You know well the Dennis Denning story by now if you follow baseball in Minnesota: His 2009 St. Thomas team grabbed its second national title in the final game of a legendary coaching career during which he won more than 900 games at St. Thomas and Cretin-Derham Hall.
But as St. Thomas prepares to celebrate Dennis Denning Day during a first-place doubleheader showdown against Concordia-Moorhead on Saturday, you may not know how hard Denning worked to get to the top of the coaching ranks.
It’s an inspiring story of a scrawny boy who learned how to play baseball in the streets and alleys of St. Paul, worked long hours at odd jobs to afford a Catholic education, and gave back selflessly to his beloved hometown by teaching thousands of youths how to play the game.
It never made any difference to Denning if the kid standing before him was a budding star or lacked the basic skills of how to hit, catch, throw and run. As long as that kid wanted to play and was willing to listen and work hard, Denning welcomed him on the field.
“It’s seeing guys develop into good people,” Denning replied when asked to name the biggest thrill of his career. “I don’t care about my record. I care about the friendships. I have had a lot of fun, and I am just happy I had the opportunity to do what I did. That’s what I’ll remember.”
Denning has a lot to remember, and likes to talk about his youth. His family – machinist dad, homemaker mom, two brothers and a sister – lived on Rondo Avenue west of downtown St. Paul, and he attended Cathedral School. Construction of Interstate 94 wiped out the Rondo neighborhood in the 1950s and the Dennings moved to Stewart Avenue near West Seventh Street.
Kids entertained themselves those days by playing baseball and other sports on makeshift fields. Pickup games could last for hours. Denning played on an older brother’s team but was allowed to play only in the field – and not bat – for two years because he was too small.
“I remember the first time I got to bat,” he said. “We had a ball held together with black electrical tape, and I hit it into the dump – it really was a dump! – in left field. It was more or less a homerun. I’m running around the bases, but I had to stop at third because our rule was you couldn’t head for home until the fielder picked up the ball in the dump. This guy picked up the ball, fired it in and threw me out at home!”
At another neighborhood “field,” Denning and his cronies built a backstop out of chicken wire. Railroad tracks ran through the outfield, and beyond the tracks was a hill. If you hit the ball over the hill, it was a homerun.
“We kept track of homeruns,” he said. “One kid must have hit 100 homeruns one summer. We’d play three, four, five, even six hours at a crack. That’s just what we did. There wasn’t much else to do.”
Denning attended nearby St. Francis de Sales School, where he played baseball and basketball. He also played in city leagues at neighborhood parks, and as an eighth-grader he coached t-ball at a playground on St. Clair Avenue. He expected to attend Monroe High School, but a family friend convinced him to enroll at Cretin, where he worked a variety of jobs before classes and in the cafeteria during lunch hour to pay off his tuition of $175 a year.
“I tried out for football as a freshman but I weighed only 95 pounds, and they said they didn’t have a uniform small enough for me,” he recalled. He and Huck Shields, a lifelong friend who ended up as his assistant coach at St. Thomas 35 years later, made the B-squad basketball team as freshmen.
“But we never got the opportunity to play,” he said. “At Christmas, I quit basketball to set pins at the St. Francis bowling alley. I needed a job.”
Denning found more success in baseball, although he struggled there, too. He didn’t make the varsity until his senior year in 1962, starting at second base for a Cretin team that won the state Catholic title. He also played on summer teams that won two state American Legion titles.
“We ‘10-runned’ everybody,” he said, referring to games that ended when Cretin led by 10 or more runs after five innings, “and seven of the starters on our state title team went on to play professional baseball or hockey.”
He also continued to coach baseball and basketball in elementary schools and at playgrounds. “I never got paid for that – never got a dime,” he said. “I just enjoyed doing it. I never really thought about not getting paid. I just liked working with little kids and having fun.”
Denning’s baseball exploits caught the eye of Tom Feely, the College of St. Thomas baseball (and basketball) coach. Denning cobbled together enough money, including a $150 scholarship and work as a stocker at Montgomery Ward, to cover his tuition.
“I thought, ‘What the heck, I might as well go to St. Thomas,’ ” he said. “I didn’t even know where St. Thomas was. I had to ask somebody for directions!”
A sociology major, Denning played baseball for three years and taught physical education and coached at St. Luke’s School. He played mostly infield and occasionally pitched, and the Tommies won the MIAC his junior year. The Baltimore Orioles drafted him that summer and he signed a contract after bargaining for a higher bonus than a scout wanted to give him.
“He offered me $2,000, and I said that I had to have $5,000,” Denning said. “He beat me up a little bit and said I didn’t really want to play. But then he called back five days later and said, ‘Okay, I’ll give it to you – but you better earn it!’ ”
Denning used the bonus to buy a Wisconsin lake cabin that he still owns – 45 years later. He played in the minor leagues for four years, returning to St. Thomas each fall to take classes, but had to quit baseball because of a wrist injury.
He finished his degree and taught social studies, math and physical education at nearby Nativity of Our Lord School for 10 years while also coaching boys’ football, basketball and baseball and girls’ volleyball. He moved to Cretin in 1977 to teach physical education, coach freshman football and basketball, serve as athletic director and, as varsity baseball coach, lead the Raiders to six state titles and a 379-76 record in 17 years. In the summers, he ran baseball camps that attracted hundreds of youths and coached a neighborhood VFW team.
“You coached year-round in the Catholic schools,” he said. “If you were in education, they just expected you to coach. It was that simple.”
He never complained, though. He loved sports, he was thrilled to work with kids and he discovered he had a natural talent for coaching. Some of it was Xs and Os, he said, and some of it “was just having common sense.”
Taking a step up to the college game in 1995 may have looked easy to observers – St. Thomas was MIAC regular-season or playoff champion for 14 consecutive years, won national titles in 2001 and 2009 and twice finished as runners-up. But even Denning felt some growing pains.
“I remember our practices in the field house my first year,” he said. “I set up 16 different drill stations for hitting. Sixteen! Too high. I was over-coaching. The last five years, I got it down to five drills. I was always learning how to do things better.”
His players came to treasure the knowledge he brought to the game. “I think of Coach Denning as an old-school coach,” Ryan Benson, a member of the 2001 national title team, once said. “He makes you polish your shoes before games, and we all wear our uniform pants and socks the same way. He asks you to hustle on and off the field, and to run out every ground ball. If you’re slacking off, he sees that. He pays attention to a lot of little things.”
The drills, the practices, the games, the recruiting . . . they eventually took a toll. Denning got tired last season and was concerned he wouldn’t be able to bring the same high energy level to coaching this year, so he retired. He insists he has no regrets, although he misses elements of the game.
“Coaching kids and looking forward to the competition – the us against them,” he said. “That’s what I miss. We had some great games over the years. I’ll never forget them.”
It’s not exactly as if Denning has given up coaching for good. He and his wife Nancy have 11 grandchildren, with No. 12 due soon, and he expects a baseball player or two will emerge from the pack and need a little one-on-one work with grandpa. On the afternoon of this interview, he was heading out to watch Logan, the oldest grandchild at 10, play in a game.
And on Saturday, Denning will be back on campus, likely with Logan and a passel of grandkids in tow, to watch the Tommies try to fend off Concordia and hold on to first place in the MIAC.
It promises to be a fine day . . . Dennis Denning Day. Drop by to watch one of the best Division III teams in the country play baseball, and take a moment to say thanks to a man for a lifetime of teaching and coaching and memories.