Writing about Jack Hicks has led to waxing somewhat poetic about the sport itself. I was toying with the idea of beginning the entire book with this………. Yes, it is a repeat performance of a similar posting, just further edited. Just the same, I enjoy it and hope it brightens someone’s day. I live a shameless life.
A Boy’s View – 1960
The muggy atmosphere was redolent with the strange Owensboro-specific scents of of sour mash and some barbecue-smoking in the air, mixed with a heady dose of Springtime lilac and dogwood blooms in this lush and heavy Kentucky late Spring. The sounds of birds, barking dogs and a cheering gathered multitude made the air a full spectrum concert, complete with 360 degrees of sensation. Big plump clouds showed sporadically passing overhead, offering occasional shade from a reasonable Sun and offering just another sublime inhalation of what was by any standards an absolutely perfect day. Small lime green leaves clattered silently as the light breeze stirred them in a relentless perfection. It was as if Nature had planned an extreme contrast – the exact languid opposite of the energy being expressed on the gorgeous brilliant green grass infield at the baseball field where two teams battled it out for a year’s worth of bragging rights and certain immortality.
Chautauqua Park in Owensboro, Kentucky was a boy’s paradise. For a 13 year old, new to town, boldly browsing the local Little League baseball talent among the local fields – all imminently reachable by bicycle – it was a comparative feast. But not only were there the “known unknowns” such as new guys spoken of by my friends who still played in those leagues, this Bowling Green transplant also got to see the “big guys” play next door at Chautauqua Park, a venue which held Little League and Major League dimensioned fields, side by side. In the end, the choice of who to watch was always easy – more compelling for me was the near grown-up drama and skill shown by the American Legion team who were the only ‘big’ game in town that fresh and surprisingly new Summer. Nervousness over being the new guy disappeared in the face of this up-close vision of baseball electricity. Every one of my senses was heightened by the real time displays of athleticism produced by such awesome strength and speed.
But no Little League sound could conceivably match the concussive echo of a “crack of the bat” by these guys. Home runs were sometimes hit at major league distances by supreme athletes produced by a town which was apparently sports crazy. The enormous gorgeous green hill – profuse in green grass as well as large shade trees – looming just across the small street leading into the park beyond left field offered the equivalent of a left field bleacher seat at Fenway Park. Sitting a full 100 feet above the action, you could cut up with a friend or two, or one could watch in wonder at the baseball pageant below. Or you roll down the big ol’ hill for a while, laughing uproariously during the dizzying effects of gravity and anarchism. That happened a lot too. In fact, large cardboard boxes could supply the equivalent of an afternoon at the best amusement park in its pure recreational release of derring-do, speed and accidental hilarities.
The seriousness, however, of competition was a fearful thing to a 12 year old represented by the virtual young adults playing baseball in front of me. Owensboro’s team had abundant players over 6’ tall, as did their opponent. Their seriousness seemed magnified by the image of the huge man I watched lumber slowly to the third base coaching box. It was my first-ever image of Jack Hicks as I watched what eventually became a familiar image, his gait magnified by his straight right leg swung wide, slowly making his way into position and voicing encouragement with an amazing confidence and offering hitting advice while passing. Mesmerized somewhat as children can be over physical handicaps, I watched his overall level of comfort and found him somehow a fixture of awesomeness. This was the leader of these guys. He belonged to a category I was literally mystified by and very unsure of. It may have been one of my first glimpses of real Zen.
The Owensboro American Legion Post 9 “Velvet Bombers”, very creatively-named after their sponsor, Velvet Milk, Inc., became legendary for young boys with baseball fantasies, of which there were many – most pointedly including me. They seemed to – and did – play nearly every single night during those wonderfully long summers, at times in front of reasonably large appreciative crowds. Teams would stream in from Nashville, Louisville, Memphis and, of course, the ever present local rivals from Henderson or Bowling Green, Kentucky and Evansville, Indiana to provide exotic and extremely high-quality opposition for the Owensboro teams and players who had met them at very advanced levels of post-season, tournament play. July 4th celebrations often included a home game and fireworks afterwards, usually against terrific competition.
Among the highlights distilled from a million impressions, I so recall watching Randy Embry patrolling shortstop. In one game I remember so vividly I still dream about it to this very day, Randy leaped straight up in a desperate grab for a hard-hit line drive shot off the bat of someone. His legs spread out in the splits in mid-air, Randy reached as high as he possibly could and actually speared that line drive – and “spear” is the appropriate verb. It all happened amazingly quickly, a feat accomplished within a second of earthly Time, but it left an impression of permanent durability – another incentive to a young baseball aspirant to hope he could someday match or even approach the unholy athleticism and sheer desire that produced such an impossibly elegant maneuver. These are the stuff of legends for young men. They are the motivations which inspire for literal lifetimes.
I recall a tense moment in the later stages of a ballgame between my former home town of Bowling Green and the “Bombers” when pitchers from either side had successfully dominated the game until the late innings. I believe Frank Ballard was pitching for Owensboro, just as I am partially certain Tom Gentry was throwing for Bowling Green’s team. In what I recall as being the 8th inning, I remember being mesmerized by the sheer velocity of Gentry’s fast ball – a common experience in young fella’s, marveling at the abilities of recently-arrived ‘grown men’ who had worked at the game for long years.
Gentry was throwing what we used to refer to as “Aspirin Tablets” – “BB’s” – fastballs thrown at such a velocity, it literally made the ball look tiny, if one could actually follow it at all. Owensboro had just had a guy walk, to make it to first base, had bunted him over to second to put him closer to scoring. I recall thinking the “no brainer” prediction would be that the batter, Frankie Williams, would undoubtedly be a virtual victim of anyone who could throw like Gentry.
I was wrong.
In a lesson which stayed with me for the entirety of my baseball career, I watched Frankie Williams match the speed of Gentry’s next bullet with speed of his own, his bat whipping alike in unknowing perfection, sending this laser-like line drive blast with a ‘crack’ of incredible volume out into the nether realms of right center field. The volume of the connection was like an echoing sonic boom in a dark vacuum, nearly other worldly. For the sheer beauty of baseball’s innate competitive sensibility, Frankie Williams’ hit that evening provided an absolute template for my own future. I was surprised and shocked to find out that there was no one who was so overpowering that he could not be hit, and hit hard. I learned that intimidation was a 2 way street.
It was a complete revelation. The spectacle of speed on speed registered in that same place reserved for Space Travel and women like Marilyn Monroe. I was stricken with the forever-imprinted ghost of achieving something Impossible. What would mesmerize me for all time on those days of watching the “big guys play ball” became not just a goal and impetus for playing at that level, which I surely did, but provided the grist for a view of life itself which included the definition of World Class. It made everything seem possible.
But what may have been even more mesmerizing was the very idea that a man could gather groups of athletes and help them realize that dream. The knowledge and wisdom inherent in this sort of enterprise bordered on the religious to my young mind. The fact is, this never changed.
This is the story of that man.