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John's Journal: 53 Seasons And Cathedral’s Karn Is Going Strong

82-Year-Old Baseball Coach Stresses Learning And Improving

Posted: Wednesday, April 10, 2024 - 11:52 AM


Bob Karn.

Bob Karn is many things. He’s an educator, he’s a coach, he’s a philosopher, he’s a believer in young people. He’s also a fan of the comedian George Carlin, particularly Carlin’s famous routine about the differences between football and baseball.

Here’s an excerpt:

In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! - I hope I'll be safe at home!

“In baseball you start at home and your goal is to get back home,” Karn said the day before the season opener of his 53rd year as baseball coach at St. Cloud Cathedral. “Who doesn’t want to go back home?”

Karn and I were talking on the phone Monday afternoon, and on Tuesday the Crusaders hosted Albany at Joe Faber Field in St. Cloud. The Albany Huskies played well and came away with a 9-4 win. It was the 1,187th career game for Karn.

After the final out and the postgame handshake line, Karn stressed the positives while talking to his boys. The gentleman with white hair and a white beard who speaks calmly, often with one or both hands extended, said, “I thought we did a lot of good things. And there are a lot of things we're going to learn from. I’ve said this before: Failure is a great teacher. It teaches us how we can improve.”

He told the team that he was impressed by how they never stopped competing and even threw in a vague reference to Laurel and Hardy, a comedy duo that, like George Carlin, current teenagers would need to Google.

For more than five decades, Karn has taught the game of baseball at Cathedral, his alma mater. He graduated from the school in 1959, joined the faculty in 1969 and became head baseball coach in 1971, when he was 29 years old. Here he is today, 82 and going strong.

Cathedral won nine state championships under Karn between 1977 and 2015. The Crusaders have been to state 20 times, most recently in 2018.

Karn has won more baseball games than any coach in Minnesota. Tuesday’s result gave him a career record of 834-343. And he doesn’t care about any of that. For Karn -- a lifelong educator who was a fixture in the Cathedral language arts department for 54 years before retiring from the classroom in 2023 – teaching never gets old. 

“I enjoyed being in the classroom,” he said, “especially teaching to students who wanted to be there. It’s the same thing in baseball, working with kids who want to play baseball.”

His 53 years in coaching is another record for Minnesota high school baseball coaches. Next on that list is Brainerd’s Lowell Scearcy, who coached for 49 years before retiring in 2017 with a record of 765-325 … second to Karn in victories.

Karn knows nothing is forever. Mention the word “retirement” and the philosopher responds.

“A lot of it is based on if I really believe that I’m doing a good job and my health is there, and I can find a way for players to enjoy baseball,” he said. “There’s a day that will come. Before I stopped teaching in the classroom, I had one of the most enjoyable and exciting years and I knew it was time. I don’t want to overstay my welcome.”

In the classroom, where one of his favorite classes was Advanced Placement Literature, Karn was known for his devotion to great works. He lectured on transcendentalism, guided his students through The Great Gatsby, The Things They Carried, The Grapes of Wrath. He found ways to relate literature -- and life -- to baseball. His classroom included posters featuring Einstein and the game he loves.

He played basketball and baseball in high school and has never lived anywhere but St. Cloud … other than a Vietnam-era stint in the Army National Guard that took him briefly to Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Washington. He graduated from St. John’s University in 1964.

Karn was friends with the late John Gagliardi, who coached football at St. John’s for 59 years and died in 2018. Gagliardi was famous for many quirks, including the Johnnies’ “Nice day” drill … when the players would lay on their backs, look up at the sky and remark to each other about how nice it was. Karn has done the same thing with his baseball players.

“We need to open ourselves up to how beautiful everything around us is,” he said.

The young Karn was an assistant baseball coach to Crusaders head coach Paul Wenner and took over when Wenner was named principal at Cathedral.

“I believed I was ready but as I look back on it, the relationship between coaches and player was so different,” Karn said. “If you said something back then, the players would do it. In today’s world, they have access to so much information. Sometimes before they listen to coaches, they already have a whole set of beliefs.”

Among other differences in more than five decades is what happens before a season starts. Today’s athletes need physical exams, eligibility forms and baseball players have a week devoted to arm care before full practices can begin.

“We have the information we need to let everybody play safely and enjoy playing,” Karn said. “In my younger days you made sure you had enough bats and balls and you were off to practice.”

Charlie Burg, Karn’s longest-tenured assistant coach (20 years), described Bob like this: “He's a teacher. He's a philosopher, and he teaches the kids a lot. He’s an excellent baseball coach.”

What keeps Karn going? “The love of baseball, just the love of the game,” Burg said. “And he loves the kids. He loves working with this age group.”

Karn and his wife Karen have been married for 52 years; they have three kids and five grandkids. Bob doesn’t have any social media accounts. He does have a LinkedIn page but has never used it and isn’t sure who created it; maybe it was someone at Cathedral. He does communicate via texts, sometimes ending a message with this: “Keep Swinging. Bob.”

When I asked Karn what his career might have been if not for teaching and coaching, he was stumped. Because living the life of an educator is the only thing he ever wanted to do.

“I’m not sure I can answer that,” he said. “When I started, I stayed in it and I didn’t really think about a lot of other options.

“When you wake up in the morning and feel a sense of joy and you’re glad that you’re doing what you’re doing, that’s a good thing. Teaching language arts, I was always able to do a lot of reading and was exposed to lots of different kinds of things. I always felt like my mind was staying active and not staying in the same place.”

He's still moving, although maybe at a little slower pace than in years past. During Tuesday’s game, Karn walked to the mound to settle the Crusaders down during a four-run fifth inning by Albany.

Kirby Hemmesch was calling the game on the radio for KASM in Albany, and as Karn walked (Ambled? Strolled?) back to the dugout, Kirby began describing how Cathedral sophomore pitcher Jack Hamak was ready to deliver the next pitch. Then came this: “Hamak steps off the rubber and waits for his coach to get back into the dugout.”

It took a few seconds, sure. But Karn returned to his familiar spot on the bench, leaned on a railing and resumed watching and coaching and teaching.

After the game ended and he had talked to the players, Karn was asked for his assessment of season opener No. 53.

“We made some errors, but honestly we have enough players, good players, that we will figure it out and will be much better.”

That’s it, right there, for any teacher and any coach. Take small steps, learn from mistakes, get back out there and never quit.

“I love the phrase ‘Play ball,’ ” he said. “That term, ‘play.’ It seems we sometimes almost replace ‘play ball’ with ‘work ball,’ … ‘You’ve gotta work at it.’

“I’ve told our players, ‘Every time you hear me say the word work, tell me and I’ll bring donuts or something.’ We’re turning the high school experience into almost a little professional experience. I like the idea of getting together and playing.”

Keep swinging, Bob.

--MSHSL senior content creator John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected] 

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