FORT DODGE | It was a lesson not too late for the learning.
As a young high school coach, Joe Shanks was eager, active and filled with no uncertain amount of fire and brimstone.
“I can’t remember for sure who we were playing it was so long ago, but I do remember one of the umpires and a play at second base,’’ recalls Shanks, who was inducted into the Iowa Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame Saturday in Cedar Rapids. “There was a play where I thought obstruction should have been called and being a fiery guy I started arguing with the ump.
“It was Lefty Strong and he was a veteran umpire and one of the most respected umps in the state. He could be kind of crusty and ornery, but I kept after him.
“And, finally, I just told him to throw me out (of the game). Well, he shot right back that I wasn’t worth throwing out.
“That taught me a good lesson about the how you play the game and respect baseball.’’
Playing and coaching the game of his life has always received Joe Shanks’ respect and devotion.
After an all-state career in high school at Fort Dodge St. Edmond, Shanks spent a year at Buena Vista University and another at Iowa Central Community College in his hometown and then nearly put his glove in the corner of the closet on top of his spikes.
But he decided to give it one more, what wound up being, the old college try.
“There was a tryout camp in Cherokee and it was more for guys who might dream of being signed to a pro contract,’’ remembers Shanks, now 57. “But along with some pro scouts were some college coaches, too, and one of them was Briar Cliff’s Jim Ellwanger.
“Well, Coach Ellwanger talked me and my wife, Jody, into enrolling at Briar Cliff and I guess you could say the rest is kind of history.
“To be honored this way is very meaningful to my entire family and I’m thankful to dozens and dozens of folks. When I got the Heelan job one of the coaches there, Ron Schultz, became a real mentor in helping me transition to a program with lofty aspirations.’’
Joe was an infielder, mostly a second sacker, and turned into a hitting machine at Briar Cliff.
“Coach Ellwanger was a tremendous influence on me in baseball, but also in the game of life,’’ relates Shanks. “The main thing he did was drastically change my hitting approach at the plate and as a senior it seemed like they could never get me out.
“I’ll always credit him with being a positive influence. I was very saddened when he passed away down in Texas not long ago.
“He was starting the Briar Cliff program from scratch and he was my high school coach, too. It’s an honor to be part of that baseball history and tradition at Briar Cliff.’’
A member of the Briar Cliff Athletic Hall of Fame, Shanks began his teaching and coaching career as an assistant at BCU and Sergeant Bluff-Luton, then made stops at Le Mars Gehlen, Our Town’s Bishop Heelan, Minnesota State Mankato, Iowa City West and Sparta, Wis.
He’s returned twice to the old school and guided St. Edmond to Iowa’s Class 2A state title in 2009, knocking off Council Bluffs St. Albert, Solon and Dyersville Beckman to finish 35-3.
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He joins 259 others in the IBCA Hall, including one of his former Heelan players, pitcher Don Wengert, and five others with Sioux City ties – former Morningside coaches Jim Scholten and Don Protexter, Ellwanger, former North Coach Bud Speraw and Fr. Craig Collison.
Shanks, still the coach at St. Edmond, has a career record of 484-293.
At Heelan for seven seasons, he guided Crusader teams to 208 victories and berth in the 1985 state tournament.
It’s the 1987 Heelan season that, while, brilliant, remains an enigma to Shanks.
“We were the No. 1 team in the state in 4A and we hadn’t lost to an Iowa team before tournament play began,’’ says Shanks. “I’m not certain, but I think we had a 30-some game winning streak in there.
“Our losses were to excellent American Legion teams in Omaha and Sioux Falls and then we lost in the substate finals to West Des Moines Dowling.
“There was a great group of kids and athletes at Heelan at that time and it was a real disappointment for us to not get to the state tournament.’’
That Heelan club finished 42-3 with the win total remaining in a tie for the school single-season record.
“I was blessed to coach some excellent baseball players at Heelan and we won four conference titles (old Western League)."
Among the standouts who played for Shanks were four pitchers who played at the Division I collegiate level.
Brothers Don and Bill Wengert played at Iowa State, Wade Huebsch at San Jose State and Steve Nichol at Oklahoma State.
Don Wengert went on to a seven-year career in the Major Leagues, Bill Wengert, drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers, spent eight seasons in the minors, many of them at the Triple-A level.
Huebsch, also a brilliant scholar, owns doctorate degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering and is on staff at West Virginia University.
In ’85, Heelan lost its state tourney opener to Davenport West.
Shanks attributes much of his success to what some might refer to as the ‘’breaks of the game.’’
“I remember one game with St. Albert quite vividly,’’ says Shanks. “It was a pitching duel between Don Wengert and Brian O’Connor.
“We ended up winning 1-0 when their centerfielder lost a ball in the sun we scored the winning run.’’
O’Connor is now the head coach of the strong Virginia program that has qualified several times for the College World Series.
Joe and Jody are parents of Jason, Sarah and Kristan and growing up with four brothers – Steve, Dave, Bob and Jeff -- honed competitive skills and the ability to take a base whenever possible.
Steve Shanks coached Sioux City East to 4A state tourney runner-up finishes in 1996-97.