Jack Hicks – Chapter 3

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The role of baseball in Owensboro at this time perfectly mirrored that of baseball throughout the United States. Adults and kids from small towns all over America tuned into The Mutual Broadcasting Company’s daytime games announced by Red Barber on radio. Mutual started its baseball coverage in 1935, when the network joined NBC and CBS in national radio coverage. The three networks continued to share coverage of baseball’s “jewels” (the All-Star Game and World Series) in this manner through 1938,  with Mutual gaining exclusive rights to the World Series in 1939 and the All-Star Game in 1942. In 1949 Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler negotiated a seven-year, $4,370,000 contract with the Gillette Safety Razor Company and the Mutual Broadcasting System for radio rights to the World Series, with the proceeds going directly into the pension fund. During this period, the popularity of baseball achieved National Pastime status, and deservedly so. Baseball was The Sport in America and it was much-adored.

But war happened…………….

World War 2 interrupted everything – it beckoned as a massive reality in the United States following the crushing bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941. The entire country was shocked and galvanized with a patriotic – if incredibly sad – rush as the first ever experience of having been attacked rudely introduced Americans to a far smaller world. Modern technology in the form of flight over long distances and the limits of detection suddenly loomed over a sense of vulnerability the likes of which no one had ever experienced. The development of submarines added a level of mysterious potential impact – and, on the West Coast of the United States, from Washington farther South all the way to San Diego, rapid construction of concrete bunkers and watchtowers manned 24/7 by soldiers and other, related, government personnel, was implemented. The best technology was immediately installed along with some weaponry in the fear that an invasion by a militaristic Japan could find purchase on the Mainland.

What had been occurring in Europe from the onset of Nazi expansion in 1938 had not escaped our view. Roosevelt, in fact, badly wanted us to commit to the war. Canada had declared war 2 and a half years earlier, with soldiers actively battling in the European theater. In fact, many Americans joined forces via Canada or else volunteered on the ground in Great Britain to contribute to the defeat of enemies almost everyone saw as utterly and existentially threatening. The isolationist sentiment – a strong one –  to stay out of others’ problems finally disappeared following the attack on Pearl Harbor and, suddenly, the US beckoned to its military-aged males for help.

Needless to say, the response was overwhelming (and eventually successful). Like all small towns in America, an incredibly overwhelming number of males disappeared from the streets, having voluntarily enlisted to protect their Homeland. Owensboro, Kentucky was most certainly no exception. Both of Jack’s brothers enlisted early. Essentially, with few exceptions, kids Jack’s age – stuck in high school – chaffed to go help. There were many attempts to enlist at ages under 18, some of which were successful. The galvanization of military spirit ripped through the souls of these young men with an urgent sense, and it often frustrated them that they were powerless. Left at home, they hugged their sibling’s good-bye and worried, along with the rest of their family and friends, about each fellow who served, especially those in Europe or battling the Japanese on the other side of the world. It was a terribly anguished citizenry left behind, willing to do whatever necessary to bring the boys home and successfully complete the mission. No questions were asked about the legitimacy of the war. It was clearly Good versus Evil, and with an entire globe at stake for the first time in living history.

For a period of 4 long years, Owensboro families endured the separation and anxiety which war brings – and especially a war so large as a world war. Jack’s fellow sophomores at Owensboro High School would – and did – experience all this as well upon graduation in 1943. Many opted to enlist immediately upon graduating, where some opted even before as soon as they turned 18. Feelings and emotions were strong, The young men felt the burning urgency of danger full time as they equally understood these were their last days as young men under the aprons and coattails of their parents.

Jack was also amazingly active himself, managing all sports as equipment manager from his first year of increased mobility. He was peripatetic, completely ubiquitous at all high school sporting events as manager and fan. It was something of a dream for young Jack. Enabled to get around better, he relished the hard work demanded of him. Jack’s knowledge that he would never serve in a military capacity actually enabled him many mental and spiritual favors. Already appreciative of others, Jack’s lack of resentment over his Fate also allowed him to celebrate with free abandon the successes of others and to develop an incredibly sharp eye for athletic talent. His choice of enthusiasms was becoming clearly defined as an evolving and deep investment in human potential.

It was in these Summers when Jack developed his deeper appreciation of the sport of baseball. As mentioned, Jack was a regular at Miller Field for the Oiler’s ball games in the Kitty League. Once again, his new mobility provided an outlet for his desire to be relevant to the larger world. I believe a sense of ‘relevance” and the spirit of accomplishment was always a lifetime passion and, in its ferocity, also undoubtedly an outgrowth of his handicap in one of the few identifiable compensatory mechanisms of his life.

Jack graduated from Owensboro Senior High School in Spring of 1943. By this time, two of his brothers were serving in the military during World War 2. Fortunately, one was somewhat permanently based in San Diego but the other served in remote forward Intelligence-gathering locations on the Northern Coasts of Morocco and Libya, assessing and relaying ship traffic. Inasmuch as his situation was secret and highly-classified, he was unable to contact home – or even to write letters – for long months at a time. Thus, many was the night when Jack’s Mom cried herself to sleep over the fate of her boys, a solemn fact Jack addresses directly in discussing the period and a perfect rendition of the emotions of American families back home during that long and arduous war. His mother’s angst solidified and deepened the effect of the war. Nor was it an individual fate, listening to his mother’s sobs, in the dead of night. His classmates experienced the same virtual emotional environment. News of the war were not idle pursuits for them, including the incredibly depressing listing of casualties of that war which scrolled daily in local newspapers. New horrors could descend at any time with the dreaded Army vehicles seen approaching homes with the worst possible news, no matter the neighborhood.

Murray State

Armed with his his school diploma and not much money, Jack obtained a scholarship to help get him into Murray State University in 1943. He was the 3rd of Dayton and Nancy’s Hicks’ family attending college at the time and they were undoubtedly delighted that Jack was so serious about his own private ambitions. He was enamored with the idea of Law. He headed to school with a Law Degree in mind.

At Murray, the historically unique situation of gender during wartime impacted his enrollment and, even more, the availability of housing. The dorms were totally female at Murray, whereas boys had to find families or other accommodations in order to attend there. Jack was able to find a situation with a local family at very reasonable rates, but he was also on the hook to pay for it himself. Out of the approximately 700 students attending Murray State at the time, only 120 were males during this wartime situation.

In 1943, his freshman year and into the next year as well, Jack got a job operating one of the old fashioned telephone switchboards at the college. These boards were the old “plug-in” varieties still in fashion at the time, requiring manual connections to the various remote telephones of the system. The dollar amount he earned was more than enough to get by on and he was often able to do homework and study while on the job on less busy evenings or days. He worked 20 hours a week at it, a very social job, meeting yet new people and refining his networking abilities which, later, proved so valuable in so many ways.

As a Junior, Jack obtained a job of a more incentive-based character by becoming business manager of the university yearbook. For a base of $200 a month, Jack acquired and sold advertising space for the publication. Later, Jack would receive half of the profits on the enterprise, something which pleased his excellent sense of business and the relative value of public relations. He was able to pry funds enough loose to pay for himself and to help create 2 very successful annuals, independent of the university’s funds. He improved his work the following year in another successful campaign.

In that same year, as a member and President of The International Club, he found himself coaching intramural basketball, exceedingly rich in talent with the return from war of so many men. His first coaching experience saw his teams do well indeed. Jack had always had an eye for talent, from his first moments in sports. He acquired players and successfully coached them well into early Spring. At that time, he also became involved in establishing a tournament where they found a venue and hosted a hard-fought, entertaining and successful basketball competition, the Pennyrile Tournament. It was his very first effort at organizing and implementing something of such complexity and it was a solid success. What he learned in those weeks would set him up for even denser and more complex enterprises to come.

In his senior year at Murray State, Jack ran for Class President at Murray, losing to one of the athletes competing for the position but making enduring friends in the process. Johnny “Red” Regan, eventually the storied baseball coach and then Athletic Director at Murray State, was among Jack’s closest buddies. “Red” was a heck of a ballplayer, signing with the St Louis Cardinals fresh after finishing his degree and spending 3 years in their farm system before returning to Murray and, in short order, being hired to coach there. As the years scrolled by, Jack would send many ballplayers – including this author – to Murray to play under Regan. Later on, it was common to see a consistent number of Owensboro kids playing baseball at Murray during Jack’s tenure as Owensboro coach, one of the more popular destinations of Owensboro’s growing community of college-able baseball players. There was also the fact that, under Regan, Murray became a powerful and consistent baseball force not just in the state of Kentucky but competing in – and winning – the Ohio Valley Conference on a near-regular basis.

Graduation From Murray

Jack graduated in 1947, on time and in good stead, having also undergone nonacademic  experiences which would well-arm him for his adult life. An innate sense of business acumen accompanied the acquisition of his degree. It also prepared him for public life, not only of a baseball figure in a community craving the sport, but also aiding his organizational talents on other levels as well. He developed an abiding interest in the Junior Chamber of Commerce – or the ‘Jaycee’s’ – which was a budding, growing association, clustered around the young businessmen returning from the war, and which would loom large in short order on his return to Owensboro following graduation from Murray.

Very much still connected to all aspects of baseball as a sport and pastime in Owensboro, Summers always and without fail placed Jack attending Kitty League games of the Oilers, much the same as the entire town. He was also still helping at Miller Field when necessary. But it would be another 4 years until his avid interest in the sport became something more concrete. The marriage of his sister Billie to Clayton Heffelfinger – the former Oiler star player – merely cemented Jack’s connections with that program. The births of his nephews from that pairing – Bobby, Billy and Dayton – offered legacy and a continuing unfolding growing sense of family pleasantry, providing a yet-deeper confirmation of baseball’s positive role in the evolution of Jack Hicks’ America.

It had been in the Summer prior to his Junior year that Jack decided the years invested in a Law Degree stretched out too ominously – too far ahead. He changed his focus from an eventual law degree to the teaching profession, working towards a major in Government with minors in Math and Journalism. Back then, ironically, just as is the case now, Math positions were always the easiest to fill and saw the most job vacancies. This was very much proven out for Jack in his first 5 years of teaching when he was hired as a math teacher at 3 different schools.

Upon graduation, Jack took his newly minted degree and teaching certificate into the field surrounding Owensboro and landed a teaching and coaching position with the tiny county school of West Louisville. West Louisville was a 1-12 school, packing elementary and high school classes in the same building as many schools did during the era. Jack would coach the basketball team, a member of the 9th District, sharing tournament competition with what now seems an astounding list of schools – Beech Grove, Drakesboro, Calhoun, Bremen, Sacramento, Daviess County High, and 2 Catholic High Schools. Needless to say, the intervening years have consolidated this diversity into bus-enabled attendance at a grand total of 4 remaining high schools. But at that time, there were 11 different high schools in the 9th District.

Jack was teaching Math – not his favorite subject – but one was hired then as now – for positions of need within the school. His memories of the time in terms of what he enabled students to learn never matched his later sense of involvement as a government teacher at Owensboro High, a position which allowed more active personal interactions, even during classroom time.

Jack’s experience at West Louisville was perfect for purposes of getting his feet wet at the teaching profession in general. West Louisville was a grade 1-12 school, composed of rural kids who were somewhat humble and respectful in general. Interestingly, they were typical Kentucky kids on another front: They were “absolutely mad” about the sport of basketball. The entire state, in fact, like neighboring Indiana, had adopted basketball as a social and spiritual destination for its more athletic children, coordinated with the rise of the state school’s increasing prominence as a national power at the sport. Adolph Rupp had designed a dynasty at the University of Kentucky – a true national power – to which the state paid rapt attention, and which had raised the pride of Kentucky’s citizens beyond the previously more hostile “hillbilly” tag as a stereotypical reaction to Kentuckians, derived in part from the exodus of an immense swath of population who fled from the state to inner cities during the Depression.

As Jack became comfortable with his position, he also became aware of this avid interest in the sport, and he encouraged the players to practice on their own. They were all on board with the idea and they showed up for their first season under Jack with enthusiasm. Alas, the talent level was largely mismatched among the larger schools in the area, but they still compiled a respectable enough 8-15 record, losing in the first round of the District Tournament. All in all, it was an interesting and enlightening experience for Jack on numerous levels – from the acquisition of teaching expertise and a more relaxed take to the ins and outs of coaching high school athletes. Inasmuch as Jack has coached a loaded intramural team at Murray, complete with returning ex-soldiers with ample basketball experience, it was not as if it were his first experience at coaching and inspiring. However, he was notably affected by the age group within which he found a measure of passion and commitment which inspired him for the rest of his days.

But, just as things were looking a bit sunnier, during the Summer of 1948, the school of West Louisville burned down to the ground. A modest panic ensued, resulting in the relocation of the top grades, 7-12, to Beech Grove, merging high schools. The Daviess County School Board had been forced to quickly rearrange a large variety of adaptations, relocating the majority of the students to Beech Grove, Kentucky, about 10 miles away to the West and which already had a high school which competed athletically with West Louisville and the same cast of characters. The trip was a bit longer each day, but Jack kept his job and also kept the coaching position. The next year, he would have the best of two schools, even if scraped together on such short notice.

Fully accommodated to the new surroundings, Jack stayed at Beech Grove for 2 more years, encountering a steady, losing diet of Cliff Hagan and Owensboro basketball, who not only dominated the region but who also won the State Championship in Hagan’s senior season, 1949. At the time, Owensboro Senior High was coached by Jack’s eventual best friend and mentor, Lawrence McGinness, more fondly known to thousands as “Coach Mac”.

Coach Mac would play a highly influential and understanding role in Jack’s present and future. Coach Mac was an awesome character.

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