Dedeaux Had Special Qualities
Few people have extracted more pure enjoyment out of coaching baseball than Rod Dedeaux. His exuberance was infectious, and at least three men who caught the bug were forever transformed.
Like their mentor, their names have become synonymous with dugout leadership: Sparky Anderson, Tom Lasorda and Mike Gillespie.
Dedeaux, who died Thursday at 91, had a profound influence on each man. Anderson and Lasorda, of course, are Hall of Fame major league managers. Gillespie played for Dedeaux, followed him as USC coach in 1987 and has never had a losing season.
Anderson served as USC bat boy from 1942-48, and the young Trojan coach let him hold a bat signed by Babe Ruth -- Dedeaux’s prize for winning the city batting championship as a Hollywood High senior in 1931. Every day was an adventure for Anderson, who grew up within walking distance of USC and worshiped the relentlessly positive Dedeaux.
“People like that are what sports need,” Anderson said. “They don’t need all those sourpusses.”
Dedeaux had only one rule for Anderson: Keep his grades up.
“He told me, ‘You have to show me your report card every time,’ ” he said. “I said to myself, ‘I might have to do a little cheating here.’ ”
One day, Anderson told Dedeaux that the kids in the neighborhood needed baseballs. Dedeaux told him he could have the ones with loose strings.
“So I got to loosening all the strings,” Anderson said. “He told me later, ‘I knew what you were doing. Can’t fool me.’ ”
Gillespie was the left fielder when the Trojans won the third of their 11 national championships under Dedeaux in 1961. He didn’t realize it then, but he was absorbing lessons that would serve him well when it was his turn to guide the Trojan program.
“His attention to detail and preparation for any and all eventualities that can occur in a game became a mantra for me,” Gillespie said. “I can only dream to be as composed and poised as he was.”
Dedeaux was a fixture at Trojan games after he retired, a constant source of optimism and a reminder that the game is supposed to be fun. Gillespie plans to honor Dedeaux’s memory by playing a video of his life before a home game this season.
“Among the people who played for Rod Dedeaux, it would be unanimous that they would regard it as one of the most special, enjoyable times in their life,” he said. “It wasn’t just about winning, which of course always helps. The environment was such that it was a never-ending, wonderful time.
“I treasured my relationship with him and he was a huge influence on me. It was an easy choice for me to pursue teaching and coaching. He impacted my career choice more than anyone.”
Gillespie led the Trojans to their 12th title in 1998. Yet the most striking number associated with the program is 65 -- the years since someone other than Dedeaux or Gillespie has been USC coach.
Then there is the number 1, which Dedeaux wore on his back. Unlike numbers worn by Trojan standouts Tom Seaver, Mark McGwire, Randy Johnson, Fred Lynn and the rest of the nearly 60 major league players coached by Dedeaux, only No. 1 has been retired at USC. Gillespie said the team will wear patches bearing the number this season.
Dedeaux frequently visited Chavez Ravine after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. In 1963 he met a Dodger scout who could match his gregariousness and enthusiasm. Dedeaux and Lasorda struck up a friendship that lasted more than 40 years.
“I loved that man,” Lasorda said. “You’ll never see another one like him. He was a remarkable guy. He was a hero to me.”
When Lasorda became Dodger manager in 1977, he asked Dedeaux to join his coaching staff. But Dedeaux wouldn’t leave USC.
“He loved it because he loved to develop players and he loved the purity of the amateur game,” Lasorda said. “He was without a doubt the college baseball ambassador.”
Maybe Dedeaux instinctively knew that his buoyant brand of coaching played better on campus than it would with professional players.
“I met Pete Carroll once,” Anderson said. “He’s got the same personality. When you’d walk away from Coach Carroll or Coach Dedeaux, you’d say, ‘Boy, that’s a live wire.’
“He could have done anything he wanted in any part of this game. But he loved coaching at the college level and I don’t blame him.”
Times staff writer Tim Brown contributed to this report.