Without many scholarship offers in the summer of 1978, Wesclin High baseball standout Tom Ritzheimer was pondering his options when he got a call from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville coach Roy E. Lee.
That call led to an outstanding career with the Cougars that has landed Ritzheimer in the SIUE Athletics Hall of Fame. He and four other inductees will be honored, along with the 1977 baseball team and soccer team, on Sept. 10 at SIUE’s Meridian Ballroom.
Other Hall of Fame inductees include former SIUE soccer coach Ed Huneke, men’s soccer player Matt Molloy, softball and women’s basketball player Nancy Swain and Dr. Robert Bruker.
“I was looking at some jucos (junior colleges), but SIUE came through in the middle of the summer on a last-minute call,” said Ritzheimer, who played at SIUE from 1978 to 1981 and still holds the career and single-season batting average records. “At one point I was just going to school and also considered Rend Lake. Roy gave me a call in June and asked if I wanted to come up there, so I decided to go that route and everything worked out pretty well.”
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Reservations for the Sept. 10 Hall of Fame induction event event can be made by calling 618-650-2428. Tickets are $40 and include a pre-ceremony social hour.
I was looking at some jucos, but SIUE came through in the middle of the summer on a last-minute call.
Tom Ritzheimer on his late scholarship offer
Now 57, Ritzheimer has never been too far from a ballpark and lives in Trenton with his wife, Pat. He coached both of his sons’ youth league teams, played baseball in the Clinton County League for 21 years and still coaches that league’s Trenton Miners club.
The final game for “Gunner” Ritzheimer, the nickname stuck on him years ago by colorful former Wesclin High basketball coach Paul Lusk, was at age 36 as a center fielder in the CCL.
He is retired after working for 32 years as a cartographer and program manager in aeronautical safety at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency in St. Louis. Ritzheimer also turned in 31 years as a boys and girls high school basketball official.
Ritzheimer’s father, Rich Ritzheimer, was a Hall of Fame baseball player at Quincy University who spent two years in the minor leagues with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“Pretty much from the day we were born we were involved in baseball in some way,” said Tom Ritzheimer, whose brother, Dan Ritzheimer, also was a standout player at Wesclin and SIUE (1980-83). “My dad coached us since we were young and I coached my boys. It’s just been a way of life around our house; we didn’t know any other way.”
Son Paul Ritzheimer played at Murray State and another son, Jim Ritzheimer, played at SIUE.
Tom Ritzheimer’s .429 battting average for the SIUE Cougars in 1981 is still a school record, as is his .408 career batting average. Not bad for a designated hitter who also spent a lot of time on the mound as Ritzheimer also delivered 15 career victories and 19 complete games.
Pretty much from the day we were born we were involved in baseball in some way. My dad coached us since we were young and I coached my boys. It’s just been a way of life around our house; we didn’t know any other way.
He remains third all-time among SIUE players in career on-base percentage (.487) and ninth in slugging percentage (.587).
Ritzheimer played one year under Lee and three with former SIUE coach Gary “Bo” Collins. The baseball facility has always been isolated from the campus along Bluff Road, but was nowhere near as nice in those days as the renovated Simmons Baseball Complex.
“It’s evolved into quite the facility now,” Ritzheimer said. “Back then we just had two little old diamonds on Bluff Road. It was always windy and always cold it seemed liked, but it was a very good pitcher’s park.
“Most of the time that wind was coming out of the north.”
SIUE was primarily a commuter school during Ritzheimer’s time there, meaning he probably played before bigger crowds in high school and with the Trenton American Legion squad.
“We’ve been up there a couple of times and it’s completely different now,” he said. “It’s a legitimate complex now and it’s quite a beauty. They’ve got a good program and they’re in a good conference, too.”
Ritzheimer was recruited as a pitcher and did that almost exclusively until late in his sophomore season. Once the Cougars saw he could handle a bat, he became a regular in the lineup and on the mound as he pounded out a .429 average his senior year.
“I just took advantage of the opportunity when it came and I ended up being the DH,” Ritzheimer said. “I was a gap hitter — line drives, doubles —and for a big guy I could run a little bit back then. It was just put the ball in play and make something happen.”
Ritzheimer said he went to pre-draft tryouts for the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds but nothing materialized.
“It didn’t work out for me and it was no big deal, so I was happy with my career and my education was done,” Ritzheimer said. “I don’t regret not getting a chance, but sometimes you wonder what could have happened.”
The 1977 baseball team was SIUE’s eighth straight NCAA Division II Tournament qualifier and second straight club to advance to the Division II College World Series. The club finished eighth and was 25-18-1 under Lee, with star players that included Dave Schaake, Randy Manley, Jerry Deml, Stan Osterbur and Sam Patrovich.
The 1977 men’s soccer club finished third in the nation in Division I.