Jack Hicks – A Humble Legend

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 modestĀ others – some of whom I can name to their surprise – I have indeed met one of these Beings.

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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.

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This is “us”, at the end of the Regional Final game. (I am the very middle guy, šŸ˜‰Ā  ).Ā  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.

Anyway – and this is every bit as relevant, if not more so –Ā  he also coached the local American Legion team – the totally wonderfully-named Owensboro ‘Velvet Bombers’ – to a total of 10 State Championships. Jack was the instigator of a revival of a titanic baseball love in a town which had embraced teams in the Pre World War 2 years and which had always had a small love affair with the game. Jack simply made it grow.
Here is a look at the 1937 high school team. They look ready!
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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)

Polio

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 Ā State Championships, we did so fine. That also made my hair catch fire. šŸ˜‰

His too. šŸ˜‰

The baseball incidents encountered under Jack’sĀ tutelageĀ 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).Ā  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!

16 thoughts on “Jack Hicks – A Humble Legend

  1. Only those who played for Mr. Hicks can truly appreciate this piece. (’75-’77)
    I was thrilled when he called me at home, to say he would be at st. tourney & to wish us luck. I left the dugout to shake his hand when they introduced him. A moment I’ll forever cherish. A legend indeed.
    Thanks Steve.

  2. Absolutely my pleasure, Ricky. He has spoken about you before, actually. You guys also had a hell of a ball club. I may just look you up in time, if I do write about him. I have a landscaping-related project going currently.

  3. Great work Steve, there will never be another Jack Hicks, the greatest baseball mind ever (but don’t piss him off). Henderson County 1964, pop fly on the infield, I got I got , I dropped it. …My fault coach, my fault! YOU DAMN RIGHT IT WAS YOUR FAULT, coach Hicks said…I never said that again to this day!…

  4. Ha ha, David. I remember that like it was yesterday. You realize the same thing happened to me, or at least that’s how I recall it. I just remember being embarrassed when Jack yelled out, :Hell, everyone knows it’s your fault.” He hated that stupid line. In any case, I’ve told that story a thousand times.

  5. What a fantastic tribute to an Owensboro baseball legend. Well done sir.

  6. WOW!!! Just now saw this for the first time. Wonderful article about a very complex individual. From the time I was a 15-year old high school freshman until I coached my last American Legion game at age 29, Coach Hicks and the Red Devils and Bombers were a big part of my baseball life. Won some and lost some but it was always great competition. I always wondered how Coach Pickens and Coach Hicks got along–they were such great competitors and such smart and innovative coaches. I can still see the pitch I threw to David Anderson in 1964 in the 9th inning that he hit for a two-run single to beat us. My first legion game as a pitcher was a 1-0 defeat vs Bobby Woodward. Jim Howes, Frankie Ballard, Frank Chambers, you Steve Snedeker, Herbie Kendall, W.C. Helton, Jerry Pulliam, Gigi Talbott, and so many others. I even umpired for a lot of years after I stopped coaching and was privileged to call a State Legion tournament in Owensboro with Coach Hicks there. I had been behind the plate in a 17-inning marathon in Greensburg which they won 2-1 and he told me it was one of the greatest umpiring jobs he had ever seen and asked me to call the State at Chataqua. After a few innings the Bombers were behind and I heard him say to his assistants “Why in the hell did I ask that Markham idiot to umpire?” My Coach Pickens and your Coach Hicks were “two” of a kind and they taught us the right way to play, to compete and to play the game with integrity. If there is baseball in heaven, wonder which one of them is the head coach and which one is the assistant!! God Bless all of you I competed against all those years. Stan Markham

  7. For the record, Stan Markham was the best ballplayer I ever played against. What makes it so utterly and so sweetly serendipitous is that I played with Stan on Little League All Star teams in Bowling Green in both baseball and basketball, because I lived there from my ages of 10-12. Stan has a confirmed spot in my baseball Soul and it is at the head table.

  8. I was fortunate enough to play for coach for five years. He was tough on us but he taught us how to be men and be responsible for our actions on and off the field he was truly a great man

  9. What an excellent tribute to Jack Hicks. He truly was a wonder. He touched so many lives and molded so many young men from Owensboro. My father knew him, my uncle Mike Sturgeon played for him and my grandmother n grandfather never missed a bomber game. I graduated in 1978 and he was a fixture for us at OHS…we were truly blessed. He sacrificed alot for us and his family did too…Much love to the Hicks family!

  10. I knew your Uncle Mike well, Stacey. He played just after I did and we have a zillion friends in common. Apparently his son, Cole, is in the minors now. As a UofL fan, I missed few of his games. He was also a terrific player.

  11. Thank you Steve for recirculating this piece. I only knew Jack Hicks from a distance and with some awe when I lived in Owensboro. It is exciting to know the rest of this story from your perspective on the inside, and brings color and life to a part of Owensboro that I experienced only from the periphery. What a beautiful tribute to an amazing man.

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