Don Lund, a three-sport star at the University of Michigan, and a major league outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Detroit Tigers, and St. Louis Browns for seven seasons, passed away Tuesday due to natural causes. He was 90.
Much of Lund’s acclaim comes from his status at Michigan where he was revered not only for his athletic prowess, lettering nine times in baseball, basketball, and football, but also for succeeding the legendary Ray Fisher as the head baseball coach at his alma mater. He coached there from 1959-62, winning the Big Ten Championship in 1961, and the National Championship in his final season.
Mike Joyce, who went on to pitch two seasons with the Chicago White Sox in the major leagues, was one of the aces for Lund’s Big Ten Championship team in 1961. Speaking with Joyce shortly after the news of Lund’s death, he displayed tremendous pride to have played under his tutelage.
“While he was not a pitcher, he was a pretty good student of the game,” Joyce said via telephone. “He used to say, ‘The secret of pitching is to relax and concentrate.’ Fifty-four years ago he suggested that and I still haven’t forgotten that. He made the execution a lot simpler without trying to be the master of everything.”
Despite only coaching at Michigan for four seasons, Lund had a profound impact on the program, developing future major leaguers such as Bill Freehan, Fritz Fisher, and Joyce. Never during his playing days did he imagine that he would be the part of the link from Branch Rickey to Fisher.
“I never thought it [coaching at Michigan] would happen when I signed with the Dodgers,” Lund said in a 2009 interview. “Branch Rickey was the coach of the University of Michigan when he was in Law School, then it was Ray, and then I. It is such a small world; you would never think that it would happen.”
Lund almost went professional in another sports, as he was a first-round draft choice of the Chicago Bears, but turned down that offer to sign with the Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers. He signed for a $7,500 bonus right out of Michigan and three weeks later he was in Leo Durocher’s clubhouse. That three week delay included a few trips to New York, as well as his college graduation, which left him little time to be ready for his major league debut.
“Our college season ended and then there was graduation,” Lund said. “It was another two-to-three weeks before I played another game. I had gone to New York, signed a contract, came back home, and then went back to Brooklyn.”
He made his debut July 3, 1945, without stepping foot in the minor leagues. His first ride in with Brooklyn wouldn’t last very long.
“It was just a token thing,” he said. “I pinch hit, but they could see I wasn't ready to play and they sent me to St. Paul.”
He worked diligently in the minors, and was rewarded with another stay in Brooklyn at the start of the 1947 season, just in time to be on the bench for Jackie Robinson’s debut. About a week before Robinson made history by breaking baseball’s color barrier, Lund homered in a spring training game and was greeted by Robinson at home plate. The photo is immortalized on the cover of Lund’s 2009 biography, “Playing Ball with Legends.”
Lund played in the major leagues through 1954, with his best season coming in 1953, when he batted .257 with nine home runs and 47 RBIs in 421 at-bats for Detroit. After working with the Tigers as their farm system director from 1963-70, Lund returned to Michigan for a 22-year stay as an assistant athletic director until his 1992 retirement.
Spending nearly 50 years in a wide encompassing athletic career, Lund’s greatest accomplishment may not have been anything that he did on the field, but the impact that he left on the young men under his watchful eye.
“He was first and foremost a gentleman; somebody who made you proud to be associated with, whether or not you were a baseball player or a normal person,” Joyce said. “What I most appreciated was that he respected people that worked hard, he did not play favorites, and on top of everything else, he made it fun to play baseball.”