These NIU baseball greats still reign
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Bill Eiserman grabs his club and walks with a purpose to the No. 8 tee box at Bittersweet Golf Club, his black Northern Illinois Alumni cap shielding his 85-years-young eyes from a rain that's driving other golfers off the course. His cardinal-colored shirt, which you can bet he picked out purposely, absorbs the raindrops.
What's a little nasty weather on this special day?
"It's just like football," Eiserman, the former athletic director and football coach at Grayslake, which named its football stadium after him, says with a shrug. "You just do what you have to do."
It's another fairway hit for a jolly man who, if this darn rain would let up and 18 holes were planned, just might shoot lower than his age on this overcast Wednesday.
"He goes out at 6 a.m. and doesn't come back in until 6 p.m. — rain or shine," Grant Cummings, proudly wearing a red NIU cap, says with a laugh.
Nothing will spoil this day for Eiserman, Cummings, Frank Marino, Larry Leon, Jack Brumm, Jim McKinzie and Dick Giudici. Ray Meath couldn't make it this year. They were baseball teammates for NIU more than half a century ago, and for 43 years they've been getting together annually for a reunion. Their wives come along and, back in the day, so did their kids.
A team that didn't lose many games has lost few men. Fran Cahill passed away. John Bednarcik, too.
"Good-looking," says a wife, recalling fondly the stout Bednarcik.
Freddie Tipps, Bob Vidimos and Bernie McCole are gone. So, too, is Ronald Reagan.
Yes, that Ronald Reagan.
No, the Northern Illinois boys never played ball with the former president, but Reagan played for Coach Ralph McKinzie at Eureka College, and it was the beloved McKenzie — Coach Mac, as his players still refer to him as — who coached NIU to consecutive Interstate Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships in 1950 and '51. The NIU guys, more or less, "adopted" Reagan and always invited him to their reunions.
And Reagan always replied. Sometimes with a handwritten letter. Sometimes with a phone call.
Eiserman's oldest daughter revealed the president of the United States once actually called the Eiserman home and she hung up, thinking it was a prank.
"We always included him in our gatherings," says Eiserman, who played on both the '50 and '51 squads, was a team captain and good-hitting catcher. "He would always respond."
Twenty years ago, when NIU named its baseball field after McKinzie, Reagan made a hefty donation.
"He was so kind and pleasant, it was unbelievable," says Eiserman, who proudly has handwritten letters from Reagan in a scrapbook. "He was really a super guy."
Eiserman's cottage-esque, Mill Pond Farm in Lake Villa is packed with men who still bleed Cardinal and Black. They are proud of their alma mater and the friendships they have fostered among themselves for all these years. Each still speaks with reverence for their ol' coach, Coach Mac, who taught them about respect, perseverance and family. Ralph McKinzie passed away in 1990 at age 96.
Jim McKenzie, the coach's kid, was an outfielder on the 1951 team.
"I contributed a little. Not much," says McKinzie, 82. "Then I played in '52 and '53, and started. But it wasn't my best sport."
Talk about old school. McKinzie played three sports at Northern. Athletic, 6 feet 1 and strong, he also played guard on the basketball team and was an end for the Huskies in football. He's tried to make most of the reunions.
"I made sure Dad got to all of them," says McKinzie, who lives in Sterling.
Frank Marino isn't walking too well, but the likable old pitcher rode around Bittersweet in a golf cart with Cummings and fired putts. A smile rarely left his face.
"If I'm walking, I'll make it," Marino, 82, who lives in Aurora, says of the reunions.
After his NIU playing days, Marino played on a Rogers Hornsby traveling all-star team. He says, modestly, that he once threw a baseball into the Wrigley Field bleachers while standing at home plate. He shrugs off the feat, insisting to Eiserman that Eiserman could have done it too.
Marino met the legendary Hornsby.
"I had a book signed by him," Marino says.
"Which I lost," he adds, still angry with himself about it.
NIU's boys of '50-51 played in an era when few fields had outfield fences, when times were simple, when living on the edge of your seat was just, well, the way you did things.
"We didn't travel by plane or train," Dick Giudici says. "We traveled by car. We would be six in a car. Talk about nutty (laughing). I'd be driving and Ray Meath would be sitting next to me and he'd say, 'OK, Dick, it's time for me to drive.' He'd get behind me, grab the wheel and I'd move over to the middle. I'd plop down and down the road we went."
Giudici, who turned 86 Thursday, drove in for the reunion from Davenport, Iowa.
"What makes it special?" says Giudici, who played first base, batted left-handed, threw lefty and was a team captain. "The camaraderie. Basically, everybody just enjoyed each other's company as teammates."
Now, they travel by plane, if needed. They've traveled all over for the reunions — California, Colorado, Iowa.
"Same format. Always played golf," says Larry Leon, the former Libertyville boys basketball and College of Lake County golf coach. "This was the first year we played only nine holes. Before it was 18."
Leon, who turns 83 in November, played third base and left field. He arrived at NIU in 1948, right after World War II, and played right away as a freshman.
"For a freshman to break on a college baseball team was unheard of at that time," Leon says. "I was fortunate. They accepted me."
Jack Brumm pitched. His health isn't great, the fellas say, but he's here at Eiserman's home, smiling and enjoying his old teammates.
"He was a good pitcher," says Leon, noting Brumm signed with the White Sox. "He was a leader."
As he did more than 60 years ago, Leon still looks at Brumm and Eiserman as leaders. He credits them for keeping the group together after all these years.
"It's a good group," Leon says. "Different personalities. We all have respect for each other, regardless of the age or nationality or anything like that. The wives all get along together. It's just a family-type thing."
The importance of family is what Coach Mac taught them. Eiserman has a room filled with memorabilia and keepsakes from his playing days. Occupying a shelf are portraits side by side of three ballplayers wearing catchers equipment: Eiserman, his late father and Eiserman's granddaughter.
Eiserman looks at the pictures. His lips are pursed. It appears a smile is on a collision course with a tear.
Hey, you do what you have to do.
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