Alumni & Friends
A Game Changer
coach in 1953, gives Frank Robinson (center) and Brady Hord
a few last-minute instructions before a game.
Joe Morgan only played baseball in a single tournament for George Powles (B.A., '36). But the legendary second baseman turned ESPN announcer claimed he learned more in those five days than in the rest of his high school career.
Generations of Oakland ball players might agree. From the late 1940s to the 1970s, Powles won championship after championship while mentoring some of the greatest young athletes to come out of the Bay Area.
Seventeen Powles protégés made the majors, a supply of talent so rich that Powles once had his stamp on two-thirds of the Cincinnati Reds outfield.
"I learned more about baseball from George than I did from anybody in the big leagues," says Frank Robinson, the only man to win MVP awards in the American and National leagues, who became the major league's first black manager.
Powles couldn't just coach, he could play. As a student, he joined SF State's team his senior year and the hard-throwing lefty quickly became the Gators' ace.
The team had formed just a few years prior but Powles gave them a veteran's swagger in upset victories over San Jose State, Fresno State and St. Mary's in the team's best season ever. The next year, the once lowly Gators were invited to join their first conference.
Powles' accomplishments extended well beyond the Bay Area baseball diamonds and basketball courts where he coached teams. Last June, the National Baseball Hall of Fame held a symposium on Powles that focused as much on his commitment to racial equality as on his talent for winning.
For decades, Powles taught at Oakland's McClymonds High School, a predominantly black institution where he mentored players equally at a time when racial lines were deeply etched.
"It's what you did on the ball field and in life that mattered to him," says Paul Brekke-Miesner, an Oakland historian.
As a coach, Powles never swore and rarely yelled but the battle-tested World War II vet could show a flinty impatience with bigotry.
In 1959, he coached the championship team in the Connie Mack World Series. When the team arrived in Missouri, a hotel manager told Powles that his black players needed to find other accommodations.
"Coach Powles said 'You do this or we're going home,'" says Dan Lufkin, a former infielder and retired teacher. "They backed down and we all stayed in the same hotel."
Powles' house was a constant hangout for players of all colors who stopped by to play cards or eat ice cream, recalls Marge Brans, Powles' daughter.
"He wanted to see these kids get a chance and make the most of themselves," Brans says.
Powles coached athletes who went on to become teachers, doctors and coaches and his athletic stars distinguished themselves far beyond the field.
Robinson broke the managerial color barrier. Curt Flood, an All-Star centerfielder, transformed baseball by suing to give players more control of their careers, heralding in free agency. And Bill Russell, who Powles coached in basketball, won 11 NBA championships before becoming the league's first black head coach.
"We listened to Powles and behaved as he suggested," Russell recalls. "We didn't get into trouble. We just won championships."
Powles was inducted into SF State's Athletics Hall of Fame in 2007. Brans says her only regret about that ceremony and June's symposium was that her father, who died in 1987, wasn't there to see it.
"He never expected anything like this," she says.
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