Legendary coach Mal Walton dies

Bellingham Hall of Fame baseball coach and teacher Malcolm Edward “Mal” Walton died on Thursday morning, Sept. 18, at age 81.

Walton was a member of the first class inducted into the Washington State American Legion Hall of Fame in September 2012 and the first class inducted into the Washington State Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 1988.

“He was always at the park,” said longtime Sehome baseball coach Gary Hatch, who said he was just a 13-year old working for the city parks and recreation department when he first met Walton. “When I first started coaching, he was there, whether it was sitting up in the grandstands or on the corner of the bench watching BP and infield-outfield. I always enjoyed going over and getting his evaluation of how things went. He was always very forthright. ... He became a really good friend. I look back on him as a teacher, a coach, an administrator and most importantly as a friend. He’s meant a ton to baseball here in Bellingham.”

It was fellow coaching legend Spiro “Spedo” Southas who encouraged Walton to make Bellingham his home at the end of Walton’s four-year career as an infielder in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ minor league organization from 1955-58.

A year later at the age of 26, Walton was hired to coach the Bellingham High baseball team. It was a position he would hold until 1990. He helped the Red Raiders reach the WIAA state playoffs in 1979, ’80 and ’84, guiding the team to the state semifinals and ultimately a third-place finish in 1980.

“It was through him that I first really began to understand what coaching was all about,” said Hatch, who played baseball and junior varsity football for Walton at Bellingham. “He was the first guy who really impressed upon me, ‘This is how you play. This is how you go about your business. This how you become a ball player.’ It was how I was really indoctrinated into this game.”

Walton, who also taught business at Bellingham, coached a number of other outstanding players, including Larry Linville, Les Galley and Neil Crawford during his time skippering the Red Raiders.

Walton also coached the Bellingham American Legion Post 7 baseball team for 11 years (1974-76 and 1977-82), leading the team to six league championships, a fourth-place finish at state in 1978 and a runner-up performance in 1984.

“One of our Legion teams played more games one season than any team in the nation — 80-something games,” Walton said in 2012. “We used to say, ‘We’ll play you any time, anywhere.’ We played everywhere from Canada to Oregon.”

And Walton wasn’t satisfied with just showing up for game.

“He always challenged you — it was kind of like (Vince) Lombardi,” Hatch said. “He wanted to get the best out of you. You either got it, or you didn’t. It was black or white. He knew if you worked hard and gave maximum effort, winning and losing would take care of itself.”

But Hatch said it was more than Walton’s motivational skills that made him such a successful coach.

“I believe he was a coach ahead of his time,” Hatch said. “A lot of coaches back then knew how to do one thing — they could pitch or they could hit or they could catch. Mal, to this day, I thought had an incredible way of going about things. He was an infielder when he played, but he knew how to play every position on the field. ... He knew pitching inside and out. He really developed some great pitchers. He knew the game as well as anyone I ever came around.”

Though Walton was best known as a coach, he also played for Joe Martin’s Bellingham Bells from 1959 through 1967 and earned state MVP honors in 1964. He later coached the Bells for five seasons.

“What meant the most to me about coaching and teaching was helping kids have the chance to go on to get higher education,” Walton said in 2012.

Walton’s name is affixed to an annual high school baseball junior varsity tournament, and the top Whatcom County player at the Class 2A/3A All-State Feeder Games each year receives the Mal Walton Award.

Before coming to Bellingham, Walton graduated from Central High School in Oklahoma City in 1951. He was a member of the U.S. Navy from 1951-54, when he played baseball for the Naval Air Station Whidbey Flyers and on Guam during the Korean War.

He went on to play in the Pirates’ system, advancing as high as the Class AAA Hollywood Stars in the Pacific Coast League. Walton attended college during the offseason and earned his degree from Central State College in Edmond, Okla., in 1959.

“His toughness as a man, his competitive nature and his love of teaching kids life lessons through the game is something that never left me,” Hatch said. “It really rubbed off on me — it rubbed off with a lot of guys around here.”

Walton and his wife, Irene, had two sons, Ron and Monte, five grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

Monte inherited Mal’s love of coaching, as he’s been a longtime coach in a number of sports the area and has led the Ferndale boys’ basketball program the past three seasons. He’s also served as a football referee.

Services for Mal are pending, according to an email from Monte.