For the past seven decades, John “Jack” Kaiser has been the backbone of St. John’s University’s athletic department.
But his relationship to the school extends much further.
Kaiser, 86, started out as a student athlete in the 1940s on the baseball team. A former athletic director, he now serves as the athletic director emeritus.
“I’m here every day, Monday through Friday, and I love it,” Kaiser said. “It’s the delight of my life, second only to Connie, my wife.”
Kaiser was a senior and the captain of the baseball team when St. John’s was known as the Redmen in 1949. That season he led the squad to its first College World Series appearance. His talent for baseball led him down a path he had not intended to follow.
He entered St. John’s in 1944 on an academic scholarship with the intention of majoring in history and becoming a teacher. Because he loved to play sports, he played both basketball and baseball in his freshman year.
After finishing just one semester, he was drafted by the U.S. Army as World War II was winding down.
During the year-and-a-half he was in the Army, he completed training in America and traveled to Okinawa, Japan.
There, while playing a baseball game with some fellow soldiers, he broke his ankle sliding into second base.
He was sent back to the U.S. for rehab and later discharged from the Army.
“Of course it hurt,” Kaiser joked, but “it was better than being hit by a cannonball.”
He reentered St. John’s and finished his degree in three years, graduating in 1949.
He wanted to play baseball in the major leagues, but was not immediately drafted. So he played for a local team for a year.
Then the Red Sox took notice of his talents and offered him a contract in 1951. He played in the team’s farm system from 1951 to 1954.
During that time, he married his first wife, Faye, and had his first daughter. When he realized he could not make it to the big leagues, he decided to look for a more stable job to provide for his family.
“There was Ted Williams in left field, Dom DiMaggio in center and Jackie Jensen in right,” Kaiser said, naming three franchise Red Sox players at the time. “So I said I better get another job. I would have been playing in the minor leagues forever.”
In 1953, he started coaching freshman basketball at St. John’s. Three years later, he became head coach of the baseball team, getting them to the College World Series three times — in 1960, 1966 and 1968.
“I had very, very good people on my team — not only baseball players, but people,” Kaiser said.
After compiling a 367-133 record as the head baseball coach, Kaiser became the school’s athletic director in 1973.
But one of his greatest accomplishments came about six years later.
In 1978, Kaiser met with three other athletic directors of top college basketball schools — Dave Gavitt of Providence College, Jake Crouthamel of Syracuse University and Frank Rienzo of Georgetown University — to talk about forming the Big East Conference. A year later, the conference was realized. Decades later, it would be known as the strongest college basketball league in the country by many sports enthusiasts.
Kaiser was upset when big-money college football contracts threatened to lure schools away from the league and break up the Big East earlier this year. St. John’s and six other Catholic schools came together and saved the conference by redesigning the league.
“I think the new outfit is going to be good,” Kaiser said of the new Big East Conference. “They are going to be competitive, both athletic and academically. And nothing will distract them. It’s basketball-oriented, as it started out to be.”
After seeing the school through as athletic director for 22 years, Kaiser was named athletic director emeritus.
Nowadays he reaches out to alumni and recruits them to events. He also does fundraising and assists current student athletes with internships and job opportunities through the connections he has made over the years.
Kaiser has watched as St. John’s expanded from a building in Brooklyn to an international institution with a sprawling main campus that has a church, tennis courts, baseball and soccer fields and thousands of students.
He said he enjoys his current role because he feels he can make an impact in the lives of student athletes.
“I get to meet the student athletes, not just watch their games,” Kaiser said. “I feel I can be a positive image to help young people, not only to be better in their sport.”
Jack Kaiser, right, when he was named head coach of the St. John’s baseball team in 1956.