by Jim Riggs
October 18, 2014
A Great Guy, By George
I first met Bataitis early in 1975 when I was doing volunteer photo work for JCC. One assignment was to take portraits of any staff members who desired one. The college set me up with a room and any staff member could walk in to have their photo taken. One of my first customers was Bataitis, who was then the JCC athletic director.
We had never met, but this friendly man made me feel right at home. He was happy to know I was a JCC graduate and he said he thought it was a great idea to give the staff a chance to have their photos taken. Bataitis also noted he had never had a photo taken that he liked.
I had everyone pose at numerous angles, but Bataitis preferred a profile shot. I recall he almost looked like Julius Caesar in his profile angle. That was long before digital photography so it was a few days later when I showed Bataitis a print of his profile and he loved it. He complimented me which felt good to someone trying to get a media career started. I never forgot that photo, the one printed with this column.
In the spring of that year, I began working at The Post-Journal in the sports department and during the winter season JCC became almost my second home as I was covering plenty of basketball and wrestling. And I saw plenty of Bataitis, who always had something nice to say.
I remember a men’s basketball game at Villa Maria College that the Jayhawks won on a shot at the buzzer. I took a photo of the winning shot that appeared in the paper and I was not pleased with it. It was rather grainy and not too sharp. However, the next time I saw Bataitis all he could talk about was how it was a great photo. When I brought up what I thought was wrong with it, Bataitis pointed out everything he thought was right with it, such as the ball in the air and the scoreboard in the background showing 00:00 and the tie score. He made my grainy photo sound like Pulitzer Prize material.
In March of 1976, Bataitis and I were roommates for a week. The JCC men’s basketball team won its second straight NJCAA Region 3 championship and made its first trip to the national tournament at Hutchinson, Kans. Then Post-Journal sports editor Frank Hyde made the push for his newest sportswriter to accompany the Jayhawks to Kansas and I ended up sharing a room with Bataitis.
Bataitis probably had second thoughts about that arrangement because on the nights JCC had a game I had to write the game story in our room. That was long before computers, so I was pounding on a typewriter into the wee hours of the morning. Then I had to call the Post-Journal and dictate my story.
Meanwhile, Bataitis tossed and turned in bed trying to get some sleep. Then one afternoon he was “banned” from our bathroom for about an hour. Like I mentioned before, it was long before computers and also before digital photography and even one-hour film developing at drug stores. So one day I turned our bathroom into a darkroom and developed my film there and then mailed the negatives to The Post-Journal.
That Jayhawks basketball team was coached by Nick Creola, who was a point guard for the JCC Muskies coached by Bataitis in the early 1970’s. In my early years at The Post-Journal one of my main assignments during the summer was covering golf tournaments. But there was one tournament that I was always invited to play in addition to covering it - the George Bataitis Invitational.
Bataitis had coached golf at JCC for more than 25 years and in 1973 some former JCC golfers suggested to Bataitis that they get together for a round of golf. They decided to do it again next year with more golfers and the field was 20. Bataitis decided the event should be better organized and within a few years the George Bataitis Invitational, or GBI, was a full-fledged event with 90 entrants. But Bataitis stressed, “The objective was to have fun.”
And it was fun. Even though former Jayhawks such as Dick Cole and Joe Johnson who won the GBI with scores of 65, 66, 68, and 69, the golfer with the highest score was always presented the “Fred Foglesanger Award.”
Keeping with the fun, it was decided the winner of the GBI should receive a jacket, much like the Masters champion. But Bataitis recalled saying, “Let’s not make a big deal out of it.” And the committee didn’t. “I think the first one we got at the Salvation Army,” Bataitis recalled in 2006. About the first GBI jacket. “It was from about 1904; it was a crappy-looking thing.”
Roger Loop won the ugly mustard-yellow jacket with a torn pocket for the first three years and kept it hidden in his closet. Cole then won the GBI jacket for the next three years and stored it in the trunk of his car.
When Johnson won his second title in 1980, he was presented with a new jacket. It was green and was purchased for $2. The GBI eventually ended, but it was brought back by JCC as the George Bataitis Open (GBO) and in 25 years it has raised more than $200,000 for the George Bataitis Athletic Scholarship Fund. So Bataitis is still giving to the college he loved.
It was always good to see that Bataitis smile around the JCC campus at sporting events, even after he retired in 1988. And it was appropriate that he was at almost all the events because during nearly 40 years at JCC he had been involved with almost all the students. And many of those former students are now JCC coaches.
And I’ll never forget how in 1975 Bataitis was nice to another former JCC student trying to get a media career started.