Spud O’Neil (far right) and his Lakewood team after Tuesday’s historic win
Coaching on the field that bears his name, Lakewood baseball coach Walter “Spud” O’Neil made California history on Tuesday afternoon, as his Lancers defeated El Dorado 4-3. The one-run thriller was good for O’Neil’s 900th victory, making him just the fourth high school baseball coach in California history to reach that number.
According to the Cal-Hi Sports record book, O’Neil’s 900 puts him behind only John Stevenson (1,059 wins), Sam Blalock (946), and Guy Anderson (927) on the all-time California list.
“We thought this would all be done last year, and we’ve waited a year and a half to actually play again,” said O’Neil. “I wasn’t thinking about it, but I have friends, my friends are here that remind me every day. It’s been fun.”
O’Neil, a Long Beach native and St. Anthony alum, began his coaching career at Colton, where he coached from 1980-1983. It was in 1984 that he began his historic run at Lakewood. In his 37 seasons at the school he’s won two CIF titles, and 23 Moore League titles. Eight of his Lancers have gone on to play at the Major League level. The school named its field after him in 2017, at a star-studded ceremony.
“He’s certainly an icon, that fits him,” said Lakewood Mayor Todd Rogers at the ceremony.
“The way Spud treats people is what’s amazing to me,” said CIF Southern Section commissioner Rob Wigod, who coached with O’Neil for 14 years. “He is an icon, but he’s so humble, and so willing to help other coaches. This is a great tribute to a great man.”
O’Neil has occasionally joked about the challenge of replacing the legendary John Herbold at Lakewood when he arrived in 1984.
“All the diehards are saying, ‘Who is this O’Neil guy? Get him out of here!” he joked.
In the 37 years since he’s had one of the most storied careers in state history, producing Major League talent in addition to piling up victories.
He’s also changed with the times, a self-proclaimed “old dog learning new tricks.” O’Neil in his early days required his players to be clean-cut. When asked about that on Tuesday afternoon he pointed to one of his players’ goatees and laughed.
“Yeah look at this,” he said. “I’ve changed with the times, you have to.”
Despite a record of 900-294-1 on the field, the road hasn’t been easy for O’Neil off it. After retiring from teaching at Lakewood for 38 years, O’Neil endured the loss of his wife, Cindy, and has battled pneumonia and other health issues the last few seasons. He said the support of longtime assistant coach John Yakel and of his wife Caroline have been vital to keeping him going, both as a coach and as a man.
“We wouldn’t have this program unless (Yakel) kept it together during my time at home,” said O’Neil.
Yakel said that O’Neil still loves coaching, and that he hopes the win carries significance for this year’s Lakewood team.
“This should have happened halfway through last year,” said Yakel. “I hope it helps them start to believe that the game is bigger than just them, that there’s more to it. They get to play for somebody that still has a passion to be doing it 37, 38 years later at Lakewood.”
As for O’Neil, he said as long as Caroline is behind him, he’s not going anywhere.
“My wife would like me to retire on my own terms, and I’m not retiring anytime soon,” he said.
Lakewood (6-6) will host Cabrillo Friday at 3:15 p.m. back at Spud O’Neil Field in their Moore League opener.