Legendary GJ baseball coach Bill Fanning dies at 91
Bill Fanning remembered every kid who played baseball for him throughout his 35-year coaching career at Grand Junction High School.
“He had a great relationship with kids. His mind was like a steel trap. He knew everybody, could name every kid he coached,” said Ron Stoneburner, a former football coach at Grand Junction who was with Fanning when he passed away Friday morning at the age of 91.
“We both taught history, and he became like a dad to me. You didn’t outcoach him. He knew the rules so well. He was so sharp, you couldn’t believe. Some of the games he won was just because he knew the rules.”
In the summer of 2011, hundreds of those players, fellow coaches and friends helped Fanning celebrate his 90th birthday at the Blue Moon Bar and Grille. Fanning might not have recognized some faces, but as soon as he heard their names, he was regaling people with stories.
“He instilled a lot of good morals in us,” said Brent Miller, a center fielder on Fanning’s 1976 team that won a state championship, the third in his 35-year coaching career at Grand Junction.
“He was a father figure. He pretty much shaped my life. He got me a scholarship to Garden City (Kan., Community College), and from there I went to (Pan American University) Texas and played and had my two beautiful daughters.”
Miller, whose father, Gary, played for Fanning on the Grand Junction Eagles semipro team, and brothers, Mark and Troy, also played for the Tigers, spent quite a bit of time with Fanning the past few weeks when he became ill, saying they had a good visit over the weekend.
Stoneburner, too, spent several hours visiting with his longtime friend recently. The two were part of a group of men who had coffee every morning at McDonald’s on North Avenue for several years.
“He sat in one seat all the time, and he’d get mad if somebody sat there,” Stoneburner said of those morning coffees. “They were getting ready to remodel it, and we were talking to (Doug) King. He went to Junction and knew Coach real well.
“We were joking about getting a little metal thing where he sits for Bill Fanning. He said, ‘I’ll take care of that right now.’ There was a little 4-by-4 plaque there, ‘Reserved for Coach Fanning.’ He got a kick out of it.”
Fanning compiled a 467-172 record in his 35 seasons at Grand Junction, winning the state Class AA title in 1961 and the Class AAA crowns in ‘62 and ‘76. The Tigers won 43 consecutive games spanning the 1961 and ‘62 seasons, going undefeated in 1962.
Walt Bergman, who played for Fanning, graduating in 1969, then was his longtime assistant coach, had a lifetime friendship with the coach.
“I go back to as long as my memory is. He played for my dad (Bus Bergman) with the Grand Junction Eagles,” Bergman said. “He was always around when I was a kid. Bus and Bill were close friends and did a lot of things together.
“He was an adult when I was a kid. He didn’t treat me like a little kid who was in the way. He always treated me as a friend. He asked me to help him coach in the ‘70s or ‘80s, and I said, ‘Yeah, that would be fun.’ It was really fun.”
The practice field at Grand Junction is named for Fanning, as is the annual season-opening high school baseball tournament, the Bill Fanning Classic.
People who talk about Fanning all go back to how fair he was with his players.
“He was honest and fair, and it really didn’t matter what family you came from or how old you were or what background you had or however a kid came to us,” Bergman said.
“He always played who was the best at the time at that position. One thing I passed along to Kyle (Rush, the Tigers’ former coach) when we were making a run there, ‘Hey, play your hunch.’ Bill always played his hunch.”
Fanning loved to tell the story of when he benched his own son, Bill Jr., during the playoffs one year — and then had to face his wife, Val, after the game.
He knew every rule in the book and would use that knowledge to argue a point with an umpire, and later as an umpire making calls.
Fanning, who retired from coaching in 1990, officiated baseball, football and basketball for more than 30 years, working more than a dozen state football championship games, umpired state title games and called balls and strikes at the Junior College World Series for 13 years.
“He had a tremendous feeling for talent,” said Buzz Schoenbeck, another longtime assistant and former District 51 athletic director. “He just knew when things were clicking or would not be so good.
“Our son (Joe) highly respected him. He started as a freshman for him and played for him for four years. They just clicked together. He took care of business without preaching things to kids.”
Fanning loved his hometown Boston Red Sox and used to give Dan MacKendrick a hard time about being a Yankee fan who also admired Ted Williams.
“He would tease me, asking how I could be a Ted Williams fan and a Yankee fan,” said MacKendrick, who coached at Delta, going up against Fanning every year.
“He played Billy Ball before Billy Martin,” said MacKendrick, whose son, Chad, pitched the final game Fanning coached in 1990. “He did a lot of little things, bunting and running and all that sort of thing.
“He played with the Eagles when Bus was coaching, and they always played in a semipro tournament in Wichita. Bill was playing third base for the Eagles and was prematurely gray, he was probably in his late 30s at the time, and he was talking to a reporter there who had mistaken him for Bus.
“Bill’s telling him, ‘Watch this young third baseman, he’s a good one.’ I think the guy ended up writing a story and was fooled by him thinking it was Bus. But that was Bill. He had a great sense of humor.”
Fanning didn’t only coach high school ball. He coached youngsters in the Old Timers Association, which preceded Little League, winning a state championship there, too.
Dave Mantlo was on that 1959 championship team.
“He was the only coach I’ve ever had,” said Mantlo, choking back tears recalling his coach. “I thought the world of him. He is an absolute jewel.”
Mantlo coached Little League and is now the Grand Mesa Little League president.
“I tried to emulate Coach Fanning in the way he treated people and acted toward others,” Mantlo said. “I guess it was his unending loyalty to the kids. He treated everyone fair. He gave everyone 100 percent.”
Dick Mantlo played for Fanning, was an assistant coach for him and took over as head coach at Grand Junction High School when Fanning retired in 1990.
“It was obviously an honor,” Dick Mantlo said. “I had a ton of respect for him.”
Dick Mantlo coached the Tigers from 1990 to 2001. He graduated from Grand Junction in 1966 and played with Bill Fanning Jr.
Mickey Mantlo, Dick’s son, played one year for Fanning and two years for his dad.
“He had a great rapport with the kids and players,” Dick said. “I thought he was the best game coach. He had a good feel for the game. He touched so many lives. He’ll be remembered for a long time.”
Tex Tolman, who played on the 1961 and ‘62 title teams, was also with his former coach when he died.
“He was very good at putting people together,” Tolman said. “He knew your strengths and when to use you. There weren’t any superstars because he wouldn’t allow that.”
As his players became adults, they realized what Fanning taught them when they were 16- and 17-year-olds.
“He was one of those guys as we got older we realized what we had as a coach. He got better and better as the years went,” Tolman said. “He cared about us, and we cared about him. I think he had an extremely unusual mind as far as remembering kids. He’d know everybody on the team years later.
“He was a guy that was excited about life. He wanted you to be excited about it.”
Allen Gemaehlich contributed to this story.