The Glory Days of Saint Mary’s Baseball
When Eric Valenzuela accepted the job as head baseball coach at Saint Mary’s before the 2014 season, he knew he was in for a challenge. The Gaels hadn’t put up a winning record in West Coast Conference play for more than 20 years. But Valenzuela was confident things would get better.
He just wasn’t counting on things getting so much better so quickly.
This year, in just Valenzuela’s third season as head coach, Saint Mary’s won its first-ever WCC championship, won the conference’s post-season tournament for the first time, and qualified for the first NCAA tournament appearance in school history. Their 33 wins were the most for a SMC baseball team since 1977. Six Gaels earned all-conference honors, nine made the WCC All-Academic team, and Valenzuela was named WCC Coach of the Year.
“I’m pretty familiar with recruiting at a place like this, and I felt like if I got the right coaches around me we could do something special,” Valenzuela said. “But to be able to do what we did this year, am I surprised? Yeah. It’s hard to win this conference. What an honor for our guys to do what they did.”
“Coming into this year we knew we had a lot of talent and worked together well,” said Gaels pitcher Corbin Burnes ’17. “It all starts with Coach Valenzuela. He’s definitely changing the culture of the program. He gets us to work hard, whether it’s on the field, in the weight room, or in the classroom.”
Burnes was named to All-American teams by Louisville Slugger and Baseball America. He started his pro baseball career this summer after being selected in the fourth round of baseball’s June amateur draft by the Milwaukee Brewers. Catcher Nate Nolan ’17, pitcher Anthony Gonsolin ’16 and third baseman Anthony Villa ’16 were also drafted by major league teams.
Valenzuela wants to add to a strong baseball history at SMC. “There might not have been a tradition of championships here,” he said, “but the baseball tradition here is unbelievable, there have been so many good players.”
Indeed, Saint Mary’s has sent dozens of players to the major leagues, including a Baseball Hall of Famer. And there was once a World Series in which four SMC alums were on the field.
Baseball was the first sport at Saint Mary’s, going back to the school’s first year as a degree-granting institution in 1872. Less than a decade later, in 1881, the first SMC player reached the major leagues when Jeremiah Eldridge (class of 1882) joined the Providence (R.I.) Grays, then a member of the National League. Eldridge played professional baseball under the name Jerry Denny, a name he began using while a student at Saint Mary’s so he could play for pay in the summers without risking his amateur status for college baseball.
Denny played 13 seasons in the major leagues and was one of the best defensive third basemen of his era, even though he played without a glove. As unthinkable as that seems today, playing barehanded was actually common at the time he started playing, but gradually other players began using gloves (albeit much smaller ones than modern models). Because he could throw equally well with either hand, Denny believed playing without a glove gave him an advantage, and he is believed to be the last player to forego a glove for his entire career.
Others from Saint Mary’s soon followed Denny to the majors. By 1910, according to Paul Zingg, former professor of history and dean of the School of Liberal Arts at SMC, 14 former Saint Mary’s athletes had played in the majors, far more than any other school west of the Mississippi River; only four eastern schools had produced more. And one of those early alums became one of baseball’s all-time greats.
Harry Hooper (1907) came to Saint Mary’s former campus in Oakland in 1902 as a 15-year-old in the precollegiate curriculum the school offered at the time. He did so well in the classroom that his teachers encouraged him to enroll in the baccalaureate program, and he graduated in 1907 with a degree in civil engineering. He was also a star on the school’s undefeated 1907 baseball team that was strong enough to defeat the major league Chicago White Sox in an exhibition game. (Three other players from that Saint Mary’s team went on to play in the majors.)
“I never had any intention of taking up baseball as a career,” Hooper told Lawrence Ritter in Ritter’s classic 1966 book, The Glory of Their Times. “I expected to be an engineer. After graduation I played with the Sacramento [minor league team], mainly because they promised to get me a surveying job. When I wasn’t playing ball I worked as a surveyor for the Western Pacific Railroad. I figured I was an engineer who played ball on the side.”
After his season in Sacramento, Hooper signed with the major league Boston Red Sox and “started on what I figured would be just a couple of years of playing baseball,” he told Ritter. “And that was the last job I ever had that was connected with engineering.”
Hooper went on to play 17 seasons in the majors and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971. “If [my parents] hadn’t sent me to Saint Mary’s College I’d have turned out to be a dry farmer in the San Joaquin Valley and nobody would have ever heard of me,” he said in his induction speech.
Hooper played in four World Series for the Red Sox (1912, 1915, 1916, and 1918). In the first three of those Boston’s left fielder was George “Duffy” Lewis (class of 1911), who had spent a year at Saint Mary’s. And they weren’t the only SMC alums in the 1915 World Series. Hubert “Dutch” Leonard (class of 1916) pitched for the Red Sox, and the catcher for their opponent, the Philadelphia Phillies, was Ed Burns (class of 1907), a classmate of Hooper. Also on the Phillies roster (although he didn’t pitch in the Series) was pitcher Joe Oeschger (class of 1914), who, like Hooper, had an engineering degree from Saint Mary’s. Oeschger spent 12 seasons in the big leagues, and in 1920 he was part of the longest major league game ever played, pitching all 26 innings for the Boston Braves.
Another Saint Mary’s major leaguer a century ago was Louis Guisto (class of 1918). If the name sounds familiar, it’s because the baseball field at SMC is named for him. Guisto was a three-sport star in college (baseball, football, and rugby) who played for Cleveland at various times from 1916 to 1923 and later returned to Saint Mary’s as a coach.
The great New York Yankee teams managed by Casey Stengel in the 1950s included a former Gael. Andy Carey ’53 left Saint Mary’s to sign with the Yanks when the school dropped baseball for financial reasons during his sophomore year in 1951. He played third base in four World Series during his 11 years in the big leagues.
The Gaels teams of the 1970s produced several major leaguers, including outfielder Von Hayes ’80, who played 12 seasons (1981-92), and pitcher Tom Candiotti ’79, who played 16 (1983-99). More recent alums include outfielder James Mouton ’91 (in the majors 1994-2001) and third baseman Mark Teahen ’03 (2005-11).
Two Gaels played in the major leagues in 2016. Kyle Barraclough ’12, who pitched at SMC from 2009 to 2012, joined the Miami Marlins in 2015 and has become a key member of their bullpen. Outfielder/first baseman Kyle Jensen ’10, a two-time all-conference selection at Saint Mary's, made his big league debut for the Arizona Diamondbacks in September.
Will there be more Gaels in the majors in the future? With the resurgence of the baseball program it seems likely. “I think the expectations from within are high now,” Coach Valenzuela said. “The talent pool of recruits is just skyrocketing. It’s a good feeling. But this year was just one step in the right direction.”
And Valenzuela won’t be satisfied until the Gaels take the next step.