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Prof: U-M baseball among University's storied programs

One of U-M's top athletic teams boasts an impressive history: multiple national championships, a Big Ten Conference-record 32 league titles, the fourth-highest win total in NCAA Division I history and the honor of being the oldest sport at the University.

And it isn't football.
Richard Adler shows off one of the many signed baseballs he has collected. This one is autographed by legendary Michigan coach Ray Fisher. (Photo by Terry Gallagher, U-M-Dearborn)

Since 1866, the Wolverine baseball team has enjoyed success surpassed by few teams. U-M was the only Big Ten baseball program to win a conference championship in each decade of the 20th century.

But to many, baseball is considered just another of U-M's Olympic sports, trailing football, basketball and hockey in revenue and prestige, says a faculty member, author and baseball historian.

"As is true at many universities, football and basketball reign supreme in both popularity and funding," says Richard Adler, associate professor of microbiology at
U-M-Dearborn. "Yet baseball has been a sanctioned sport at Michigan for more than 130 years, clearly preceding the other major activities as the most important sport in the mind of the student."

Adler documents the history of Wolverine baseball in "Baseball at the University of Michigan" (Arcadia, 2004). He planned to title the book "University of Michigan Baseball: The Other Sport." But, Adler says, baseball at U-M, in terms of excitement and accessibility to students, is "number one."

"By the dawn of the 20th century, the sport had evolved into the most popular spring leisure event in which students participated," he writes. "Crowds of 500 were not unusual at a time when enrollment at the university was approximately 2,500 students. Each class and college fielded a team."

Adler, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, has attended U-M games for several years, sitting in the third-base bleachers. He often swaps stories with former Wolverine coach Don Lund (1959-62), who coached U-M to one of its two NCAA titles.
"Baseball has been a sanctioned sport at Michigan for more than 130 years, clearly preceding the other major activities as the most important sport in the mind of the
student."—Richard Adler

While U-M has played baseball at the site of Ray Fisher Stadium since 1923, Adler notes that the original campus diamond occupied the site of the current Chemistry Building and Dow Laboratory. The location is symbolic, given Central Campus's role in the program's development.

"It was clear from the beginning that the relationship between sports and academics as a part of the University was different from that in some other schools," Adler says. "Rarely was the University accused of underhanded practices, and where such did occur [e.g. use of professionals after the early 1890s] it was the faculty who cracked down.

"Integrity was never a question," he adds.

The Wolverines captured national championships in 1953 and 1962, and qualified for the College World Series four times during the 1980s (1980-81, 83 and 84).

Adler relates a story about the 1962 NCAA regional, when the Wolverines swept Illinois and Western Michigan on the way to the series. Pitcher John Kerr logged 17 innings in the twinbill. Adler, recalling a story from Lund, says athletic director Herbert "Fritz" Crisler declared: "Slap a steak on his arm and send him out there again."

U-M's most recent World Series appearances came under Bud Middaugh, who coached from 1980-89 and registered the second-most wins in program history (465).

"Middaugh was a no-nonsense type of coach," Adler recalls. "Once when Middaugh was not satisfied with the pitching mechanics exhibited during a spring trip to Florida, he had the bus stop at a rest stop and the pitchers practiced their windups with the curb as the pitching rubber."

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