John “Tinker” Connelly, the greatest three-sport athlete of his era at Northeastern University, displayed only two mementos in his home.
One was a plaque the American Baseball Coaches Association, which he had served as president, presented to him when he was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 1985.
The other was a June 1952 cartoon penned by the Boston Post’s Bob Coyne entitled: “NU’s All-round athletic star closes out his brilliant career today.” It was never published because a nine-player trade involving Johnny Pesky of the Boston Red Sox took precedence, so Coyne gave the cartoon to Mr. Connelly.
“I think both represent what was important to my father: his loyalty and love for Northeastern, and his abiding respect for the coaching profession and those in it,” said Mr. Connelly’s son Tim, of Wellesley.
Mr. Connelly, an All-New England football, hockey, and baseball star for the Huskies who went on to coach all three sports at his alma mater, died of congestive heart failure died Aug. 17 in his Needham home. He was 85.
‘Tinker had a way about him that demanded respect.’
An inductee into the Newton High and Northeastern halls of fame, he was the quarterback for Northeastern’s 1951 football team that went 6-0-1. He also was the university’s head baseball coach from 1956 to 1981. In 1966, he guided the team into the College World Series in Omaha, bringing him New England Coach of the Year honors for the second time.
Mr. Connelly spent 43 consecutive years at Northeastern, from his freshman year as a student until he retired in 1991 as manager of the university’s Matthews Arena.
“Tinker had a way about him that demanded respect,” said Neil McPhee, Northeastern’s longtime baseball coach. “When I arrived at Northeastern he coached me in baseball and hockey. He was my mentor as a player and coach and then my lifelong friend. He is Northeastern’s Mr. Baseball.”
Mr. Connelly cherished lasting friendships, and for the past 20 years he and two boyhood pals, Billy Ryan and Paul Flynn, met for Friday breakfast at the Knotty Pine restaurant in Newton.
“If you were a college scout, you wouldn’t have noticed Tinker at first because he weighed about 135 pounds when he was at Newton High. But he turned out to be a phenomenal athlete,” Ryan said.
The high school trainer at first refused to give Mr. Connelly a football uniform because of his size, his family said, but he persevered by getting into another line. He told the story to his children and grandchildren as an example of why they should never give up.
As a Boston College outfielder, Ryan played baseball against Mr. Connelly, and played with Mr. Connelly in the competitive Newton Twi League after college. When Mr. Connelly watched Ryan’s grandson play baseball at Northbridge High three years ago, “he’d run into coaches I never knew and they’d say, ‘Hey Tink, we haven’t seen you in 30 years,’ ” Ryan said.
Jim Leonard, another former Newton High athlete, joined the breakfast group in recent years.
“I just loved being with them because of the stories they would share,” he said.
Leonard, who played freshman hockey at Northeastern for Mr. Connelly, added that “the score didn’t matter as much to him as how hard you played and how you behaved off the ice.”
Mr. Connelly also had served as president of the Eastern Massachusetts Hockey Officials Association and the Massachusetts Track & Field Officials Association, and had been a timer for the Boston Marathon.
He had a close friendship off the field with the late Boston College baseball coach Eddie Pellagrini.
“They would travel together to coaching clinics and conventions,” said Jack Grinold, Northeastern’s associate athletic director emeritus, “but when we played BC, he and Eddie were archenemies. And afterwards, they were best of friends again.”
Grinold added that Mr. Connelly was “the kindest man I ever worked with.”
Dave Coleman, a catcher for Northeastern who went on to play in the Baltimore Orioles farm system, broke an ankle in 1965 while playing in the Beanpot Tournament his sophomore year. Afterward, he sat in Northeastern’s dressing room at Boston Garden and told Mr. Connelly he thought he would never play hockey or baseball again.
“Tinker really helped me when I needed it the most, not only that night, but all through the baseball season,” said Coleman, who went on to become Boston Latin School’s longtime baseball and hockey coach. “I missed three-quarters of the baseball season, but he stuck with me.”
Mr. Connelly’s son Tim said he has heard many similar stories in recent days.
“My brother and I, and our sisters, wanted to emulate him,” he said, adding that when he was at Williams College, “I was called ‘Tinker Jr.’ and that was my name in the yearbook.”
John J. Connelly got his nickname as a boy, because his father was an automobile mechanic and a handyman who “tinkered around.”
A 1946 graduate of Newton High, Mr. Connelly served in the Army during the occupation of Japan. He graduated from Northeastern in 1953 with a bachelor’s degree and in 1966 with a master’s in education.
While delivering interoffice mail as an undergraduate, he met Mary Lou McManus, who was a secretary to the university’s president, Carl Ell. She and Mr. Connelly married in 1958.
“I knew who he was and had watched him at the football games, but I never knew him personally until he became baseball coach,” she said. “He was the quiet one. I was more outgoing and we complemented one another in raising our family.”
Mrs. Connelly worked as secretary for 30 years at Boston College for the Rev. William B. Neenan, who concelebrated Mr. Connelly’s funeral Mass.
She said her husband “was loyal to his friends and accepted them for who they were, and at his wake they spoke of my husband as a person, not as an athlete.”
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Connelly leaves another son, Matthew, of Suwanee, Ga.; two daughters, Anne of Atlanta and Clare McDonagh of Latrobe, Pa.; and eight grandchildren.
Dick Paster, the cleanup hitter on Northeastern’s 1966 team and coach of Westwood’s Post 320 American Legion team, said Mr. Connelly came to games until last summer to support him.
“About five years ago, I wasn’t sure what to wear to the Northeastern preseason get-together for baseball alumni, so as I got off the elevator, Tinker comes over and says, ‘Richard, if you showed up like that for a game, without a tie, I would have sent you home,’ ” Paster recalled. “After all those years, he was still my coach.”