Illini Retrospective: 1879-1940

Former player and head coach George Huff looms large over the history of Illinois athletics, especially baseball.
Former player and head coach George Huff looms large over the history of Illinois athletics, especially baseball.

March 25, 2010

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - In anticipation of the Celebration of 130 Years of Illinois Baseball during the Purdue series May 14-16, will be showcasing a series of weekly features that look back at the history of the oldest sport on the Illinois campus. Illinois baseball began in the fall of 1879 and is one of the most storied program on campus. The Fighting Illini have won 28 Big Ten titles and have the seventh-most Major League players all-time among college programs with 70, according to Baseball Almanac. Each week leading up to the celebration weekend, Illini fans will have a chance to learn more about each decade since the 1940s - the teams, the players and the coaches.

Former Illini Jake Stahl

The first installment in the series focuses on Illini baseball prior to 1940, with former player, head coach and Illinois Athletic Director George Huff playing a central role. Huff, a native of Champaign, lettered for the Illini from in 1890-91, 1893 and 1895 while also earning football letters in 1890 and 1892. He became head coach of the Illini baseball team in 1896, a year after accepting the same position with the football team. He coached the football team until 1899 and led the baseball squad until 1919, also managing the Boston Americans briefly in 1907. The Americans changed their name to the Boston Red Sox late in the 1907 season.

Huff had an amazing record as head baseball coach, posting a .761 winning percentage over 23 years to become the winningest coach in Illinois history. He also won 11 of Illinois' 28 Big Ten titles during that 24-year span. Huff led the Illini to a 14-0 season in 1910, including an 11-0 Big Ten record. The Illini won 19 consecutive games from May 21, 1909-April 15, 1911, then rebounded from that loss to reel off 14 straight wins in a 1911 campaign that ended with an 18-2 record. In all, he compiled a 190-65-2 career record in Big Ten play, a winning percentage of .743, and finished first or second in the league in 23 of his 24 years.

Former Illini player and head coach Carl Lundgren

Huff also produced 18 future Major League players, most notably Garland "Jake" Stahl, Carl Lundgren and George Halas. Lundgren was the first Illini to reach the Major Leagues, signing with the Chicago Cubs after graduating in 1902. He went on to pitch eight years for the Cubs, including helping them to three World Series 1906-08. Stahl was the second Illini to play in the Major Leagues, and led the Boston Red Sox to a World Series title in 1912 as a player/manager. Stahl remains the only Illinois player ever to hit .400 in two seasons, hitting .443 in 1901 and .444 in 1903. Halas, better known for his career with the Chicago Bears, lettered for the Illini in 1916-17 before playing briefly for the New York Yankees in 1919.

After his playing days, Lundgren returned to Champaign in 1921 and promptly won consecutive Big Ten titles in his first two seasons at the helm. He shared a championship in 1927 and captured another in 1931 before going out on top with a Big Ten title in 1934. He handed the program over to former Illini and Major League star Wally Roettger, who won a Big Ten championship in 1937 during the lone season played by Lou Boudreau, who is one of the most famous Illini baseball alumni in school history. Although he only played one season for the Illini, Boudreau is the only Illinois player ever to have his number retired. He played 15 years in the Major Leagues and managed for 16 before serving as a broadcaster for the Chicago Cubs. He led Illinois to Big Ten titles in baseball and basketball in 1937 before leading the Cleveland Indians to a 1948 World Series title and being named Major League Player of the Year by The Sporting News. Boudreau was named to Collegiate Baseball's all-time college baseball "Dream Team" in 1990 and was named the Varsity I Man of the Year in 1987.