Born in Suffern, N.Y., Wilbur Eschen was exposed to athletics at a very young age. His father, James “Jimbo” Eschen, played amateur baseball in the New York/New Jersey semipro leagues in the early 1900s and eventually made it to the Cleveland Indians in 1915. Dad Jim coached Wil and brother Larry (who had a short stint with the Philadelphia A’s during the war in 1942) in those early days as they played on teams in northern New Jersey.
When Wil entered Suffern High School, he was fortunate to have future Rockland Hall of Famer Ed Greene as his coach in football, basketball and baseball. “Dad loved playing for Coach Eddie Greene, who later became our neighbor,” said Rich Eschen, the middle of Wil and Mabel Eschen’s three sons. “He thought Greenie was way ahead of his time in play-calling and innovative game strategy.”
Multi-Sport Star for the Mounties
Under Greene’s guidance, Wil went on to become an All-County athlete in three sports and played on six Rockland County championship teams. In fact, Wil lettered in all three sports three years in a row while also lettering on the track team, running the 220-yard dash and throwing the shot. Wil was a member of the famed Suffern championship football dynasty in 1938-1940 that went undefeated against Rockland County schools in those three seasons, and unscored upon by Rockland opposition in the 1940 season. Wil was a unanimous choice for All-County in 1939 and led the county with 10 interceptions, including four in one game versus Spring Valley. He was acknowledged as the county’s premier punter, too. “Dad took great pride in his punting along with his other football talents,” Rich Eschen said. “He told the story of a game at Nyack, under the lights, when his punt soared over the lights, was lost to the receiving team, and recovered by the Mounties, leading to a game-winning touchdown.”
On the basketball court Wil achieved second team All-County in 1940 and was honorable mention the other two years. But it was on the baseball diamond that Wil really shined. He was first team All-County in 1939 and 1940, and voted as captain of the team in 1940.
War-time Service, College Studies
After graduating from high school Wil continued to play football and baseball at Suffern High School as a post-graduate or “PG,” taking additional classes. He then attended Colgate College before entering the Army as a member of the 103rd Infantry Division. Wil was wounded in action and received the Purple Heart in November 1944. During the post-war occupation, he distinguished himself once again athletically, leading his unit, the 60th Regiment “Go Devils” baseball team, on the playing fields. His athletic exploits were not forgotten by the leader of those teams, William Westmoreland, who was a colonel at the time and later rose to become a five-star general and superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Westmoreland described Wil as “the best athlete in the ETO (European Theater of Operations)” during a chance encounter at West Point many years later. “This was a moment dad remained proud of until the day he died,” Rich Eschen said.
After the war, Wil attended Wake Forest University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1950. He returned home to Suffern after college graduation and immediately was hired to teach math and coach at Suffern High School. Initially Wil coached junior varsity baseball, junior varsity basketball, and freshman football. In 1954 he was named as the varsity baseball coach, a position he held until 1972.
“I learned pretty much all of my baseball knowledge from my father,” said Tom Eschen, the youngest Eschen son. “A good portion was learned at home – playing catch, pitching to him, playing pepper, or having batting practice. Sometimes, just sitting watching games [with him] on TV. He had tremendous knowledge of the game and taught me and my brothers the basics, fundamentals, the subtleties of the game, and more importantly how to play the game with pride and dignity.”
Man of Many Hats
While coaching at the high school Wil was also involved in many other aspects of Rockland County athletics. He officiated high school and college basketball. Wil played and managed in the Rockland County industrial softball and baseball leagues in the 1950s and 1960s, managing the Avon team to a county softball championship in 1960, and managed and played on many Suffern Kiwanis and Connie Mack baseball teams. In addition, Wil oversaw the Ramapo Recreation Commission and Ramapo Summer Basketball leagues during most of the 1960s.
Wil became the “voice” of Rockland County sports when he landed a job as sports announcer for WRKL in the 1960s. The radio station would broadcast local football, basketball and baseball games. It was kind of hard for him to broadcast and coach baseball at the same time but he managed to do a weekly baseball update for the station that included all games played.
“Like most teachers, dad moonlighted at many different things, refereeing, summer jobs, milkman, then as the color commentator for WRKL during high school football season, with George Dacre as the play-by-play man,” said Rich Eschen. “He was thrilled about doing this, and we usually trailed along with him. Later he produced his own morning radio show, recapping Rockland sports from the night before. Naturally it was called ‘Session with Eschen,’ with the Michigan fight song as the intro. We were so proud to hear him on our radio!”
Baseball the Eschen Way: A Class Act
Despite all of his other interests it was always baseball that Wil devoted most of his time to. From 1954 to 1972 Coach Eschen’s baseball teams won two Rockland County championships, 1966 and 1970, and amassed more than 100 victories. In 1970 Wil was honored as Coach of the Year by both The Journal-News and the New York Daily News. Coach Eschen was most known as an innovator in high school baseball in Rockland County. His teams were always the best dressed, having a variety of uniforms to wear depending upon the weather, batting helmets in the field for player protection and personalized bats for the varsity players. In addition, the Suffern varsity baseball field was the most finely manicured field in the county. He brought in Yankee Stadium red dirt for the infield, whitewashed and covered the bases and pitching rubber, and even dragged the infield after the fifth inning of most games.
“We grew up alongside the Mountie baseball team,” said Rich Eschen. “We admired those players and grew to know them and their families very well. We worked and played alongside them as we got older and helped groom the field, get the uniforms in order, and watch practice. During the season baseball consumed (Wil). He was always looking for ways to have the best for the team: multiple uniforms, major league quality equipment, perfect field conditions. He was taking his teams on trips to North Carolina and upstate New York, raising money on his own.”
Testimonials From All Quarters
More than wins and losses, it was the lives that Coach Eschen touched that made him a great coach and man. Some of his former players extolled his many virtues. Nick LaBruna, 1957 team captain: “Eschen expects too much. He expects his players to be on time, to maintain their grades and give 100 percent. Isn’t there room for such a man? Isn’t there room for such character?”
Ron Croyle, pitcher for the 1955 team: “I am just one player out of hundreds whose lives he touched. While Wil loved baseball and could talk about it endlessly, baseball never defined him. I have always considered myself fortunate to have played for Wil but more so to have known the person.”
Joe Alleva Sr., a former parent of one of Coach Eschen’s players, stated: “I have found Esch to be the most knowledgeable coach in Rockland and surrounding counties. He teaches citizenship, and he demands it and gets it from his players. He is a fine gentleman and inspiration to his players. He has been the finest coach my son ever played for.”
Dick Yerg, the former Journal-News Sports editor, commented, “He made his teams reflect his dedication to detail right from the way his players dressed, the way the field looked, and the way the game was played.”
From Suffern to Potsdam
In 1973 Coach Wil Eschen left Suffern and became the head baseball coach at Potsdam State College in upstate New York. Tom Eschen holds the distinction of being one of the few people who played for their father in both high school and college. Wil was Tom’s coach at Suffern for part of his freshman year and all of his sophomore year, and for one year at Potsdam. At both Suffern and Potsdam, Wil carried on his tradition of taking his team south for a preseason trip to prepare for the upcoming campaign. While at Suffern, Wil also had a summer job at a camp near Cooperstown, N.Y., where he “brought most of his team [including me] there for a week of pure baseball,” Tom Eschen said, “and playing games including playing at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown.”
Once he completed his tenure at Potsdam in 1978, Wil retired to Florida to play golf and be a part-time scout for the New York Mets.
After Mabel Eschen died in February 2008, Wil suffered from depression while living alone in Winston-Salem, N.C. He eventually moved to an assisted living facility in Jacksonville, Fla., then moved again to Hernando, Fla., to be near his son Rich. Sadly, Wilbur Eschen died on February 20, 2018, at age 94, leaving behind three sons: James Eschen and wife Nancy of Jacksonville, Fla.; Richard Eschen and wife Carla of Hernando, Fla.; and Thomas Eschen and wife Mary of Cazenovia, N.Y.; as well as 9 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.