John Winkin was 8 years old when his parents took him to Yankee Stadium to see the great Babe Ruth. The year was 1927 when the Yankees ruled baseball.
Cora and John Winkin Sr. were professors at Ivy League Columbia University in upper Manhattan, not far from the ballpark in the Bronx. Why they took their son to that game is unknown but not what happened to their son for nearly a century afterward.
“That was it for me,” said Winkin, struggling to make sure his words were understood. He was about to receive another honor, another night of recognition, this time at The Ballpark at Old Orchard Beach last June.
The stroke he suffered in December of 2007 had hurt his ability to speak but did nothing to his mind or his memory. During the minutes before others spoke for him, he wanted me to understand how a life in baseball began.
Winkin died on Saturday, four days short of his 95th birthday. Many mourn his passing. He stood only 5-feet-6 but was larger than life. He last coached baseball at Husson University in Bangor in the spring of 2007 and for many was out of sight in a rehabilitation facility in Waterville.
He wasn’t forgotten, not even by today’s generation.
On that night in Old Orchard Beach, Winkin was joined by a small group of men who played for him when he coached baseball at Colby College through the 1950s and into the ’70s and the University of Maine from 1975 to 1996.
Ryan Rebar stood nearby with his family.
He was the recepient of the 2013 Dr. John W. Winkin Award which goes to the best senior high school baseball player in Maine. Winkin was unable to be at the presentation a week or two earlier. Rebar wanted to meet the man who was old enough to be his great grandfather.
His family drove almost four hours and more than 150 miles from Dover-Foxcroft to see their son’s wish come true. Winkin had won his 1,000th game as a coach in 2006 while at Husson. Two of the six Maine teams he took to the College World Series finished as high as third, a remarkable feat for a team from a cold weather state. Rebar, who played baseball at Foxcroft Academy, spoke with Winkin briefly.
Baseball and Winkin were inseparable. Maine retired Winkin’s number 5 in 1999. Winkin was surrounded by about three dozen former players.
“Just to wear the University of Maine uniform was the greatest thing I ever did,” said Winkin that day. “I can’t tell you how much I loved coaching these boys.”
“If you have a passion for baseball (in Maine) you knew John Winkin,” said Mike Coutts, who played for Winkin for four years at Maine and was his assistant coach for 11 seasons. “If you play baseball in high school, chances are your coach was influenced by him. I don’t know one time he turned down a request to speak at a clinic or to a team. He had his thumbprint on everything.”
Coutts’s wife, Lynn, is the University of Maine softball coach. She played at Maine and as a student took a class in baseball taught by Winkin. Both would visit Winkin from time to time in Waterville.
That’s why their 15-year-old son, Jack, understands the sorrow in the Coutts household today. In fact, he was playing in an American Legion tournament Saturday night at the John Winkin Complex at Husson when his father first heard Winkin had died.
“We thought he’d live forever. He wasn’t happy living (in the rehabilitation facility) and he’d battle every day to learn how to walk again. He’d say he had two choices: he could live or he could die. He wanted to live.”
Dick Whitmore witnessed that strength. He lived minutes from the rehabilitation facility and visited Winkin four or five times a week. “I saw the light in his eyes and the total joy on his face when he was able to walk down that hall with the help of his therapists,” said Whitmore.
Winkin was also the athletic director at Colby College and hired Whitmore to be the new men’s basketball coach in 1970. Forty years and 637 victories later, Whitmore retired. Even after Winkin left to coach Maine baseball, the two men had an unbreakable bond.
Former players, fellow coaches and close friends became family. Winkin’s relationship with active players was different. If he got too close, he worried, it might affect his ability to make decisions that would better the team.
Winkin was a second father to Coutts, although hundreds of his former players could say the same thing. “I haven’t told maybe five people this, but when I was a junior at Maine, the Detroit Tigers called me and said they wanted to draft me in the fifth round but only if they were certain I’d leave Maine.
“I said no. John had just increased my scholarship and he had done so much for me as a person and a player, I owed him too much. I never got drafted and people that know this story ask me if I’m mad about the decision I made. No, never. I owed John too much.”
Ron Fraser, the former University of Miami baseball coach, considered Winkin a good friend. Thanks to their friendship, Fraser brought his highly ranked Miami team to Maine for several games played in front of large crowds.
“He gave so much,” Fraser told me in 2007. “He was one of the greatest coaches in college baseball history.” Fraser died in 2013.
Jerry Kindall was the coach of the University of Arizona team that broke Winkin’s heart in 1986 at the College World Series. Maine was winning, 7-1 going into the seventh when the Wildcats rallied and won in the ninth on a two-out home run.
“I was happy for my team, of course but I was sorry for John,” said Kindall in 2007. “He came over and congratulated me and my team. The grace and dignity he had after that terrible loss was amazing. That year, my vote for Coach of the Year went to John Winkin.”
Correction: This story was revised at 2:22 p.m., July 21, 2014, to reflect the correct spelling of Ron Fraser’s name. It was misspelled in an earlier version.