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Tom O’Connell, 82; baseball coach inspired teams

Tom O’Connell, who coached baseball at Braintree High and later at Princeton University, was honored in September 2015 with two new dugouts in his honor at Princeton, the culmination of a fund-raising campaign led by players from his 1985 championship team.

Tom O’Connell, who coached baseball at Braintree High and later at Princeton University, was honored in September 2015 with two new dugouts in his honor at Princeton, the culmination of a fund-raising campaign led by players from his 1985 championship team.

Last fall, 18 years after his final game as head baseball coach at Princeton University, Tom O’Connell returned to the team’s Clarke Field for the final time.

The occasion was the ribbon-cutting for two new dugouts in his honor, the culmination of a fund-raising campaign led by players from his 1985 Eastern Intercollegiate Baseball League championship team.

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“He was so happy that day because so many people turned out to remember him,” said his daughter, JoAnne Walker of Allentown, N.J. “Because of Alzheimer’s disease, he couldn’t quite remember everyone’s name, but he told them, ‘I helped put you on the map,’ with a great deal of pride.”

Scott Bradley, who succeeded Mr. O’Connell as Princeton’s coach, said, “The smiles, the jokes, even the tears, made for a terrific day. Tommy didn’t want to leave.”

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Mr. O’Connell, whose head coaching career began in 1964 at Braintree High, continued at Brandeis University, and concluded at Princeton in 1997, died March 7 in Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Hamilton Township, N.J. He was 82 and lived in Princeton Junction, N.J.

“I’ve always loved the game,” he told the Star-Ledger of Newark in 1997. “I’ve always tried to give something back . . . in teaching and training the kids. I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment out of it.”

A founder of the Massachusetts High School Baseball Coaches Association and an inductee to its hall of fame, Mr. O’Connell coached the 1966 Braintree High team to the Eastern Massachusetts championship. His 1977 Brandeis team made it to the final game of the Division 3 World Series, and his 1985, 1991, and 1996 Princeton squads advanced to the NCAA Division 1 tournament.

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His 172-73-6 record at Brandeis included six consecutive NCAA appearances, and he had a 323-313-6 mark at Princeton.

“Tommy took over programs that had not seen a lot of success and made them successful, and that speaks volumes about him and the respect for the game he passed on to his players,” said longtime Bentley University baseball coach Bob DeFelice. “He was the ultimate competitor and a baseball guy through and through.”

Mr. O’Connell, known as Lefty when he pitched at Braintree High and the University of Connecticut, stayed close to the sport after Princeton. He was a coach in the Cape Cod Baseball League, a scout for the Cincinnati Reds, and a head coach and recruiter for Babe Ruth League teams.

“His lasting legacy is that he taught us as players and young men how to do things the right way day in and day out,” said Red Sox general manager Mike Hazen, a captain and Ivy League All-Star during Mr. O’Connell’s final season coaching at Princeton. “If we didn’t do things to his liking, we certainly heard about it, but he was fair in his criticism.”

Murray Greenberg, a soccer and baseball hall of famer at Brandeis, from which he graduated in 1977, wrote in an online tribute that Mr. O’Connell would let players know if he didn’t think they were giving their full effort.

“ ‘Bear down!’ Coach would holler . . . in a voice that pierced through the ballpark clatter like a police siren,” Greenberg wrote. He added that in “difficult situations throughout my life, I have . . . often thought of Coach and his belief that seemingly inevitable defeat and failure are not inevitable at all. I’m sure his other players feel the same way.”

Born in Boston, Thomas P. O’Connell graduated from Braintree High in 1951. His yearbook noted that he was “loads of fun,” and the same yearbook said his classmate Jean Leverone participated in glee club, student council, and girls basketball, and “livens up every class.”

They married in 1961 and lived in Braintree before moving to Princeton Junction. Mrs. O’Connell, who often sat with their daughter on a hill near the left field line to watch the Brandeis home games, died in 2014.

Jim Laneau, one of the greatest players to wear a Braintree High baseball uniform, said Mr. O’Connell “instilled in me a love of the game and a burning desire to win that is so strong that I played baseball in an adult league into my 50s. His intensity was infectious.”

Laneau was a senior catcher on Braintree’s 1966 Eastern Mass. championship team, which lost a 1-0 game in the state final against Pittsfield High. A controversial play drew the ire of Mr. O’Connell.

“After one of our players singled, he removed his batting helmet and put on his baseball cap, and because we were playing under two sets of rules — one for Eastern Mass. and another for Western Mass. — he was called out for not wearing the helmet,” said Laneau, who followed with a double in what could have been a big inning.

“Lefty almost got tossed out of the game because he was so upset,” Laneau said of Mr. O’Connell.

He added that “in my 35 years of coaching baseball, basketball, and soccer in Braintree, and as a player, that was the saddest trip home I’ve ever taken on a team bus.”

Laneau, who is now retired, said that game was a catalyst for Mr. O’Connell and Newton High coach Howie Ferguson to cofound the state coaches association in 1968.

Mr. O’Connell, who directed the Ted Williams baseball camp in Lakeville for 13 years, was a guest with his wife at the great Red Sox slugger’s home in Florida. “His pictures with Ted were among dad’s most treasured mementos,” Mr. O’Connell’s daughter said.

An Army veteran, Mr. O’Connell graduated from the University of Connecticut in 1955 after helping lead the Huskies to the Yankee Conference baseball title as cocaptain. He received a master’s in education from Suffolk University in 1963.

He also was inducted into the Braintree High, Brandeis, American Baseball Coaches Association, and Babe Ruth League International halls of fame.

A service has been held for Mr. O’Connell, who in addition to his daughter leaves his son, Timothy of Titusville, N.J., and five grandchildren.

Timothy, who played baseball at Northeastern University, said his father was a lifelong student of the game who “truly loved his players and his job. As a dad he’d tell you like it is, but always in a supportive and caring way.”

JoAnne said that despite her father’s reputation as a disciplinarian on the field, “he was a pussycat around his grandchildren. They could do no wrong in his eyes. He’d run little clinics for them in my brother’s backyard, and I have to say my 10-year-old son has a very nice swing because of my dad.”

Marvin Pave can be reached at marvin.pave@rcn.com.
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