Tales from the Archive: George McKinnon

Matt Keith (@mattlkeith), goes through the Northwestern History vault and looks at a baseball player whose influence stretched from the diamond to the battlefield of World War II.

For more than a century, baseball players have been America’s heroes. Some stumbled upon this title simply because they could hit a baseball a long way, more often than most human beings. Jackie Robinson earned that title in a much deeper sense by transcending the sport through his courage.

However, there is a different set of baseball players who earned the title hero, not only for their baseball prowess, but for sacrificing for their country in its time of need. Ted Williams, Buck O’Neill, Joe DiMaggio and, not surprisingly, Jackie Robinson (a hero in just about every way) were among the hundreds of baseball players to serve in World War II alone.

Mostly forgotten among the ranks of these baseball superstars is a name virtually unknown outside the ranks of the most die-hard Northwestern fans – George McKinnon. A crucial figure in the history of Northwestern baseball, McKinnon’s story stretches far beyond the diamond.

George McKinnon came to Northwestern in the fall of 1938 to play for a baseball program that was floundering. In the ten years prior to McKinnon’s arrival, the team had struggled through 8 losing seasons in conference play. In 1931, the Wildcats had managed to surge to third in the Big Ten, but the season proved to be only a temporary high.

McKinnon rode the pine for most of his freshman season, watching his upperclassmen teammates once again falter, this time to a 4-8 record and last place in the Big Ten.

Needless to say, expectations were pretty low for Northwestern entering 1939. Baseball was far and away the biggest sport in the US, but the local press had little interest in reporting on any of Northwestern’s early season games, save for a few short blurbs mentioning final results.

After a rough start to the season, Northwestern began to turn things around in conference play. The Chicago Tribune reported that the surprising rise of several sophomores, including McKinnon, helped spark the team. A five game winning streak to put the Wildcats in the thick of the Big Ten race led the New York Times to take notice and include a short story on the team in mid-May.

To be sure, George McKinnon was hardly the centerpiece of the team yet. That honor belonged to pitcher Bill Syring, who won every start of 1939 save a 1-0 loss, and added a no hitter to his resume. However, McKinnon established himself as the future of the program in the 1939 season that saw the Wildcats surge to fourth in conference with a 7-5 record.

That was only the starting point of the turnaround for the Wildcat’s under McKinnon. In 1940, the star shortstop led Northwestern to its first ever Big Ten baseball crown. (Interestingly, the Tribune continually referred to the conference as the Big 9 ½ during this period, a not so subtle reference to the University of Chicago’s ever decreasing role in the conference. Regardless of the name, the conference title belonged to Northwestern).

McKinnon established himself as one of the premier bats in the Big Ten, earning All-Conference honors and a selection as team captain. Northwestern baseball was suddenly the most intriguing sporting event going on in Evanston in the spring of 1940 (as long as we don’t count the media circus that followed Ty Cobb to the Evanston Country Club in May when the 53 year old shot an 83 and was in the headlines of every local paper for a week. I suppose that happens when you hit .366 over 24 years in the majors).

McKinnon followed up his 1940 campaign with a senior season in which he was equally brilliant both at the plate and in the field. Sadly, it was not enough to propel the team to another strong finish and Northwestern returned to mediocrity.

However, McKinnon did enough personally to earn a minor league contract from the Chicago Cubs. Having spent most of his spring and early summer at Northwestern, McKinnon joined the Zanesville Cubs late, and accrued only 192 at bats in the summer and fall of 1941. Although he struggled initially and wound up with a .203 batting average, McKinnon’s hitting began to pick up as the summer wore along, and his major league prospects were improving.

That all changed on December 7, 1941, a date that truly has lived in infamy.

McKinnon was hardly the only kid whose dreams got put on ice that fateful day. He wasn’t the only one to drop what he was doing for the sake of a greater cause. But just like the millions of other men and women turned patriots on that day, his service isn’t rendered any less meaningful by the shared sacrifice.

McKinnon hung up his cleats for a post in the United States Navy, and soon found himself serving as a communications officer aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lexington. For reference, that’s the original “Lady Lex,” not the 1942 Essex-class carrier also named Lexington. If you know your World War II history, you’re probably cringing right now.

You see, the Lexington was not destined to survive the first six months of the war.

The “Lady Lex,” with McKinnon among her crew, set a course for the Coral Sea in May of 1942 to join the Yorktown in an effort to halt the Japanese drive toward the south. The outnumbered Allied fleet (Australia had some cruisers in the battle) managed to turn back the Japanese navy, but at a heavy price. On May 8, 1942, the Lexington was pummeled, first by torpedo planes and then by dive bombers. The ship was irreparably damaged. If it didn’t sink on its own, it was going to fall into enemy hands, something that the Navy could not allow.

As many survivors as possible were rescued by nearby ships, before the Lexington was scuttled. Initial reports indicated that McKinnon was lost at sea. Based upon newspaper articles, it’s not exactly clear when it became apparent that McKinnon had survived, but the Tribune reported a year later that he was back in action aboard the USS Alabama as a radio officer.

McKinnon served out the duration of the war for the Navy, but an eventual return to civilian life did not mean a return to the diamond, at least not as a player.

Upon leaving the Navy, McKinnon immediately found work as a coach at Fenn College (now Cleveland State). Strangely, it was as a football and basketball coach that McKinnon returned to athletics, despite his stardom in college as a baseball player. After a few years at Fenn, he dove into the realm of high school athletics, staying in his home state of Ohio.

In 1961, George McKinnon at long last made his way back to Evanston as an assistant coach for Ara Parseghian’s football team. McKinnon didn’t last long in that role, as he soon found his true calling just a few hundred yards away from Ryan Field.

In 1962, McKinnon took over the reins of the Wildcat baseball program as head coach. Over the next 20 years, he would pile up more wins (304) than any Northwestern head baseball coach before him (he has since been passed many times over by current coach Paul Stevens). Unfortunately, McKinnon’s biggest struggles usually came in conference play, and Northwestern never seriously competed for a Big Ten title under his reign. The team managed to put together 20 win seasons 5 times under McKinnon. That might not sound like much, but keep in mind, back when McKinnon first took the helm as head coach, college teams didn’t play anything close to the 50-plus game schedules that they have today.

On the surface, it seems a difficult task to evaluate McKinnon’s legacy. In addition to the Big Ten title won in his sophomore year, Northwestern claimed only one other conference championship in baseball (in 1957, the only time the Wildcats ever participated in the NCAA Baseball Championships).

Is McKinnon’s measure of success as a head coach to be measured by the trophies his team amassed? If so, then history will judge his coaching ability much more harshly than it should. The reality of Northwestern baseball is that it has never been a powerhouse. McKinnon may not have changed that, but he lasted in his position 20 years and won nearly 44 percent of his games. For a Northwestern head coach, those aren’t bad numbers.

Although McKinnon’s resume as a coach might not jump off the page to critics, his record as a player and military veteran needs no defense against anybody with a shred of sanity.

In 1994, George McKinnon was inducted into the Northwestern Athletics Hall of Fame. It was an honor that his playing days alone earned him, although the few hundred wins as a coach likely helped.

On December 15, 2009, George McKinnon passed away at the ripe old age of 91.

In many ways, his story is about as apple pie as they come. An All-American kid (literally) who sacrificed his dream in order to become a patriot before ultimately remaking himself into a successful coach.

George McKinnon – just one more reason to love Wildcat athletics.

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