Bucky Freeman's legacy lives on in current baseball coach and ABCA hall of famer George Valesente '66, M.S. '75.
by Josh McCann '05
More than 20 years after the bronze and granite monument dedicating Ithaca's baseball field in the name of James "Bucky" Freeman was constructed behind home plate, thin splotches of flaky, light-green moss have begun to grow on its sloping face. but although this physical reminder of Freeman's immense influence has been scuffed by Ithaca's winters, the coach's legacy has not been tarnished. Forty years after Freeman retired, the traditions he established during his 31-year tenure live on, carried on by current coach George Valesente '66, M.S. '75, who has just finished his 27th year of leading the IC baseball program.
"Coach Val" has guided Ithaca to 745 wins, 26 NCAA playoff appearances, 15 conference championships, and 2 national titles, all without a single sub-.500 season. In recognition of those accomplishments, in January the 60-year-old was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee.
With the induction, which he termed "a thrill of a lifetime," Valesente became the fifth Bomber to enter amateur baseball's equivalent of Cooperstown: Freeman, Ted Thoren '49, Dave Chamberlain '59, and Dick Rockwell '63 are fellow ABCA honorees.
Like Valesente, the last three coaches learned the game from Freeman. To hear them tell it, Freeman deserves much of the credit for the success each has enjoyed since leaving the College. And as new generations of Ithaca ballplayers have embarked on successful coaching careers, they, too, learned from the master.
When Freeman retired in 1965 he handed the program over to Carlton "Carp" Wood '39, who had been Freeman's junior varsity coach from 1954 to 1964. Wood proved to be a worthy heir, as his Ithaca teams advanced to the NCAA playoffs 9 times and made 3 College World Series appearances during his 13-year reign. His 1973 and 1976 squads both reached the national championship game before losing, and every one of his clubs won at least two-thirds of its contests.
Ithaca Baseball Program Stats
- Conference: Empire 8
- Head Coach: George Valesente (Ithaca '66, M.S. '75)
- Record at Ithaca: 27 years, 740-328-7
- Career Record: 33 years, 836-377-7
- Assistant Coaches: Brian Angelichio, T. J. Gamba, John McNally, Kyle Wilkins
- 2005 Record: 25-15-2; Empire 8, 6-1-1
When Wood stepped down, the fate of the Bomber baseball dynasty was in doubt. In stepped Valesente, who had played two seasons for Freeman and another under Wood. When he took over as coach in fall 1978, Valesente says, he was humbled -- and more than a little worried. He had just agreed to become only the fourth coach (before Freeman, Joe Tatascore had coached Ithaca's first team to a 7-4 mark in 1931) in the history of a program that had posted only one losing record in its 44 years (3-4, 1935). Valesente was utterly terrified that he might let the proud program slide into mediocrity while Freeman was around to witness it. Still, he accepted the position almost as soon as then-athletic director Chuck Kerr offered it.
Much of Valesente's initial anxiety was erased when Freeman endorsed the choice and made himself available should Valesente have questions. Although Valesente had already had six years of head coaching experience at the SUNY programs at Brockport, New Paltz, and the Maritime College, he couldn't pass up chances to consult his idol. "I was probably in his living room two nights a week," recalls Valesente.
He convinced Freeman to return as a semipermanent fixture at Bomber practices and in the Ithaca dugout, and the skipper continued helping out unofficially, into his 90s. He passed away in 1988.
His protégé has followed in his footsteps. As the program finishes its 70th season, he himself has become a legendary figure on South Hill. In Valesente's second season, 1980, his team captured the baseball program's first national championship. . Valesente added another national title in 1988.
The collegiate baseball landscape looks markedly different today than it did during Freeman's era. Most notably, all of Valesente's teams have competed at the Division III level, which did not even exist until 1976, more than a decade after Freeman retired.
During Freeman's heyday, college sports were divided into two divisions, and there were no complicated scholarship or scheduling requirements as there are today. Freeman frequently scheduled games against the biggest and best programs, even area minor-league or semipro squads, to sharpen his team's skills. His squad emerged victorious against such high-caliber opposition with startling regularity. The 1962 team was nicknamed "the little giants" for sweeping all 15 regular-season games and going on to face powerhouses Missouri, Florida State, and Texas in the College World Series.
Whereas Freeman's Bombers played as few as 7 games a season, Valesente's teams now routinely play 40-plus games per year. And while Freeman's players swung wooden bats, Valesente's use aluminum.
Even so, Freeman's wisdom remains relevant. Much about his philosophy and methodology was 20 or 30 years ahead of his time, says Le Moyne College athletic director Dick Rockwell, who won 757 games as head coach at Le Moyne and later served as chair of the NCAA Division I baseball committee.
"[Bucky] was a tough, hard-nosed coach," Valesente recalls, "but he was a brilliant baseball mind." His former player and fellow ABCA hall of famer Thoren says that Freeman was essentially "a walking baseball encyclopedia."
He was an expert on more than just baseball, however, as he held a Ph.D. in neuroanatomy and taught that subject at both Ithaca and Cornell University. Freeman also possessed an intuitive ability to communicate with and understand people, Valesente says, and he instilled his emphasis on effort and attention to detail in his charges, in the classroom and on the field.
Freeman was "a stern taskmaster," Valesente remembers, but he also cared for his players as people. He regularly ran four-hour practices, but would invite the team over for dinner afterwards. He gave his captains input into the program, kept drills as close to game-like as possible, and believed in correcting a mistake as soon as it was made. Essentially, Rockwell says, Freeman ran his program like a professional club. "It was assumed," Rockwell says, "that if you played at Ithaca you were going to go out and play professional baseball."
Coach Val continues to guide the team in much the same fashion as his mentor did decades ago. "He is an offspring of the original baseball guy," says fellow ABCA honoree Chamberlain, who nominated Valesente for the hall of fame and labeled his friend and colleague "the epitome of a college coach."
Ithaca keeps churning out a steady stream of professional prospects and accomplished coaches. Thirty of Valesente's former players have signed pro contracts, and his protégés are currently head coaches at Army, Rensselaer, Cornell University, SUNY Cortland, Union College, and the University of Pennsylvania. Numerous other alumni of the program are collegiate assistant coaches or coaching at the high school level.
Valesente said he realizes he is nearing the twilight of his career, but he has no firm time frame for stepping aside. When he does, Bomber faithful can rest assured there will be no shortage of eminently qualified candidates to keep Ithaca's baseball legacy intact.
And that's the way Coach Val wants it.