Lifelong learner


Education, mentors helped mold longtime Reds’ trainer

BLUFFTON, Ohio—Larry Starr was in his 60s when he decided to pursue a doctorate in education at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

The coursework for the degree was done in two years, the former Cincinnati Reds trainer said March 25 at Bluffton University, but the required dissertation became—as it does for many doctoral candidates—a stumbling block.

But his wife provided a push, and he also remembered the work ethic and dedication of successful athletes he had worked with during a 30-year career in Major League Baseball. Prodded to finish the program, Starr received his doctorate from the Fort Lauderdale university in 2013—42 years after he had earned his master’s degree from Ohio University 

Work ethic is one of the “great things” that athletics can help teach, said Starr, the keynote speaker on a day of activities devoted to Bluffton’s 2014-15 civic engagement theme, “Education Matters!” That list of desirable qualities also includes leadership, sportsmanship and mentorship, he added, calling mentors “one of the biggest determinants” of a person’s success.   

Among those mentors for him were his older brother, Tom, and Al Hart, who was head athletic trainer at Ohio when Starr joined his staff as an undergraduate.

“I think athletic training found me” rather than the other way around, said Starr, who was with four World Series-champion teams—three of them in Cincinnati—during his baseball career.

Around the time he was entering Carrollton (Ohio) High School, southeast of Canton, his brother took a six-week correspondence course about athletic training. “That little six-week course said to me, ‘This is cool,’” he said, recalling his thought that training might become just a hobby.

A trainer throughout high school, he talked at an awards program to the speaker, then-Ohio football coach Bill Hess, who referred him to Hart. He became an athletic training student and a student assistant to Hart at OU, and “just watching his hard work and passion convinced me this was what I wanted to do,” said Starr, now president of Starr Athletic Solutions LLC.

The full-time assistant trainer left Ohio at the end of Starr’s junior year, and Hart offered him the position although he still had a year of school left before graduation in 1968. Three years later, Hart asked him how he would like to interview for a job with the Reds. At age 23, with no contacts in professional baseball, or any experience in baseball for that matter, he questioned whether he should bother, he said.

Calling his brother, the question came back: “What do you mean you’re not going to interview?” There’s no better way, he was advised, to find out what they think of you—which, he learned after the eventual interview in Cincinnati, was favorably, except for two things.

Bob Howsam, then the Reds’ general manager, told Starr “we respect you”—he had his master’s degree and would become the first certified athletic trainer in the major leagues—but “we have a problem with your youthful appearance and your diminutive stature.”

The 5-foot-4 Starr thought he would be returning to OU, but he got a call the next week asking him to come back to Cincinnati for another interview. Sitting at a game with Dick Wagner, the assistant GM, he learned that his age and height still bothered Reds’ executives, so they had called one of his references, a Columbus orthopedic surgeon who had operated on injured Ohio student-athletes. Starr drove them to and from Columbus and also watched surgeries so he would know how to handle their rehabilitation.

“Let me tell you something about Larry Starr,” he said the doctor told the Reds. “He stands tall among tall men.”

The executives were convinced, but when Starr still had reservations, he again called his brother, who reminded him that he really didn’t have anything to lose—and, as a head athletic trainer in the major leagues, he would be one of very few people with that title.

Starr was the Reds’ head trainer from 1972-92, which included World Series championships in 1975, ’76 and ’90. Before the first of those titles, in 1974, he asked the organization to implement strength training for players. That wasn’t popular at the time because of the widespread belief that “muscle-bound” players couldn’t hit as well, but he convinced Howsam to try it. “Two world championships in a row, and it was all because of me,” he joked, quickly noting the several future Hall of Famers on those “Big Red Machine” teams.

Ironically, less than 15 years after he had to “fight to get a little bit of strength training,” some players started using illegal steroids for the same purpose, he added.

He left the Reds to join the Florida, now Miami, Marlins. During his nine years there, he was the National League team trainer in the All-Star game for a fifth time, in 1995, and added another World Series ring in 1997.

He then moved on to Nova Southeastern as an adjunct instructor and an administrator, as well as a trainer, while earning his doctorate.

Top professionals in his field, and in health care generally, “are effective because of one word—trust,” Starr said. Patients “have to feel that what I’m going to tell them is in their best interest as a person first. That drove me from day one.”