In 2009, Owensboro High School baseball received the blessings of real ghosts. I can think of no better analogy for a program which saw its team take an absurdly terrible 4-15 regular season record into the gratefully final morsels of this miserably failed season only to discover themselves 3 weeks later playing for the State Baseball Championship.
I was living in Portland, Oregon at the time and had just recently discovered the wonders of the Internet and all those weird and wonderful ways to reach out and touch people. As I prodded and push-buttoned my way through elements of my past and the elements of my trade, I rediscovered the local Owensboro newspaper – The Messenger & Inquirer of my youth, at the same time as the initial games of that season’s baseball District Tournament. Dang!! Bad timing!!
It was with serious despair that I noticed that pathetic record, not entirely understanding the various dilutions of talent and energy which had infected my high school alma mater. I reconciled myself to a more tepid fanhood but resolved to explore the experience of their eventual and rather imminent final collapse. In other words, as always, I paid attention to the Senior High Red Devils.
I got a shock in my mini-depression, as Owensboro actually won their important first game and and many of the obstacle teams later fell as well as they played through. They lost to the very favored and strong Apollo team in the District Final – to no one’s surprise, of course, but they still prolonged the season with their automatic berth into the Regional Tournament no matter the result of the final game. It was an unlikely series of events. Not one bit of any of it so far had been the slightest bit predictable. But, incredibly somehow, they managed it. I gained a tiny smile between the winces over future pain, but that was enough for a beer. Therefore, all was not lost.
Owensboro showed some signs of life, even with bearing such a heavy load that their record indicated. They had made their overall record to 7-15. It was somewhere around here that I suspect Owensboro’s historical angels hopped on board.
Heroes and the blessings of the past – some background
In the Bourbon mash-scented mists of the early 50’s and 60’s, the boyhood heroes of legend for Owensboro baseballers toil in a ghost-like Chatauqua Park Field of Dreams. Purposeful and relentless competitors, these idols exist in an approximate dream-like status which Owensboro boys have dreamed of since the seminal seasons of the early 1950’s and the incredible achievements of that era.. Their memory carries to this day a Supernatural Thrill in acts which eerily resemble that novel and film in every conceivable emotional and spiritual way. This time they would heal a season of pain and dysfunction and reveal themselves one more time for all the doubters and to this rapt observer..
For me, the names of Harold Pugh, Dicky Cobb, Woosie Woodward, Paul and Richard Anderson, Jan Aldeman, Allen Emerson, Ricky Nash, Randy Embry, Johnny Maglinger, Tommy Gentry, Denny Doyle, Frank Ballard, Stan Markham, Jimmy Oller, David Wolfe, Tommy Kron, Jimmy Howes and Bobby Woodward – competitors within and without the Owensboro line of succession who preceded my own little legend – are names which roll off the tongue in awe and respect. They still people my dreams. The severest admiration simply explodes in a direct line of succession which we aspiring ballplayers perceived like that Baseball Holy Grail – Owensboro Baseball – which was always the primary nexus and impetus of this biography and historical study.
The legendary man who began this mess was an affable but crusty fella named Jack Hicks. He got it all rolling………………..
When I speak to Jack’s former players younger than myself I feel the emotion – just as I nervously and respectfully even still regard those who preceded me, an unbroken line of awareness penetrates the moments. We are each the representatives of legends, a million unasked questions on our lips. Kids all need heroes and it can be shocking when you find yourself in a pantheon which you figured only included “the deserving”.
And here we reach a confluence of legend and reality…………….a stunning historical event whose supernatural magnitude has never been adequately addressed. I say this because I doubt anyone has spoken of these ghosts and legends made quite so clear in one club, 30-50 years after they roamed the fields.
I was so reminded of these names, their teams and their legendary and provocative energies which survived enough in the baseball spirit of Owensboro to lift this very flawed latest version of ourselves into some exemplary and very rare atmosphere. In a phenomenally-impossible series of events, this Owensboro High ball team swept through the Regional Championships to take the crown and win a trip to the Semi-State Championship. The record was still a dismal 10-16, even after the successful wins in both the District and Regional Championships. The Impossible was leering at us from over the Horizon and I became utterly mesmerized at my seat in far off Portland, Oregon.
The death of Hope which had defined the regular season had found this bizarre region where all the factors inherent in baseball – luck, adequate pitching, amazing defense, timely hitting and general head’s up play had simply conspired to come together in machine whose parts had found themselves working together like a huge Swiss watch.
(Jack Hicks’ accomplishments were rather legion and many took place in fields away from the baseball diamond. He won 4 high school State Championships and 11 Kentucky American Legion titles in his 22 years…….To the townspeople, Jack was an affable friend whose gifted steerage of the Sportscenter at the ripe old age of 25, recognized by local builder and mover and shaker Bill Thompson as a talented local organizer with an eye to sports (Jack had always acted as a manager of all sports teams where he attended. He could not play, obviously, because of his polio, but he craved the action and was well-known even then, although teaching for a living.) Owensboro saw the Sportscenter’s emergence as a true engine of culture and a factor in the diverse entertainment environment in Owensboro since the early ’50’s.
To boys, as time passed, he became a giant presence of ineffable wisdom and authority, the “inventor” of Owensboro Baseball as we have come to know it in the post Kitty League and Post War era.
The ghosts were already present when I played for Owensboro in 1964.
When I stole a base, I took it with Lester Paris or Gigi Talbot looking sternly at my work. There is no time to play the fool, this is serious business, filling the capable shoes of those who went before and honoring their achievements. When I fielded a ground ball, Randy Embry and Johnny Maglinger looked over my shoulder. And when I hit, David Watkins critiqued the swing and the contact – forget the distance. I wanted to run like Herbie Kendall and power up like Frankie Chambers. I wanted big sweet Jim Howes to move in with me, ha ha. Or better – me move in with them.
I experienced incredibly good times turning double plays with Tommy Jones. We were a slick team and he was a beautiful athlete. My players had the same deal going, lol. We lived that dream. It was the best thing ever.
So I have experienced this holiness………….this spiritual beneficence from the graceful ball fields of the past and the future…………and it was good. Hell, it still is.
I was at a University of Louisville baseball game a few years ago, wandering down to grab one of their very average but cold beers at the concession as is my wont. It was around the 4th inning of the game and I had earlier seen a large bus pull up and disgorge a team of what was obviously high schoolers. I was sure they would, as is common, catch the last of the game. As I waited in line, I could not help but notice the red and black school colors and the ubiquitous “O” on the hats they all wore together. I waited in line with these kids and began a fascinating conversation.
“So where are you guys from?”
“Owensboro.” came a respectful, somewhat proud reply.
“Oh wow. I played my high school ball at Owensboro Senior,” I smiled widely. “You guys walk by the picture of our team every day! I played in 1964 and we won the first State Championship Owensboro ever won.”
Their eyes grew wide and I had their attention, those who believed in such a coincidental meeting, waiting for Nacho’s. They were catching just a little magic when they least expected it and what was even more weird was that I was supplying it. Suddenly, I felt sort of responsible!
I heaped praise on their efforts of the team two years prior and asked how many were on that team – they were all listening to me now – and 4-5 guys raised their hands. I then asked:
“How unbelievably cool was that??” and they all laughed.
“Crazy cool”, came the best response form a veteran. My smile could not have been wider. “Keep doing it!!”, was my parting shot.
I left them there and strode out under the passageway into the ramp behind home plate where I have sat near Muhammed Ali watching baseball played at an incredibly high level at these free admission ballgames. As I made my way in, I saw Kip Walters, the coach of the Owensboro team which had gone so far. I introduced myself and invoked the name of Eddie Parish who, it turned out, was Kip’s truly best friend and fellow teacher at a Junior High in Owensboro. What a great guy who I have spoken with often since.
But that day, as we cut up a little, I asked “What the heck happened? How did you guys do so well??”
I could not believe my good fortune as the KHSAA began streaming the entire Kentucky state baseball tournament on their own web site. It allowed me to see every pitch. I really thought I had died and gone to Heaven, way up in rainy Oregon as I paid the most rapt attention to the games. It also turned out that Jack Hicks made a game or two. What was made more compelling was how the KHSAA recognized Jack in front of an adoring crowd of wild applauders, reciting his amazing accomplishments and celebrating publicly his entry into the KHSAA Hall Of Fame. It was an amazingly memorable moment for his fans but perhaps even more so for his family – and allow me to presume to feel a part of at least his “Baseball Family”, because therein lies the magic.
The first game lasted a while. It went 10 innings with Owensboro beating a very good Lawrence County team 3-2. As I watched the game, it dawned onto me how the experiences of losing so many regular season ball games had delivered a team so toughened by disappointment and hardship that they had acquired a completely bend-but-don’t-break attitude which could be an astounding asset, and which was the case! Jams, tight spots, then timely hitting all proved a mettle which no one had seen coming, including Kip.
(I began getting flashbacks to our Semi-Final game against the Mike Casey-led Shelby County team in 1966. That game also went extra innings – a still-record 17 innings, 5 and a half hours in the heat, featuring Wayne Greenwell making every pitch – there must have been 200 – and striking out 27 batters. It was the most bitter defeat of my high school career as we lost, 3-1 by making a late error. As Jack said after the game, “We usually win these, but this time we broke first.”)
Next, we faced Bullit East who, along with Lexington Catholic, were the first and second-best teams in the state by consensus. To make a long story short, we won that one, too, also by one run. There were so many keys plays, events and pitches during this game – totally similar to the first game – they are impossible to list. The pressure was huge – just incredible – but the Devils hung on for the wildly impractical win. By this time, absolutely no one was counting Owensboro out.
The Final Game was a loss and somewhat anti-climatic for that. Catholic was a skilled and veteran bunch. The 5-3 score overlooks the late inning rally Owensboro put together and the legitimate fright to the marrow the team gave the eventual winners. But, alas, the magic ended.
But it ended in Heaven and not one second sooner. What an incredible ride it was. I had never been quite so proud of any team I can remember.
“Everything we did began clicking in the District,” Kip related. “My pitchers were finally hitting spots and our team concentration suddenly focused on the job at hand. Our defense really came together as our shortstop refound his baseball muscles and instincts after a season of basketball. It all became sort of fun and then it just built on itself.”
Us “angels” helped. 😉
And there are a slew of us. The baseball gods smiled on Owensboro 100 years ago and they have been smiling ever since. The team photographs of all the state champions which adorn the hallways of Owensboro High School catch the results, but not the many other workers and supreme athletes which made this all possible.
The 1960-61 Owensboro Baseball team sent 6 guys to Div 1 colleges on ball scholarships and 2 signed professionally. The names I listed above do not even include the names of great players such as Landy Lawrence, Johnny Taylor, Mike Sturgeon, Bernie Strawn, Dale Law, the awesome phenomenon of Mark King, Frankie Riley, Phil Munday and so many others who followed me but who were every bit as powerful as Icons of accomplishment young players so looked up to and admired and who set the bar of accomplishment which only the highest attainments are good enough for.
And make no mistake, not just anyone could have done what the Red Devils did. To call it a virtual Impossibility would actually be an understatement.
Because it was Supernatural and that’s all I have to say about that.