Even while pulling double duty as Oklahoma’s baseball coach, Jack Baer couldn’t hide from spring football. He had no desire to either.
In the 1950s and 1960s, not long removed from guiding the Sooners to a College World Series title, Baer took his job as the OU football equipment manager seriously, like he did everything. He woke up early and prepared what was necessary for Bud Wilkinson or Barry Switzer’s teams, then went to the diamond for a 2:30 p.m. practice with his own players.
Baer’s gruff, brown-shoe military persona made him as legendary at OU as his days playing baseball and football there, or his 25 seasons as the school’s fourth baseball head coach.
He worked incessantly.
Saturday, if the coronavirus pandemic had not canceled an otherwise jam-packed day in OU sports, with the football spring game scheduled the same day as a baseball series against Oklahoma State, Baer would have been right in his comfort zone — doing everything at once, full-speed, by his rules.
You didn’t break Baer’s rules. Football players were issued a fresh pair of socks, a jock strap and a towel each day, so long as they returned the ones they'd received the day before. Fame and popularity got you nowhere with Baer.
“In the ‘80s, one day Boz (Brian Bosworth) comes walking into my office and says, ‘Jack Baer won’t give me any socks. Come down there with me,’” Switzer said. “I go down there with Boz. The trainers, the managers, they’re all just staring. Jack’s standing there.
“I said, ‘What’s going on?’
“Jack says, ‘He didn’t turn in his socks, coach. You know my rules. You don’t turn in socks, you don’t get any damn socks.’ I looked at Jack and then at Boz and said, ‘Well, guess you’re not gonna practice in socks.’”
The practice field broke with laughter when Bosworth walked out wearing thin, black nylon socks taped up past his calves.
Moments before the 1986 Orange Bowl, the Sooners realized they were likely playing for the national championship after Iowa’s loss to UCLA in the Rose Bowl. Switzer tried to juice the room up by asking players and staff for pre-game wisdom.
Legends like Bosworth, Keith Jackson, Spencer Tillman and Tony Casillas were there. When Switzer got around to Baer, he was leaning into the frame of two double-doors preparing to let the team out, another one of his jobs he took seriously.
“Jack, you got anything you’d like to say?” Switzer asked.
“Yeah,” Baer said. “After the game, I don’t want any of you sons of (expletive) taking two towels, the Orange Bowl only gave us one apiece. I don’t want to see any of you with two.”
Baer was always one of the last to shower. He never could wash up if the team ran out of towels.
Switzer looked around a room that had fallen silent.
“We all died laughing. We just died,” Switzer said. “We’re playing for the friggin’ national championship and he’s worried about the towels.”
A foul-mouthed, intensely serious Navy veteran who fought in World War II and chewed tobacco constantly, Baer took nothing from no one. Football players would check out a pair of shoes from him and return complaining about their size. “Stretch your toes,” he’d quip back.
He was a strict fundamentalist who believed in three pitches: a fastball, curveball and change-up. Former OU pitcher Eddie Fisher believed he had a pretty good knuckleball. Baer banned it. He called it a “horse(expletive)“ pitch, according to Fisher’s former teammate, Bob Burr.
After college, Fisher spent 15 years throwing knuckleballs in Major League Baseball.
Burr, an 84-year-old retired oil and gas executive in Houston, became one of Baer’s closest friends. They traveled to Valentine, Nebraska for three summers together when Baer worked as a playing manager for a semipro league — that meant coaching the team and playing catcher.
Baer was an All-Big Six quarterback for the Sooners in 1937 and once held the OU record for longest field goal — a 47-yard make that he drop-kicked straightaway. While coaching baseball, he also coached Sooner kickers in the fall, managed the equipment, then pulled double duty in the spring when baseball rolled around.
“Jack also caught 42 ballgames in the summertime, in Nebraska, when he was 38 years old,” Burr said. “He still had that big ol’ gut on him. In the dugout, you sat 5-6 spaces upwind from him, because when he spit tobacco it flew about 10 feet. It would just hit you, and it was tough. I never saw him without a chew in his mouth.”
But Baer had a soft spot.
Switzer remembers him “raising” feral cats beneath OU’s Memorial Stadium, and there were many players who adored him. Those who didn’t hated him. There was no in between.
During one summer in Nebraska, Burr and former OU teammate Allan Kiddy met girlfriends in town and started taking them out. Unfortunately, they discovered later both girls were married. Word got around that their husbands found out what was going on and were now searching town for the two baseball players, who began sleeping with wooden bats.
Burr and Kiddy were asleep, sharing the single bed they rented inside a woman’s basement when a gunshot shattered through the morning. Kiddy pushed Burr onto the floor.
“I look up and his ass is going out the window,” Burr said. “Then the next thing I hear is Jack Baer laughing. He knew everything that was going on. He’d gone to one of the high school coaches in town and got a starter gun and he got the woman upstairs to let him on the property.”
For all his rigidness, Baer demanded players call him “Jack” or just “Baer.” He and Burr became closer after they worked on the OU baseball staff together in 1957, while Burr was working toward a master’s degree.
In the fall of 1998, four years before Baer died at age 87, he was believed to be in the early stages of dementia. Burr picked him up at his Norman home so they could attend an OU baseball reunion at the home of Bob Gregory, a former Sooner living in Oklahoma City as a commercial banker.
Burr and Baer rode up Interstate 35 together toward OKC and talked about old times: the Nebraska trips, the story of the girlfriends. Baer smiled, he understood everything.
“I wish I’d had a camera that day,” Baer told him.
Later that night, one-by-one the stories about the old coach spilled out through at Quail Creek Country Club. Gregory had taken a bunch of photos to remember the night, but while cleaning up noticed the camera was missing.
“My daughter said, ‘Coach Baer had a camera in his hand almost the entire time he was sitting there,’” Gregory said. “So I called Jack the next day and asked if he’d happened to get away with a camera.”
Yes, Baer said. As a matter of fact, he had.
A stickler of an equipment manager for years, who would gladly hand out new socks as long as he was given the old ones, Baer said he was prepared to return it to Gregory on one condition.
“He made me describe it to him in great detail,” Gregory said. “Then he said, ‘Yep, I’ve got it.’”