Bobby Winkles, who started ASU baseball program, dies

Hundreds of mourners packed into the All Saints Catholic Newman Center at Arizona State, braving the July heat of an Arizona summer in 2017, to pay final tribute to one of ASU’s coaching legends, Frank Kush.  Most of them were former players from the teams Kush led to national prominence during his 22 years running the football program.

Expect nothing less when Bobby Winkles is laid to rest.  The former Sun Devil baseball coach who built the tradition-rich program from scratch died Friday.  In the span of 34 months, ASU lost two of its biggest coaching legends.

Kush was 88 when he passed.  Winkles was 90.  Both, in their own way, ushered in the ‘golden era’ of sports at a time when ASU wasn’t yet on the national sports map.

Just as Kush, who won a school-record 176 games and posted two undefeated seasons, was the driving force behind the ASU football program gaining national prominence, Winkles has to be considered the one person most responsible for the success of the baseball program.

Winkles didn’t stay as long as Kush, but he made every bit the impact during his 13 seasons as the Sun Devils’ skipper in the ’60s and early ’70s.  The baseball coaches that followed him have enjoyed huge success (including two more national titles), but it was the foundation that Winkles laid that made it all possible.

The Arkansas native took over a baseball program at ASU that had nearly been dropped just a couple of years earlier, one that didn’t even have a ball field to play on.  He built that program from scratch into a national contender and won three NCAA titles (1965, 67, 69) in a span of six years.

For the record, he also got that field built — just two weeks before the school’s first baseball season in 1959.

Winkles’ ASU career included NCAA Coach of the Year honors in 1965 and 1969, as well as induction into the College Baseball Hall of Fame, and the ASU and ABCA halls.  His overall record was 524-173.

He had been drafted by the White Sox in 1951, while still a student at Wesleyan University, and spent seven years in the minors before ASU offered him the coaching job that would define his career in the game he loved.  He was just 28 years old when he stepped into the head-coaching role.

After ASU, he became one of the first college coaches to transition to Major League Baseball and managed four years, with the California Angels and Oakland Athletics, and then finished up his pro career with several other teams in various coaching roles.

The No. 1 he wore on his ASU uniform was retired in 1972 and in 2001 the field at  Packard Stadium was named in his honor.

More than 100 of his former players showed up for the dedication of Bobby Winkles Field.  Now they will likely be making a return trip, this time to pay their final respects to the man that showed them how to win in sports and succeed in life.

Plans for memorial services have not been announced.