April 5, 2010
By Amy E. Whitesall
The group of 60-somethings sit around the dinner table, jawing good-naturedly; old friends with a lot of catching up to do. Many of them live in different parts of the country now, but they're bound by a common history -- a special era in University of Michigan baseball when they won championships together. At the heart of their bond is the smiling, white-haired man in their midst. With a word, 86-year old Don Lund can still command the rapt attention of the entire table.
"How come we can never get you to do that?" their wives ask, laughing.
The short answer: there's only one Don Lund.
Between 1959 and 1962, Lund's U-M baseball teams were 83-55-3, with a Big Ten championship in 1961 and NCAA Regional and National championships in 1962. He recruited most of his players out of Detroit's sandlots, and though he likes to say he became a much better coach the minute he landed a young man named Bill Freehan, others point out that Lund's success -- and by extension, Michigan's -- was no fluke.
The best ballplayers in Detroit came to Michigan to play for Don Lund; Lund the former big-leaguer, Lund the coach, but most importantly, Lund the man.
"He just has a remarkable ability to connect with people," says former player Ed Hood. "He still does. I mean, I walk on an airplane and my eyes are straight ahead; Don is stopped and he's got everyone engaged in conversation."
That gift has continued to serve him well. After coaching four years at his alma mater, he became director of the Detroit Tigers farm system, which produced the 1968 World Series champions. In 1970, he returned to Michigan as an assistant athletic director. Responsible for fundraising, he built the Victors Club.
By the time Lund's first group of U-M freshman recruits were juniors; they'd gelled into a formidable team. In 1961, Freehan led Michigan to the Big Ten title with a .585 conference batting average, a record that still stands. Coach and Athlete Magazine named Lund its Midwest Baseball Coach of the Year. After the '61 season, Freehan and pitcher Mike Joyce turned pro, but most of the Big Ten champions returned.
Pitching and defense carried Michigan to the championship game of the 1962 College World Series, a marathon with Santa Clara that was tied, 3-3, through 14 innings. Michigan finally won it, 5-4, in the 15th.
"When you play 15 innings and you're in the national championship game, seven times you go out there with failure staring you right in the face," said former player Dave Campbell. "It could be game over. Don kept us on such an even keel. It was always, 'Learn the fundamentals, stay within your plan, and if it's your time, it's going to work.'"
In 1959, Detroit's Northwestern Field had six baseball diamonds, and on any given Sunday in the summer, Lund could watch all of his recruiting prospects in a single stop, playing in leagues run by Detroit's recreation department.
The coaches and players on the sandlots already knew his athletic credentials: three-sport star at Detroit Southeastern and U-M, former professional ballplayer, Tigers instructor and first base coach. He was a local legend.
"There weren't many college coaches out there," said Dick Honig, a shortstop out of Detroit MacKenzie who would go on -- after playing at Michigan -- to a long career as a basketball and football official. "In fact beyond Don, I can't remember another one (recruiting on the sandlots)."
But Lund, himself a product of the sandlots, had run tryout camps in Detroit for the Tigers; he knew the good coaches, knew which scouts he could trust, and knew the caliber of players to be had.
"You were looking at the physical things like running, hitting, throwing, fielding, and you'd also get to know what kind of guy he is," Lund said. "Does he mix in well with the team? Is he a hot dog? A lot of good players came off the sandlots."
Five of Lund's prospects that summer played for the Lundquist Insurance team, and their coach, Phil Frakes, would invite speakers to his home to talk baseball with his team on Friday afternoons. One day in June, he invited Lund to talk about careers in professional baseball. Lund was careful to steer clear of anything specific to the University of Michigan, but the players couldn't miss his honest, genuine nature. Much as they admired Lund for what he'd done as an athlete, they just plain liked him, too.
A few months later, Honig and teammate Bill Freehan were driving to Western Michigan University for freshman orientation. Both planned to accept scholarships to WMU. But as they drove, they talked about Lund and that day at Frakes' house and by the time they reached Kalamazoo both had decided they wanted to play for Lund.
"I don't think any of us really know (as 18-year-olds) what we're getting into for sure as far as coaches go," Honig said. "But I think you have to like the person and feel a relationship with the person, and we felt that with Don."
Lund's degree is in education, and during his playing years he taught school as a substitute in the offseason. He stopped subbing in 1955, but he never really stopped teaching. Sports hone both mind and body, and in Lund's book there's no more effective classroom for the whole person. He and assistant coach Moby Benedict taught the game thoroughly, complementing each other in both style and substance. Benedict was intense and technique-oriented. Lund was the steady tactician, the strategist and personnel expert.
"My father was a high school baseball coach, and I thought I knew a lot about the game coming in," said Campbell, now a Major League Baseball analyst with ESPN. "But through Don and Moby, I don't know if I got a PhD in baseball, but I certainly got a master's in baseball from them."
Campbell played for Lund at Michigan, and then came up through the Detroit Tigers farm system on his watch.
"Part of what he taught us (at Michigan) was how you conduct yourself as a professional," Campbell said. "We weren't professionals, but he taught us the way that major leaguers acted, how you deal with adversity and keep fighting."
Lund spent 25 years in baseball, but he never forgot that it's supposed to be fun. Baseball practices can be mind-numbingly tedious, but his former players say Lund found ways to make them lively and engaging. He set up scenarios that kept everyone involved -- and prepared them for every possible situation they might see in a game.
"The thing I learned from Don was the absolute importance of preparation," said Hood, who became an attorney. "His baseball teams always were extremely well-prepared. We just knew that Don gave us that vital edge. What I took away from playing sports at Michigan is that sometimes in life you run across people who are smarter than you and particular situations that might not be fair, but it's amazing, if you out-prepare the other person, how lucky you'll get."
Yet he also understood that he was nurturing young men, and he made sure they had room to grow. Lund seems hard-wired to see the best in people, and to expect the best of them. That's usually what he got.
"We went out and played touch football in the intramural leagues," Honig said. "Somebody could have gotten hurt very easily, but Don knew that was part of growing up. All he ever asked was that we not do it during baseball season. So I think there was a willingness to go out and give him your best all the time."
Honig says he can't remember Lund ever getting mad at a player (umpires were sometimes another story). He recalls a game his sophomore year, early in the season against defending national champion Minnesota, when he made a bad error in the fifth or sixth inning.
"I was in the dugout, probably hanging my head," Honig said. "His comment was, 'Get your head up. There are more things that can happen in this game, and it's the next thing you do that's important.'"
In the 10th inning, Honig hit a home run that won the game.
Years later, Honig found himself coaching one of his daughters' fast pitch softball teams. Not quite sure how to transition from coaching college men to motivating 10-year-old girls, Honig chose to focus on lessons he learned from Lund: Don't be afraid to go out and try to make the play. Be confident, do your best and don't forget to have fun.
For other stories on Don Lund, read: