When Jim Curtin stepped down after 52 seasons as baseball coach at Burlington High School, more than 100 of his former players gathered in a Burlington restaurant in April 2013 for his retirement party, representing every decade of his years on the bench.
Two weeks later, the Wyman Elementary School diamond was renamed Jim Curtin Field prior to the Burlington-Wakefield game. A plaque on the backstop reads in part: “Family Man, Teacher, Coach.”
“It feels great,” he told a local cable television station that afternoon. “It’s been a privilege to coach at Burlington High School for as long as I have. It’s a great conclusion.”
Mr. Curtin, whose teams won 612 games and 12 combined Merrimack Valley League and Middlesex League championships between 1960 and 2011, died of congestive heart failure Oct. 7. He was 78 and lived in Burlington.
According to the Massachusetts Baseball Coaches Association, Mr. Curtin is one of just six high school baseball coaches in the state to reach 600 career wins. His teams qualified for 39 postseason tournaments, and his many standout players included pitcher Pete Smith, who went on to a major league career, and slugger Sean McGowan, who starred at Boston College.
Mr. Curtin was also a longtime mathematics teacher at the high school and head of the math department for 35 years.
Former Burlington High principal Al Perry called Mr. Curtin “just a wonderful friend and colleague. Jim taught our most advanced math classes and developed a mutual respect with his students and players. He had a great way with them. And he knew the baseball rule book forward and backward.”
Mr. Curtin coached all three of his sons at the high school, each of whom pitched for college teams: James and Kevin at Harvard, and John at BC.
“He was a genius as a pitching coach and he never let a player lose his self-esteem,” said Kevin, who lives in Burlington. “Dad’s favorite class was probability and statistics, and he applied those theories to baseball. After I read the book ‘Moneyball’ I realized he had been using the same concepts 25 years earlier.”
Kevin said that Mr. Curtin’s proudest accomplishment was seeing all seven of his children attend either Harvard or BC, and that “when we were at a function, he would ask each of us to stand and he’d tell everyone what we were doing in our lives. He wanted the best for us and would do whatever he could to give us the best chance to succeed.”
Mr. Curtin was also a welcoming mentor to coaches starting out in the profession.
Joe Chiodo, the former head baseball coach at Watertown High, recalled that during his first season in 2002, his car broke down while he was en route to join his team at a game in Burlington. When he arrived, Mr. Curtin “came over to me and said, ‘Joe, the game doesn’t start until you’re ready. Don’t worry about it,’ ” Chiodo said. “I have never forgotten that gesture.”
Mr. Curtin’s father, Barney, who also pitched at BC, was head baseball coach at Somerville High for 17 years. His teams won four Eastern Mass. titles and three state titles and was a perennial Greater Boston League power.
“He idolized his dad and wanted to be like him and teach people to play and love the game,” Kevin said. “They both loved going to Braves Field to watch their favorite pitcher, Warren Spahn.”
While playing for Matignon High School in Cambridge, Mr. Curtin pitched a no-hitter against St. Clement High in May 1954, and posed with his father afterward for a newspaper photo.
The following April Mr. Curtin’s father died. Barney Curtin was honored at a pregame ceremony at Somerville’s Dilboy Field, where his team wore black armbands before defeating Chelsea High. On another field a mile away that same hour, Mr. Curtin took the mound for Matignon and won a 5-1 game against St. Mary’s of Brookline, striking out 11 batters.
His bittersweet senior season was sensational: Mr. Curtin led Matignon to the Catholic League Division 2 title and was the MVP and winning pitcher at Fenway Park, where the Catholic All-Stars defeated the Boston School All-Stars.
Mr. Curtin was an inductee to the Massachusetts Baseball Coaches Association and the Matignon High and Burlington High athletic halls of fame.
During his junior year at Matignon, Mr. Curtin drove sophomore Jewel McHugh home from a party. They married in 1959, shortly after Mr. Curtin graduated from BC, where the student newspaper described him as a “mainstay” of the pitching staff.
His wife, who is known as Judy, recalled that she was 20 when they married, “and a friend asked me, ‘Why marry so young?’ And I replied, ‘If you find who you’re looking for, why keep looking?’ Our Catholic faith and the way we communicated kept us close and it brought me joy to see him happy.”
Mr. Curtin, a loyal BC football fan, was a member of St. Margaret Church in Burlington since moving to town in 1959.
“If a BC game was on television,” his wife recalled, “you weren’t supposed to say a word, even during the commercials.”
A service has been held for Mr. Curtin, who in addition to his wife, Judy, and son Kevin leaves two other sons, James of Austin, Texas, and John of Litchfield, N.H.; four daughters, Kathleen Perry of Andover, Julie Aloise of Glastonbury, Conn., Mary Schorr of Burlington, and Maureen Neiberger of Framingham; a brother, Paul of Littleton; a sister, Mary Ann DeBoer of Nevis, Minn.; and 17 grandchildren.
Heart ailments through the years prompted Mr. Curtin to sometimes schedule heart surgery so he could be ready for spring practice. In 2013, he wrote a poignant letter of resignation, which the Lowell Sun quoted.
“Throughout my career I have done my best to be a successful baseball coach, but more importantly serve as a role model for the young men entrusted to me,” he wrote. “Over the course of six decades, I never lost my enthusiasm for working with young people and my love of the game has never wavered.”
In a eulogy, James Curtin said his father “saw potential and talents in everyone,” and that for him, baseball was “a beautiful, unending passion. He fought for every breath these last few years and every breath was a gift to us.”