As Chick Leahey’s jersey number is retired, 11 things to know about the great Bates coach and man
At halftime of tomorrow’s Homecoming football game, Bates will retire the No. 11 baseball jersey worn by William “Chick” Leahey ’52 during his 36 years as head coach.
A coaching legend, Leahey and his teams won 300 games from 1955 to 1990. Upon his retirement, he was honored with the naming of the Bates ballfield in his honor.
Besides these marquee facts, here are 11 things to know about Chick Leahey, who was also an assistant football coach for 33 years.
1. He cut the son of Red Sox legend Ted Williams from the Bates baseball team.
Deservedly so. The late John Henry Williams, a Bates student briefly in the late 1980s, tried out for, and quickly got cut from, Chick’s team.
“He had no talent,” says Pete Doucette ’90, a former Bobcat pitcher. “It’s a story you figure you’ll tell your grandkids: How you saw Ted Williams’ son get cut from your college baseball team.”
2. He was a Marine during World War II.
A private, Leahey served for 33 months, including 16 in the Pacific Theater. He loaded bombs onto B-15s and was being trained for a Japanese invasion when the war ended.
3. He never played an inning of college ball.
That’s because Leahey was ineligible for college ball because he came to Bates after two seasons in the New York Yankees organization.
With highly touted prospects in front of him, including Billy Martin, he decided it was “in my best interest to go to college and get on with my life.”
Leahey chose to wear No. 11 as Bates’ baseball coach because that was the number he wore in high school and with the Yankees organization.
4. He never got ejected from a game.
In his half-century of organized baseball, including high school, minor league, semi-pro, and 36 years as a head coach of Bates baseball, Leahey never got ejected from a game by an umpire.
5. He’s a Mainer, born and bred in Lewiston.
His mom was French Canadian. His dad, who worked in the Lewiston Bleachery and Dye Works factory, was Irish. He went to Lewiston High School.
6. He’s a winner who loved to win.
His senior year at Lewiston High School, Leahey led the school to state championships in football as a quarterback and in baseball as a shortstop.
After the war, he played four seasons for the legendary Auburn Asas at the beginning of the golden age of Maine semi-pro baseball.
Facing teams like the Augusta Millionaires, Farmington Flyers and Dixfield Dixies, the Asas (pronounced “Aces”) easily drew several thousand fans to games “under the bulbs” at Pettengill Park in Auburn.
In Leahey’s first year, 1949, the Asas went 50 and 19 with two ties. The 1950 team went 45 and 28. Leahey was player-coach in 1951, and the team won the Down East League title with a 35 and 19 record. In 1952, the team went 39 and 20 and again won the league title.
And though Chick’s Bates coaching record fell short of .500, he notched 300 wins in 36 years as head coach, and in 1976 his team won the ECAC championship.
In his first year, John Willhoite ’75 remembers a game against Colby, then coached by John Winkin, who would later lead the University of Maine to six College World Series appearances.
Winkin had been named National Baseball Coach of the Year in 1965, so he already had an outsized reputation in coaching circles.
That day, Willhoite pitched the underdog Bates to a win over Colby.
“That may have been the happiest I ever saw Chick,” Willhoite recalls. “I thought he was going to kiss me. We also beat Winkin and UMaine, then not far removed from their College World Series appearance, my senior year, another highlight for Chick and me.”
7. He empowered his lieutenants.
“Although he steered the ship, he counted on the senior leadership to make the engine run,” said Dennis Gromelski ’88. “I respected him for his desire to let young men make significant decisions about their team. The lesson here was of empowering lieutenants.”
8. The team came first.
Gromelski recalls that infamous spring when John Henry Williams tried out for the team. “Chick loved Ted and really wanted access to him, but didn’t want that to affect the locker room in any way.”
So Leahey consulted the team’s senior leaders, and they recommended cutting Williams. “Although Chick did not get his ‘access,’ he supported us fully,” Gromelski says.
9. He was a father figure to his players.
“He was nothing less than my father while at Bates,” says Jim Sylvia ’84. “On the field, he taught me the importance of hard work and commitment. He disciplined me when I got out of line — a lot — and praised me when I succeeded.”
10. He was an innovator.
In 1986, as president of the New England Collegiate Baseball Coaches Association, he issued a directive to regional coaches to ban smokeless tobacco by players and coaches.
11. His lessons stuck with his players.
Bill Carlezon ’86 was a lefthanded pitcher for Leahey who now does world-class research at Harvard Medical School, where he seeks to understand how genes affect complex motivated behaviors.
When Carlezon faces a vexing problem, he’s motivated by a voice his head. It’s Leahey, shouting to his team when they were in a jam. “Find a way!” he would yell. “Find a way!”
Sylvia says that Leahey’s example “taught me the importance of prioritizing family and all that entails. His loving relationship with his astonishing wife, Ruth, and the rest of his family have been an inspiration for me for over 30 years.”
“At no other time did I learn more about baseball and how to conduct myself on the field and as a person in general than when I played under his guidance,” said Thom Freeman ’63, an All-American pitcher for Leahey.
And one more…
That nickname, Chick? Well, Leahey and his wife, Ruth, know the origin but they’re not telling!
Acknowledgement: This story includes information about Chick Leahey’s career originally published in “Caddy Camp: Of Boys, Men, Golf and War,” a history of the Poland Spring Hotel caddy camp written by Karl Lindholm, son of the late Dean Emeritus of Admissions Milton Lindholm ’35. Leahey and the late Bob Hatch, who became Bates’ director of athletics, co-directed the summer camp early in their Bates careers.