This article was published in the Spring 2011 issue of The Baylor Line and written by Brice Cherry.
Between them, Baylor’s last three baseball coaches have led the Bears in more than 2,400 games. But behind the box scores and season records lies an even more remarkable tale of leadership both on and beyond the diamond.
Steve Smith ’86, Mickey Sullivan ’55, and E. E. “Dutch” Schroeder ’49 have collectively logged hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours chalking the baselines of a baseball diamond. Any baseball coach worth his salt has served as his own personal groundskeeper at one point or another. Within those intricately assembled lines, the game is played out, over and over, as true a harbinger of spring as the sprouting of wildflowers alongside a highway. For fifty years, few college baseball coaches have managed the game with more success than this trio of Baylor skippers.
Their influence is tangible, undeniable. It’s right there in black and white in the record books. In a half-century of mining diamond gems, Schroeder, Sullivan, and Smith have combined for more than fourteen hundred wins, three conference championships, three conference tournament titles, fifteen appearances in the NCAA tournament, and three trips to the College World Series.
It’s a sparkling record, and one worth spot-lighting. However, it’s also true that these men performed some of their best work outside the baselines. Their impact stretches far beyond the diamond, penetrating deep into the hearts of generations of ballplayers who are now scat-tered all over the world.
“Dutch and Mickey and Steve, they all brought character and integrity to their coaching,” said legendary Baylor football coach Grant Teaff. “They emphasized academics; the graduation results in the baseball program speak for themselves. All three complemented one another. They all have similar integrity. They are very, very good baseball men—they really know the game. And they recruited extremely well. Those three guys have done an amazing job over the years.”
Finding a place
When Dutch Schroeder was a boy in South Austin in the 1930s, Little League baseball didn’t even exist. Most games were played on dusty sandlots. If you were really lucky, you might land a spot on an American Legion team.
When Schroeder was twelve, Austin organized its first true youth baseball league. Schroeder joined one of the city’s four teams and instantly fell in love with his first organized baseball experience. The kid played ball every chance he could get. At Austin High, Schroeder stayed an extra semester to ensure that he would earn a letter for Tony Berger’s Maroons.
Schroeder remained in his hometown after high school, enrolling at the University of Texas in the fall of1941. He started on Texas’s freshman baseball team in 1942, but like many of his generation he put his athletic pursuits on hold to serve his country. Schroeder spent four years in the military during World War II then resumed classes at Texas when he returned in 1946. But during the course of the year, he decided to transfer to Baylor.
In Schroeder’s initial season with the Bears, the team made its first-ever, appearance in the NCAA tournament. In the NCAA’s Western Regional in Denver, Baylor defeated Oklahoma A&M and Colorado State but lost twice to Southern Cal, costing the Bears a chance to play George H. W. Bush’s Yale team.
Schroeder started in left field in 1949, leading Baylor in hitting with a .384 average, culminating with a six-for-six effort at the plate on the final day of the season.
While Schroeder’s playing days were coming to an end, his career in baseball was really just beginning. “Once I thought I ought to be a lawyer,” Schroeder said. “When I came back from the service, I knew I wanted to coach.”
His first job was a plum assignment, as he coached football and baseball at highly regarded Temple High School. In 1953 he returned to Austin as the first baseball coach at what is now known as Lake Travis High School. Schroeder couldn’t have dreamed up a better debut, as his inaugural team won the Texas state championship, beating Highland Park, 6-1.
In 1957 Baylor had an opening for a physical education teacher. Schroeder jumped at the opportunity to return to his alma mater, and five years later he added the title of head base-ball coach to his duties.
A wide influence
As a coach, Schroeder was intense and demanding, stressing the fundamental diamond tenets of pitching and defense.
“My mother sent me to Baylor because it was a Southern Baptist university,” said Jim Mallon, who played for Schroeder in 1964 and 1965. “My first scrimmage, Gary Watson goes up to hit, and Coach comes out and goes absolutely ballistic. Gary didn’t come out of the box right or something. Watson comes back and sits next to [Butch] McBroom and says, ‘I didn’t know so much could go wrong in ninety feet.’”
Schroeder admittedly pushed his players hard, but only because he so badly wanted them to excel. “I believed in my system, and my players believed in it,” he said. “You can come into my trophy room at 1910 Austin Avenue, and there is my philosophy. If you gave me your best, you won, no matter what the score is. Because no one can do better than their best.”
“When we were all seventeen- and eighteen-year-old kids, I didn’t agree,” Mallon said. “But Coach Schroeder became a hell of a lot smarter as I got older.”
Besides, Schroeder was just as apt to pull a kid aside and hug him as he was to bellow instructions. His ballplayers were like his children, and they remain so to this day. That much is evident every December, when Schroeder deposits roughly five hundred Christmas cards into the mailbox.
“He cared for kids and made every kid think that he was the most important guy to him,” Mallon said. “He used baseball as a teaching tool, but he had that connection with his players that made you realize that he truly cared about you.”
Schroeder’s Bears achieved their greatest success in 1966, winning eighteen of twenty-nine games and tying for the Southwest Conference championship. Yet the team didn’t play in the postseason, as Texas won the coin flip to represent the conference in the NCAA tournament, which was hardly a shock to most Baylor fans. The Longhorns, coached by Cliff Gustafson, were a perpetual nemesis for the Bears.
“When I’d go to talk to the umpires, they’d say, ‘Why don’t you just sit over there on your bucket like Cliff does?’” Schroeder said. “I’d say, ‘You know what? Cliff’s over there, seven, eight runs ahead. He doesn’t have to come out here and fight for every little thing you umpires screw up.”
While Schroeder was still coaching, Baylor’s Letterman’s Association (now known as the Baylor “B” Association) approached him about helping to raise funds for the construction of an on-cam-pus room for the organization. Schroeder hadn’t done any fundraising before, but managed to rustle up more than $55,000 in commitments his first summer.
That set in motion a near-lifetime of volunteer work for the “B” Association that stretched on long after his coaching career ended in 1973. “I always got to tell them that I got to work with the best people in the entire world, the Baylor jocks,” said Schroeder, who has endured five surprise retirement parties without ever really retiring.
“He’s given Baylor so much more than it has probably given him,” said Walter Abercrombie ’86, MSEd ’92, the current director of the “B” Association. “He’s been an ambassador for the university. He does so much more than people realize. He visits the hospital, and he’s there to comfort widows. Dutch is a guy everybody admires.”
Rick Hawkins lettered for Schroeder’s Baylor baseball squad for just one season, in 1968, winning one game against Abilene Christian. But he never forgot the influence his coach had on his life.
In 2001, Hawkins donated the money necessary to create the Dutch Schroeder Plaza that connects the various athletic facilities along University Parks Drive.
“I was very fortunate in my business career, and I said to my wife, ‘When I look back on things, I wonder why life is so darn good,” Hawkins said. “It hit me that it began-with the moment I met Dutch Schroeder, and I wanted to do something to recognize that.”
Schroeder was overwhelmed by the gesture, and his eyes moisten whenever anyone asks about it. “I can’t go past that plaza anymore without crying,” he said. “I’m not that good.”
Generations of Baylor athletes would argue otherwise. Schroeder’s dedicated service and generosity of spirit have left him with a list of friends as long as the Brazos.
You could accuse Mickey Sullivan of being a lot of things, but bashful Wouldn’t be one of them. “Mickey would talk to a tree stump if you’d let him,” said Marilyn Sullivan, Mickey’s long-time wife.
Growing up in Houston in the 1940s, Sullivan got along with everyone. And he tried his hand at every sport he could find, generally excelling at all of them. Sullivan starred at shortstop on the Sam Houston High School baseball team and at halfback on the football squad, and he was good enough in both sports that a number of colleges recruited him to play both.
One of those was Baylor.
“My parents didn’t go to college,” Sullivan said. “So it was a big deal to go. A lot of Houston kids were at Baylor. I’d have the chance to play baseball, but I enjoyed playing football, too. But it was probably the fellowship, and knowing more people here, that brought me to Baylor.”
Sullivan made friends easily, and his athletic exploits didn’t hurt his popularity. He lettered for the Bears from 1951 to 1953 in football as a halfback, helping Baylor reach the Orange Bowl in 1951. On the diamond, he improved his batting average every season he was at Baylor, culminating with a magical All-American senior season in 1954 in which he set the Southwest Conference hitting record with a hefty .519 average.
The conference lasted another forty years after Sullivan graduated, but no one ever approached his record. “I was keeping my own score,” Sullivan said, chuckling. “People would ask me about that, and I’d say, ‘I don’t know. What did I hit that year?’ It was a great honor, then and now somebody sees that and they think it’s super, but if a few balls go foul, it’s a little bit different.”
After Baylor, Sullivan set out to chase every little boy’s dream of playing major league baseball. He toiled for five sea-sons in the Texas League before hanging up his cleats following the 1958 season. But he went out with a bang, pinch-hitting for future Hall of Famer Willie McCovey and belting a single in his final professional swing.
“If you’re in the minor leagues for four or five years, going up and coming back, you’re not doing anything. You’re just wasting time,” Sullivan said. “And so if you were going to coach, you’d better get into it.”
So Sullivan returned to familiar territory in Houston. With Marilyn by his side, he coached baseball and football at Bellaire and Westbury high schools over the next decade—and had a grand time doing it. “That was my hometown, and it was great,” Sullivan said. “Just perfect, really.”
Return to Waco
Baylor came Balling in 1969, hiring Sullivan as its freshman football coach. He quickly moved up through the ranks, and in 1972 Grant Teaff installed the young coach as his recruiting coordinator. It was a natural progression for Sullivan, who could sell milk to a cow.
“Mickey was an outstanding recruiter,” Teaff said. “He spent many a day and many a night on the road recruiting football players. He’d go in, wear ’em down, and they’d be ready to sign.”
Sullivan continued his golden recruiting touch after he succeeded Schroeder as Baylor’s head baseball coach in 1974. He assembled a bevy of talented players, and in 1977 those players rewarded him with the school’s first trip to the College World Series.
A year later, they were back again. And advancing to Omaha opened up doors to recruits that had been closed to the Bears before.
Jon Perlman ’79 pitched for those College World Series teams, and he described Sullivan as having had a knack for connecting with the players. “Mickey is a real people person,” said Perlman, who pitched for three major league seasons. “He just worked very well with those guys at the time. As parents, we all try to strike the perfect balance, and Mickey could do that as a coach.”
Sullivan rarely played the drill sergeant role with his teams. He wasn’t a pushover, but his style was more easygoing than hard-as-nails.
“I’d get hot about things, but I’d get close to the kids,” he said. “I thought that was better than being someone who hollers every minute. You can still have discipline and be close to your kids.”
Like any coach, Sullivan encountered the occasional troublemaker or the prima donna who put his own goals above the team’s. But he had a gift for quickly sniffing out those bad apples.
“You’re going to get some characters out there. It didn’t take me two days to find out about a kid,” he said. “Some of them would try to show off a little bit. You tell them, ‘I’m the man; you’re the player.’ It never was a problem.”
Sullivan retired in 1994 with a school-record 649 wins. In his penultimate season, the Bears won forty-one games and the SWC tournament title. “I never really did get tired of it,” Sullivan said. “I enjoyed athletics, but then I enjoyed whatever I was doing. Heck, I shined shoes when I was ten, and I really enjoyed that.”
Sullivan still receives phone calls from his former-players, checking up on their old coach. Sure, the memory takes longer to crank nowadays, like a car battery in winter. But before long, he’ll be chatting away in his usual warm, inviting manner.
“I think it was the way I was raised,” Sullivan said. “I was raised in a great middle-class family, not rich or anything, and being around every group of people was a plus for me in getting along with kids. I knew how to handle them, how to relate to them.”
Seeking out challenges
For the first nineteen years of his life, Steve Smith never lived outside of the borders of Mississippi. But the summer before his fourth-grade year, he might as well have moved to another planet.
Smith’s family relocated from Tunica, a tiny outpost thirty minutes south of Memphis, Tennessee, to Gulfport, a virtual metropolis in the eyes of an impressionable eight-year-old. He wasn’t there a week before he spotted a youth football team practicing near his house, complete with uniforms and everything.
“When we moved to Gulfport, that was like going to a whole new world, from a little-bitty town of a couple thousand people to a town of forty thousand,” Smith said. “I was a pretty shy kid at the time, but the one thing I wasn’t shy about was finding out how I could get on that team.”
And that’s what he did. For the next ten years, Smith’s life revolved around those all-important three Ss—school, sports, and the Sabbath. In football, he started at quarterback for three years in high school, leading Gulfport to a 28-5 record and a state championship in 1978. He also doubled as the ace pitcher of the baseball squad.
Smith got the bug to play both sports in college, but most of the bigger schools wanted him to specialize in one or the other. So he signed with Mississippi College, a Christian school that competed on the NCAA Division II level.
Smith proved to be the missing piece of the foot-ball team’s championship puzzle. His freshman year, he quarterbacked the Choctaws to a conference title and a trip to the national semifinals. “Everything I did that fall turned to gold, really,” Smith said.
Just as in high school, Smith made a beeline for the baseball diamond once football season ended. He took over as the team’s number-one pitcher, but the lack of challenge left him wanting more. “It was too much like high school for me, in terms of being `the guy,'” he said. “I wanted to know how good I was.”
Smith started thinking—and praying—about other options. All he knew of Baylor at the time was that it was a Baptist school in the Southwest Conference and that it had recently been to the College World Series.
But that was enough to prompt an intrigued Smith to cold-call the school one day. After talking to the admissions office and learning that the deadline to transfer hadn’t passed, Smith asked to be connected to the baseball office. “I didn’t know who the baseball coach was, and when I think back on it now, probably the most miraculous part of the whole story was that on a morning in June 1980, Mickey answers the phone,” Smith said. “I think that’s incredible. Why wasn’t he on the golf course?”
Smith told Sullivan who he was and that he was interested in transferring to Baylor and would like to meet him. They set up a meeting for two days later, and the next morning Smith and his father set out for Waco. After a long day of driving, it was dusk when they finally reached the Baylor campus, but even in that refracted light Smith was mesmerized.
“I will never forget it,” he said. “I got out of the car, and the first thing that went through my mind as I looked at the campus was how neat it was, how clean it was, how edged it was. The second thing that struck me was fear. The reality of where I was and what I was contemplating doing hit me hard. And I think if I had not prayed, ‘Lord, if you don’t want me to do this, stop me,’ I would have probably gotten back in the car and gone home.”
Sullivan invited Smith to join the team as a walk-on and promised a scholarship if Smith emerged as one his top-five pitchers. So Smith took a blind step of faith—and ultimately found firm footing at Baylor.
He had to sit out a year due to NCAA transfer rules, though he kept busy. He even went out for football in the spring, but that ended after he broke his nose in a failed experiment at linebacker. He also had surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow, a procedure that limited his baseball practice time. But finally in the spring of 1982, Smith’s chance to prove himself arrived, and he more than rose to the challenge.
“It ended up being the best year on paper I ever had, which I found unbelievable,” said Smith, who led the Southwest Conference with a 1.72 ERA that year. “I don’t ever remember having more fun playing than that year. I had been out a year and a half, and it was finally happening.”
After another solid year in 1983, the San Francisco Giants selected Smith in the fifth round of the major league draft. He spent four years working his way through the Giants’ minor league system, completing his Baylor degree in 1986, before his arm finally gave out.
A stellar career
Smith knew he wanted to coach, and it wasn’t long before he landed a job as a graduate assistant at Texas A&M, where he earned an MBA degree. Two years later, he joined the staff of the legendary Ron Polk at Mississippi State University, and in 1994 he was tapped as the successor to his old coach at Baylor.
Beginning in 1998, Smith’s Bears began making near-annual trips to the NCAA tournament, and in 2000 he presided over Baylor’s first outright conference championship team in seventy-seven years.
Everything came together in 2005, when an upstart Baylor team rode a powerful pitching staff to the program’s first College World Series appearance in twenty-seven years. That same year, Smith also served as the head coach of the USA Baseball National Team, leading the squad to a 16-4 record.
Smith is a thinker, and his desire as a coach is to teach his players how to think the game, too.
“Coach was always a real quiet guy,” said Aaron Miller, a pitcher in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization who played at Baylor from 2007 to 2009. “He wasn’t real flamboyant, talking all the time, until you got to know him. He’s a guy who gives you as much rope as you can handle.”
Willie Kempf, who just wrapped up his four-year stint at Baylor last year, said he did his homework before signing with the Bears and never heard a single bad report about Smith.
“I talked to people who knew him, players who had been here, and they just said [he was a] great person,” said Kempf, who pitches in the Atlanta Braves farm system. “He cares about his players more than anything.”
Smith said that, above all, he tries to be “real” with his players. There have been times he has doubted and debated whether coaching is where he needed to be, but then God would bring a word that would erase his fears.
“I was sitting in a pregame chapel at Minute Maid Park over ten years ago. We had a guest pastor come in to speak to the players,” Smith said. “He started with this question—Do you guys think God cares about baseball?’ I was sitting in the back of the room, and I don’t know if there was a single player in that room who had ever asked that question or had thought about that. But I had. I had really thought about it.”
The pastor went on to use a passage in Romans to illustrate how God cares about the things his followers care about—and uses those things to shape them. “That answered a question for me,” Smith said. “For me, this has not been as much about baseball or about coaching as it has been about me changing, me being changed, for my good and God’s glory.”
To that end, some of Smith’s most rewarding road trips with his teams had less to do with baseball than Christian generosity. In 2009, his team traveled to League City, Texas, to per-form clean-up and reconstruction in the wake of Hurricane Ike. And then last spring, the Bears ventured to Cuba on a humanitarian mission that Smith called “life-changing.”
Whenever Smith needs a reminder of his mission, he glances at a framed sign that hangs on the wall of the coaches’ locker room at Baylor Ballpark that reads, “Players don’t need a motto to say. They need a model to see.”
“That, to me, is what we do,” Smith said. “We live. It just so happens that we love baseball and we know baseball and we enjoy learning about baseball and we like to be around young guys who are getting to play baseball. There is not a coach out here who doesn’t wish he could still play. But we can’t, so we like to be around those who can. Yeah, God cares. He cares about baseball.”
Brice Cherry, a regular contributor to the Line, is a staff writer for the Waco Tribune-Herald. He has contributed to Texas Football magazine and the book King Football: The Greatest Moments in Texas High School Football History.