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Bobby Winkles had been kicking around the White Sox organization for seven seasons, with stops in places like Colorado Springs, Waterloo, Memphis, Tulsa and Indianapolis, when in 1958 the old catcher Walker Cooper, who was the Indianapolis manager, called him into his office and said, "There's just one thing that's keeping you out of the major leagues."
"You tell me, and I'll work on it," replied the eager young infielder.
"Your ability," deadpanned Cooper.
Soon after, Winkles' days as a player were finished.
The book hardly closed on Winkles' baseball career when the Sox released him, though; He eventually made it back to the big leagues after establishing himself as one of the greatest college coaches ever.
The year was 1959, and Arizona State was starting a baseball program. The university turned to Winkles.
"I started the team," Winkles, 82, told me last week at the Hot Stove League Luncheon in Palm Desert, California, hosted by a retired Los Angeles Times baseball writer. "I started with no scholarships, and we had to build a field. They didn't have one."
Meanwhile, archrival University of Arizona in Tucson was a national powerhouse. "When we played them when I first got there, we used to hope that we could get in nine innings before dark because they'd have so damn many runs," said Winkles. "Four years later we caught them."
Not only did Winkles and the Sun Devils catch Arizona, but he recruited the likes of Reggie Jackson, Rick Monday and Sal Bando to ASU, resulting in national titles in 1965, '67, and '69. After leaving ASU in 1971, Bobby was elected to the College Baseball Hall of Fame, and the field at Arizona State bears his name.
Then the Swifton, Arkansas, native quickly returned to the diamond as a coach with the California Angels.
"I never applied for a job in 43 years," said Winkles. "Somebody always came to me. And that's what I feel proud about."
Angels owner Gene Autry promoted Winkles to manager in 1973, and the Angels went 79-83 as attendance rose by more than 300,000. With Nolan Ryan leading the pitching staff, Winkles was confident that the Angels were going to take off.
"They had terrible teams because Mr. Autry wouldn't spend any money," Winkles lamented. "When we won 79, I think he's going to make some trades, and we're going to get some players because we had the pitching."
But no moves were made, other than replacing Winkles midway through the '74 season.
If Winkles thought he was working for a cheap, quirky owner in Autry, his next stop was Oakland where Charley Finley had depleted his championship teams of the early 70s. The former college coaching legend managed the A's for parts of the 1977 and '78 seasons.
"I just couldn't take his crap anymore," Winkles said. "[I'd be up] every morning at 6 o'clock. When you're the manager, you get home at 12 or 12:30 every night. At 2 o'clock he's calling, 'Why didn't you do this, why didn't you run that guy?' We're leading the league by two games. So I said, 'Well, I'm going to quit on top. Now's the time I'm going to do it.' He was a miserable guy."
Finley didn't appreciate his manager walking out on him. "Mr. Finley said, 'That little Arizona State SOB is not gonna get another job 'til November because he quit on me. He's a quitter," said Winkles.
No doubt much to Finley's chagrin, White Sox general manager Roland Hemond came calling right away, hiring Winkles as third-base coach.
The next season, 1979, Bill Veeck named Don Kessinger, the former standout shortstop with the Cubs, as player-manager.
"I was the third-base coach, but I did all of the spring training for him [Kessinger]," said Winkles. "I did everything for him. Finally it got to him. About July he said it's not worth it. I can't do this anymore. So then they brought in Tony [LaRussa], and I was with Tony for three years as a third base coach."
These were memorable times in Sox history with LaRussa, just 34, beginning his long, successful managerial career, and the Sox being sold in 1981 to Jerry Reinsdorf, who entered just in time for the players to strike from June until the end of August.
"When we had the strike, the White Sox kept paying the coaches, and they sent us to the different [minor league] teams," remembered Winkles. "They sent me to Appleton, WI. One day we're sitting in the stands, and I get a call from Roland Hemond. He says, 'Bob, I'd like to have breakfast with you tomorrow.'
"I don't know what he's doing. Am I doing something wrong here or whatever? He says, 'We got a proposition for you. Jerry [Reinsdorf] said to me, "Roland, I'm tired of paying these big babies money. I want you to get the best teacher in the United States, and we're going to raise our own." So Roland looked at him and said, 'Well, you got him coaching third right now,' which was quite a compliment for me."
The Sox made Winkles director of player personnel and named current Tigers' president-general manager David Dombrowski, a native of Palos Heights who already was working in the Sox front office, as scouting director. Players like Ron Kittle, Greg Walker, Britt Burns, and Richard Dotson were schooled in the Sox farm system and later contributed to the 1983 team that won 99 games, running away with the division by 20 games.
"When I took the job [the Sox farm system was rated] 24th," according to Winkles. "Three years later we were third. David Dombrowski and I were partners. We just got along like that. I still call him. He was in his 20s and just getting started."
Bobby Winkles seems like he's always just getting started. The down-home, good-ol'-boy humor, the enthusiasm and energy propel him from one story to the next.
Like the night while managing the Angels when Nolan Ryan, having thrown more than 160 pitches, was tiring in the eighth inning of a one-run game.
"He walked the first two guys, and I went out there," Winkles said. "I say, 'Nolan, you're getting the ball up. Managers know the ball starts getting up, you're getting a little tired. Looks like I ought to take you out.' He says, 'Can I ask you a question?' I said, 'Oh yeah, go ahead.' He said, 'Would you rather have a tired Nolan Ryan or that guy you got warming up?' I said, 'Go get 'em, Nolan.'"
By this time the room had emptied out so that only Winkles, myself, and one other listener remained. I got the impression the venerable baseball man was just getting warmed up. "Baseball's all about the stories," Winkles concluded. And you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who tells them better.
Roger Wallenstein is our man on the White Sox. He welcomes your comments.