RIP to Bobby Winkles, a big-league coach and manager as well as a tremendously successful college baseball coach. He died on April 17 at the age of 90. After a career as an infielder in the minor leagues, Winkles served as the manager of the California Angels (1973-74) and Oakland Athletics (1977-78).
“He was a champion of life. There was a tremendous amount of success on the field. However, his greatest success he had was all the people that he touched – more importantly, what are his “Winkles Boys” – the friendships and the caring that has lasted all these years,” said David Grangaard, a member of his Arizona State Sun Devils National Championship team of 1967. “To a player, to a man, the wins were an important part, but the joy and the values that he instilled in all of us, is what remains today. An incredible coach, teacher, mentor and lifelong friend. He will be missed in a most respected and reverent way. Bobby Winkles baseball, only one way to play: with the passion that he brought.”
Bobby Winkles (that is his first name, not Robert) was born on March 11, 1930 in Tuckerman, Ark. He grew up in Swifton, where he picked cotton as a child when he wasn’t playing baseball. He graduated from Swifton High School, where he was teammates with Skeeter Kell, brother of Tigers star George. George gave him some coaching, and Winkles was said to be a standout third baseman as a result. Winkles entered Illinois Wesleyan University, and he became a star at basketball and baseball there. He was selected as the team co-captain as a sophomore, which was a rare honor for an underclassman.
Winkles was a third baseman and shortstop in college, but he would be a shortstop almost exclusively in the minor leagues. He signed with the Chicago White Sox in 1951, which was his junior year, for a $10,000 bonus. He hit .291 for the Colorado Springs Sky Sox and followed that up with a .287 mark in 22 games for the Waterloo White Hawks in 1952. He might have moved even higher in the minors, but he enlisted in the Army and missed the rest of ’52 and all of 1953.
Winkles said he almost made it to the major leagues in 1952. He hit over .300 with the White Sox in spring training after working with Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, but he made an error at third base. Manager Paul Richards opted to go with veteran Cass Michaels instead. “Michaels has been around and the fans accept him. If he makes an error, the fans are more tolerant than of a rookie,” Richards supposedly told him.
Winkles spent most of 1953 serving at Fort Ord in California. Due to the climate, the base had a pretty long baseball season, so Winkles was able to get plenty of playing time to keep his skills sharp.
The Sox considered Winkles a leading prospect for the 1954 season. “Bobby wants to get some place. He will break a gut anytime to get the job done,” proclaimed general manager Frank Lane. Winkles did return for the 1954 season, but he couldn’t reclaim that same level of ability he’d briefly shown before entering the armed forces. In each of the next three seasons, he would hit well in Class-A Colorado Springs, but when Chicago tried to move him up to a higher level, he struggled to hit. He was also a shortstop in an organization that had Luis Aparicio quickly moving up through the ranks.
Winkles continued to play well with the Sky Sox and hit .298 with a career-high 5 home runs in 1956. He even converted briefly to a pitcher that season. He spent his first full season in AA with the Tulsa Oilers in 1957, when he was 27 years old. He batted .279, made the Texas League All-Star Team and was sold to the Indianapolis Indians of the AAA American Association at the end of the season.
Winkles’ baseball life diverted from the norm starting in ’58. Playing for both Indianapolis and Tulsa, he struggled to hit. By then, he was 28 years old and no longer a prospect. He had a BS in Philosophy from Illinois Wesleyan and an MS in Physical Education from the University of Colorado, and he had ambitions beyond a career shortstop in the minors.
“My ambition in life is to become a college coach or a recreation director for some large industrial plant,” he said in a 1958 interview. “If I should stay in baseball, I would like to manage. I feel that I can handle personnel and to me that’s more important than a person who knows everything about baseball and nothing about other peoples’ feelings and temperaments.”
Winkles never did end up working for a large industrial plant as far as I can tell, but the rest of his dreams came true. After the 1958 season, he was named the head baseball coach at Arizona State. The school had just become a full-fledged university, and Winkles was its first baseball coach as a university.
Starting with relatively few holdovers from the previous team, Winkles guided the Sun Devils to a 27-18 season in 1959, and he was excited about the team’s chances. “I’m not saying when we’ll get to that College World Series, but we’ll get there,” he promised.
The Sun Devils baseball program had been seriously neglected for years before Winkles took over. Before too long, they were ranked among the country’s best college teams and were no longer pushovers to rival University of Arizona. The team made it, as Winkles had promised, to the College World Series in 1964. The Devils didn’t win that Series, but they did become National Champions in 1965, 1967 and 1969. Winkles was named the Sporting News Coach of the Year in each of those three years, and he was the NCAA Coach of the Year in 1965 and 1969.
ASU said that Winkles coached a total of 45 MLB draft picks, including 12 first-round draft picks and 21 future major-leaguers. Some of those players included Rick Monday, Reggie Jackson, Larry Gura, Gary Gentry and Sal Bando.
During his 13 years at the helm of the ASU Sun Devils, Winkles compiled a 524-173 record to go with the three national championships and four conference championships. He did the unexpected in 1972, when he left the comfort of Tempe, Arizona (and a pay cut) to take a job as a coach for the California Angels.
“I just decided that I wanted to manage in the major leagues one day,” he told the Independent Process-Telegram of Long Beach, Calif. “I felt that I had achieved all that I could at the college level. I was getting lazy. I didn’t have to go out and recruit players — they were coming to us automatically because we had built a program with a solid reputation. I was deathly afraid of becoming a stagnant college coach.”
Winkles was hired by Angels general manager Harry Dalton as an assistant to rookie manager Del Rice. He also acted as the first base coach. After a 75-80 season, Rice was fired, and Winkles was named as his replacement.
Winkles and the Angels got off to a good start and were over .500 by June. A rough July torpedoed the team’s chances, and the Angels ended the season with a 79-83 record, good for 4th place in the AL West. One early loss came to the Oakland A’s, when Sal Bando helped beat his old college coach with a 2-run homer.
“That damned Sal Bando,” Winkles said after the game. “He used to listen to me in Tempe… I tell him before the game to take it easy on us. He hits a two-run homer. Those guys just don’t pay attention any more.”
The 1974 Angels got off to a 30-44 start, and Winkles feuded with DH Frank Robinson. Winkles was fired on June 27, 1974 and replaced with Dick Williams. He said after his firing that he couldn’t handle Robinson, “and I don’t know of anybody else who ever has.” Robinson, for his part, said that the two had resolved their differences, but added that he had vetoed a trade that would have sent him to the Yankees. Winkles later backed off his criticism and stated that Robinson should be an MLB manager, which he would be before too long.
Reggie Jackson, then of the Oakland A’s, defended his former college coach and hoped that he would join the A’s coaching staff. He got his wish. Just weeks after Winkles was let go, A’s manager Al Dark fired two of his coaches, Irv Noren and Vern Hoscheit, and hired Winkles. He remained with the A’s through the end of the 1975 season and then spent 1976 and a part of ’77 as the third base coach for the San Francisco Giants.
Oakland owner Charlie Finley fired his manager, Jack McKeon, on June 10, 1977, and hired Winkles away from the Giants. It was an odd move, as McKeon was managing a team that had lost virtually all the players from its world championship run, and he still had the team just a game below .500 with a 26-27 record.
“I’m not going to go into details. But I like Bobby Winkles’ enthusiasm and knowledge of the game,” Finley said.
Winkles didn’t have much to work with, and it showed in the team’s record. The A’s went 37-71 under his watch and finished the year with 98 losses. Things could have been much different in 1978, though. Though the A’s still didn’t have much talent, Winkles guided them to a 24-15 start. The Athletics, against all conventional wisdom were in first place. On May 21, after splitting a doubleheader with the White Sox, Winkles quit. There was a medical issue; he was sick of Charlie Finley.
Syndicated columnist Milton Richman wrote that Winkles called Finley and stated, “Charlie, I don’t think you like the way I manage the ballclub. I think it’s time for me to move on.” Finley tried to talk him out of it, even calling Winkles back multiple times, but he’d made up his mind. One of the grievances that Winkles had in his job with the Angels was that GM Dalton was too heavy-handed with his oversight. Winkles said that in his next managing role, he’d have more authority.
It turned out that Finley was the king of micromanagement. He would call Winkles at all hours to tell him what to do, and he would routinely submit his own lineups via his vice president, a 16-year-old high school student named Stanley “The Hammer” Burrell. Burrell would bring Finley’s lineups to the manager before the game; when asked what would happen if Burrell was late, he replied, “Then everything waits until I get there.”
Imagine being one of college baseball’s greatest coaches, and a veteran coach and manager in the major leagues, and you have to get your lineups hand-delivered to you by a high school student. On one occasion, Winkles had already submitted his lineup to the umpires before a game and had to switch it out when Burrell gave him a new one from Finley.
Stanley “The Hammer” Burrell, incidentally, is better known today as MC Hammer, of “You Can’t Touch This” fame. MC Hammer caused Bobby Winkles to quit his job as manager of the A’s.
Baseball. Stranger than fiction.
The A’s job was filled by Jack McKeon, who of course was replaced by Winkles in the first place.
Winkles’ career as a major-league manager was 170-213, for a .444 winning percentage. He spent 1979 through 1981 as a coach for the Chicago White Sox, where he worked with rookie managers Don Kessinger and Tony La Russa. He had no dealings with future rap stars, and he got back to his first love, helping young players hone their baseball skills.
“I’m just having fun again,” he said. “That’s the nicest part of the whole thing.”
Winkles stepped away from the field to work as the director of player development for the White Sox. Winkles’ final stint in baseball came with the Montreal Expos, where he was a hitting and first base coach from 1986 through 1988. After retiring from the field for good, he spent some time as a broadcaster for the Expos before retiring to California, according to his SABR bio.
Winkles was inducted into the ASU Hall of Fame in 1982. He was part of the College Baseball Hall of Fame’s inaugural Class of 2006.
Winkles was an in-demand speaker, because he had a lifetime of baseball stories to share. Here are a couple to close this story:
On his hometown of Swifton: “Swifton, Ark., has had a population of 526 for 22 straight years. That’s because every time a baby is born, a man leaves town.”
“There was a sign at the entrance of town which read, ‘Home of George Kell.’ When I went home after we had won our first national title, I went out to that sign and wrote on the back, ‘And Bobby Winkles.'”
On Oakland crowds: “If I look a little nervous up here (in front of a Rotary audience), I am. I never saw this many people at a game in Oakland before.”
On his playing ability: “When I played at Indianapolis, one step from the major leagues, my manager, Walker Cooper, took me aside and said, ‘Wink, there is only one thing keeping you out of the show.’ I thought one thing, I could work that out in no time until he said, ‘Your ability.'”
“A year later I was traded. All I asked was what did they get for me and did it help the club. The answer was yes… they got nothing for me.”
For more information: Arizona State Sun Devils
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