On The Road in High School Baseball Owensboro, Kentucky – 1964
Some memories are more vivid than others. Baseball memories are the secrets grown men cultivate at the oddest of times, perhaps akin to women who recall their first successful recipe concoctions as young girls and witnessing with a secret glow the satisfied engorging of their intended munchers, where burps were secretly tolerated as signs of pleasure.
Among the game time memories of great hits, utter failures at dreadful times both at the plate and in the field when the merest fielding of a tricky bouncing ball seemed unusually alien – when observing pitchers became so fascinating in its own right as their own unique dramas unfolded and I became entranced by their attitudes …………….of heroic moments and also of the myriad of timeless and monotonous moments in baseball, sitting on the bench between plays, playing tricks on other players, listening to the obnoxious frivolity of us all and smiling………….while acquiring a wisdom allowed by the idle reflection baseball insists on……enjoying the warmth and camaraderie of teammates, coaches, managers like C.E. Beeler, Roy Kennedy or Jimmy Musick, and those fans who followed us so closely…. Life in an enclosed, protective bubble toiling at an insignificant game and feeling like a relative giant. In love with life itself.
My very first road trip in high school baseball occurred at the advent of Spring Break in 1964. It was the beginning of the muscle car era in America which only lasted about a decade until the Arab Embargo crisis made the world aware of the prolificacy of wasting oil. Owensboro’s other eventual sporting primacy – NASCAR road racing – was just then collecting its eventual memory as our good friends Darryl Waltrip and Army Armstrong began ripping it up at their particular sporting excellence and Bill Sterrett of hydroplane fame introduced multiple Chrysler engines inside the power drives of those magnificent, deadly beasts of speed. I recall visiting Terry Sterett, Bill’s son, at his house and peering into the back of a full-size semi-trailer pulled to races from Miami to Seattle. Inside stood 8 humongous engines on locked racks, all these Chrysler Hemi, blown behemoths, each undoubtedly worth a fortune and all supplied by the business of Chrysler as Sterett began winning highly-publicized races shown on Wide World of Sports with Jim Whitaker and an adoring and avid announcing team, so fit for Sunday afternoon TV. Each individual motor evidently produced over 1100 Horsepower in its own right. It was truly a motorhead’s dream and even I, driver of a small absurd-but-eventful Valiant station wagon with its push button drive and Slant Six motor, could appreciate the sheer mechanized mayhem of that Motherlode of power.
The cars themselves were often the storyline during those days. Huge, heavy and incredibly comfortable, these powerful Pontiac station wagons, even Jack Hick’s memorable Oldsmobiles, or Jake Winkler’s many Lincoln Continentals, they all contained these massive power trains, easily-achieved 100 MPH speeds.and were the absolute embodiment of the concept of “living rooms on wheels” which the interstates and vastly improved side roads offered at the time – and which got even better. It was a period of nearly obscene automotive luxury and we were just the guys to drink it all in.
My first road trip then, 120 miles to Paducah through the gorgeousness of the Kentucky Lake region amid the fluttering lime green leaves of early Spring amid the aroma of freshly-tilled fields of loamy, silty farmers’ soil and the syrupy pleasure of inhaling dogwoods and redbud blooms, so rich in pollen, included me in an unnamed vehicle which now is misty as hell to recall. The subsequent trips became memorable for other reasons, but the first one is only memorable because of events on the field as well as the return trip and our visit to a restaurant.
On the field, Ford Cox, the starting shortstop, broke his finger in infield drills prior to the game and I found myself playing among my local heroes. I had just a few practice grounders….and absolutely no concept of much of anything except my thrill at being included on the team itself on the trip in the expectation of being able to watch the phenomenon of Owensboro Baseball from the bench. My expectations were totally nil in other words, and I was simply thrust into the prime activity like a deer in the headlights. I absolutely surprised myself in my nervousness when my first 2 at-bats produced hits. My first ground ball was utterly memorable as well, as routine as it was. With Jimmy Howes pitching, someone fisted a slow rolling grounder at me which I gobbled up and threw out to David Anderson at first base. Each of those quite ordinary baseball experiences I now recount as major recollections, as mundane as they may have seemed to onlookers. My secret thrill at being competent frankly surprised me among these legends of my youth. I recall a bursting feeling of secret ecstasy while chattering it up at shortstop as Jimmy Howes nodded at me for good plays and Jack Hicks gave full-throated acknowledgment. It was a ridiculously heady moment – and a doubleheader, no less, as we swept both games and began our journey back home to Owensboro.
Our trip was destined to include a stop at this very well-known restaurant hard by Kentucky Lake which offered an all-you-can-eat supply of catfish steaks. Good Lord, we must have ruined their profit line!! Sitting in this glow of inclusion after succeeding in a team sport, I sat, smiling, collecting memories and impressions on this first visit to Heaven which I hoped I would never lose. I implicitly understood the momentousness of my thrill. When someone mentions they had to pinch themselves to remind themselves they did indeed exist in such a reality, I was the poster boy for the concept. I had been to baseball heaven and, man oh man, it was very, very good.
Players of substantial size and appetites were on that team. The 6’ 5” Jim Howes, state discus champion; Frank Chambers, a High School All American football running back; 6’ 3” Herbie Kendall, he of the bottomless stomach; 6’ 4” Larry Shown, another huge guy and quite an impressive eater; it turned out……and the rest of us…..hugely wasted from two games without a bite for over 7 hours, we set upon those delicious steaks like rats just off a ship. The tireless waitress was completely enthralled by our appetites, smiling widely in some real awe, laughing in a very cool spirit and endlessly circulating to the next of 20 of us who had arrived famished and intrigued by the menu. I even remember the chef coming out, simply to witness this attack on his food as he stood, smiling at the absurdity of his restaurant’s largesse and the frenzy of chewing taking place in this holiest of catfish steak climes. (We stopped here every trip for 3 years, for the record. We were also quite remembered by the staff, ha ha.) Hush puppies were also on the menu, fabulously mixed with the deep fried steaks in some real genius of preparation and taste. In the end, the restaurant’s catfish and hush puppy stocks must have looked like the aftermath of Sherman’s March To The Sea.
As we embarked on the finale of this road trip, many of us were borderline sick, we were so full. It became a far quieter group of boys who finally descended on Owensboro, including this “new” shortstop who had one whale of a story to deliver to his totally supportive family. My giddiness over the experience never really left me. I take it into today and tomorrow like the memory of a kiss from a real Goddess. It is one of the most timeless gifts I have ever entertained, maybe even better than my first kiss or my first you-know-what. It’s in that league of events, anyway. Yes, of course – I am referring to my first 8 RBI game. Yeah, that’s the ticket!
Well, the season wore on and I began a bonding with my mates which inspired me forever. Jim Howes, the undisputed team leader, took a real shine to his new shortstop and I began spending time with he and his younger brother Danny at their home on Jackson Street in Owensboro. It led to an entirely close relationship with Danny, another 3 sport athlete like me who was in my sophomore class at the time, and with whom I shared accommodation later, rooming together at Murray State as freshmen.
In Owensboro Senior High School, Jack Hicks had advised me early on to opt to take classes which excluded the sixth period. The reason for that was because we often headed out then, on local road trips to venues within 30-40 miles such as Beaver Dam, Dale or Chrisney or Huntingburg, Indiana, among many others, to get the in time to take batting and infield practice preceding each game. And this is where the experience of road trips took off on a fabulously rich tangent.
Left Fielder Don (“PooPoo”) Wetzel had this magnificent blue-green full-sized late model Chevrolet convertible which delivered players in high style to all these sites. Inasmuch as there were truly only minor cliques on these teams, one of them surrounded Poo Poo’s car for road trips. Somehow, I found myself included, along with the irrepressible David Anderson, always so ready for laughs, JJ Pulliam my fellow middle infielder, the Howes brothers, Frankie Chambers – and an otherwise rotating crowd of fun lovers who spent the entirety of the trips doing ridiculously funny things, trolling gossip, of course about the girls we all were interested in, and performing random acts of minor vandalism and occasional real-life world class humor. Needless to say, tricks on each of us were de rigeur. The talk was a constant babble of bonding teenagers, jokes were told at a frenetic pace and many was the time where we arrived at our destination to our major surprise, wondering how time could possibly have passed so quickly.
This next story is apocryphal only because I didn’t witness it, but it was said that Frankie was in dire need to relieve himself, yet the dilly dallying done before leaving had caused the car to be late and Jack would always become dangerously incensed when players arrived after the desired caravan’s arrival. In an effort to please everyone, someone put their feet on Frankie’s behind to better force his works outward as he peed out the window in hopes to avoid contacting the car’s lustrous finish. Well, it seems the driver’s irrepressible impishness had no barrier at the possibility of a laugh and he pulled over at a store along the way where a few gentlemen were sitting out front. Frankie was apoplectic – “Let me back in!!” – to a firmly pushing teammate, whose feet were enjoined by another’s. “Come on, dammit, I’m done!!” as they pressed forward relentlessly. Finally, the driver sped forward again as Frankie was released, his temporary anger only diminished by his acute embarrassment. The car, of course, was rolling in devilish laughter, as they sped back to avoid Jack’s ire.
C.E. Beeler – team manager – also had a famous convertible rig – a small red Corvair convertible which always carried packs of people during Friday and Saturday nights, to the Dairy Drive In and to his home, where a few of us learned to smoke cigarettes – not the best result of this sporting enterprise, yet a weird bonding experience in its own right. His car always pumped out the reigning choices of music of the day – typically, Soul R&B, which included the Temptations and their huge hits which we had all learned to choreograph and perform in C.E.’s living room. He also drove to away games and offered yet another open air experience for those near-toxic lush Spring days.These 2 automotive options offered 12 people the fullest experiences of intoxicating travel and the absurdly rich experiences implicit in driving up to small venues to admiring eyes.
It was a bourgeois heaven, of no small notoriety. One of the more amazing road trip experiences occurred later, when we caravanned to another away game – I believe Hopkinsville – traveling through rough and impenetrable forests at breakneck speeds. Sitting in Bobby Hupp’s car, Tommy Jones sat shotgun and found out he was out of smokes. The car ahead of us included Wayne Greenwell in the back of the big station wagon, looking backwards at us as we traveled. Good naturedly taking the brunt of our amusement from the trailing car, fully knowing he was talked about including faces made and gestures intended to humiliate, “Triangle” as he was known to us, smiled back and gave it right back. Anyway, Jones gestured to Triangle that he was out of smokes, upon which time, Wayne gestured to Tom to open his window and get ready to receive. At 80 MPH, Wayne flung a single cigarette with his best guesstimate of direction with the wind………….it rapidly floated exactly where Tommy could make the catch and it slid into his hand, undamaged. Our crowd burst into a massive cheer! The greatest cigarette transfer in the long history of tobacco!!
There was the ever present chance at “mooning”, of course, a custom taken advantage of at least once a year in my recollection. There was a reprise of the feet on the front, this time, as we mooned a fellow baseball car with someone’s bare butt out the window and the “pusher” would decide to hold them in place for a while, passing a few random cars in astonishment as we carried on.
There was the time Roy Kennedy got nauseous without saying so on a trip to Louisville – until it was too late and who quickly lowered his window and let it fly, virtually coating the side of the otherwise well-cared-for vehicle with a recipe for inciting more of the same and a stench which made us park far away from Jack’s car.
Bobby Hupp’s red full-size Pontiac Tempest convertible hid a terribly weak engine and served as our vehicle of choice later at Murray and PJC for nearly 2 years. It is impossible for me to forget the high school baseball days, however, pulling out of Littlewood Drive to the sound of “Monday, Monday”, by the Mamas and Papas on rich, warm Spring days and feeling the impossible beauty of life itself. Later, at Murray, Bobby and I became suitcase students, traveling back to Owensboro for strictly carnal reasons, among very few others.
He upgraded vehicles in our sophomore years at Murray, graduating to a true muscle car – a 429 powered GTO which occasionally got to over 140 MPH on our many trips to Owensboro and then maybe to Florida on a whim. I recall feeling motion sick at the passing view of telephone poles, going by at a rate I had never even imagined. I would often ask for Bob to slow down, simply because of the motion.
Needless to say, these crazy bonding and fun-filled days of absurd amounts of boyhood richness also coincided with some excellent production at the baseball end. The sophomore season of high school which I began with closed with a State Championship – Jack’s first. At a later date, interviewing Jack for a book about his life, I asked him which team he considered his favorite. I was absolutely shocked when he said, “Well, I guess it was your team – 1964 – because you won our first state championship,” (one of 4 for Jack). That, too, was a giddy sensation because of all the fabulous teams and talent on teams both before and after I played.
It sure is a good thing he is not around to read these “road tales”, probably the single time I would say this about a man I miss terribly to this day.One frown from Jack Hicks could ruin your week.