Legendary coach's influence still felt today

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Leon Brinkopf coached the Central Tigers to the state title in 1962.

Leon Brinkopf was one tough old bird.

Some of the players he coached appreciated that more than others, but they all respected him for his leadership and his vast knowledge and love of baseball.

Brinkopf could be gruff, using a foghorn voice to give a chewing-out that a player would not soon forget, but he always was fair.

As a player, Brinkopf was a Pacific Coast League MVP who played briefly for the Chicago Cubs in 1952 before a devastating back injury ended his career.

As a coach, Brinkopf's 30-year association with Cape Central produced numerous conference championships and a very special feat 45 years ago. The 1962 Central High School baseball team won the state championship during a 21-0 season, becoming the only team in Missouri history to finish as an unbeaten state champion in the days of one classification. The Tigers were the state runners-up in 1963.

"Brink was a tremendous man, a tremendous coach," said Floyd King, who hit .421 for that 1962 team and went on to play at Southeast Missouri State. "He was intense and extremely fair. At the end of practice, he always found something to pump you up before you left the field."

During the 1962 state championship game at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, King, who was using his brother's new glove, dropped a flyball in center field.

"By the time I reached the dugout, Brink had already worked over a water cooler and he ate me alive," King said, "but after the game, he had me riding back to Cape sitting next to him."

Southeast Hall of Famer Kermit Meystedt also played for Brinkopf on that 1962 team, pitching in the state championship game.

"Coach Brink was very professional and made you feel like you were, too," Meystedt said. "He was very knowledgeable of the game and inspired his players and with that booming voice delivered much-needed discipline.

"He handed me the ball about two hours before the [championship] game, because he knew I'd be nervous, and told me I could do it, to just throw strikes because we had a real good team backing me up. We had a great team out there."Behind Meystedt, Allen Kesterson and Greg Brune, who went on to play quarterback at Southeast, turned a double play in the state title game as Central beat Saint Louis University High 4-2. Jim Reid was over at third base and Jerry Suedekum at first.

"The last out came on a grounder to first baseman Jerry Suedekum, who tossed it to me covering first," Meystedt said. "I have only one regret. I threw the ball about 500 feet in the air. I'd like to have that baseball now."

Said Steve Mosley, also a pitcher on the 1962 team: "We were in awe of coach Brink. He had a temper and was intimidating, but we respected and loved him. He had tremendous knowledge of all facets of the game and got the most out of you.

"He was a good psychologist and could really let go with some language."

Brinkopf left an impression on his opponents as well.

Jackson graduate Mike Kistner, who played with Reid at Murray State, remembered Brinkopf "as a good sport and class individual."

"He was a stern disciplinarian," Kistner added, "and Cape was always the team to beat. They were the Yankees."

Kistner's younger brother, Ron, who pitched in Class AAA for the Dodgers, said, "Brink and our coach, Lou Weiss, were like a couple of old generals squaring off. They understood the game so much.

"I'll never forget about how coach Brink handled his players. Some he got on and some he coddled. He was a true gentleman after the game."

Members of the Chaffee teams that had some duels with Central in the 1960s also were left with memories of Brinkopf.

"The Tigers were well coached and there was no doubt who the boss was," said Steve Rogers, a Chaffee grad and former Southeast football player who went on to sign a free-agent contract with the Atlanta Falcons. "When coach Brink went out to the mound, he was in complete control of the game. He ran a tight ship."

"I'll never forget how intense he was in the heat of battle," said Charlie Vickery, currently the Chaffee football coach. "The Tigers were fundamentally sound and so tough and he always got the kids to play for him."

Vickery remembered pitching against Central and getting one of the Tigers' top hitters, Butch Smiley, to ground into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded. Vickery recalled Brinkopf's reaction. "You can't print what he said in this story," Vickery said.

Brinkopf's intensity is one of the traits that influenced another Cape Girardeau native who grew up to be a coach -- Southeast Missouri State baseball coach Mark Hogan.

"I can't begin to tell you how greatly he has influenced me," Hogan said. "Many of the things that come through me as a coach come through coach Brinkopf. He was not only a great coach but an incredible educator. He taught me volumes about accountability and communications that has carried over to our practices at SEMO.

"He was an imposing man, and his persona was strong medicine. You had to toe the line. Kids being what they were, we referred to him as the 'Bald Eagle.' Of course, we never let him hear us, but when he arrived on the scene, the jokes were over and you gave your all for him. There are many, many folks better off for spending time with coach Brink."

The Kitchens -- Larry, Paul and Terry -- count themselves in that group.

"I learned a lot from him about baseball and life," Larry Kitchen said. "He could put a boot to a player but had a special way to pep you back up. He also taught you losing was not fun and games. He was simply the best. Anything I have accomplished in my manhood is because of Leon Brinkopf."

"He had a temper," Paul Kitchen said, "and would occasionally kick things, but the players thought maybe those objects needed kicking."

Terry Kitchen was impressed that Brinkopf could back up his teaching with his bat and glove.

Gary Wren noted the same thing. "I remember once, Larry Johnson, who later played at Baylor, was really bringing some smoke [in practice] and Brink got in the box and hit shot after shot, and finally said, 'You're so easy,'" Wren recalled. "He once said the three greatest hitters were Williams, Musial and Brinkopf."

Brinkopf hit .182 in the majors in 1952. He went 4-for-22 in nine games with four walks, one run scored and two runs batted in. He was 25 years old when he broke into the big leagues in April and the shortstop/outfielder played his last game May 5.

He sustained his back injury chasing a ball.

"When Brink was injured in the collision with the wall," said his widow, Genevieve Brinkopf, "it was so severe that doctors said he would never walk again, but he decided he would. However, he wore a back brace for years."

Brinkopf, who served in the Marines, also had a soft side.

"Any boy in Cape that wanted to play ball but did not have the money to buy shoes or a glove, he saw they got them," Genevieve Brinkopf said.

Steve Duniphan is a freelance writer from Burfordville who went to Chaffee High School and played against Brinkopf's Central teams.

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