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Thursday, 12 May, 2011 1:04 PM

University of Michigan Baseball History Honored: Champs in '61 and '62

Honig and Steckley Played on Four National Championship Teams

Photo by Jonathon Knight / Rolco Sports Network

Former University of Michigan pitching ace, John Kerr, recently retired as President of Volkswagen North America, throws out the ceremonial first pitch at a Big Ten game.

by Raymond Rolak
AmericaJR.com Web Team

 

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Don Lund, Moby Benedict and Bill Freehan all had a lot of baseball history in common. Most remember the celebrity of Freehan and his success as a perennial All-Star for the Detroit Tigers. Lund roomed with Jackie Robinson when they played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Benedict had coaching success in both collegiate and pro baseball.

These three native sons of Detroit also played for and later coached at the University of Michigan. They and the 1961 and 1962 Wolverine baseball teams were honored this past weekend.

It is the start of a host of fifty year anniversary events planned. Their storied journeys include Detroit connections that not only encompassed championship play but also included tales of world travel. Their baseball pedigree is one giant ‘Grand Slam’ of sports history.

Both teams had a lot of travel experiences including the 1962 post season trip to Hawaii to play an exhibition against the collegiate champions from Japan. Both squads were honored before the U. of M. and Minnesota Big Ten game at the newly renovated Wilpon Center-Fisher Stadium. Current Wolverine infielder Kevin Krantz said, “These guys are inspiring and they have such a bond together. I hope we can get back together after fifty years.”

First, this core group won the ‘61’ Big Ten title led by Freehan. He was a consensus All-America after hitting .446 for the season. They won the Big Ten title by beating Illinois, 3-1. Pitcher Fritz Fisher shut down the Fighting Illini and Ed Hood had the big hit for the Wolverines. All season they had the pitching strength of Mike Joyce. Pitcher Dick Dielamielleure said emphatically at the reunion, “Everyone contributed.”

These championship teammates were mostly from Detroit. Most of them had played together on successful summer sandlot teams. Two even came from the same high school and one in all; they brought their baseball lineage to the University of Michigan.

It was in 1962 when they won the NCAA College World Series that they made a storybook of memories. There were plenty of heroics to go around.

They had so many memories that could be highlighted in ‘62’. Dave Campbell’s hitting surely has to be emphasized. He was ‘Mr. Clutch’ at the plate. A special highlight of the season was when Harvey Chapman stole home to win the last game during the post season exhibition tour in Honolulu.

One of the best anecdotes worth remembering was the comeback win against Wayne State at Butzel Field in Detroit. This propelled Michigan to the NCAA District-IV Regional’s along with Illinois, Western Michigan and the University of Detroit.

One Very Special Performance

John Kerr the crafty Michigan lefthander of so long ago threw out the ceremonial first pitch on Friday. He received the honor from his former teammates because of a very special performance in Kalamazoo in 1962.

Kerr pitched a nine inning win over another powerful Illinois squad, 5-1. Michigan had to face Western Michigan immediately after and Kerr told Coach Lund that he felt pretty good. Kerr started the second game also. He mixed up enough junk and screwballs to reach the bottom of the tenth inning tied, 2-2. Shortstop Dick Honig hit a double for the Wolverines and Kerr knocked him in during the bottom of the 10th inning to seal his second pitching gem of the day. He had thrown 19 innings.

Kerr remembered, “I didn’t even feel tight and I warmed up the nextday just to stay loose.” He went on to a storied automotive career and retired as President of Volkswagen North America.

During that memorable season Kerr, Fisher, Jim Bobel and Dave Roebuck, gave the Wolverines plenty of depth at starting pitching. Reliever Wayne Slusher finished the year with a 1.62 ERA.

Catching was handled by Joe Merullo and Ron Lauterbach. Ron Tate was a the long ball threat with every at bat and speedy outfielder Dick Post was an asset wherever Coach Lund played him.

Honig and Joe Jones were defensive specialists around second base. Jim Steckley and Jim Newman got converted to outfielders and were like extra coaches on the field. “Those two were a dream to have on the team,” said Lund at the reunion festivities. “Everything they did was for the best interest of the team.”

Jones went on to make a career of coaching in professional baseball.

It all culminated for the Wolverines on June 16, 1962 when they won a thrilling 15 inning, 5-4 victory over Santa Clara for the NCAA Championship in Omaha. Fisher and Bobel combined for the pitching win. Bobel knocked in the winning run.

Benedict added, “Dennis Spalla our centerfielder also had a great season. He had that special Detroit sandlot pedigree. He is an attorney now in Minneapolis and will soon be retiring. I can’t believe my former players are retiring from the business world. We have had a lot of great baseball memories.”

Former coaches Lund and Benedict were present at the pre-game reunion festitivities. They deserve so much recognition. Not only were these coaches accomplished in every aspect of the game of baseball, they prepared their teams for a bigger journey. These championship seasons prepared the Wolverines for their own championship journeys of life.

Hood, also an attorney said, “We knew we were so fortunate to have Coach Lund and Coach Benedict. They made us so much better as players and set a great example.”

Much of the baseball skills for this talented group got refined in the Detroit area.

In the summer of 1960, Freehan, Honig, Steckley and Fisher also played together for the National Champion Detroit Lundquist Insurance team during summer baseball. Bobel was added as a pick-up player for the National Tournament in Altoona, PA. Spalla played for Lundquist in 1959.

Honig and Steckley, both being Detroit PSL All-City honorees were both Detroit Mackenzie High School products. Besides playing on the ‘59’ and ‘60’ Detroit Lundquist winners, they were also members of Detroit Beauchamp’s National Champion 16 years old and under team in 1958. Including the Michigan NCAA Championship, that counts up to playing on four national championship teams.

Bobel, Hood, Newman and Jones played for Detroit Modern Hard Chrome another powerhouse team in Detroit.

Besides winning the NCAA College World Series in 1962 every player on that team graduated from Michigan. What a complimentary hallmark to legendary Director of Athletics, Fritz Crisler and Coach Lund and Coach Benedict. What a compliment to a special group of players.

Honig, who went on to national distinction as a respected sports official said, “We were so fortunate to have the support of our parents and the great facilities. The City of Detroit had the best baseball fields and a great Recreation Department, it all helped.”

The heralded alumni had lunch with the current Wolverine baseball team a few hours before the pre-game honors. What wonderful memories and traditions can be reminisced about? The hope is that the present day players can get a feeling and taste for some of the great experiences these players enjoyed. It is part of the well established tradition that current coach, Rich Maloney, in his ninth season at Michigan, also will prepare his charges for the next 50 years of their lives. Baseball success and the life pathway, those are the watchwords for the fabric of the Michigan baseball experience.

From Detroit to Omaha to Hawaii these 1961 and 1962 Champions will always be special University of Michigan “Victors Valiant”.

Editors Note: Raymond Rolak was a post collegiate baseball teammate of Jim Newman.

Polish-American Night at Comerica Park on May 27, will feature the Boston Red Sox

The 41st Annual Polish-American Night at Comerica Park will feature the Boston Red Sox visiting the Detroit Tiger’s on Friday, May 27. Pregame attractions will include Polka music, traditional Polish folk dancing and the sounds of ‘The Natural Tones’, ‘The Kielbasa Kings’ and ‘Big Daddy Lackowski & The La De Das’.

The popular Friday Night Fireworks sponsored by Pepsi will be a post-game highlight. Tickets are available from Ralph Raczynski, 586-754-0411 or http://detroit.tigers.mlb.com/det/downloads/y2011/poster_polishamerican.pdf

 

 

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