They call him Shark. And for good reason. Ken Schaake has maintained a spirited resolve in 43 years of coaching or playing American Legion baseball.
The Metro East Bears’ American Senior Legion manager blends persistence and performance, shaped with a shark’s tenacity.
“He’s one of a kind and has a deep respect for the game,” said longtime cohort Tim Stunkel, the pitching coach for Post 199/126. “His attention to detail is incredible.
“He knows the game of baseball inside and out.”
That wealth of knowledge helped Edwardsville Post 199 to the World Series championship in 1998 and state titles in 1998 and 2013.
Schaake, considering retirement following the end of the Bears’ 20-8 successful season, has enjoyed a storied Legion career that began playing for Edwardsville in the 1970s. He is a 1971 EHS graduate.
“It’s one year at a time,” Schaake said. “I enjoy coaching, but it (retirement) is a thought. It’s always on my mind.”
The 63-year-old Schaake has spent the past 36 years managing Legion teams, including 32 strictly for Post 199. He also piloted Alton Post 126 in 2010 and the Bears, a combination of local schools — mainly Alton and Edwardsville — the last three years. Metro East ended this season by finishing second to Rockport, Ind., in the Great Lakes Regional at SIUE.
“I’ve coached Legion baseball because I’ve liked it,” Schaake said. “It has helped me channel my emotions and being around the players kept me young at heart.”
Stunkel, Steve Haug, Nick Smith and Nick Paulda all coached with Schaake the past season. Stunkel, the pitching coach, played for Schaake in 2003-04.
“I never dreamed I would coach with him for 12 years,” said Stunkel, also contemplating retirement. “He really cares about the players and wants to give everybody a chance. He’s a genuine person.”
Schaake noted, “I want to make sure a player’s time in Legion baseball is an enjoyable one.”
He certainly has enjoyed his long ride. Dad Don and mom Evelyn encouraged him to play sports, notably baseball, at an early age. Schaake became a catcher, developing into a top one at EHS before going to SIUE.
“From the time I was eight years old, my dad was either a coach or manager and my mom attended all of the games,” Schaake said. “I can’t remember too many times they weren’t at my games, and that made an impression on me.”
They were among the first fans to arrive for every Bears game this season. Don keeps a scorebook and Evelyn serves as the team’s biggest booster. Brothers Dave and Mark also played sports, making it a family affair. Ken Schaake and wife, Bev, have two sons, Chris and Collin.
“My parents showed me the importance of family-first,” Schaake said. “It’s really special to have them at my games.”
Nothing was more special for them in 1998 when Edwardsville became the first Illinois team outside of Chicagoland to win the Legion World Series.
“I can’t even explain the feeling of winning it,” Schaake said of that national triumph in Las Vegas. “It was quite an experience and something you will remember for the rest of your life.”
One player who will never forget it is Chad Opel, a 1998 Edwardsville High graduate. He earned MVP honors in the World Series that year after helping the high school team post a 40-0 record and capture a state championship.
“Ken was the best guy to play for in the summer and he complemented (EHS coach) Tom Pile very well, even though they had different coaching styles,” Opel said.
“Ken related well to the players and he cared deeply and passionately about the game. He lets us do our thing and coaches us when we needed to be coached.
“It was a long summer season, but Ken kept us on an even keel and winning the World Series was one of the highlights of my life.”
Schaake pointed out, “The players still talk about it and have good memories from it. We had different types of individuals on that team, but they meshed together. So it’s by far the biggest experience and thrill I’ve had with a team.”
Another enjoyable moment came in high school baseball during Schaake’s senior season.
“Bob Gregor was our coach and we had a sub-.500 team (12-13 record) during the season,” recalled Schaake, a co-captain and one of three seniors.
“But we won the district and regional, and made it all the way to the sectional before we lost to Lincoln.”
Waukegan won the state championship in 1971 and a year later, Alton finished second to Skokie Niles West.
By 1972, Schaake was doing some catching at SIUE under the watchful eye of coach Roy Lee, who pitched for the New York Giants in 1945. After Schaake graduated as a certified Cougar, he went on to work at Hartford Insurance and R.P. Lumber for years.
Yet baseball, especially Legion ball, remained a big part of his life. He capped it by coaching the Bears, who played host to the Great Lakes Regional the past two years. Alton Post 126 also welcomed the Legion World Series in 2000, when Danville, Calif., defeated Paducah, Ky., in the championship game.
“The three main teams were Alton, Edwardsville and Bethalto,” Schaake said of general manager Dennis Sharp’s idea to combine the programs. “Steve Haug and I have worked together in Edwardsville and I knew Dennis from managing Alton in 2010. Nick Smith (from Bethalto) also liked the idea of putting the team together.”
In 2015, the Bears finished second in state and were runners-up to Midland, Mich., in the regional. So aligning the local posts proved to be a successful venture.
Thus, Shark had himself another Legion powerhouse program.
And where did his colorful nickname originate?
Schaake explains it this way:
“It came in 1990, when Mark Little was playing for us. I think it was during the Fifth Division Tournament at Carlyle,” he said. “Mark was being interviewed and he talked about how you didn’t want to run up the score on anybody during the regular season.”
Nevertheless, when the playoffs began, it became a new season and Schaake tried to impress that on the players. Little got the message and relayed it to the press.
“Mark said in an interview after a game that ‘Shark told us when you play in the tournament, every run counts. And you have to be like sharks in the water and smell the blood.’”
Little’s reference to Schaake as Shark stuck and the rest is history. Shark clearly has had a whale of a career, covering more than four decades.
Follow #AdVsports on Twitter