By STEVE KRAH
Paul Gries has been a very active member of the Evansville, Ind., athletic community.
The Pocket City native taught for 34 years in the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation — 10 at Plaza Park (K-8) and the rest at Central High School. His main subjects were Physical Education and Health.
Whatever the season, Gries was organizing and coaching youngsters in flag football, softball, baseball, soccer, basketball and more.
In 1978, he accepted an invitation to join John Wessel’s Central boys basketball coaching staff.
In 1980, he was asked to be a Bears baseball assistant.
“We hardly had a program at all,” says Gries, who took over as head coach in 1981 and began working in earnest on Central’s field.
“If you want to call it a field,” says Gries. “It was nothing. But I had dreams of what I wanted the baseball field to look like.”
With the help of players, coaches and parents, a diamond which was named in honor of Gries in 2016 (Paul Gries Field was dedicated in 2017 a few days after Gries underwent heart surgery) was steadily-crafted.
Gries, 79, was head baseball coach at Central for 21 seasons (1981-2001) before retiring at 58 and going into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2002.
His teams went 408-196 and earned the first seven sectional titles in program history (1981, 1984, 1987, 1990, 1996, 1997 and 1998) plus the first two regional championships (1981 and 1987) and only semistate crown (1987). Central lost 4-1 to the LaPorte’s mythical national champions in the ’87 state championship game at Bush Stadium in Indianapolis.
Gries coached in the IHSBCA North/South All-Star Series in 1987 and was named National Coach of the Year in 2000.
“I had some good players (including 1985 graduate and future big league pitcher Andy Benes) and tied to get the most out of every player,” says Gries. “I was spending 14-hour days at Central High School. I was putting every ounce into it.
“It just wore me out.”
It was in 1987 that Gries was approached by longtime professional baseball man and Evansville resident “Singing” Ed Nottle, who had a daughter who was taught by Gries.
Nottle wanted to help Gries and other coaches raise money for their programs.
“We had car washes, candy sales and whatever you can image, but we were making making peanuts until Ed came along,” says Gries, who gathered all the high school and college coaches in town at the EVSC office and what came from planning sessions was the Friends of Bosse Field “Night of Memories.”
What began as a group of former baseball professionals who wanted to ensure that the history of Bosse Field would not be forgotten while fundraising turned into the Tri-State Hot Stove League. Gries served with that organization for 31 years, including stints as vice president and president, and is still involved.
One of the first “Night of Memories” guests was National Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra. Gries flew to New Jersey to bring Yogi to town.
Over the years, Evansville native and Indiana Baseball Hall of Famer Don Mattingly aka “Donnie Baseball” was at the first special night and has only missed it on a few occasions.
Gries coached Taylor Mattingly (Don’s oldest son) at Central. When Don was playing for the New York Yankees, he would get in the batting cage take swings after winter workouts by the Bears.
“He’d say, ‘Paul, give me some situations.’ I’d, ‘man on third, tie game, one out in the eighth or ninth inning’ and Mattingly just hit those fly balls,” says Griese. “It was unbelievable how Mattingly prepared himself.”
The next Tri-State Hot Stove League “Night of Memories” is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023 at Meeks Family Fieldhouse in the Carson Center at the University of Evansville. A paid autograph session is slated from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Central Time followed by a chat and live/silent auction at 6.
Featured guests include Don Mattingly, Jamey Carroll, Jerad Eickhoff, Aaron Barrett, Colson Montgomery, Elijah Dunham, Cameron Decker, Wayne Hagin, Denny McLain, Darrell Evans and Graig Nettles.
“He’s unbelievable,” says Gries of emcee Hagin, who has been a play-by-play man for the Oakland Athletics, San Francisco Giants, Chicago White Sox, Colorado Rockies, St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets. “People love listening to the stories.”
Among past guests: Mattingly, Carroll, Eickhoff, Barrett, Hagin, Gabby Allison, Rick Ankiel, Clint Barmes, Andy Benes, Yogi Berra, Raymond Berry, Lou Brock, Don Buse, Steve Carlton, Jack Clark, Roger Clemens, Danny Cox, Andre Dawson, Jim Edmonds, George Foster, Kyle Freeland, Steve Garvey, Bob Gibson, Goose Gossage, Mark Grace, Bob Griese, Kevin Hardy, Keith Hernandez, Whitey Herzog, Paul Hornung, Al Hrabosky, Andruw Jones, Tommy John, Jim Kiick, Harmon Killebrew, Lily King, Ray Lankford, Tony LaRussa, Johnny Latner, Larry Little, Gaylord Perry, Bobby Plump, Ozzie Smith, Bob Feller, Brooks Robinson, Scott Rolen, Enos Slaughter, Frank Robinson, Andy Van Slyke, Lee Smith and Brad Wilkerson.
“They come from all over when they know Don Mattingly is here,” says Gries. “They can get close to him. People in New York can’t do that.”
College/Pro Football Hall of Famer Griese (Rex Mundi High School Class of 1963 and Purdue University Class of 1967) has been to many “Night of Memories.”
“We do this for the kids,” says Gries, who notes that the a non-profit group has raised close to $2 million for youth athletics and youth-focused organizations in Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky in three decades.
Gries says the event at its peak netted up to $90,000 in one day.
Some of the money has been given to Habitat for Humanity. Gries says Mattingly, Bob Griese, Brian Griese (Bob’s son who now coaches with the San Francisco 49ers), Calbert Cheaney (a 1989 Evansville Harrison High School graduate who played at Indiana University, the National Basketball Association and now coaches with the Indiana Pacers) and Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Jerry Sloan (who played at Evansville College and the NBA and was a longtime NBA coach) all
gave large sums to sponsor homes.
A 1961 graduate of Evansville Mater Dei High School, Gries’ prep baseball coach was Len Will (an Indiana Football Hall of Famer).
“He was the gentlest man that I know,” says Gries. “That was the example he shared with us (athletes).”
On the basketball court, Gries eclipsed the 40-point mark three times including a single-game record of 44. That was long before the 3-point arc was put in place. Mater Dei was led on the hardwood by Ed Schultheis in Gries’ freshman and sophomore years and Tom Gore in his junior and senior seasons.
Gries went to Indiana State College (now Indiana State University) for basketball and baseball during an era when freshmen were not allowed to play on the varsity.
The injury bug kept biting him on the hardwood. He suffered torn cartilage working out early in his freshman year then experienced ankle and groin ailments as a sophomore and decided not to stick with the Duane Klueh-coached Sycamores.
On the diamond, Gries earned three letters (1963-65, helping the Sycamores go a combined 37-24-2) playing for Paul Wolf (who wound up as a member of both the IHSBCA Hall of Fame and ISU Athletics Hall of Fame).
One of his fond memories is playing catch with future IHSBCA Hall of Famer Tommy John and having John feed the pitching machine for him during preseason workouts before the 1961 Terre Haute Gerstmeyer High School valedictorian reported to spring training.
Gries paced Indiana State in batting average, hits and runs as a junior in 1964 (.357, 25 and 20 ) and senior in 1965 (.413, 26 and 13). He hit .439 in conference games and was Indiana Collegiate Conference co-MVP with Ball State’s Merv Rettenmund (who went on to play 13 in the majors with the Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres and California Angels and coached for the Texas Rangers, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres twice, Atlanta Braves and Detroit Tigers).
“The great thing about Paul Wolf is that he was old school,” says Gries.
Wolf was a minor league middle infielder 1926-33, including time with the Indianapolis Indians in 1930-31. He was able to pass on wisdom to Gries, who was a switch-hitting shortstop at Indiana State and moved to second base in his second of two pro seasons in the Washington Senators organization (1965-66).
“Pee Wee” (he was 5-foot-9 and 157pounds) spent much of the 1965 Appalachian League season on the disabled list with a sprained ankle after a collision at home plate.
It was during the Vietnam War era and Gries left baseball to joined the U.S. Army Reserves and got married for the first time.
“I got to see the difference between high school and college and college and pro,” says Gries. “What a big step it is.”
Divorced in 1989, Gries was single for 14 years and has been married to Mary, a fellow Catholic who moved to Evansville from Auburn, Ind., for 19 years.
Gries has five children, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
“They are the joy of my life,” says Gries. “I’m going to spend as much time with my kids as I can.”