'I Have A Big Heart For Nebraska'
He came to Nebraska because of a football scholarship and the desire for a college education, having turned down – six months shy of turning 16 – a tempting baseball offer with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Yet throughout the four years that Dennis Korinek played halfback for coach Bill Glassford, and alongside the great Bobby Reynolds, he always loved baseball the most.
A story from the spring of Korinek’s sophomore baseball season helps illustrate his preference.
Korinek had participated in spring football practices the previous year and missed too many baseball games for his liking. So this time, he aimed to stick with baseball and bow out of spring football.
One day at practice, Korinek and some of his teammates were standing at the snow fence that separated the baseball outfield from the football practice field (where the Hawks Indoor Championship Center and adjacent practice fields are now located).
“I was in uniform with my glove and my cap, and we were leaning over the fence and watching the football team work out,” Korinek said. “And Bill Glassford started walking over toward me and says, ‘Hey, Korinek! Tomorrow you’re going to be over here running a halfback slot, both right and left half – if you know how to do it.’ ”
The next day, Korinek went to his locker and found his baseball uniform had been removed and replaced with football pads.
“That day,” he said, “I was running right and left halfback.”
This day, however, he returns to Lincoln to help celebrate baseball.
The 86-year-old Korinek, who lives in Florida with his wife, Joyce, will be among more than 100 former players returning to Lincoln for the Nebraska Baseball Reunion on Friday and Saturday. They will be recognized on the field before Friday night’s game at Haymarket Park against Arizona State.
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Korinek played primarily center field from 1952-55 under Nebraska coach Tony Sharpe. The Huskers were 50-28-1 during Korinek’s career, including 31-21 in Big Seven Conference play.
Trips to Lincoln are common for the Korineks, who try to return for every home football game.
“I have a big heart for Nebraska,” Korinek said, “and so does my wife.”
That stems to his high school days, when Korinek, who grew up in Ulysses, caught a ride to Lincoln with people who had season football tickets. Korinek not only had no season ticket, he couldn’t afford the 50 cents it took to get into the famed knothole section.
“When the cop wasn’t looking, I’d crawl underneath the fence,” Korinek said. “And after three years of me sneaking in, I finally got a scholarship and the same cop says, ‘Hey, Denny, welcome to Nebraska. Now you’re legal.’ ”
The story behind Korinek and his football scholarship originated in July of 1948.
Then 15, Korinek was already playing his third summer with a semi-pro baseball team from David City in the Pioneer Night League. After playing in only four or five games in his first summer, Korinek improved greatly. He was enjoying great success. So much so, a couple of his teammates talked him into participating in a tryout for the St. Louis Cardinals, in Omaha.
“I didn’t have a driver’s license, so I couldn’t get to David City to ride with them,” Korinek said. “But I did finally get to David City, and we went in and stayed at a hotel and had tryouts for two days.”
Korinek remembers some 300 participants. He also remembered they were supposed to be 16 years of age. Korinek wouldn’t turn 16 until that December 31. Even so, he signed up and went through the tryout.
Sure enough, Korinek and a catcher from an American Legion team in Omaha were the only two from the tryouts the Cardinals’ scouts asked to stick around.
“I tried out for center field. I had a very good tryout camp, both at the plate and in the field,” Korinek said. “When they called both of us in, they took us back out on the field, and I had to throw balls to first base, second base, third base and catcher, from center field. They probably threw a hundred plus balls at me to find out what I had.”
Both players impressed the scouts, who wanted both of them to sign contracts on the spot. Korinek worried immediately that he had lied about his age. He fessed up, but the scouts had no problem with how old he was. They wanted him to sign.
“I said I’m not going to sign a contract right now. I have to talk to my parents and I have to talk to my coach,” Korinek said. “They said, ‘We’ll be out to your place tomorrow morning.’ So they drove out to my home, with my parents in the living room. And they wanted me to sign this contract for $4,000. Of course, we didn’t know what $4,000 looked like at that time.”
Korinek still hadn’t talked to his coach, so he still wouldn’t sign. No problem, the scouts said. They’d stick around another day and come to Korinek’s game, which happened to be on a Sunday, the Fourth of July, a twilight game in David City.
After the game, as fireworks were going off, the scouts again told Korinek they’d be at his parents the next morning about signing. In the meantime, after the game, he talked to his coach, Bud Krisinger.
“He said, ‘Denny, probably you shouldn’t sign, because I’m sure you’re going to get an athletic scholarship somewhere, and I want you to get your education first. They can’t take that away from you.’
“That’s exactly what he told me. I still remember that.”
That athletic scholarship, of course, would be football, because baseball offered no scholarships. And Korinek was also an accomplished football player, having played 6-man football for Ulysses High School and scoring 118 career touchdowns – a state record that held until just last season.
The scouts for the Cardinals again made their promised visit to the Korinek home on Monday morning, only this time, their offer had increased to $5,000, that reflective of the game performance they’d seen the previous night.
“They put the contract on the table,” Korinek said, “and said, ‘Sign here.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m going to wait. I want to get an education first.’
“They said, ‘OK, that’s fine with us.’ ”
And that ended Korinek’s flirtation with professional baseball.
He indeed received a four-year football scholarship, and he played as much baseball at Nebraska as spring football would allow.
“Bill Glassford and the coaching staff were pretty tight on me playing football,” Korinek said. “Jim Cederdahl, he quit the football team because of that. But I couldn’t quit because there was no baseball scholarship.”
Among his many fond memories at Nebraska is playing with Reynolds in both football and baseball. He considered him a very good friend.
“I was his understudy, but I played on the right-hand side and he played on the left-hand side,” Korinek said. “But when he got hurt – shoulder separation, lime in his eye, broke his leg – I moved over to the left side, too.
“I remember when Bobby was a senior and I was a sophomore, and Bobby came in a little overweight and Bill Glassford, he said, ‘Hey, Reynolds! How’s come you have those handlebars hanging over? Look at Korinek. He doesn’t have any.’ I just laughed.”
Korinek indeed earned his education and upon graduation got a “very good paying job,” coaching and teaching. He spent his entire career teaching and coaching football, track and golf at Ulysses, Wahoo and Omaha Bryan.
“I really didn’t ever pursue the baseball again,” he said, “which I wish I would have.”
Korinek then referenced a postcard on his dresser of a picture of the old Nebraska baseball stadium and diamond that, at that time, faced southeast toward the NU Coliseum.
“Truly, my heart was Nebraska,” Korinek said, “and it still is.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.