John Winkin, the man who defined baseball in Maine for generations, died Saturday. He was 94 and had been in poor health since suffering a stroke in December 2007.

His death was confirmed by the University of Maine, where he coached from 1975-96, taking the Black Bears to six College World Series.

He filled his team with players from Maine. His appearances at high school ballfields throughout Maine to scout young talent became the stuff of stories. He had an outsized presence in a 5-foot-6 body that was incredibly fit late in his life but ultimately betrayed him.

He was on one of his power walks around the Husson University campus in Bangor, where he last coached baseball, when he was stricken. He was 87 at the time and believed to be the oldest active college coach in the United States in any sport.

Winkin lived much of the past seven years in a rehabilitation facility in Waterville. His only son, David, was a frequent visitor and accompanied his father to Omaha, Nebraska for more recent College World Series.

“It’s still a shock,” said Ed Flaherty, the University of Southern Maine baseball coach. “He was the toughest man I’ve ever met. I can’t imagine what baseball would have been like here if he hadn’t come to Maine to coach.”

Flaherty played on Winkin’s first team at Maine in 1975. “He’s one of the greatest mentors I’ve ever known. I’m not sure I would have gotten into coaching without him.”
More than 90 men who played for Winkin signed pro contracts. Two in particular, Bill Swift of South Portland and Mike Bordick of Hampden, went on to have successful and long major league careers.

Winkin led a remarkable life. He was born in Englewood, N.J., not far from New York City. After graduating from Duke, where he was a 5-foot-6 center fielder for former Philadelphia A’s pitching star Colby Jack Coombs, Winkin earned his commission as a naval officer.

He served aboard the destroyer USS McCall as part of the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier group that was at sea on Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Winkin often spoke of returning to Hawaii to witness the devastation.

He got his master’s and doctoral degrees in education from Columbia. He was involved in the founding of Sport Magazine, which beat Sports Illustrated to the newsstands by several years. He joined Mel Allen, the early radio voice of the New York Yankees, on a pregame show during the early days of television. He played bridge with Vince Lombardi, whose name is on football’s Super Bowl Trophy. Lombardi, Winkin liked to say, hated to lose.

Baseball was his love. He came to Maine to coach that sport and football at Colby College in Waterville. His success there caught the eye of the University of Maine. He quickly improved the baseball program to the point where it was a consistent contender for regional championships and trips to the College World Series.

Winkin was in the process of building up the Husson program when he suffered his stroke. While spending much of the past seven years in Waterville, he also returned to Omaha and the College World Series as a fan in recent years.