John Wooden is associated with a number of titles: UCLA basketball coaching legend, Hall of Famer, Navy lieutenant, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, author, motivator of men.
There was almost one more: Pittsburgh Pirates manager.
In the mid-1960s, Pittsburgh GM Joe L. Brown offered the role to Wooden, who had played baseball at Purdue, coached at Indiana State University in 1947 and had said “baseball was always my first love.”
The Pirates were looking to replace Danny Murtaugh, who was battling health problems after seven seasons at the helm. Brown was seated next to Wooden — who was more than halfway through his illustrious career at UCLA — at a dinner in Los Angeles, and asked if Wooden would be interested in coaching the Pirates, according to Joe Torre in the Los Angeles Daily News and recently confirmed by broadcaster and Pirates fan Doc Emrick in the New York Post.
Wooden declined, worried that professional baseball players wouldn’t take him seriously. But he gave the proposal some consideration, said Emrick. And Wooden was so proud of the offer that he kept a news clipping about the conversation in his wallet.
If he had accepted, Wooden would have managed Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, Willie Stargell, Manny Mota and others. Instead, the Pirates hired Harry “The Hat” Walker, who lasted three seasons and compiled a 224-184 (.549) record.
Wooden, who passed away in 2010, coached UCLA until 1975, finishing with 10 national championships and a 664–162 (.804) record.