Former Illini head coach Lee Eilbracht led the Illini to Big Ten titles in his first two seasons at the helm.
April 9, 2010
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - In anticipation of the Celebration of 130 Years of Illinois Baseball during the Purdue series May 14-16, FightingIllini.com 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.
Beginning and ending with an All-American along with two Big Ten titles and an NCAA District title, the 1950's was a decade of growth for the University of Illinois baseball program. Clad with noteworthy athletes and former-player-turned-head-coach Lee Eilbracht, the Illini of this decade put the 1950's into the record books and still hold some of the most impressive records among the greatest Orange and Blue of all time.
1952 marked the start of a 27-year coaching career of Lee Eilbracht, the 1946 Big Ten Batting Champion and former Illini letterwinner. In his first two years of his career, Eilbracht led the Orange and Blue to back-to-back Big Ten Championships. In both 1952 and 1953, the team was tied for first place in the Big Ten with a 10-5 record in '52 and 10-3 record in '53.
In 1952, the team hosted the NCAA District Championships in Champaign. The team first faced Ohio in a three-game series and after going 2-1, advanced to the next round. But the Illini then dropped consecutive games to Western Michigan to see their season come to an end.
The 1950's made an impression on the Illinois' baseball record book and a few notable players still have their names etched into some of the school's greatest statistics. After being named an All-American in 1948, Russ Steger ended his Illini career in 1950, when he was both the home run and RBI champion of the Big Ten. After being named Illinois' Athlete of the Year, Steger closed out the 1940's as one of Illinois' best and propelled the Orange and Blue into a the next decade, when Eilbracht's coaching tenure began.
1951 marked the third year an Illini earned All-America honors when Dick Raklovits garnered the accolade. The third baseman was a two-sport athlete, as he also played on the football team and was the rushing leader in 1950. Raklovits made a name for himself in football and baseball, emerging as a leader on both fields and building records that are still solid in Illinois' books.
The fourth member of the Orange and Blue to be named an All-American was shortstop Bob Klaus in 1959. Throughout his career from 1957-1959, the team MVP was a career .317 hitter, which still ranks 54th all-time in Illinois history. Klaus was a first-team All-Big Ten selection in his three-year career and remains one of Illinois' best.
Many other noteworthy Illini made a name for themselves throughout the Lee Eilbracht era. Vic Petreshne was one, who followed Steger as the Big Ten RBI and home run champion in 1955. Clive Follmer and Em Lindbeck also were named Illinois Athletes of the Year in 1953 and 1956, respectively.
The 1950's produced 18 players who were named to All-Big Ten teams, seven of which were named to the first team. The decade also saw seven former Illini make their debuts in the Major Leagues, to places like Boston, Philadelphia and Cleveland. The 1940's propelled the Illini to become one of the most powerful collegiate teams in the nation. The 1950's and the Lee Eilbracht era continued that push to greatness with athletes and coach who etched their names in the Illini history books.