SAN CARLOS — To quantify Jim Magnuson as a humble baseball aficionado seems a tad simple, yet quite fitting.
A native of San Carlos, he never strayed too far from his roots until his death last month at the age of 71.
John James Magnuson, most often referred to as Jim — or his nickname “Mag” — left quite an imprint on the local baseball community, beginning with the summer after his freshman year at Carlmont High.
“A lot of people associate San Carlos with Barry Bonds,” said Chris Magnuson, 33, his son. “But it was my dad, along with the other members of the ’61 Babe Ruth championship team, that put San Carlos on the map.”
A 15-year-old catcher at the time, Jim Magnuson transferred to the now-defunct San Carlos High as a sophomore.
One of his close friends, Richard Lelo, stayed at Carlmont. The rivalry that ensued came with mutual respect.
“He was a tough out,” Lelo said. “It’s not like you can throw a curveball to Magnuson and get him out, for sure. You had to mix him up and throw under his chin to get him to back up a little bit. He wouldn’t just sit on the fastball. Nothing bothered him too much and he’d hit whatever he felt like hitting. He knew how to play the game and he did it right.”
Baseball culminated each academic year in the spring for the three-sport standout at San Carlos High after football in the fall and basketball in the winter.
“He was a great tight end and he could score — shoot from outside or drive it to the basket,” Lelo said. “He was an all-around athlete.”
Reunited at CSM
After graduating from high school in 1964, the next stop wasn’t too far away as Magnuson and Lelo reunited at College of San Mateo.
Arm problems forced a shift to the outfield for Magnuson under the tutelage of John Noce, a Hall-of-Fame head coach at CSM for 31 years.
“The biggest compliment I can pay him is that he was a real Bulldog,” Noce said.
He added: “He was extremely well-liked by everybody. He had a good personality and a good sense of humor.”
As previously established, Magnuson could also hit, a trend that continued at every level.
“He had a really super unique ability to hit the ball at the very last second,” Lelo said. “Most hitters hit the ball at the front of the plate. Jim never did. Jim hit the ball after it crossed the plate and hit it out in right field, so he had what you’d call an inside-out swing. Very few people can do that. Hitting behind the runners is really valuable.”
It resulted in Magnuson routinely spraying doubles into the right-centerfield gap at CSM, which earned him special recognition.
“We ended up calling that Mag’s alley — named after him — for years,” Noce said. “He did show power on occasion, but he was a good gap hitter. He got a lot of extra-base hits.”
As a sophomore in 1966 with the Bulldogs, the baseball team entered the last day of the season on a 16-game winning streak before a showdown with City College of San Francisco.
“I think it was the longest win streak that my teams had in my 31 years at San Mateo,” Noce said. “And on the effort to get 17, that was the day we got beat by City and it was for the championship.”
Magnuson and Lelo parted ways again, this time with the former bound for UC Berkeley, while the latter had a scholarship to Cal Poly.
Neither stayed there for more than a year.
Magnuson was selected out of Cal in the 1967 MLB Draft by the Philadelphia Phillies, while Lelo signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Twins.
After three years in the minor leagues at affiliates for the Phillies and the Boston Red Sox, plus a brief stint in Quebec while once again sharing a dugout with Noce, injuries put an end to his days as a professional baseball player.
“Just gathering different notes and different things, it’s really cool to see the impact,” Chris said. “You don’t realize and it’s cliché, but I really didn’t notice until he was gone.”
“There’s some really neat stuff in his records,” added Deanna, his daughter born in 1983. “He was pretty humble about most of it.”
Return to Carlmont
Jim Magnuson returned to the Bay Area in 1969 to earn a bachelor’s degree in physical education and a minor in science from San Jose State.
In 1975, he was hired as a teacher at Carlmont, where life came full circle before he retired in 2009.
His influence was felt during back-to-back Central Coast Section baseball championships for the Scots in 1992 and 1993, the only such titles in school history.
“Do you ever remember that TV show Columbo with Peter Falk?” asked Terry Stogner, a close friend of the family and Carlmont’s athletic director until 2005. “That’s Mag. He is that kind of a character. He always presented the picture that he was kind of confused at times, that didn’t quite know what was going on, and down underneath, just like Columbo, he always solved the crime at the end.
“Mag was a lot smarter than people gave him credit for. He presented a certain picture, but underneath he was a perfect baseball man.”
Magnuson sat in the dugout for the 7-2 victory on May 29, 1992, over Santa Cruz at San Jose Municipal Stadium to clinch the CCS Division II title.
It was his last game as head coach.
“He left the program right at the middle of its height,” Stogner said. “He decided that there were other things more important in life and he needed to pay attention to his family at the time.”
The keys to the baseball program now belonged to one of his former pupils in Doug Williams.
“Mag was instrumental in helping me as a young coach,” said Williams, who graduated from Carlmont in 1983 and is currently in his 24th season as the head coach at CSM.
The Scots didn’t allow a run in the 1993 CCS playoffs, recording four straight shutouts en route to another Division II title.
It’s not about him
His daughter, who attended Notre Dame-Belmont, vaguely remembered watching some of her father’s baseball games at Carlmont.
“He was really proud of all the accomplishments of his kids, but he didn’t really take a lot of credit for it,” Deanna said. “He would talk about the specific players and their skills, less about his coaching.”
“He was leadership material,” Lelo said. “He played everything straight in his life.”
“He was not the kind of coach that told you to do it his way or you won’t play,” Stogner said. “He was always a coach that let players work it out for themselves. I think one of his favorite expressions when a kid would go out on his own and try and do something and it wouldn’t work, Mag would be, ‘Well, how is that working for you?’
“He let kids learn on their own and didn’t force the way things were going to be done. I mean, he put the players in the right position at the right time and made the right calls and that type of stuff, but the little things. ‘What do you think about this? Well, why don’t you try it and see how it works?’ ”
Not going anywhere
It’s not as if Magnuson disappeared from the baseball scene after he left the dugout.
“In talking to him the other day, I got the impression that even after he retired he spent a lot of time over there out at Burton Park in San Carlos observing the youth baseball program,” said Noce, who paid a visit to his home in San Carlos only days before Magnuson lost an abrupt battle with lung cancer on the evening of March 9.
“One of our old neighbors has a son that’s playing for San Carlos Little League right now,” Chris said. “And in recent years he would go back and try to stay involved. That was his life, it was baseball.”
He added: “What else did he talk about, right?”
Hardcore fans of the San Francisco Giants, one item off the bucket list came in 2010 with a World Series title, promptly followed by trophies in 2012 and 2014.
“I remember sitting next to dad on the couch watching those championships,” Chris said. “We didn’t know if it was going to happen in his lifetime and we got three in five years, so it was really exciting.”
“The Magnuson clan are definitely Giants fans,” said Lelo, who hoped to get his old friend, an avid fisherman, for a trip to his home just south of the Oregon border.
“I never got to take him on my drift boat down the beautiful Smith River,” he added.
Celebration of life
Diagnosed with terminal stage IV lung cancer in November, it took a while for word to get out to his friends, many who didn’t find out until after his death.
“There’s a lot of shock and disbelief because he wasn’t one to inconvenience anyone, let alone with something as minimal as his death, right?” Chris said.
“It was a disaster,” Lelo said. “His friends didn’t know until like five or six weeks before he passed. … We knew it was coming, but you just can’t be really prepared.”
In lieu of a traditional funeral service, the family opted for a celebration of life at a place near and dear to Magnuson’s heart: Harry’s Hofbrau in Redwood City.
“He loved going to Harry’s,” Deanna said. “He was a sucker for that place. He loved roast-carved turkey. It’s kind of an old-school restaurant, which he felt there aren’t that many of those around these days.”
“It’s not too formal, so that’s the way wanted it to be,” Chris said. “He didn’t really want anything at all and it’s our way to get some closure. Everybody can hang out and tell some stories about dad and have a good time.”
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Family and friends will gather on Saturday from 4 to 7 p.m. at Harry’s Hofbrau, including the newest member of the family and another item off Jim Magnuson’s bucket list.
“In the last couple of years, when his daughter Deanna married Sean, they graced him as a grandpa in the last year of his life with little Ethan,” Lelo said. “And that’s what really made him proud. He was quite happy with little baby Ethan. And Chris is like a 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6 tall spring bean, a promising young kid. They all have a bright life looking forward.”
Jim Magnuson is survived by his sister, Karen Magnuson of Clearlake, son-in-law and daughter, Sean and Deanna Magnuson Griffin, and grandson, Ethan Griffin of Redwood City, son, Chris Magnuson of San Carlos and ex-wife, Nanci Glass Magnuson, of Belmont.