Bill Fanning’s 90th birthday brings out many well-wishers
Bill Fanning was flabbergasted.
“They’ve got to be giving something away, don’t you think? To get this kind of crowd here?” the longtime baseball coach at Grand Junction High School said. “This can’t be for me.”
Hundreds of former players, students, friends, fellow umpires — and even opposing players — packed the Blue Moon Bar & Grille on Tuesday evening to help Fanning celebrate his 90th birthday.
Players on his OTA state championship team (Old Timers Association, which preceded Little League) in 1959, guys who played on his three high school state championship teams (1961, ‘62 and ‘76) and just about every year of his 35-year coaching career (a 467-172 record, with 21 state tournament appearances) lined up to wish him well and swap stories.
Fanning is in the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame, the Colorado High School Coaches Hall of Fame, the Colorado High School Activities Association Hall of Fame, the University of Colorado’s Living Legends, the National High School Sports Hall of Fame and was in the inaugural class of the Home Run Alley Heroes at Suplizio Field, which recognizes people who have made significant contributions to baseball in Grand Junction. The Bill Fanning Classic high school baseball tournament is played each spring.
The entire evening was a little overwhelming, he said, and he felt bad if he didn’t recognize people right away, even if he hadn’t seen them for years.
More often than not, though, he was smiling, waving and calling them by name as they came up to greet him, not even needing to look at their name tags.
And it wasn’t only names he recalled, it was the years they were in school, even specific games and plays.
A stack of cards kept piling higher and higher, cards he’ll go through the next few days.
Gary Miller gave him a baseball from “The Miller Boys” — Gary played for Fanning in 1957, Brent in 1976, Mark in 1981 and Troy in 1985.
Former players, umpires and students talked about the impact Fanning had on them on the field and in the classroom.
Bubba Bullen spent many days hanging out at what’s now Bill Fanning Field at Grand Junction when he was growing up.
Bullen said the coach taught his players to respect the game and the field, which he tried to pass on when he coached Little League. Bullen said one of his best memories is officiating games with Fanning.
George Ryan talked about a Grand Junction Eagles baseball game that Fanning was umpiring. Ryan was working the ticket gate at Lincoln Park and watching the game.
“I look out there and he’s got a bat in his hands and he hits the ball,” Ryan said. “I asked him what that was about later and he said the first pitch he called a strike and the batter told him, ‘You missed that one.’
“Bill said, ‘If I had the bat, I wouldn’t have missed it.’ The kid hands him the bat and he hits the ball!”
His former players said Fanning didn’t care who you were or what your background was, if you could play, you were in the lineup. That was true for everyone, including his own son, Bill, Jr.
“The hardest thing I ever did, we got in the state playoffs and I benched my own son,” Fanning said. “One thing I always tried to do was be fair.
“That was fair, but I had never had to go home to a mother whose boy I benched. I thought the other kid was a better ballplayer.”
As overwhelmed as Fanning was about the fuss people were making, the steady stream of people said it was the least they could do.
“He’s the best coach I ever played for,” said Dave Mantlo, who played on Fanning’s 1959 OTA state championship team. “He means a lot to me.”