In the eyes of many people, John Cotton was one of the finest athletes to come out of St. Paul. He was named all-conference nine times -- three times each in football, basketball and baseball -- as a student at the former Marshall High School.

The speedy Cotton was a standout infielder who played with the Twin City Gophers and other all-black city youth baseball teams, and later was a member of several all-black teams that barnstormed into Canada to play against other semi-professional teams. He played college football, and basketball for the U.S. Army.

But he never forgot his roots, and always made time to share his passion for sports and what he learned on the courts and athletic fields with kids who grew up near the Oxford/Jimmy Lee Recreation Center on Lexington Parkway near Central High School.

"He was a tremendous athlete and truly an individual whose passion was teaching and coaching kids," said Frank White, a family friend and curator of the exhibit "They Played for the Love of the Game -- Adding to the Legacy of Minnesota Black Baseball," which is on view through Aug. 20 at the Ramsey County Historical Society. Cotton is featured on a postcard promoting the exhibit and a series of panel discussions.

Cotton died of stomach cancer March 22 at the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center hospice unit. He was 84.

Born in Nebraska, Cotton grew up in St. Paul. He played college football at the former Louisville (Ky.) Municipal College. After serving in the Army during World War II, he returned to St. Paul where he spent nearly 25 years coaching youth football, basketball and baseball teams and "teaching kids how to be men," said his son, Eddie, of St. Paul. He also coached one of the first all-black girls softball teams in the 1950s, his son said.

He made sure that kids had fields and courts to practice on, and that teams had the necessary equipment to play.

Cotton worked at the John Wood Co. where he was a union representative at the steel manufacturing plant. "He was dedicated to union work and getting people on the street decent pay," his son said.

In St. Paul, he was president of the Hallie Q. Brown Retired Men's Club and a longtime member of both the VFW and the American Legion

In addition to his son, Cotton is survived by his wife of more than 60 years, Nellie, of St. Paul; another son, Neil, of St. Paul; a daughter, Tina Phipps, of St. Paul, six grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, 375 N. Oxford St., St. Paul. Visitation will begin at 10 a.m. at the church.