Coaches possess the opportunity to perpetuate strong values, teach and lead young men, and establish deeply rooted relationships with people through teaching the greatest game in the world. There have been few who have realized and made the most of those opportunities like Derwood ‘Pops’ Penney. While Pops may not have received national recognition as a volunteer assistant, he was a very well-respected man amongst the Texas-New Mexico Junior College ranks and in his hometown of Corsicana, Texas.
Derwood Penney played middle infield for Navarro College (1960-61) and was an integral part of the school’s first-ever Regional Championship team. He would be reacquainted with the program when he would show up to practices with grandsons Austin and Corbin Hall (who would both end up playing under him at Navarro). At those practices, Pops built a relationship with then-head coach Skip Johnson. Skip admired Derwood’s passion for the game, his attitude, his character, and how much he loved Navarro, and would eventually bring him on as a volunteer assistant coach. “Austin and Corbin (his grandsons) always would call him Pop, and the players all saw him as their grandpa too,” said Johnson, who is now the head coach at the University of Oklahoma, “so everyone started calling him ‘Pops.’”
Pops loved the game of baseball. He told stories about watching minor league games by taking his dad’s truck to Burnett Field in Dallas, which was sixty miles away… as a 12 year old! He’d light up when he talked about how he got to watch Willie Mays and Willie McCovey play. His wife, Wanda, who he married in 1962 says “his life was centered around God, his family, and baseball – in that order.”
Pops’ passion for the game was not the driving force in why he coached or what made him a great coach. He had a true gift of caring for and inspiring others with his words and actions. Maintaining these values is what made him a legend. Pops would throw batting practice for hours on end to the Navarro players, to high school kids in the area, or to youth ballplayers, even with all of the aches and pains of a 78 year-old. He was a favorite amongst opposing coaches and their families, opposing players, and even umpires (as long as a couple close calls went Navarro’s way).
Pops thrived because of how he coached 18-20-year-old ballplayers, and would remain adamant that they needed a positive influence in their lives. This period in a player’s life is paramount because it’s their first time away from home and they’re is facing uncertainties on a daily basis, vulnerable and malleable as they figure out who they are and who they want to become.
Navigating these years is filled with many ups and downs, but the one constant at Navarro for the players was Pops. Brock Holt, Boston Red Sox utility man and World Series Champion, played for Navarro (2007-2008) said “being away from home for the first time, Pops was my rock. He was the positive role model that every kid that age needs, and I owe a lot to Pops for being who I am today.”
For a majority of his tenure coaching at Navarro, Derwood’s primary job was caring for his wife Wanda, who started battling serious health issues. Wanda was the center of Derwood’s life, and he took care of her around the clock. We knew that Pops was sacrificing time with his beloved bride each day to spend some time with us. In 2019, Pops’ last season with Navarro, we gained a berth to the Junior College World Series. Pops could not make it to the Regional because he was taking care of Wanda, but he met us at the field when we got back around three o’clock… in the morning. He greeted us with open arms and tears in his eyes; it was a moment that we’ll never forget. He couldn’t make it to the JUCO World Series either, but was able to realize a long-lasting dream of his: watching his grandson Corbin pitch in the Navarro jersey on the biggest stage in JUCO baseball.
Everyone I spoke with about Pops brought up a period of adversity, either on or off the field, that they did not know how to work through or a time where they found themselves starting to lose faith in their own abilities. Pops helped each and every one of them to regain hope. Most of them used the phrase “I didn’t know anyone could tell I was struggling.” Pops would remind them that they are not alone and that their circumstances were temporary and repairable. Then he would offer to be the one to help them out by throwing batting practice or hitting them ground balls, spouting encouragement and celebrating even the smallest successes. Simply put, he would join them in their darkest times and help guide their way.
Navarro head coach Matt Podjenski believes that what separated Pops from any other coach was how much he prioritized relationships. “Pops always showed players how much he cared about them before he showed them how much he knew about the game.” Whoa Dill, former head coach at Navarro, said that he was amazed at how consistent Pops was, and how much he appreciated having a role model on the staff with him.
Pops always treated everyone with the same amount of love and respect; it didn’t matter if he was speaking to the most talented or the least talented player- Pops saw the potential in everyone. He would focus so heavily on each player’s positive qualities and believed in their strengths when nobody else did. This completely remolded some players and reenergized them to see themselves in the same light that Pops saw them…as the best version of themselves.
Pops also kept a detailed notebook with the names of every player he had ever coached. He never missed sending out a birthday or holiday text to former players, and ended every phone call or long text message with a simple “I love you”. That isn’t a common way to end phone calls in the today’s culture, but it touched the heart of every person who heard it. This struck Skip Johnson so deeply that he still ends many conversations in the same way.
Derwood ‘Pops’ Penney passed away in August of this year. His funeral drew a capacity crowd at the biggest church in town. His visitation drew well over 1,000 people, including former/current players, coaches, and even many umpires from over the years. Brock Holt even left the Red Sox in the midst of a playoff run to attend. At one point, everyone in the church was standing and singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” which was a perfect way to honor the game that allowed so many people to cross paths with such a great man.
Pops’ legacy will live on forever at Navarro and his impact continues to spread across the country on ballfields and in the workplaces and homes of those who were impacted by his presence. As Becky Villa, one of his three daughters, said about her dad’s life and legacy, “Job well done”.
We love you, Pops.
Article submitted by Brett Doe, assistant coach at Navarro College