Don Welke, a college baseball coach in Michigan in the 1970s before he went on to a legendary Major League Baseball scouting career during which he discovered such future stars as John Olerud and Jim Abbott, died Wednesday. He was 75.
Welke spent more than 50 years in baseball, and most recently was vice president of scouting operations for the San Diego Padres. He previously worked for the Rangers, Phillies, Dodgers, Orioles, Blue Jays, Royals and Reds.
A native of Harvard, Ill., Welke attended Carthage College in Wisconsin. Upon graduation, he took a job as a graduate assistant with the Eastern Michigan baseball team, while working on a graduate degree from EMU.
He then became the baseball coach at Concordia College (now Concordia University) in Ann Arbor, from 1970-75. His 72 wins in baseball rank fourth in program history. He also coached some basketball at Concordia.
After leaving Concordia, Welke was athletic director for a year at Evart High School, just south of Cadillac.
His roots were in education, but he used the offseason, or summers, to launch his scouting career. While at Eastern Michigan, Welke was scouting Midwest prospects for the Reds. And while at Concordia and Evart, he was scouting the same terrain for the Royals. His full-time scouting career began in 1977, with the Blue Jays, a first-year expansion team.
Among his biggest hits was recommending the Blue Jays draft a first baseman from Washington State named Olerud in the third round of the 1989 draft. Olerud went on to play 17 seasons in the major leagues, finishing with a lifetime slash line of .295/.398/.465.
Welke also pushed for the Blue Jays to draft Abbott, a one-armed pitcher from Flint, in the 1985 draft. Abbott was taken in the 36th round and the Blue Jays offered $50,000 plus college, but he didn't sign and went on to attend Michigan. Three years later, he was a first-round pick by the Angels, and had a 10-year major-league career that included a no-hitter and a third-place finish in 1991 Cy Young voting.
"To this day, love the family, just tremendous people, tremendous relationship," Welke said in a 2014 interview, adding the Blue Jays tried to sign Abbott at the 1992 winter meetings, only to see him go to the Yankees instead. "Jim Abbott was a great story."
Another one of his successes: Fraser native Pat Hentgen, a right-hander drafted by the Blue Jays in the fifth round of the 1986 draft. He went on to pitch 14 seasons in the majors, winning the 1996 Cy Young Award.
Welke played a significant role in piecing together Blue Jays rosters that won the 1992 and 1993 World Series championships, and was an advanced scout for 2000 Team USA, which won gold at the Sydney Games.
Years later, with the Rangers, he was heavily involved in the acquisitions of such players as Elvis Andrus, Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre, critical pieces in Texas' back-to-back World Series appearances in 2010-11. In 2012, Welke was named Midwest Scout of the Year.
Welke, who was to turn 76 this weekend, had three children, and lived in San Diego.