REDWOOD: A SCHOOL OF CHAMPIONS

By STEVEN TRAVERS

High school, a time-honored American experience from Maine to Miami, from Louisiana to Los Angeles. You enter at age 13 or 14, a mere child, inexperienced, hopeful but nervous. You are for the first time classmates of people who have attained a certain amount of fame, usually some sports hero entertaining a scholarship to play at a big-time college. You do the four years and now you are 17 or 18, no longer a child but by no means an “adult” in the true sense of the word. For most, it is a time of anonymity; you are as unknown when you leave, as you were when you entered. Most will never become household names. Hopefully they will get married, be important to their spouses, their children, their co-workers and friends.

But some high schools in the United States, for varying reasons, produce a plethora of important people. Most are Catholic schools or upscale prep academies where the wealthy and elite send their off spring. De La Salle Institute in Chicago is well known for having provided a centuries’ worth of highly placed political figures in the Windy City. Most of the Daley machine, and broadcaster Bryant Gumbel, are among the distinguished De La Salle alumni.

Another De La Salle, this one located in Concord, California, is considered by far the greatest prep football program of all time; winners of 151 straight games from 1992 to 2004, with seven national championships and many NFL alumni. California seems to dominate sports. Serra High in San Mateo is another Catholic school that has produced some of the biggest names, among them Barry Bonds and Tom Brady.

Schools like Choate and Amherst have famously produced Presidents and Supreme Court justices. Public schools rarely rate near the elite private high schools, whether Catholic or Protestant. But in Northern California there is a public school that has slowly but surely emerged as the breeding ground for champions, in sports and other fields. It is not necessarily a “gold mine” of high school athletic talent, yet nuggets have been discovered. Academically, it has always had a good enough reputation, but this is mostly because its students generally come from affluent wealthy families that stress education.

The name of this place is Redwood High School in picturesque Larkspur, California, in the middle of Marin County, a leafy suburb just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. In 2003 and again in 2004, one of its graduates, Pete Carroll, coached back-to-back national champions at the University of Southern California. In 2013 Carroll managed to win a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks. Aside from these achievements, Carroll’s 2005 Trojans and 2014 Seahawks came within whiskers of ultimate victory. As it stands, Carroll must rank with the likes of Bear Bryant and Paul Brown, one of the greatest of all football coaches who may make both the Pro and College Halls of Fame.

As this is written, in the middle of a virus crisis, a second-year California Governor named Gavin Newsom is winning plaudits for his handling of the situation. Certainly, in comparison to his counterpart in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who elicits no confidence and cannot stop his city from spreading the epidemic. As it stands right now, Newsom appears to be not only the front-runner for the Democrat nomination for President in 2024, but also literally the only member of his party who is competent, not merely a valid White House contender. Yes, you guessed it: Newsom is a graduate of Redwood High School.

Redwood has produced a number of notable figures in the world of politics. Terence Hallinan was the district attorney of San Francisco and for decades one of America’s most famed criminal defense lawyers. Dennis Ross was an ambassador and lifelong guru at the State Department who has served under numerous Presidents, Republican and Democrat alike. He is considered the go-to guy on tricky diplomatic questions.

The unparalleled Robin Williams was a classmate of Pete Carroll’s at Redwood. “I just remember that he was loud,” Carroll recalled. Another Oscar-nominated actor came out of Redwood, David Strathairn. He has been in numerous hit movies spanning decades. In The Godfather, a scene with Al Pacino and Diane Keaton was shot in Ross, and in it a young boy on a bike rides by and says, “Hi Miss Adams.” That boy, Mike Murphy, played football at Redwood, and was an Airborne Ranger jumping into Grenada. He retired a general. It was once rumored that singer Neil Young was an alum because he sang, “I’ve been to Hollywood, I’ve been to Redwood.” Folk star Janis Joplin lived practically next door to Redwood on West Baltimore Avenue during the height of her fame.

Anne Lamott is one of the nation’s leading novelists. Eric Schmitt won a Pulitzer Prize with the New York Times. Mark Fainaru-Wada co-wrote Game of Shadows, one of the most important sports books ever; it broke open the use of steroids in sports.

There have been dubious Redwood graduates, as well. Several pornographic film stars went there. One of them the school immortalized on its Avenue of Giants before public opinion forced her removal. John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban,” went there. Conservative talk radio host Dr. Michael Savage found it perplexing that the school could produce a traitor, yet also produce his own son, Russ Weiner, one of America’s leading business giants, having sold his company Rockstar Energy Drinks to PepsiCo for over $4 billion!

“The largest sale of a non-alcoholic beverage company in history,” according to his father, who recently touted Russ’s success in an on-air interview.

For the better part of two decades, however, one man seemed to dominate Redwood. His name was Al Endriss, and in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, he presided over what probably was the best high school baseball program in all of the United States.

Endriss was a product of Oakland’s St. Elizabeth High School. He was an old school Catholic, Italian with a trace of Cherokee Indian. The Oakland of his youth was probably the single greatest producer of sports talent ever, anywhere. Among the athletes from the surrounding East Bay were the likes of Billy Martin, Jackie Jensen, Bill Russell, Vada Pinson, Frank Robinson, Dick Bass, Joe Morgan, Bill Buckner, Tug McGraw, Rickey Henderson, Dave Stewart and Dennis Eckersley.

Endriss played in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization and was influenced by the likes of Branch Rickey, Al Campanis and Dick Williams. He also was a football star who played for the 49ers and in Canada. He married and got into coaching, and in 1958 accepted the position of head baseball coach and assistant football coach at the brand new Redwood High.

“I was brought in by Bob Troppmann,” recalled Endriss of Redwood’s first athletic director and head football coach. Troppmann assembled an all-star cast of coaches who wanted to coach at what was thought to be a new form of “super school.”

“The housing project of Greenbrae was the biggest factor in opening Redwood,” said Endriss. In addition, the wealthy families of Tiburon insisted their children be in the Redwood district instead of neighboring Tamalpais High, which was beginning to experience racial strife due to its proximity to Marin City, an African-American community rising out of World War II’s shipyards. But Redwood immediately had the largest student population in Marin and was a Bay Area sports power.

Redwood was thought to be “experimental” to the point of “progressive,” a sign of the times. It introduced the so-called “new math” and emphasized modern teaching methods. It was built on an enormous landfill, several square miles of what had always been San Francisco Bay and adjacent swamps just east of Magnolia Avenue stretching to the unincorporated parts of San Rafael and to a rocky peninsula extending to Tiburon. Landfill was considered to be the wave of the future in construction. Candlestick Park and San Francisco’s Marina District were built on landfill, as was much of Alameda and in Los Angeles, the swank Marina Del Rey. The full affect of earthquakes on landfill was not yet known. But it allowed extension of Highway 101, which not only brought tourism to Marin, but also popularized the Napa wine country to the north.

Then there was the architecture. Since the age of Plato and Aristotle, great architecture was Greco-Roman, with pillars and columns embodying the School of Athens. But in the 1950s, the novelist Ayn Rand popularized an Objectivist philosophy of minimalist self-improvement, which somehow fit into the architectural styles of Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller.

The result was a post-modern monstrosity that to this day resembles a series of cookie-cutter boxes with no discernible shape, color or style. Sitting in the middle of the “bay,” its athletic fields literally ebbing and flowing with the under tides, it is incongruously surrounded by the magnificent Mt. Tamalpais and its endless namesake Redwood trees.

Yet in this ugly man-made environment many a fine and inventive mind was nurtured. As for baseball, the team was given the nickname of Giants, which fit perfectly both with the newly arrived big league franchise in San Francisco, and the ancient forests towering over the coast line.

By the early 1970s, Endriss’s program was considered the rival of any in the country. This was precisely a result of his incredible competitive nature, honed first on the fields of Oakland along with the likes of future Hall of Famers, and then on the Dodger farm clubs of Branch Rickey. The man knew only excellence, and insisted on it from his players. It had not been easy.

Used to hungry, blue-collar athletes from Oakland and Vallejo, he felt the privileged youth of Marin were not receptive to his discipline and Spartan ways.

“I told my wife we were in the wrong place,” he recalled of his early years. But his team won and won and won, and by 1973 the man was a legend. It was the “me decade,” when kids wore their hair long, indulged in extra-sensory pleasures, and their parents were more likely to attend a “key party” than a church service. Baseball uniforms looked more like soft ball togs, but an Al Endriss team looked like the Marines, its players hair worn short, the uniforms traditional in the style of the Dodgers.

In 1976 Endriss was named the National High School Coach of the Year. It was around that time that he met a man named John Herbold, who coached powerhouse Lakewood High in Southern California. Herbold condescendingly let on that Al had a nice little program up there in NoCal, but “real baseball” was played in the Southland, in L.A. and Orange County and San Diego.

Al just told Herbold he would play his team “on the L.A. freeways,” and over the course of the next years took his team to play all comers. This included the San Luis Obispo Tournament, where the best teams from Northern California played the best teams from Southern California. There was an annual road trip against the elite San Diego squads, including Ted Williams’s alma mater, Hoover High. Redwood played teams from L.A., Sacramento, Oregon, Washington, and even Chinese Taiwan.

In 1977, the Redwood Giants opened the season ranked seventh nationally and won the San Luis Obispo Tournament again. Then they played the Taiwan national championship team in a game that out-drew the San Francisco Giants. An estimated 7,000 fans saw a spectacle later dubbed the greatest sporting event in Marin history. This game gave Redwood the momentum to first win the North Coast Section title, and eventually the national championship, as awarded by Collegiate Baseball magazine and the Easton Bat Company. They remain the only Northern California prep baseball team to have won the national championship, and were included among the 15 greatest high school squads in history by Student Sports magazine.

Finally in 1979, no less an authority than The Sporting News named Redwood the National High School Baseball Program of the Decade for the 1970s. Among the players who toiled for Al Endriss was Bud Biancalana, star of the 1985 Kansas City Royals World Series winners, and longtime big league catcher Chad Kreuter. In a bit of irony that had Endriss’s name all over it, two of his old players, Kreuter and Pete Carroll, were coaches at USC at the same time in the 2000s (Carroll in football, Kreuter in baseball).

All in all, Endriss is at least on the short list of best prep baseball coaches ever, and Redwood one of the great programs this nation ever produced. While Gavin Newsom did not play for Endriss, he did play baseball at Redwood after the coach left, and later played at Santa Clara University before embarking on a political career that so far has not seen defeat. In 2018, a group of Al’s ex-players serenaded the old coach with what has become an annual dinner, when Newsom crashed the party at Marin Joe’s to pay homage to the man most associated with his alma mater.

“He’s just the best!” exclaimed the Governor-elect at the time.

In 2020 Redwood remains as it always has, two heads of the same coin. It has produced liberals and conservatives; jocks and intellectuals; traitors and patriots. It is a place that embodies the community it serves, people mostly of wealth but also the blue collar, and families that emphasize education, producing many students who over the years have attended the University of California, Stanford, USC, UCLA, and the Ivy League. It has been doing this for over 50 years and likely, unless it sinks into the bay when the Big One hits, will continue to do so.

Steven Travers is a former screenwriter who has authored 30 books. A member of Al Endriss’s 1977 Redwood national champions, he is also a USC graduate, played professional baseball, attended law school, worked in politics, served in the Army, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, and MichaelSavage.com. He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth.

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