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Hugh Irwin – A Lifetime of Giving Back

By Ted Mathias, 06/02/21, 9:15PM PDT


Hugh Irwin – A Lifetime of Giving Back

I first joined the San Carlos Little League Board in November 2014.
As I scanned the room during that first Board meeting, I saw people just like me.
People who wanted to get involved and make baseball a more positive experience for kids.
Everyone was about the same age as I was in my early 40’s.

However, there was one exception.

There was an older gentleman sitting across the large square table from me.
He wore large round glasses and had his full white hair combed back.
His disposition exuded tranquility, putting me at ease during that nervous first Board meeting.
He only spoke once during that entire meeting and I don’t even remember what he said.
What I do remember is that when he spoke everyone in that noisy room fell dead silent.

The man’s name was Hugh Irwin and he had been on the SCLL Board since 1985.
As I found out attending Board meetings for the next 6 years, Hugh did not speak very often.
But when he did the room was always cloaked in silence out of respect for the man.

I left the Board in 2019 as my son aged out of Little League.
But a few years later in 2021, SCLL President Mark Reynolds contacted me.
He wanted to add a position to the Board, “SCLL Historian”, to document the history of baseball in San Carlos.
It was a great idea and although I did not have time for the position, I said I would help until Mark could find someone to fill that role.

There was no better place to kickstart this history project than getting Hugh Irwin’s story.
What changes has he seen in baseball and in his 37 years on the Board?
What kept him on the Board so long when most parents step down after their kids age out of Little League?

So, I sat down with Hugh at his house on Rosewood Ave. in San Carlos to hear his story.
Hugh has been living in this house for 54 years.
He bought the house in 1967 for $26,500.
Seems like a bargain now, but at the time it was four times the salary that Hugh was making as a grade school math teacher at Parkway Middle School in South San Francisco.

“The $27,000 list price was a bit high for me, so I negotiated it down to $26,500” Hugh said with a smile.
“My mortgage payment was $150 a month.  Doesn’t seem like much now but back then it was a lot”.

Hugh first joined the Board when his youngest son Chris was 8 years old in 1985.
There were only 6 members on the Board back then as compared to almost 40 now.
Hugh laughed as he said, “Board meetings were a lot shorter back then”.

There were many differences in 1985 when Hugh first joined the Board.

Today there are 7 Divisions in SCLL (T-Ball, Farm, AA, AAA, Majors, Juniors and Seniors).
In 1985 there were only 3 Divisions – Majors, Minors and Farm.
Majors played at Arguello, Minors at Laureola, and Farm at Heather.

Hugh coached all of Chris’ teams and when the game was over, he had to umpire the next game.
The format back then called for coaching your game and then umpiring the next game.
It seemed like a lot of work, but Hugh loved it because he got to know all the kids.

Hugh was the Field Coordinator in his first role on the Board.

“It was sort of a dual role as I was Field Coordinator and also Equipment Coordinator.   There are separate roles for these positions now but back then I handled both.   I was responsible for making sure all the equipment was at the field so the game could be played.   The fields were also in worse shape back then, so it took a lot of time to get the fields in good playing shape”.

One other big change is the proliferation of club sports and coaching.
“Back then club sports and professional coaching was not something most kids had access to.  There was also no access to pitching machines.  Nowadays about half the kids on a Little League team are playing for a club team and get additional coaching.   Some play club sports and have their own hitting or pitching instructors on top of that.  When I first joined the Board, they relied on us, the Little League coaches, to provide all the instruction and teach them the game”.

Another change is bat technology.
“They had these big clunky metal bats.   The bats now are lighter and the ball travels further”.

As for rule changes, Hugh could only think of one major difference in 1985.
“Kids could only pitch 3 innings per game and 6 innings total in a week.  There was no limit on pitch counts, as pitch counts weren’t really a thing back then.  But they could only pitch 3 innings a game and 6 innings per week, and that sort of ensured nobody ran up a huge pitch count”.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that kids could not throw a curveball in 1985.
That is still true today.
When I was on the Board that was always an interesting topic of debate.
The pros of not throwing a curve are to protect young pitchers’ arms, although that science is not a certainty.
Some are of the opinion that throwing curves when younger builds up resistance to throwing this pitch when kids are older.

Hugh mentioned that they did not have District teams in his early years on the Board, because some felt San Carlos would be at a huge disadvantage facing other cities that allowed their kids to throw curves (curves are allowed in District play).
It was interesting that Hugh mentioned this because when I watched Districts 35 years after Hugh joined the Board, it was pretty clear to me that teams that threw curves and hitters that faced curves during the regular Little League season had a distinct advantage in District play.
The curveball debate still continues today as it did in 1985.

When it comes to teaching kids about sports, Hugh has seemingly done it all.

He was a soccer referee for 15 years.
He coached both his daughters Claire and Heather and all of their soccer teams.
He even remembered the exact number of soccer teams he coached…25.

But it does not end there…

Hugh was also involved in softball.
He was on the Bobby Sox Board for his oldest daughter Claire when she played from 1980-1985.
In that last year on the Bobby Sox Board, right before he joined SCLL, he served as President.

But wait there is more…

He has coached 33 different baseball teams (yes, he actually remembers every team he has coached!).
This includes the 5 years he coached Chris in SCLL, 10 years coaching Babe Ruth and then another 10 years with Pony League.
He has umpired scores of baseball games.
And he has been a scorekeeper as well.

Oh, and for good measure he also tutors kids in math.

I once worked a game with Hugh when I was Public Address Announcer and he was Scorekeeper.
While I was announcing the game, I relied on Hugh for all the pitching changes, pinch hitters, pinch runners, etc.  
I really couldn’t keep up.
But Hugh knew everything and instantaneously told me what was happening.

I joked around and introduced Hugh to the crowd and said, “I’d like to introduce you to my partner Hugh Irwin, who is scoring his 1000th baseball game today”.
I probably wasn’t that far off.

Between teaching math, coaching, umpiring, scorekeeping, and refereeing, Hugh Irwin has spent his entire life dedicated to kids.

But to understand what drives him, you have to go back to his childhood.

Hugh was born in June 1939 in Berkeley.
He is a Bay Area native and has lived his entire life here.
In 1944 his family moved to Redwood City on Hudson Street.

“Things were different in 1944.  Redwood City was a rural, farming community.   There was a chicken farm across the street from our house and there was a cow that I would often see when walking back and forth to school.   There were lots of empty fields and places to run and play”.

Hugh was the second oldest amongst his three brothers Rand, Larry, and Howard.
He loved baseball as a kid and his favorite team was the San Francisco Seals.
The Seals were an iconic AAA team and played in San Francisco from 1903-1957.

Hugh used to listen to Seal games on the radio and his favorite player was Roy Nicely.
Nicely was a 2B and SS and played on the Seals from 1945-1952. 

The Seals also had famous alumni of Earl Averill, Dom DiMaggio, Joe DiMaggio, Lefty Gomez, and Lefty Grove.
All except Dom DiMaggio are in the Hall of Fame.
Joe DiMaggio had a 61-game hitting streak for the Seals in 1933, which was a precursor to his MLB record 56 game hitting streak 8 years later.
That 61 game hitting streak is still second all time in the minors behind only Joe Wilhoit’s 69 game streak in 1919 for the Wichita Jobbers of the Western League.

With all the history and tradition of the Seals, Hugh had a great team to cheer for as a kid.
But there was no Little League back then, so Hugh didn’t get to play.
Palo Alto didn’t start their Little League until 1952 when Hugh was 13.
San Carlos stared their Little League a year later.
And Redwood City was even later than that.

I was surprised when Hugh opened up to me and told me his father was an alcoholic.
I put the pen down and stopped taking notes and just listened, as this was personal.
But Hugh said he wanted to share his entire story.

When he was a kid Hugh’s father would take his three sons out for errands.
And when these errands were complete, he would line them up in a row and they would march down to the nearest bar.
“We would just sit at the bar while he drank.  This was in the 1940’s and people didn’t think too much of it in those days, I guess.   Nowadays of course you couldn’t do that but back then it was normal…or at least normal for me”.

One day in 1946, Hugh and his younger brother were walking and stopped at the corner of Woodside and Hudson in Redwood City.
They saw their Dad across the street and their Dad waved to them and said “goodbye”.
They did not think much of it at the time.
But it was the last time they ever saw their Dad.

He walked away and left his Mom with four kids to raise.
Four kids to raise in an uncertain time, with the United States just a year removed from World War II.
Hugh was only 7 years old at the time.

“He just disappeared.   We never knew where he went or if he was coming back.  He never did”.

About a year later Hugh and his brother were playing in a large vacant field.
There was construction equipment there but unlike today where equipment is protected with fences to make sure nobody gets in, back then there were no barriers.
Hugh and his brother were playing with the equipment and it came crashing down on Hugh’s leg.
His thigh was broken in two places, both his legs underneath his knees were broken, and he had nerve damage in his right foot.
A metal rod was inserted in his leg which Hugh still has today.

“I was in a full body cast for 6 months.  The tough thing is that there was no physical therapy back then.   That could have helped the healing process.   I really admire my mother and her strength during these times.   She had to raise four boys by herself and also deal with my injury.   She did well”.

They say kids are resilient and Hugh was a perfect example of that.

Although he still was limited by his leg injuries, he had healed sufficiently enough to play sports.
When he was 12 years old, Hugh’s family moved to Menlo Park.
A few years later when he attended Menlo Atherton High School, he would finally get a chance to play his favorite sport.

“I played catcher and right field because I was the slowest kid on the team”, Hugh chuckled.
“But I could swing the stick pretty well”.

Hugh also played football where he was an Offensive Guard and Defensive Tackle, and he was center for the basketball team.

After graduation Hugh wasn’t sure if he wanted to go to college so he did a few interesting jobs.
He worked first as a janitor and then as a DJ at the Masonic Lodge in Menlo Park.
He played all sorts of music but mostly classical, dance and ballroom.

Hugh then decided to attend college and went to Occidental College in Los Angeles.
I asked him what he majored in and he smiled as he said, “playing bridge and pool”.
He still loved baseball though and was the starting right fielder and backup catcher on the Occidental baseball team.
But after two and a half years he decided college wasn’t his thing and Hugh dropped out and came back to the Bay Area.

In 1963 he married his high school sweetheart Kathy Crawford.
They met at Menlo Atherton and their first official date was on high school graduation night in 1957.
Six years later they would be married at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church.
They are still together today and happily married for 58 years.

Now that he was married, Hugh decided that he wanted to finish his schooling and get his college degree.
He liked solving puzzles and math always appealed to him.
So he first took night classes at Foothill JC and then went to San Jose State where he got a Math and English degree in 1968.

1968 was a historically significant year to be at San Jose State.
San Jose State sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos won gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200-meter sprint at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
Smith finished in 19.83 seconds, which was the first time the 20 second barrier was officially eclipsed.

But the bigger story that made headlines around the world was Smith and Carlos raising their black-gloved fists at the medal award ceremony to represent racial inequality.
In addition to raising their fists, both athletes wore black socks and no shoes on the podium to reflect African American poverty in the United States.

International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage deemed it to be an unfit political statement not intended for the Olympic Games.
He ordered Smith and Carlos suspended from the U.S. team and banned from the Olympic Village.
The U.S. Olympic Committee initially refused but when Brundage threatened to ban the entire U.S. track team, they caved in and Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Olympic Games.

“I remember it well.  Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Olympic ceremony was a proud moment for me and everyone at San Jose State.  It still stands as the most important moment in San Jose State history”.

After graduation from San Jose State, Hugh and Kathy were ready to start a family.
Claire was born in 1970, Heather a year later, and Chris in 1976.

When Hugh joined the Board in 1985, he initially served as Field Coordinator.
But back then they didn’t have as many members as there are today so everyone had to pitch in and do different tasks.
Hugh also was the Director of Umpires.
And he used to do registration and as part of that process he would have to enter every kids name into a floppy disk.

In 1987 Hugh became a Player Agent.
A few years later he would team up with Dan Brosnan, who joined the Board in the late 80’s and along with Hugh are both still Player Agents today.

The role of the Player Agent is to ensure every kid in Little League has fair representation for any potential issue that may arise, and to also ensure a fair balancing of teams at the higher levels.

One of the main tasks of the Player Agent is to ensure a fair draft process for AAA and Majors.

When Hugh first started the process was not entirely fair.
Before the 12-kid roster is drafted on draft night, a team would start with the two coaches’ kids as the first two kids on the team.  In 1985, these two coaches’ kids would get slotted into the last two rounds of the draft.

So, for example, if two coaches had the best two kids in the league, they would put their kids in the 11th and 12th rounds of the draft.
This means that in addition to having the two best kids, they would also get a 1st and 2nd round pick.

Hugh sought to change that.
He wanted the two best players slotted into the 1st and 2nd picks so that if the coach had the two best players in the league, he would not get a 1st and 2nd round pick.

“The thing I’m most proud of in my Board tenure is overhauling the draft process to make it fair.  When I first started teams could be stacked because you could essentially have three 1st round picks.   It was my idea to change it and make it fair.   But change was not easy.   I was met with a lot of resistance and had to do it in small increments.   Over time Dan and I got the draft to where we wanted it to be so that now it is as fair and balanced as possible”.

A popular fixture for kids after they play their game, the Snack Shack, was built in the early 90’s.
Dan Brosnan, Linda Drew and Tom Johnston had a major role in getting it built.

Hugh has seen many great players come through SCLL.
He said Mike Zirelli is probably the best player he has seen.
Zirelli went on to pitch at Cal Poly and was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 1999.

“Hugh Irwin was my coach in 1986 – my first ‘real baseball’ season.  I was 9 years old, and it was my first year in minors which today is considered AAA.  I remember three things vividly from that year.  First, we never lost.  22-0 for the SCLL minors.  Rangers!!  Second, Hugh was a great coach.  He taught us the game and kept it fun.  Third, he ALWAYS had a 7-11 Big Gulp in his hand.  To this day, if I see a Big Gulp, Hugh comes to mind.  I liked baseball before this season.  After this season, I loved it and became obsessed with it”, said Zirelli.

“Hugh is known for his Big Gulps and his floppy hats”, said his daughter Claire Bascara with a smile.

Hugh also coached Mike Zirelli in soccer as a 9-year-old.
As Hugh recalls, “Mike was my 1st pick in the draft.   We went on to have a great season and win the city championship”.

Hugh has also seen Daniel Descalso and Daniel Nava come through SCLL.

Descalso went to UC Davis and was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 3rd round of the MLB draft in 2007.
He is still playing today with the Twins and he won a World Series with the Cardinals in 2011.

Nava had a more difficult path to the majors as he was undrafted and had to play for the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League.
After tearing up the league with a .371 average, Nava was rated as the #1 Independent League Prospect by Baseball America in 2007.
That was enough for the Boston Red Sox to give Nava a shot.
And Nava made an immediate impression.
He was the 4th player in MLB history to hit a grand slam in his first at bat.
And only the 2nd player to do so on the very first pitch he ever saw.

And then there were the Bishop brothers, Braden and Hunter.
The Bishops moved to San Carlos from Vancouver, Canada in January 2005.
The Majors tryout was already completed, and Randy Bishop approached Hugh and said he wanted his eldest son Braden to play Majors.  
Hugh and Dan agreed to give Braden a personal tryout so he could be graded before draft night.

“After a few minutes I knew Braden was the best kid in the league.  I went to draft night and I told all the coaches, listen, we have this kid who is new to the league.   He did a personal tryout with Dan and I and we have no doubt he is the best player in this draft and should go first.  He went 4th or 5th.   I’m not sure the coaches believed us”, Hugh said with a smile.

Braden went on to play at the University of Washington and was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 3rd round of the 2015 draft.   

His younger brother Hunter was drafted four years later by the San Francisco Giants in the 1st round with the 10th overall pick in 2019.
Braden was recently released by the Mariners and the Giants signed him; a great feel-good story that is still being played out of two local San Carlos Little League brothers now playing in the Majors for their hometown team.

So how many Presidents has Hugh served under?
He tried to count and remembered a few of the names in the 80’s but then got stuck.
You can’t blame the guy, as it’s a long list!
Considering SCLL Presidents usually serve 2 year terms, Hugh would have served under about 19 Presidents.
To put that in perspective, Dr. Anthony Fauci has only served under 6 Presidents.
And while Hugh has never been to the White House like Dr. Fauci, we can say this confidently.
Hugh’s fastball is better than Dr. Fauci’s.

Fauci throws ceremonial first pitch on baseball's opening day | AFP - YouTube

When I first spoke to Hugh about being interviewed, we had agreed that we would wait until we were both vaccinated so we could meet in person and have a beer.
A few months later I called Hugh after my second vaccination kicked in and I said let’s grab that beer.
He told me he would love to do the interview, but he didn’t feel like a beer.
He was just diagnosed with prostate cancer.

I felt awful and told him we should cancel the interview entirely as his health was more important.
But Hugh insisted that we do it and that I come over to his house.
And when I arrived at his house he was just pulling into the driveway.
As he exited his car I had to laugh as he had a Big Gulp in hand.

He had just arrived to meet me in his driveway from Redeemer Lutheran in Redwood City where he had just taught a math class.
He has been teaching at Redeemer Lutheran for the last 15 years.
He has also taught math at South San Francisco High School and Menlo Atherton after he taught at Parkway from 1967-1980.

“Teaching is like coaching because you have to understand every kid.  I have all sorts of kids who come from different backgrounds, they have different attitudes to life, different work ethics, and you have to find a way to relate to and motivate all of them”.

I sat down with Hugh’s son-in law Dan Bascara and he had this to say… “What really amazes me about Hugh is that he never thinks of himself.  It’s amazing that he stayed in Little League after his kids aged out.  Most parents would leave at that point, but Hugh wanted to be involved and teach kids about baseball and life.  And he never forgets a kid’s name.  He always remembers them even years later.  Hugh was also my daughter Isabella’s soccer coach and I remember during the first meeting he talked to all the girls and told them to just have fun.   And they did and we had a great season”.

You don’t normally get sons-in-law speaking in such glowing terms about their father-in-law.

But by now I was accustomed to this.
In fact, every source I went to asking about Hugh had nothing but the highest of praise.

“You are doing a story about Hugh?  I love that guy!”, said ex-SCLL President Mike Doyle (2012-2014).

I was playing baseball yesterday with my son at Burton Park and ran into someone wearing a San Carlos baseball hat that looked to be about Hugh’s age who was playing T-Ball with his grandson.
I asked him if he happened to know Hugh and he said “yes, we coached Babe Ruth together for many years.   He is such a great guy.   Tell him Turner said hello, he will know who I am”.

Diego Bascara, one of Hugh’s five grandchildren, said, “my grandfather saw some really bad baseball when he was my coach and I first started playing, and yet he has always been positive and supported me”.

Diego was a natural right hander, but Hugh taught him how to hit left-handed from an early age and it stuck, as Diego took to it and continued hitting lefty.
He would continue his baseball career with his grandfathers help and played for Woodside High.

It got to the portion of the interview where I wanted to ask Hugh my only tough question.

Hugh was a man who had done so much for kids his entire life.
From joining the Board, coaching, scorekeeping, teaching math, tutoring…. he always wanted to make life better for kids.

Was this because of what happened with his father when he was a kid?
Did that drive him either consciously or subconsciously to spend his entire life being a father figure to kids because he never had one?

Hugh sat there for a minute and pondered the question.
“I’ve never really been an introspective person.   I just try to make the most of whatever situation I’m in and be as positive as I can.  Did what happened with my father influence how I chose to live my life?  I suppose my motivation could have come from that.   I’m not really sure, I guess it’s possible”.

And although Hugh didn’t even know the answer to this question, his answer made total sense to me.
He was dealt a tough blow with his Dad abandoning him and his subsequent serious leg injuries.
Asking why this happened to him, thinking too deeply about it, and feeling sorry for himself does not seem to be in Hugh’s DNA.
Focusing on the task at hand with a positive attitude and a Big Gulp, seems to be more his style.

Hugh is taking that same approach to his fight with cancer.
He is undergoing hormone therapy for two months and also radiation, but he’s hopeful for the future.

“Everyone dies.   I have lived a good life, a long life.   But I want to live longer, and I am looking forward to a great future”.

After 37 years on the Board, much to the good fortune of the San Carlos community, Hugh has no plans of retiring.
He never could get used to the Zoom Board meetings and is looking forward to the traditional method of meeting in person.

Current SCLL President Mark Reynolds mentioned “Hugh has a huge heart for the city of San Carlos, for baseball, and for the kids.  Helping out on the Board is not something he needed to do, but he wanted to volunteer his time and energy to support the kids, with the aspiration of seeing them enjoy a sport he loves and move to a higher level.  I am truly grateful for his time served on the San Carlos Little League Board”.

So why has Hugh stayed on the Board for so long?
“Because I love teaching, I love people, I love being outside, I love watching baseball, and I love kids”.
I guess it is really that simple.

As I was finishing my interview with Hugh, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between him and former UCLA legendary coach John Wooden.
Not only do they look alike, but players that Wooden coached speak about him in reverential tones.
UCLA Center Bill Walton said he learned more about life from Wooden than basketball and that Wooden cared more about the person than the player.

The same can be said about Hugh Irwin.

In 2004 Hugh was coaching Menlo Atherton in a baseball game against Sequoia.
The Sequoia coach was a former student that Hugh once taught at Menlo Atherton.
In a very close game, the umpire made a terrible call that went in Hugh’s favor.
The Sequoia coach was irate, charged out of the dugout ready to confront the umpire, and then stopped and went back in the dugout.

After the game, the Sequoia coach came up to Hugh and said “you know I was so angry at that bad call I was going to come out and give the umpire hell.   Then I saw you in the dugout and I just couldn’t throw a tantrum with you watching”.

That just about sums it up.

I had finished my interview and spent over two hours at Hugh’s house.
It was supposed to be an interview on the baseball history of San Carlos.
And while I learned plenty about that, I walked out of there with a much more profound knowledge.

Hugh Irwin is a man that has given back to the community his entire life.
He has helped so many kids to become better athletes, better students, and most importantly, better human beings.
The world is just a better place with a man like Hugh around.
You can age out of many things in life, but as Hugh Irwin continues to demonstrate, you can never age out of giving back.