1962 national champs take in TC

Record-Eagle/Brett A. Sommers Members of the 1962 NCAA College World Series champion Michigan Wolverines — (left to right) Dick Honig, Dave Campbell, Franz Neubrecht, John Kerr, Jim Steckley, Denny Spalla, Ron Tate and Bruce Kropschot — gathered in Williamsburg to celebrate their annual reunion.

WILLIAMSBURG — Fifty-four years after winning the College World Series, the 1962 Michigan Wolverines are still fast friends.

Despite being scattered across the country, a bulk of the team, whose members are now in their 70s, gather once each year at a teammate's home to remember, rejoice and revel in each others' company once again.

June 14-17, left fielder Jim Steckley, who resides in Williamsburg, hosted the contingent of Maize and Blue after previous reunions in Texas, Idaho, Arizona and even France.

"The shared experience of winning the College World Series was a special event," 1962 team manager Bruce Kropschot said. "We've enjoyed these reunions we've had for many years."

The team had met sporadically in less recent times, but the death of teammate Jim Newton in 1998 spurred more frequent get togethers.

The reunions don't leave anyone out. Team statisticians, groundskeepers, coaches and players' wives are all invited.

Members of the 1961 team are invited too, a credit to those who helped win the 1961 Big Ten championship, an accomplishment missing from the '62 national champs' résumés.

"We all liked each other. There were never any egos on the team, and we just rooted for everybody," Steckley said. "I can see why we're all still friends. We always rooted for each other, and it's the same way now.

"Most of the guys are still with the girls they dated in college."

While the conversation undoubtedly takes turns sharing stories of children and grandchildren, remembering the time spent on the diamond in 1962 is always at the forefront of discussion.

And like most stories among close friends, the details occasionally get a little controversial.

Multiple players mentioned each year their past selves get a little faster, the balls they hit went a little farther and the batting averages were a few points higher.

"Telling the same old stories with just a little embellishment," said center fielder Denny Spalla, who lives in Minneapolis. "It's good to revive your memory. We still have an ability to razz each other."

One of the favorite (true) stories involves pitcher John Kerr, who now lives in Tucson, Arizona, having thrown back-to-back complete games on the same day in the NCAA regional tournament held in Kalamazoo, earning wins over Mid-American Conference champion Western Michigan and Big Ten champion Illinois, en route to World Series held in Omaha, Neb.

Kerr's May 31, 1962, performance totalled 19 innings and 313 pitches. The left-hander allowed just three runs on 17 hits combined in a 5-1 win over the Illini and a 3-2 win over the Broncos in 10 innings, which left Michigan needing just one more win to advance to the World Series, which it got 7-6 in a rematch with favored Western.

Kerr also hit the sacrifice fly in the 10th inning to drive in the game-winning run.

"In my opinion, what (Kerr) did in the regional tournament, winning two games and driving in the winning run in the 10th inning of the second game, there is no better feat of a Michigan athlete ever," shortstop Dick Honig said. "We beat the Mid-American champion and the Big Ten champion in one day. That feat alone should put you in the Hall of Fame."

"(Kerr) was definitely our ironman," Spalla said.

The regional championship set the stage for the Wolverines, who went 4-1 at the World Series and finished off the national title with a 15-inning victory over Santa Clara, 5-4.

To this day, the 1962 championship game remains tied for the longest College World Series game (by inning) of all-time. Three games since then have also gone 15 frames.

"We expected to win. We didn't go on the field expecting to lose," Steckley said. "We had a great coach, Don Lund. His personality fit our personality."

Balance throughout the team is what Kerr believes led Michigan to the title.

"We probably weren't the most talented baseball team that was (at the College World Series), but we had a lineup where everybody through the nine players were capable," Kerr said. "We did it on balance, not one big star."

The Wolverines weren't done.

The squad went on to win the International Intercollegiate World Series, in which Michigan defeated a Japanese team for the title in Hawaii. The Wolverines followed that series by playing a number of military service teams before returning home.

Michigan tallied a full-season mark of 40-16.

"You learn life lessons in a season like that, not because you win the ultimate championship, but because you pull together as a team," Spalla said. "The thing I carried with me through my working career and life too is the partnerships and the teaming that comes out of supporting one another."

Honig said it hasn't been determined who will host next year's reunion, joking they might just drop in on catcher Joe Merullo in Boston, but there is no doubt these Wolverines are having as much fun in 2016 as they did in 1962.

Asked if the days spent with old teammates is what he looks most forward to each year, Steckley grinned, glanced at his wife sitting nearby and whispered, "Yeah."

"Christmas is fun too, but I like hanging out with these guys."

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