By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
COOPER, Iowa, June 19, 2014 – When I am sitting in the stands at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, watching my alma mater’s baseball team, the Vanderbilt Commodores, playing in the College World Series, there are moments when I feel I almost need to pinch myself. Can this possibly be happening right in front of my eyes? Can this really be Vanderbilt baseball?
It has come so, so far since I first knew it.
Yes, I’ve told this story before. The last time I told it was in April of 2011 in an online newsletter I was writing then for KMA radio in my hometown of Shenandoah, Iowa. I wrote the story then as I was on my way back to campus in Nashville to watch the Commodores play a weekend series against the arch-rival University of Tennessee. Coach Tim Corbin’s lads swept those three games, then got unbelievably hot the rest of that regular season, and wound up qualifying for the first time for the College World Series in Omaha. They finished in the top four in that 2011 CWS, and since then, I’ve been more hooked that ever on Vanderbilt baseball.
And now Corbin has the Commodores back in Omaha for the 2014 College World Series, and at this writing, they’ve won both games.
It’s an amazing and fun sports story, one in which I played a very peculiar role.
THE LOW POINT OF VANDY BASEBALL. Forty-nine years ago, when I started as a student at Vanderbilt, almost no one on campus ever attended a home baseball game, except for the 15 to 18 players on the Commodores’ squad and maybe a few of their parents. They hadn’t had a winning season in more than 10 years. They seldom ever won more than one or two Southeastern Conference games in a season.
Here is what the student newspaper, the Vanderbilt Hustler, wrote in March of 1969 about what the ’68 team had been like: “…the program was less organized than those of most high schools. The players wore uniforms of dime store quality and the athletic department was staging a minor holding action on equipment. It turned out ultimately that the Commodores of ’68 didn’t even deserve the wares they were getting, as the shoddy outfit fanned, erred and laughed its way to an 8-19 record and a 2-14 finish in the SEC…”
The thought back then that an alumnus might ever fly back to the campus in Nashville, to watch the ol’ alma mater play baseball? Hah! Preposterous! And there was no dream, none at all, of conference championships, or qualifying for the College World Series.
Now, I don’t know whether to be thrilled or embarrassed to report that I have a niche in the story of the renaissance and current golden age of Commodore baseball. How?
Well, first I was involved in what surely must have been one of the all-time low points – if not the very nadir – of Vandy baseball.
It happened in the spring of 1966 when I was the third string catcher on the freshman team, and we were playing in Pulaski, Tennessee, against a fine team from Martin Methodist Junior College there. In fact, we were getting clobbered. Our coach, Sam Hirt, had been growling all evening at the home plate umpire, and suddenly Hirt seemed to snap. He called me to his corner of the dugout, told me to get in the game as catcher, “and I want you to raise so much hell with that umpire that you get thrown out.” I’d caught 100 or more baseball games in my life by then, and I’d never had a coach give me an order like that!
My recollection is that I lasted for only a batter or two. The first time the ump called a ball, I stood up, jerked off my mask, got right in his face, called him a “homer” and howled that he’d been jobbing us all night. The home fans rightly jeered me. On the next pitches that the ump called balls, I escalated my protests to arm waving and profanity. Then when I took it on up another few notches and questioned the ump’s ancestry, he sternly cautioned me. After that, all it took was one magic word – you can imagine it – and I got a classic heave-ho ejection!
THEN THE TURN-AROUND STARTED. From that sorry moment, Vanderbilt baseball surely couldn’t have gotten worse. But it certainly didn’t improve with urgency.
The varsity team in that spring of ’66 went 2-16. In 1967, I tried out for the team again but got cut. Many of my classmates were good players, took over varsity positions and the team wound up 11-12, which was respectable by Vandy baseball standards.
Then the university made a major change. For the first time in years, if not ever, they hired a full-time year-’round baseball coach instead of a part-timer who just worked during the season. The new coach was Larry Schmittou, who was only 27 years old but was already known as one of the best high school baseball coaches in the Nashville metro area. His first team was that hapless one in 1968 I told you about earlier. The student newspaper wrote that the team “banished any delusions of grandeur Schmittou might have had.”
But he went to work recruiting over that summer and fall. When the ’69 team reported for workouts in late January, Schmittou had put together a squad of 25, and half of them were freshmen from the Nashville area. Several of the newbies were given baseball scholarships, a first at Vanderbilt. Schmittou also put together a 41-game schedule, “the most ambitious schedule we’ve ever had.” And in the pre-season he boldly predicted, “I’ll go on the line now that we’ll win more than we lose if our boys work hard enough at it.”
Nearly everyone on campus thought that was just so much bluster from Schmittou. But it seemed to be such fun bluster to my pal Douglas T. Bates III and me.
Bates, then and now, hailed from Centerville, Tenn., an hour west of Nashville. We were both small town guys who’d been marginal athletes in high school, and we were, and still are, big fans of all the Vanderbilt teams. We became great friends back then, and still are.
So, anyway, in early ’69 Bates and I were ornery seniors on the staff of that student newspaper, the Hustler, which was a good one. We scheduled an appointment to talk to Coach Schmittou.
COACH, WE’VE GOT SOME IDEAS FOR YOU AND THE TEAM. What we discovered was a young, country sort of guy who knew baseball, for sure, but he didn’t know anybody on campus. We asked him what his eventual goal was for the baseball program. “To win the SEC,” he said without flinching. We liked his moxie. So we told Coach Schmittou that we thought we could help him. Here might be the funniest part of this story: He seemed to take us seriously.
We told him that between the two of us, we knew nearly everybody at Vanderbilt, and that we’d get the students to show up at games and have a good time. We told him the two of us would start writing the baseball stories for the Hustler, and that we were going to have some fun with it. He said great. We told him we’d need colorful quotes from him and his players. No problem, he said.
And we needed one more thing.
“What’s that?” he said.
We told him that his name, Larry Schmittou, “just isn’t colorful enough. We want to give you a nickname – ‘Smokie’ – a great baseball name.” Schmittou looked at us blankly and said, “I don’t even smoke.” Doesn’t matter, we answered, “just let us call you ‘Smokie’.” He laughed, shook his head and gave us a “let’s do it!”
Thank goodness the team was ready, too. Smokie Schmittou skippered them to a 9-2 start in their first 11 games. In our newspaper stories, we were lavish in praise of our Commodores, unmerciful toward the opponents and rather daring in encouraging beer drinking at the baseball games. Guess what? The students started flocking to the ball park.
There were only a half-dozen bleacher seats behind home plate, but the students didn’t want to be there anyway. Instead, we sat in the sunshine on the elevated banks down the first base line. Early in the second half of the season, the team was 18-11 and Smokie Schmittou and his boys were the talk of not only the campus, but also among Nashville’s sports fans.
When they won two of three games in a home series against highly respectable Auburn, we noted in the paper that there were “beer cans by the dozens and hundreds of enthusiastic fans.” When we asked Schmittou what he thought of the students’ hubbub, he said, “Give ’em six cool ones and they think I’m the most popular man on campus!” We also reported that six students had their IDs lifted by the Campus Police for allegedly drinking beer at the game. Among them – Bates, his girlfriend and me. We all had to report to the college deans for discipline, which amounted to a scolding. But we did enjoy Bates’ girlfriend being told by the Dean of Women that her behavior had been “that of a ruffian in the streets.”
Alas, the team then went on a slide against tough SEC competition, losing 7 of the next 8 games. But they finished with a flourish against non-league teams and wound-up with a 21-18 record. Not only was it the winning record Smokie Schmittou had predicted; it was also the first winning season since 1955!
THEN VANDERBILT BASEBALL WENT FROM LEGITIMATE TO GOOD! And from then on, things got better in a hurry. In 1973 and again in ’74, another of Schmittou’s predictions came true – those teams won SEC championships. He continued coaching through the 1978 season, and in his 11 years, the Commodores won 300 games. He then handed off the program to Coach Roy Mewbourne, who kept it rolling for his 24 years and then handed off to Coach Corbin in 2003.
Schmittou went on to form a partnership with several country music stars in Nashville and they bought a minor league baseball franchise, the Nashville Sounds. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, the Schmittou group bought six more minor league franchises around the nation. He sold them all in 1996 and retired from baseball. Last I knew, he was a partner in a chain of bowling centers in three states. And, yes, a lot of people still call him Smokie Schmittou.
So, that is how the turnaround in Vanderbilt baseball actually happened.
It took a whole lot of leadership from a young coach, the grit of a bunch of players determined to get better, with a fun assist from some ink-stained ragamuffins on the student newspaper.
You can write the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment by using the handy form below here.