A gifted story-teller who used the extremes of baseball and war as vehicles to write about the human condition was just the subject of a story none of his loyal customers ever wanted to read. Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam was killed in a car crash early Monday, news that shook a man in Baldwin City who has derived so much pleasure from reading his work.
"Terrible," former Baldwin High football coach Merle Venable said. "Oh my gosh, that's such a tragedy. We were born in the same year, you know, 1934. He was a great author."
Venable said he never met Halberstam, but has developed a friendship with Johnny Pesky, one of the subjects of Halberstam's, "The Teammates," a book about the 60-year friendship of Red Sox Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio and Pesky.
"Johnny told me Halberstam was a class fellow and it was a real experience for him getting to know him," Venable said. "I talked to Pesky a lot about the Summer of '49."
That baseball classic builds to the final day of the season, when Joe DiMaggio's Yankees ousted Williams' Red Sox. Venable, a baseball buff who said over the winter he was going to go to spring training again, "if I have to sell my dog to do it," didn't have to sell his dog and did attend Cactus League games. (He said he has been to Grapefruit League games seven different years.) Venable called Halberstram's "Summer of '49" the "greatest baseball book I ever read. It's unbelievable." "The Best and the Brightest," considered by many to be the most important book on Vietnam, was the first Halberstam work Venable read.
It's a shame the two men never met. Halberstam could have written quite a book about Venable, once he managed to sort the fact from the fiction.
Everybody, it seems, has a Merle Venable story. Some of them are even true. Some, Venable said, grow faster than the fish his buddies claim to have landed over the years.
"I was interviewing for a job once, and the principal said, 'I heard you lost a game, were riding back, and you said you weren't going to ride on the bus with a bunch of losers, and the bus was doing about 45 mph, and you jumped off.' I said, 'That's not true. It was only doing 25.' It never happened," Venable said. "I never jumped off the bus."
The story about getting into a fight with a wrestler and biting off his ear? Not true, said Venable, who reports he's feeling well after a recent bout with bladder cancer.
"It was his cheek," he corrected. "I was coming out of Taco Tico, and this guy going in asked me if they sold ice there. I told him I didn't know. He called me a lying SOB, and the fight was on. If I hadn't bit him I would have lost the fight. He was a bad actor, toughest guy I've ever run into. After he went back to Bonner (Springs), two Wyandotte County Sheriffs were going to come pick me up. They notified Sheriff Rex Johnson, and he told them, 'If those Sheriffs come into Douglas County, I'll have them arrested.' That's what Rex told me."
Southwest Junior High teacher Skip Bennett attended Kansas University and did his student-teaching at Baldwin, where he helped with the freshman football team.
"My supervising teacher was a very, very prim, proper old-fashioned lady," Bennett said. "She's now in a Kansas teacher's hall of fame. I dealt with her in the classroom and Merle in football. I've got a wide variety of experiences."
Bennett remembered a game at Gardner before which Venable had the team go to the center of the field to roll around in mud puddles to get used to them.
"Yes," Venable said. "I shouldn't have done that. We lost that game."
Fact or fiction? During his years at Baldwin (1966-1985), Venable used to coach in sub-freezing temperatures shirtless.
"I had no coat on, but I had a shirt on," Venable said. "I never felt the cold."
His sideline antics warmed the crowd, others say.
David Lawrence, the color man on Kansas University football broadcasts and a part-time host on KLWN's afternoon drive-time sports talk show, first came to know of Venable during the former's playing days at KU (1977, 1979-81).
"A few guys who weren't making the travel team when I played would go to Baldwin and watch Merle's teams, which I thought was a little strange because the normal thing to do would be to go to the Lawrence High games," Lawrence said. "Then they would start telling me Merle Venable stories. Come to find out, it was because of the coach that they were going to the games. It takes a lot to entertain a college guy. For them to go do that tells you how entertaining Merle must have been to watch."
Venable kept his playbook simple and called the plays in from the sideline. He figured his players executed the plays so well, it didn't matter if the other team knew they were coming. Once, on a fourth-and-goal, he gestured "go for it," dramatically pointing his arm toward the end zone. His team was stopped. After quickly regaining the ball on a fumble, Venable looked up to the crowd, arms outstretched, palms upward, as if to say, "Told you so."
Not only college students enjoyed watching Venable. College coaches liked spending time with him, too.
KU legend John Hadl, formerly an assistant coach for the Jayhawks, lent his San Diego Chargers playbook to Venable, who said he still has it.
"Tell John it's in the mail," Venable said. "I lent it to another coach and finally got it back. I really am going to get it back to him."
Traditionally, Thursday night is the only time during the season that college football coaches have taken a step away from work to socialize. When Don Fambrough coached KU, he and Venable regularly got together with Hadl and others.
"Funny, entertaining and just a super coach," Fambrough said of Venable. "I looked forward to spending time with him any time I knew he was coming up. We'd go to one of the joints downtown. He likes to tell stories. I like to tell stories. We'd try to out-lie each other."
Korea to Kansas
The true life story of Venable started in Beaver, Okla., where he was born to a mother who, he said, worked in a cafe and eventually saved enough tip money to buy him a suit for high school graduation. His father drove a truck and "boot-legged a little whiskey." He was reared in Hooker, Okla. He enrolled in a junior college, made the football team, and quit with another player to join the Army during the Korean conflict.
"To this day, I don't know why I did that, but I did," he said. "And I'm glad I did. I'm very proud to be a veteran. I bought my first house on the GI Bill. I went to college on the GI Bill. After my wife retired, I couldn't stay on her insurance. I've received great care at the VA Hospital in Topeka."
After returning from Korea, Venable attended Garden City Junior College and Emporia State.
Venable was working in an oil field in Calumet, Okla., when he accepted a job offer from Baldwin. He and wife Janet decided to move the family so their son, Steven, could enroll in a school for the deaf in Olathe.
Ted Zuzzio, now a teacher at Baldwin Junior High and the girls track coach at Baldwin High, assisted Venable for nine seasons.
"Seven league titles, one state championship, one runner-up in those nine years," Zuzzio said. "He was a strong fundamentalist. Taught form tackling every day. Taught the basics and went over and over it. Time was of no essence. We did it until we got it right, and then we went in. We saw the sun set a few times. He loved the kids, and the kids loved him, and they played hard. We didn't have any great size. We were pretty small, but we hit. That was the kicker."
Every Thursday, Zuzzio said, Venable had the players paint their helmets silver and polish their shoes black.
"We had the shiniest helmets in Douglas County," Zuzzio said. "He did a lot of wonderful things."
Such as inviting a man in his 80s, Paul Luckan, to become part of the team. Zuzzio said Luckan rode the team bus from a front-row seat, put on skits for the team and wore the purple-and-white letter jacket given to him as a present.
"He sky-dived out of the plane before one game to show the kids bravery," Zuzzio said. "That's how wonderful this guy was."
So wonderful, Zuzzio said, that Venable named a defense after Luckan.
Lessons from his pupils
Venable - who said he regretted leaving Baldwin for Kansas City Turner and then Eudora, where he didn't last a full season - has more than Halberstam's books to keep him connected to sports. He has memories of his former football players and the track athletes he coached.
"In '78, we had an outstanding team," Venable said. "Got beat in the state finals. All of our managers quit, except one kid, Keith Brown. I thought I'd reward him. I went down to Mr. Seltzer's and I bought him a Seiko watch. It really made him proud. After the season was over, I asked him, 'Where's that watch I got you?' He said, 'I traded it.' I said, 'For what?' He said, 'A magnet.' I said, 'A magnet?' He said 'I always wanted a magnet.' I'll never forget that."
Venable doesn't talk much about the lessons he taught players. Instead, he dwells on those they taught him. Such as the one he learned from Dirk Muncy, the slow-footed center from his 1968 team.
"Muncy, if you can't run those sprints any faster than that, go ahead and take your shower," Venable said, repeating what he said nearly 40 years ago. "He looked at me, started in toward the shower. Pretty soon he came back up carrying his helmet and said, 'Coach, I was running those wind sprints as very fast as I could. I couldn't run any faster than that. I've wanted to be a Baldwin Bulldog all my life, and there's no SOB in the world who's going to keep me from doing that.' I thought if he wants it that bad ... I told him to get back in there and start running. You couldn't run him off with a bucket of crap and a mop. I think that helped me more than anything. If I had gotten rid of him for using that word, that would have been the end of me. That's what you call on-the-job training. He couldn't run out of sight in a week, and he ended up being one of the best centers I ever had."
Chris Miller, the tight end on the 1981 state championship team, taught Venable another lesson.
"He was probably one of the smallest tight ends in the state of Kansas," Venable said. "He hurt his shoulder against Holton. I went over there, and he's crying. I said, 'Come on Miller, toughen up.' He said, 'Coach, I'm not crying because I'm hurt. I'm crying because I can't play.' You think that isn't an eye-opener? I'll never forget that as long as I live."
In '78, the day before the state championship game against Abilene, Venable told his team there was no way Abilene could beat the Bulldogs unless it rained.
"I'll be damned if it didn't become a frog-choker," Venable said. "We got beat in the mud at the Moore Bowl at Washburn University. There wasn't a blade of grass on that thing. After that game, I was getting our second-place trophy, and a bunch of them were crying. I said, 'All right now, toughen up you guys. We've lost before.' They said, 'Coach, we're not crying because we lost. We wanted to win it for you.' I never got over it."
Now the old coach was crying. He quickly composed himself from his seat at a table in the Lodge, Baldwin City's social gathering place. Soon, the old coach, who enjoyed substitute teaching until recently, was laughing again.
He said in recent years he bumped into one of his former players at QuikTrip, and the player let him in on a little secret.
"I used to scream at him like a wounded mess cook, and he tried his best, and he was a great player," Venable said. "I used to chew him out something unmerciful. When I ran into him he said, 'You know, coach, you used to yell at me all the time. I don't know if you ever noticed it or not, but I used to turn my head to the left. I can't hear out of this ear.'"
Venable's yelling days are over. Anybody who would try to tune him out now would be the worse for it.