FROM PRESS RELEASE
Heaven gained a new skipper Monday evening.
Chuck Hartman, who oversaw the Virginia Tech baseball program for nearly three decades and who coached college baseball for nearly half of a century, passed away at the age of 85 while living at a local assisted living facility. A hero, a gentleman, and a member of eight Halls of Fame, Hartman had been in poor health for quite some time.
Hartman’s passing leaves an undeniable void in Hokie Nation. As a coach, he was an ace, and in his 2006 walk-off, he left as the all-time winningest coach in Virginia Tech history in any sport. He finished his career with 1,444 wins, including 961 in 28 seasons at Tech.
But Chuck Hartman was more than just wins on a baseball diamond. In baseball parlance, he was a five-tool person – a father figure, a disciplinarian, a professional, a mentor, and a friend. Hartman possessed an uncanny gift of knowing when to be each and did so with a magnetic charm and booming laugh that made him such an appealing figure. Everyone knew Chuck Hartman, and Chuck Hartman knew everyone, whether he actually did or not.
Gosh, Virginia Tech was so lucky to have him. He not only won games and championships and sent guys to the pros, he and wife Ellen passionately supported the other sports. They rarely missed basketball games – probably a homage to Hartman’s earlier days as a college basketball official – and often went to both softball and baseball games even after his retirement. He continued the tradition even after Ellen’s passing in 2014.
They also contributed financially to Virginia Tech’s student-athletes, giving more than $100,000 in support of the Hokies over the years. Others may have given more money, but no one cared more.
That statement seems a touch ironic because Hartman never actually sought the job as Virginia Tech’s baseball coach. In 1979, then-director of athletics Bill Dooley turned to his closer, Bill Matthews, to finish off the coaching search to replace Bob Humphreys, who had resigned in December of 1978. Matthews reached out to Hartman, then the coach at High Point, and Hartman told him ‘no’ because Matthews wanted him to come in January. Hartman felt that was unfair to High Point and his players.
Matthews called him three more times, finally convincing Chuck and Ellen to come to Blacksburg for a visit. That persistence won out, and Hartman arrived in February, coaching in his first game three weeks later.
That was the first pitch of an unprecedented career – one with victories, championships, All-Americans, draft picks, and memories. His 1982 and 1985 teams won 50 games. In 1992, he became just the ninth baseball coach in Division I history to win 1,000 games. His 1994 team won the Metro Conference tournament and made the school’s first NCAA regional appearance in 17 years. His teams won three Atlantic 10 tournament titles. His 1997, 1999 and 2000 teams all made NCAA appearances.
He coached 12 All-Americans and four first-round draft picks, including Franklin Stubbs – arguably the best player to play for him.
And there were plenty of great moments. In 1985, a kid named “Pie” Webber hit a pinch-hit grand slam in the top of ninth to beat Louisville – and Webber entered the game hitting .191. In 1986, Tech rallied from a 10-run deficit against Liberty, winning on Trey McCoy’s walk-off grand slam and capping one of the biggest comebacks in program history. Hartman’s 1994 team won the Metro tournament title when he started a guy named Ron Gibson in the championship game, and Gibson, who entered with a 6.00 ERA, threw 8.1 innings of one-hit ball.
The 1997 team provided one of the greatest moments in Virginia Tech Athletics history. Matt Reynolds hit two home runs, including a solo bomb in the top of the ninth inning, and Denny Wagner threw 140 pitches to help Tech beat 11-time national champion Southern Cal 3-2 in a first-round NCAA regional game in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. That marked Tech’s first NCAA win in 28 years.
The 2000 team, though, held a special place in Hartman’s heart. Tech went to the Atlantic 10 tournament without its ace, Joe Saunders, who missed the tournament with mono, and also without All-American first baseman Larry Bowles, who tore his ACL earlier in the season. Two other regulars – Christian Simmers and Chris Hutchison – weren’t 100%, and even worse, the Hokies were in a somber mood after the death of Carrie Foutz, the mother of third baseman Chad Foutz.
Just hours prior to arriving in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, the site of the Atlantic 10 tournament, the Hokies had attended the funeral of a woman widely considered the “team mother.” Carrie Foutz had passed away after a yearlong battle with cancer.
Yet the Hokies fought and scrapped and got great performances from unlikely players. Poetically, Chad Foutz’s grounder with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of the championship game skipped off the glove of UMass’ second baseman, allowing good friend and high school teammate Gray Hodges to score the winning run. The play set off an emotional outburst disguised as a celebration.
“I really think this has made us all stronger individuals,” an emotional Hartman said shortly after the game. “In 10 or 15 years, when these guys come back for an alumni game, they’ll be talking about everything that happened to them this season and what they were still able to accomplish.”
There were memories on international stages, too. Hartman served as an assistant on several U.S. national teams, including one that played in the World Amateur Championships in Cuba. That team featured a young slugger named Barry Bonds – yes, that Barry Bonds – who was struggling at the time. Hartman offered to meet with Bonds on an off day, and the two worked on Bonds’ swing. Bonds went on to slug a homer in the next game, a foreshadowing perhaps of things to come.
That was in 1984 when the Hokies played in the Metro Conference. Hartman went on to become one of those rare coaches to coach in four different conferences (Metro, Atlantic 10, BIG EAST, and ACC), but the truth is Hartman hadn’t planned to coach in the ACC. He had wanted to hang up his spikes and hat in 2004, which would have given him a nice symmetrical 25 seasons at Tech.
But in 2003, the school received the invitation to join the ACC for the 2004-05 season. He knew the Hokies faced a difficult transition in a league that often features six or seven ranked teams at any given time. Yet ever the competitor, he embraced the challenge and saved a new coach the monumental task of finding early success against difficult competition.
Hartman’s 2005 and 2006 teams struggled in the ACC, and maybe he stayed in the job too long. Occasionally, someone whizzes a fastball by Father Time, and Hartman had wanted the ball one more time. But in 2006, he knew Father Time was simply better.
“A little of the fun has gone out of it for me,” Hartman said after announcing his retirement plans in May of that year. “I’ve had a problem communicating with some of the younger generation. So those are signs.”
Even after the public announcement, wife Ellen refused to believe that her husband would actually do it. She fully expected him to continue submitting lineups to umpires before games and then heading to his customary third-base coaches box, where he resided during his team’s at-bats.
“She always said I’d be buried in the third-base box,” Hartman once laughed. “So she was wrong – once.”
That, more than anything else, epitomized Hartman and what fans often remember about him. He never lacked for a one-liner. He liked to tell jokes and laugh, and he liked to make other people laugh. He enjoyed life. The guy rarely had a bad day.
Nov. 2, 2020 marked the curtain call for Chuck Hartman. He stepped out of life’s dugout and tipped his cap one last time before his charismatic soul headed to its final – and better – resting place.
The thought of that certainly brings us all comfort. But it will not make us miss him any less.