Jack passed away this morning, September 29th. I’ll recirculate this for another round in case someone out there has not yet read it. I have grown so close to him.
How many of us have met a Legend? I mean in the flesh – shook his or her hand, spoken with for a substantial period? Among a few modest others – some of whom I can name to their surprise – I have indeed met one of these Beings.
His name is Jack Hicks and he is a former high school teacher, now retired, of Government/Political Science, something he has always taken very seriously and the results of which even hijinks-obsessed young men such as myself learned from about the workings of our governments. He also ran a vital organism in his town, the entertainment venue which seated 5,000 people comfortably for such events as the traveling Duke Ellington Band and those bizarre Dick Clark Rock and Roll Caravans. Jack ran the Parks and Recreation Department for Owensboro, Kentucky where I found my first, very nepotistic job.
Jack Hicks was also the coach of Owensboro High School’s baseball team.
Was he ever. In 22 years of coaching Owensboro High, Jack’s teams won 606 ballgames, The overall record of 606-196 includes the fact that Jack attempted not only to schedule games to play every single day of the season – with doubleheaders on weekends – but that he would play the best teams who would dare to schedule him. Games in Illinois and Indiana were not the slightest bit unusual, particularly inasmuch as Owensboro is on the Ohio River. It was a festival for those lucky enough to find themselves playing for Jack.
This is “us”, at the end of the Regional Final game. (I am the very middle guy, ;-) ). There is another picture lying around somewhere of us after the State Final game. Believe me when I say the expressions are far less serious!
Jack won four state championships in 1964, 1969, 1976 and 1977. My younger brother played on the 1969 team. Under his direction, the Red Devils won 20 district titles and 15 regional tournaments. I was fortunate enough to play shortstop on Jack’s 1964 team, his first Championship, for a team he now sometimes refers to as one of his “favorites”. Here’s the real news – the team the year before us was 43-2 on the year and lost in the Finals to Louisville Manual High School – the reigning power team at the time. When we won our regional tournament in ’64, Jack was quoted before our run that “this is not one of my better teams”, lol. He may or may not have realized it, but he probably served to make us pay just a bit more attention. Sure enough, we brought home the trophy, as unlikely as that seemed at the origins. The truth is, what he prepared meant that any team he put on the field was now able to win it all – at any point in time.
Beginning with Little League’s start in the 50′s, Jack worked with the organization known as Owensboro Youth Baseball to keep the topic and sport very much at the forefront of young men’s minds. The later legacy of all this was the establishment of a virtual powerhouse of female sports as well, also stemming from Jack’s work in this this absurdly sports-centered town which Sports Illustrated called the Number One Sporting Town in Kentucky in its 50th Anniversary edition. (click this link here)
So what are the chances a kid with an atrophied leg, ravaged by polio at the age of 2, would become one of the greatest names in a sport? Jack will wince at this description – as he undoubtedly has throughout his life – and it does not remotely even bear on his achievements – not for someone who was far too active-minded and ambitious to dwell on any personal impediment. It is the superficial package which hides him and which acts as that immediate persona which we all also wear, just in different clothing.
It bears because he had an obvious handicap, nothing more than that. Whereas we all have “handicaps” as well, he had what may have been the good fortune to encounter his own personal impediments a few decades earlier than the rest of us. The rest of us are also hampered by maybe our poor self-esteem or maybe its opposite – unencumbered entitlement – or our handicaps of prejudice in all its guises. No matter, because in the end the bittersweet lessons of life will pound us all into motes of dust, where all we leave behind is our various legacies.
Jack, in this regard, was and is an absolute Giant.
Jack’s essential character not only produced fabulously talented ball players, but he also shepherded young men through their high school years focusing on the discipline required to play as a team and to maximize potentials. He was a disciplinarian of unquestioned power who led by example, ironically, a tactic which succeeded beyond any measure. His players and coaches became such luminaries as esteemed doctors, lawyers, business persons and one – Tom Meredith – Chancellor at both The University of Alabama and of U of Georgia as well. David Watkins – who saw time at the AAA level and who hit tape measure home runs as a high schooler – is now President of Jewish Hospital in Louisville and widely-regarded as one of the foremost doctors in the United States. Jim Howes, now an attorney practicing in Louisville, not only pitched our team to the afore-mentioned State Championship, but also won the State Championship in the discus and shot put, then went to Tulane on a basketball scholarship. Jim also became the world’s largest Green Beret in one of their very first classes, during the Viet Nam conflict. All of Jack’s players did well in later life – well, almost all. His legacy is often even overlooked by his protege’s, his touch was so deft. Jack’s talent was people. That he loved baseball may have been incidental to where they all ended up.
And having said that made me throw up a little in my throat, because it’s probably both less and more than that. The “inside baseball” tricks, knowledge, and sporting IQ of Jack Hicks’ players was always outside the known envelope. We traveled in some rare air, in my opinion, verified by results.
Strictly Personal – Recollections
Readers of this blog might be surprised to know my goal as a child never varied for 15 years: to play baseball for the rest of my life. I was pretty good, too. I was one of those kids who stood out as an 11 and 12 year old Little League ballplayer, bashing homers, pitching and fielding my way onto All Star teams and excelling there as well. This continued into high school where I encountered Jack at Owensboro Senior High School. Playing for Jack was equal parts incredibly good luck and an absolute learning adventure.
Somehow, in that Spring of 1964, as a wide-eyed inexperienced 10th grader, I made the team and was able to travel to Paducah, Kentucky for our first games of the season over Spring Break – we had scheduled a doubleheader with a local high school there. In what still seems a blur, our starting shortstop broke his finger in infield practice for that first game and I received my first starting assignment – a position I maintained for the next 3 years. I’ll absolutely never forget my nerves prior to the first ball being hit to me. The guys around me were all these big borderline “heroes-from-a-distance” and suddenly I found myself not only in the midst, but playing shortstop.
I thought my hair had caught fire!
We did fine. In fact, we did fine all that year. We won Jack’s first of 4 Kentucky High School State Championships, we did so fine. That also made my hair catch fire.
The baseball incidents encountered under Jack’s tutelage could scroll on for literal miles. Back then, before rules limited the number of games teams could play, Jack scheduled us to play games every single day, with doubleheaders on weekends. We had 2 seasons I can recall with records of 36-11 and 25-9 (a year of too many rain-outs). The above-mentioned Velvet Bombers also played – every single day or night, all Summer long, after the high school season ended. These games included Sundays as well, yet another opening for playing ball. Oh, the stories.
For a baseball kid like me, imagine those drives through Springtime’s lime green young leaves of those dense, sweet-smelling Kentucky forests en route to play baseball, of all things. I’d find myself in one of the big old 1960′s convertibles driven by some other hilarious kid equally giddy over our great good fortune, allowed out of school for the last period for purposes of travel, crammed in with 5 other guys with mayhem and baseball in mind, as serious as apprentice monks except when the comic or anarchistic urge hit – and it did – laughing our way to another game of baseball.
I’ve been to Heaven is what I often tell people. And Jack Hicks was an affable, smart, but thoroughly uncompromising “God”. He also hated losing, which, fortunately, didn’t happen all that often. He made good players and he made much of the system that produced them.
A couple years ago, during a quite improbable run of yet another Owensboro team to the State Final Game, Jack attended and was announced to the thousands in attendance. This was not his first acknowledgment to these crowds – he had been elected to the Kentucky High School Hall Of Fame much earlier. The ovation – according to those in attendance – was pretty off the charts. They honored who in my humble opinion – and that of countless others – was the greatest high school baseball coach in the history of the State of Kentucky.
I am so honored to write my little unasked-for piece on this shy and great person that it causes me to well up at the memories – all so equal parts triumphant, humiliating (hey, that’s sports!), fascinating and so full of the cooperative sweat equity earned by honest effort and shared by team mates with whom I still speak. I love it all.
Thanks, Jack. For everything – and that’s a lot of stuff!