September 16, 2014

The Legend of Hugo Bezdek

November 29, 2008 by · 2 Comments 

The story of the only man to manage in the Major Leagues and coach a professional football team.

Hugo Bezdek was born on April 1st, 1884 in Bohemia, a country that would later split into Czechoslovakia. Bezdek spent the first five years of his life overseas before moving into the Midwest, eventually settling down in Chicago. In the Windy City is where Hugo took an interest in sports, especially football and baseball.

Bezdek would later enroll at the University of Chicago and would stay a multi-sport athlete while he attended school. He played fullback for the school’s football team and also was the starting second baseman on the baseball club. While Bezdek was a good baseball player, he was even better at football, being named an All-American in his junior season of 1905.

After his graduation, Bezdek took over the role of Head Coach of the football team at the University of Oregon. The team was successful but Bezdek did not return the following year. After a year off in 1907, Bezdek was contacted by the University of Arkansas, who were looking for a football and baseball coach. Bezdek accepted the job offer and moved quickly down to Fayetteville.

Bezdek was highly successful doing both jobs and was very popular amongst his players. He demanded hard work and when his players bought into his style, his teams became great. Bezdek coached both teams between 1908 and 1912; with the football club going 29-13-1; and his baseball team going 81-37 in the six seasons he coached them. His .657 winning percentage as the baseball coach ranks second in Arkansas’ history.

Fans of the University of Arkansas can also credit Bezdek with the creation of the school’s nickname, the Razorbacks. Before 1909, sports teams at the school carried the moniker of the ‘Cardinals.’ However, at a 1909 football rally, celebrating the teams’ unbeaten season, Coach Bezdek referred to his team as “a band of wild Razorbacks.” The phrase became popular and soon after, a new nickname was born.

After the 1912 season, Oregon made him an offer to become their football coach again, but the baseball program already had a coach. Nonetheless, Bezdek returned to Oregon where he would continue his success on the football field. He would coach the Ducks’ for five years, including the 1916 season where the team went undefeated and won the Rose Bowl.

However, coaching football wasn’t the only thing Bezdek was doing on the west coast. Soon after Oregon hired his as the football coach, the Pittsburgh Pirates offered him a part-time job as a scout. So, whenever Bezdek had his hands free of football, he would go and check out some of the best players near the Pacific for the Pirates.

The 1917 Pittsburgh Pirates were struggling. The team was 20-40 under manager Nixey Callahan before owner Barney Dreyfuss had seen enough and fired him. Looking for a new manager, Dreyfuss turned to Bezdek, whom he liked and respected, and offered him the job first. It was a tough decision for Bezdek to make, football or baseball, but after a week of thinking, Bezdek decided to accept the Pirates offer and resigned his post at the University of Oregon.

People around baseball were shocked to hear who Dreyfuss hired as manager; someone whose best experience for the job came as the skipper at the University of Arkansas. But it wasn’t what was on his resume that Dreyfuss liked. While he would admit he didn’t have the greatest baseball mind, he didn’t have an ego, unlike Callahan. And perhaps maybe the biggest part of his success was the way he communicated with his players.

Bezdek did what he could with the team featuring stars at the end of their careers and rookies with little experience. The team wrapped up the 1917 season at 51-103, dead last in the National League. In 1918, the team did the unthinkable under Bezdek, going 65-60 and leading the Pirates to their first winning season in six seasons. During the season, Bezdek coached two future baseball managers, Casey Stengel and Billy Southworth, the latter accrediting some of his success in managing Bezdek.

The team again improved its win total in 1919, this time finishing with a 71-68 record. After the season, though, Bezdek was given an offer he couldn’t refuse: Penn State offered him a contract to become the coach of both the football and baseball teams, in addition to athletic director. This time, it didn’t take Bezdek much time to decide, he missed football and, at Penn State, he would be given a great pay raise.

Bezdek’s career major league managing record was 166-187. He used to put his players through a football-styled regime in spring training, which could have made him unpopular. Instead, the players loved Bezdek, who would allow them to determine what was best in key situations, before giving the go-ahead himself, something unheard of in the days of John McGraw.

His career at Penn State was successful as well. He coached the football team for 12 years, with one Rose Bowl appearance and a 29-game unbeaten streak that stretched three years. On the diamond, his clubs went 129-76-1 during his 10 seasons as manager, coaching future major leaguers such as Myles Thomas and Russ Van Atta during their college careers. Also, Bezdek tried a new sport at University Park, going 11-2 as the basketball teams’ interim head coach in 1919.

In 1930, he resigned from all of his coaching jobs to focus on being the athletic director until 1937, when he would become coach of the NFL’s Cleveland Rams. While Bezdek went 1-10 and was fired before the conclusion of the season, he holds the distinction of being the only person ever to coach/manage in the MLB and the NFL.

Bezdek passed away in his home in Atlantic City in September 19, 1952. Two years later, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.  In addition to being a successful coach; he pioneered the passing game at the college level. Bezdek was also later inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame for his work coaching the Razorbacks’ football and baseball teams. Bezdek was a great motivator who could coach and be successful at whatever he wanted to do.

Comments

2 Responses to “The Legend of Hugo Bezdek”
  1. Robert Monk says:

    Great article! I was researching Arkansas Razorbacks and yours is the best post I’ve read yet. Thanks.

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