by ALEXANDRA RETTER
Jerry Raddatz had been having enjoyable conversations about baseball with Winonan Julie Wera for some time. After all the games they’d watched and discussed at a ballpark in nearby Rochester, as well as all the advice Wera had given him on how to play baseball, Raddatz was astounded when Wera revealed that he had been part of the 1927 New York Yankees, one of the all-time great U.S. baseball teams which included renowned players like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Wera’s inspiration and motivation helped start Raddatz off on his path of coaching high school baseball in Winona for years and scouting for MLB (Major League Baseball) teams.
Raddatz grew up in Kasson-Mantorville, Minn. His mother was a nurse at Mayo Clinic, so he spent many days from the time he was 12 until he graduated from high school playing baseball at Mayo Field in Rochester. The field was a baseball hub at the time, as teams from across southern Minnesota played there.
When he was about 14, he happened to sit by Wera while watching games at the ballpark. They got to talking, and their connection, which lasted from the 1950s to the 1970s, gave Raddatz the “greatest insight” into baseball he ever received. “Julie was always helping me and my hitting, and teaching the love of the game,” Raddatz shared.
Though Wera had been part of one of the all-time great American baseball teams, he was very modest. “I’ve never seen such a humble man,” Raddatz noted.
Raddatz and Wera made a tradition of going on a food run after watching some games and talking whenever they went to the ballpark. “He loved Dairy Queen ice cream, and so they had a Dairy Queen ice cream just a couple blocks from the ballpark, so we’d always go get a Dairy Queen ice cream,” Raddatz said.
Upon Raddatz’s graduation from high school, Wera connected him with a semi-pro team in Long Beach, Calif., where Raddatz played for two years before ultimately coming back to the Midwest.
While earning his master’s degree at Winona State University, he substitute taught physical education classes for Winona Senior High School’s (WSHS) baseball coach. When the baseball coach moved to a role in the high school administration, the coaching position opened up. Raddatz applied and got the job. The team he would be coaching had great promise and was one of the best in WSHS history. “I was excited,” Raddatz said. “Here I got the best team.”
“And most of the parents had motels for the state tournament,” Raddatz continued. “Everybody was planning that they were going to spend three or four days in the Twin Cities for watching the kids play at the state tournament in high school ... We got beat the first game of the tournament. Well, talk about some unhappy coaches, parents, players.”
A few days later, he was called into a meeting with the superintendent, athletic director and principal. He thought he was going to be fired. “In the end, they said, ‘We have decided ... we’re going to give you another chance,’” Raddatz noted. “I couldn’t believe it when I walked out of there, that I got to be the coach for the next year.”
Ultimately, WSHS went to the state tournament four times during Raddatz’s tenure as coach. MLB teams drafted at least eight players from WSHS over that period, as well.
Raddatz said one of his favorite moments while coaching was going to the state tournament during his third year as a coach. “It was just an experience to play in the state tournament and play for the state championship,” Raddatz said.
WSHS head baseball coach Matt Smith, who played for Raddatz in the 1970s, said Raddatz had a way with players, helping them feel better on rough days and remain positive. “Every time you played baseball for Jerry, we felt like we were taken care of ... I never heard him raise his voice. Everything he did was a mentorship situation. Everything he did was in a teaching, caring type of way,” Smith stated.
Raddatz wanted players to play hard, have fun while playing, enjoy the time they spent with one another while playing and be the best people they could, Smith said. “He taught us to be good young men and to represent our school and to have fun with each other, because time goes fast,” Smith noted.
Rod Schwarz, who also played for Raddatz in the 1970s, served as the WSHS head baseball coach for 15 years. Raddatz recognized the importance of imparting life lessons about virtues such as honesty while teaching players about baseball, Schwarz said, and he created a positive team atmosphere with fun yet challenging practices. Players did not want to cut corners, Schwarz said, because they could tell Raddatz was always very prepared for practices. “It was very businesslike, but he didn’t make it work,” Schwarz said. “He made it fun.”
Players were people first and players second when Raddatz coached them, Schwarz said, and he treated players with fairness. He did not have favorite players who received extra attention, Schwarz added. “And it wasn’t bending rules. It was being fair to everybody involved,” Schwarz said. “And not everybody needs the same thing. He was very, I thought, skilled at recognizing that. He looked at you as a person and not just a pitcher or catcher or whatever you were.”
Schwarz admires Raddatz’s generosity as well, he said, through donations of time and funds. Raddatz donated to an adaptive floor hockey team Schwarz coached in the past, for example, and connected with Schwarz’s players while attending their games.
Raddatz’s enthusiasm for baseball inspired both Schwarz and Smith. “It was really fun playing for Jerry, because his love of the game was so evident, even back then,” Schwarz shared. “And it was just fun being around him ... He made the game fun for all involved.”
Raddatz’s passion for the game was on display at a practice when he brought out a new pitching machine for players to use, Smith said. Pitching machines were not very common at the time, he added. “So I remember how excited he was ... There is no one with more of a love for baseball than Jerry,” Smith said.
Smith has applied the lessons he learned from Raddatz to his own coaching, he said. He works to mentor his players and help them bond with one another. He also likes to teach them about the history of the program for which they are playing. “Our kids, they go out and play ball, but they understand it’s not just about them,” Smith stated. “They represent the school, they represent their classmates, the school community. But also, they represent a program that has a rich tradition.”
Raddatz’s lessons have been applicable in Schwarz’s life as a teacher, coach, spouse and parent, Schwarz said, and he is grateful for the example Raddatz set for him. “Well, I like to think I learned that everybody is important, that you need to treat everybody with respect and fairness, recognize differences, be fair with people,” Schwarz said.
In the 1990s, a Cincinnati Reds scout attended a WSHS game to watch one of Raddatz’s players. He told Raddatz during the game that he had to see a player in South Dakota the following day. He then threw in that he had been promoted, and his scouting job was Raddatz’s, if he wanted it.
There was one point to consider: the scouting job would pay half the amount Raddatz’s teaching job did. Raddatz decided to go to his father for advice. “He said, ‘Jerry, I can give you the best advice you’ll get. I’ve known you all your life.’ And he said, ‘From the age of two or three, you loved to hit the baseball, you loved to throw the baseball, to play catch.’ He said, ‘You have always loved baseball. And if you take that job, you will love what you’re doing for the rest of your life, because you love baseball,’” Raddatz shared.
With those words of wisdom in mind, Raddatz chose to sign a contract with the Cincinnati Reds. During his time with the team, he even received a World Series ring. Raddatz then shifted to scouting for the L.A. Dodgers.
As a scout, he attends baseball games at high schools and colleges in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. Scouts typically work in a specific region, he noted. Throughout his time as a scout, he said he has noticed that those who coach baseball teams in the summer in Winona usually do not have children on the teams; they coach simply because “they love the game.” He has typically observed that in other towns, those who coach baseball teams over the summer have children on the teams. “That’s something Winona is very unique on,” Raddatz said.
While many sporting events have been disrupted during the pandemic, high school baseball and softball continued in Iowa this past summer. Raddatz was able to attend the state tournament there to continue to appreciate the game that has been his life’s work. “That was one of the more interesting situations I’ve had in 50 years … the high school people and players in Iowa were so appreciative they could play baseball,” Raddatz said.