Wiedmer: McCallie baseball honors three of its coaching giants

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / McCallie School is seen on Friday, Nov. 22, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Bill Eiselstein never meant to spend 45 years of his life at McCallie School, including 17 as the baseball coach who guided the Blue Tornado to the 1976 state championship.

"My plan was to stay one year and see if I liked it," he said Monday evening, just before the current McCallie team fell 6-1 to visiting Baylor. "I was going into the Air Force and to (Officer Candidate) School."

Kenny Sholl - the man who succeeded Eiselstein as the Blue Tornado baseball coach in 1988 - wasn't planning to stick around long at the private all-boys school on the side of Missionary Ridge, either.

"I actually resigned early on to take the assistant principal's job at Lakeview Middle," Sholl recalled. "That night I decided I wanted to stay at McCallie. I walked in (headmaster) Spencer McCallie's office the next day and asked, 'Can I come back?' He said he'd already hired someone to replace me (Bubba Simmons). But they let me stay."

He's now been at the school in one capacity of another - Sholl is now the assistant head of school - for 39 years.

Then there's Hank Hopping, who replaced Sholl as the varsity head baseball coach at the close of the 1992 season, running the program for eight full springs.

"I was going to work at McCallie for three or four years, then go to law school," said Hopping, who is currently the upper school principal as he wraps up his 35th year on campus. "My dad was a lawyer, so I figured I'd do the same."

Instead, they all became lifers, piling up a stunning 119 years of service between the three of them. And on Monday night, the three former head baseball coaches were honored in a pregame ceremony that will keep their names and achievements on the lips of McCallie faculty, students and alums for as long the Blue Tornado plays America's Pastime.

The baseball field that first opened in 1993 and was refurbished this season will forever more be known as Kenny Sholl Stadium. The new home dugout will bear a plaque that reads: "Bill Eiselstein Dugout." The visitors dugout will now be the "Hank Hopping Dugout."

Joked Eiselstein in a school podcast released this week, "When I first heard about this, I asked my son (Kyle, who's on the McCallie board of trustees), 'How much did you have to pay for this?'"

All three men turned down better pay and bigger jobs for something a few folks still find more important than money.

Or as Eiselstein said during the ceremony, "Thank you to McCallie School for letting me have fun in my job. They even paid me a little."

A lot of the fun can be found in their remembrances during the podcast found on the McCallie website - www.mccallie.org.

Sholl recalled the old baseball field both he and Eiselstein coached on, the one that had tree limbs hanging over the outfield fence.

"It took five minutes before every game just to explain the ground rules," he said.

One of those rules involving the trees - "It was a live ball, so you had to field it if it hit the tree," said Sholl - came into play against Bradley Central in a region playoff game.

"I'd pitched the first 12 innings the day before, then it got too dark to play," said Deron Buice of the 1980s showdown. "In the 15th inning the next day, I hit a ball into the tree and it fell for a hit and we scored a run that proved the game-winner."

But in that same game, the bases loaded with Bradley Bears and two out - according to Eiselstein - a Bradley player hit one into the tree that was caught for a third out.

"They protested all the way to the TSSAA, but the win stood," said Sholl.

Also during Eiselstein's time, he once had an assistant named Tommy Sparks, who had a less-than-friendly relationship with a particular umpire.

"So before the game," Eiselstein recalled, "this umpire shows up with his dog on a leash. Tommy immediately says, 'I see you brought your seeing-eye dog with you today.' That was it. Tommy got tossed before the game began."

Eiselstein will tell you he only retired in 2012 because his wife Judy told him, "If you don't retire, I'm going to start traveling without you."

Sholl says he'll probably consider calling it quits in a year or two so that, "Miss Penny doesn't tell me the same thing."

Hopping, who's spent much of his career living on campus, said recently, "We've raised two kids here. I've loved every minute of it."

It becomes more difficult to teach yearly, even at elite private schools such as McCallie. Kids have more distractions. Too many parents back their children rather than the teacher when Little Johnny or Jenny fails to perform as they should. Every word from a faculty member's mouth is parsed and dissected by the Cancel Culture as if was a biology frog.

Yet former McCallie student JV Kodali - a 1988 McCallie grad who funded much of the stadium project - also provided a stirring reason why teachers and coaches still matter.

Wrote Kodali in a letter to McCallie headmaster Lee Burns regarding Sholl's impact on his life: "He always asks me to call him Kenny. I can't do it. To me, he'll always be Coach Sholl. As a student, I was lifted in so many positive ways by Coach Sholl's leadership. He helped shape me and thousands of other students into the men we are today."

Could there be a better reason to name a stadium or dugout for any teacher and coach than that?

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.