base coach at the time, happened to not be on the field that September day in 1958. Instead he was working in the team's scouting office behind the rightfield stands. Listening to the game on the radio, he heard the crack of the bat and the "loooooong gone!" call. Lund looked out the office window and saw the ball hit the wall of the building across the street, about 10 feet up. (He says the ball bounced into the street, where a cab driver grabbed it and took off.)

  • Too many notable Detroit Tigers to mention

When he played with the Tigers, Lund's road roommates included George Kell and Hal Newhouser. He remembers the June road trip in 1953 when a skinny kid named Al Kaline joined the team.

As director of Detroit's farm system, he cultivated the careers of most of the 1968 World Series Championship team, including Jim Northrup, Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich and Mickey Stanley, along with Dave Campbell and Bill Freehan, both of whom Lund had recruited and coached at Michigan.

He struck up a long friendship with Jim Campbell, the Tigers' general manger from 1963-83 and president from 1978-90, despite Campbell being an Ohio State graduate. Campbell, incidentally, was replaced as Tigers president by another OSU grad, Bo Schembechler.

  • Pee Wee Reese

Reese was the Dodgers' shortstop when Lund broke into the major leagues in 1947. Reese, a 10-time All-Star, was well-respected by his teammates and got along with everyone, Lund says. His acceptance of Robinson carried a lot of weight with the other players.

  • Otto Graham

The not-yet-legendary quarterback came to Detroit when Don Lund was a high school senior, hoping to recruit a young Lund to play football at Northwestern. Graham, at the time a tailback for the Wildcats, went on to play 10 seasons of pro football with the Cleveland Browns and win seven league championships in the pre-Super Bowl era.

  • Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch

Hirsch started college at Wisconsin but was sent to Michigan as part of the Navy's World War II officer training program. He spent two years at Michigan, lettering alongside Lund in football, basketball and baseball, with a track letter thrown in for good measure. Hirsch went on to a long and successful NFL career with the Los Angeles Rams and be inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968. Lund, meanwhile, was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the first round of the 1945 NFL draft but decided to play pro baseball instead.

  • Old Yeller

The part of Mr. Sanderson, Yeller's owner in the 1957 Disney film, was played by actor Chuck Connors. Before becoming an actor, Connors was a multi-sport athlete. He played a season of professional basketball with the Boston Celtics before reporting to Dodgers spring training in 1947, where he was on the Montreal Royals' roster along with Lund. Connors is best known for his role as Lucas McCain in the TV series "The Rifleman" (1958-63).

  • Barb Cossman

Cossman, media productions coordinator in the Michigan athletic department, suggested a series of stories on Lund and enthusiastically went along with an exercise we began to call "Six degrees of Don Lund." As it became ever clearer that everyone on earth is very likely connected to Lund by no more than six degrees of separation (and in some cases far fewer), this bit of information surfaced, unbeknownst to Barb:

When Lund and his family rented a Lakeland, Fla., apartment for spring training in 1949, Lund befriended their temporary neighbor, a Flint Journal sportswriter named M.B. "Maurie" Cossman. Maurie Cossman is Barb's great-uncle.

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