As mentioned previously, Jack’s introduction to organized coaching really began at the American Legion level. Yes, he did squire the Little Leaguers to a state championship in 1952, but that was coaching by acclamation. Harry Steele, Ernie Knight and other well-known coaches to my generation were affected by the conflicts of their work and the demands of practicing and gelling a diverse group of all-star boys into a team. Jack asked his best friend Joe Bandy Penrod to help out and they gathered a local high school kid as manager (whose name escapes me, I apologize). Needless to say, they were successful.
In the Spring of 1953, Jake Winkler, head of the American Legion ball team since its inception, invited Jack to take over as coach of the local James L Yates post American Legion baseball team. At the time, Ideal Milk and car dealer Harry Holder happily sponsored Jake’s efforts. The team was known as the “Ideal Holder Kids”, just 2 years away from adopting the more memorable “Velvet Bombers” title in honor of new sponsor Velvet Ice Cream. Jack was a great choice, proven by events.
On June 8, Bobby Cravens’ bat and defense powered the team to a 12-6 victory over Tell City, Indiana in the opening game. Jack used 16 players in the game, in an effort to decide who will play. Six Owensboro High players were still involved in tournament play when the team began, delaying final roster decisions.
Eventually, it worked out well. The elements together had excellent team power with Cravens, Jim Jolly, Jackie Jewell and Lynn Wilkins supplying the power. Cravens had a year. He led the team in hitting and his center field defense was at times stunning. He threw out a baserunner at home from deep centerfield to keep a lead in one of the early games. The team gelled well. They finished 13-4 on the season, prior to the Regional, then State Championships, where they won an additional 5 games, finishing at 19-6.
The primary pitcher was Ralph Head, with 9 wins, Leonard McGlothlin and Bobby Bratcher excellent #2 and #3 starters. Head was almost dominating, however. Used for Big Games and tourney starts, Head racked up an excellent record, eventually winning the State Championship. This would be Number One for Jack, to be followed 10 more times in 25 years. It was the first visit by an Owensboro Legion team to the State Championship Games since. 1941, and the Kids swept Lexington in 2 games.
They traveled to North Carolina to compete in the next, National Regional level, and got soundly beaten twice in a row by teams from Norfolk, Virginia and Memphis. But they thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It set the hook.
Bob Elson, Morris Kirkendall, Harry Bellew, Bobby Cravens, Ralph Head, Jim Jolly, Wayne Hall, Sonny Sturgeon, Paul Anderson, Billy Martin, L. P. Royal, Jerry Wiggins, Tom Wieting, Jimmy Coons, Leonard McLothlin, Jackie Jewell, Lynn Wilkins, Scotty Plain, Bob Bratcher
Jack took the job offer to teach for the Fall of 1957. Back into teaching Math, he also coached both football and basketball teams at Foust Junior High. Inasmuch as he loved both sports and had spent his life around such matters, he was capable and instructive.
In a classically “small town” such as Owensboro, to some degree or another, everyone “knew” – or perhaps knew of – each other. By this time, Owensboro had reached around 35,000 in population, a population boom brought about by General Electric’s massive enterprise, the relocation of Texas Gas Transmission to the town, a booming steel industry and better, more modern farming techniques and machinery. Kentucky Wesleyan University and Brescia College were expanding slowly but relentlessly. Much local forestry land was cleared for farming, carving out whole sections to take advantage of benign weather and Kentucky’s excellent soil conditions. Make no mistake, 35,000 is not a small number. One could still meet someone new every day. But the town was taking on an almost new identity. Declared an All American City, Owensboro was proud to reach this level. New ideas and Hope abounded, eager to meet the future. Educationally, Owensboro became second to none. Great effort was assigned the task of educating its children and the kids responded. A long running scroll of achievements were an annual rite. The town was at the peak of their game.
For Jack, the “small town” feel lived in the kids he taught. He knew parents, brothers, relatives and friends of his charges. It added a sense of comfort for him. Jack liked everyone, he was no small-minded man, beset with jealousies or rumor. This sense of inclusion was an important adjunct to someone who was so grievously hurt by the humiliation caused by his former employment. In this case, his Home Town rescued him. He gave the town another chance.
After getting his feet wet in a classroom again and after successful football and basketball seasons at Foust, Jack took the reins of the Owensboro Senior High Baseball team in the Spring. Suddenly, the circular nature of excellent preparation made that Karmic sense implicit in any successful organization. A bunch of Jack’s players this bright new season were much the same bunch of Little Leaguers he had cultivated in 1952.
A Personal Detour
Something I wrote………..Fall, 2016
The miles burn by through a lush and gorgeous maze of green forests, untended fields and manicured farms as I drive the 118 miles to Jack Hicks’ home in Owensboro. I reflect on the beauty of Southern Indiana countryside along Highway 64, then South on Hwy 231, a gorgeous pastiche of nature and agriculture. It is shamelessly intoxicating, riveting automobile entertainment in all months of the year except for the Winter months. I often attach earphones as I drive and listen to the interview tapes Coach Hicks and I created together. I digest the “fresh” news, I have 40 hours of recordings, and I almost always dig up nuggets previously missed on the colorful history of this man and his times. On the seat beside me, I keep both a notebook and a recorder handy to note my thoughts and reflections. The drive has become a deeply personal, heart-full experience. I relish the biographical work, even including the physical act of the travel to the source. The work he and I have done has caused me to reflect on my own life in the silence of this unfolding, deeply evocative movement of the land around me. I often think of my travel as a testament to the America of roads, automobile power and my own well-chronicled personal and powerful wanderlust. It becomes an accounting.
The irony of my current situation strikes me with the brutal realization that there seems to be so much mortality around me these days. My mother, who is 95, is someone I help and care for back home in Louisville, where I relocated to help her and my brother Tom. Her medical struggles are similar to Jack’s. Each are failing and a little frightened. Each has become in need of caregiving, even as Jack still hosts loving friends and family. Each might have jetted off this mortal coil and well could have years ago, yet both hang on in ways which are unselfish and rather refreshing for that. Each of them exist because the fire of their curiosity is still alive. Each are “waiting to see how things come out.” They are also surrounded by an absurdly caring tribe who relish their remaining moments on Earth and who ask nothing more than that they stay mentally active. One cannot miss the impression that each still very much enjoy living. Both now feel well beyond desperate, and far more grateful than resentful. Their proud exhaustion fuels my sadness. What they have grown to understand is beyond me..
When I took on the project of writing Jack’s life story, I had no idea my own mother’s medical fate would parallel his. The days spent in Owensboro interviewing Jack, recording his words and recollections, kept us both fresh with newly- recorded reminiscences. Each meeting became richer than the last until all this momentum “stopped on a dime”.
Last September, while going to her weekly lunch with ladies who had shared the tradition together for long years, Mother broke her hip in a terrible fall. She shattered her hip. Her situation quickly deteriorated in the hospital hastened further by kidney troubles. She was on heavy pain-killing medication and she suffered from hallucinations. Her helplessness was something new to my brother Tom and me. We each struggled with our emotions and we felt the grimness of the absolute finality we faced. Mortality haunted us for a while, an uncomfortable revelation of Nature’s power.
I cut off my Owensboro visits with Jack to attend to Mother at home in Louisville. She eventually found herself in a rehab facility where she slowly but effectively returned to some seriously robust health. We each visited her two times a day to keep her spirits up and to encourage her improvement. Caring for Mom became our job.
Mother became one of the exemplary rehabilitations of her rehab facility at the young age of 94, full of spit and vinegar. She improved by leaps and bounds every day. She got to where she read the most of a book a day, and she was insanely and absolutely delighted to finally get her release and return to her own bed. Honestly, it was very cool.
However, Mom’s broken hip set my work with Coach Hicks back five months, which would stretch to longer as Winter descended and made traveling perilous. I lost momentum and barely communicated with Jack, who knew and had taught with Mom at Owensboro High School. Jack asked about her often and fondly..
At the same time, Jack’s health began to decline. He had landed at an age and condition where the only question is “when?” not “how?”. The question was most certainly not “Why?” Few others could have made it so long and far as he had.
On my next visit to Owensboro, I am left to digest the bittersweet and dueling sensation of loss and accomplishment. I entered Jack’s house without knocking and yelled out my presencet: “Anybody home??”
I hear the familiar as I walk back through the hall to Jack’s bedroom.“Come on in!!”
It is baseball season and Jack scrolls through his beloved Christmas present of 3 years ago: The Major League Baseball Channel’. Jack now has access to every single game of the day and he is already smiling.
The vibrant, huge sporting giant who loomed over my youth smiles at me through his never-ending bodily pain from his bed and extends his hand. Jack’s hands themselves are personally legendary and worthy of a story themselves some day. Spare, smooth and boney, large and amazingly strong even still, his hand engulfs mine with sincere pressure. Those hands lifted his polio-ravaged lower body into a society which allowed him to excel. They have worked as hard as any hands in Western Civilization.
His Beagle attacks me with licks, rotating upside down on my lap, schmoozing in even closer, recalling the serious petting I was responsible for for quite some extended time now. The dog never fails to evince a smile out of Jack who will comment about its recent behavior. Our ritual is established and wholesome, our smiles intact as Jack once again wonders why anyone figures he is interesting enough to actually write a book about.
Occasionally we get visited during our meetings by various and sundry folks. Jack maintains a social life in his bed- ridden days which he still relishes. On the days when Randy Embry visits, he has an especially large smile. Randy’s obvious love for Jack is reciprocated, all of which revolves around the nexus of Owensboro sports. In Randy’s case, I am somewhat positive Jack’s admiration is more for his athletic gifts, inasmuch as few people in the world had talent remotely close to his. But Randy was also among the coaching fraternity, fully furthered in his progress and career by Jack. They “go back”, in short. We sit and cut up, swapping stories about our teams, asking questions we may always have wondered about to these days. The time passes effortlessly and fluidly and I suddenly realize Jack’s eyes are drooping.
A couple of “attention rallies” later, coupled with another long story or two, I bid them both a fond good bye, already missing this priceless ambiance.
I stop by Starbucks to sum up what just happened on an informational basis and drop notes on my laptop. A good large espresso primes me for a visit to the Messenger & Inquirer archives on micro-film at the public library where I spend the next 4 hours studying events of decades ago. At times the work seems insurmountable. There is just so much. Jack won 11 American Legion State Championships. He won 4 High School State Championships. His high school record was basically 700- 200. This guy won games at an 80% clip. He scheduled everyone from everywhere. So many stories…………..so many athletes……….so many bizarre and impossible situations………..and so much respect this man earned from those who played for him.
Both he and Mom have limited time left. I have long since decided to enjoy what time they give me. That seems a near- perfect solution.
In addition to all of that……….I myself developed cancer and was operated on in the midst of all this………………. This led to a 7 year battle of my own. Indeed, I am taking a dose of Chemotherapy as we speak. I find it difficult to place this in light of the above. Maybe something like “Everyone got sick as hell.”
Back to 1957 – a remarkable year
The spring shone as gorgeous as usual as baseball players began practicing, unwinding unused sport-specific muscles and getting a chance to develop at a sport which, for most, was a First Love. Jack held a meeting at the ball park, as he often did later, with ballplayers sitting in the stands and he up front. He welcomed those players he had in Little League in 1952 and he also acknowledged that this was something new – to him, perhaps more than them. He spoke of the drills they were going to undergo and the process of becoming a team. He then asked who wanted to win. Jack was gratified at the alacrity his guys responded with. These guys he could work with.
In 1957 the schedule for the season saw a relatively small schedule of games by Jack’s later criterion. Indeed, before the tournaments began, the Red Devils record in the 1957 season was 10-1. In later years, that may have been a busy week. There was a point, eventually under Jack’s guidance, where Owensboro baseball played games every day, featuring weekend double headers. Jack came to believe in this: “Games give more input than practices. By the end of the season, a team playing 40-50 games will have experienced more pressure and understand the game better by facing mistakes made and successes digested.”
Jack stuck with this theory until it was legislated not to. He never changed this philosophy. It was blissful to ballplayers, make no mistake.
Sailing through both the District an Regional Championships, the Red Devils under Jack were off to their first ever state tournament………….it created the following column from sports editor Russ Melvin:
(Not commonly-known history………..)
June 6, 1957 – “Owensboro High is just 2 games away from a State Title and the Red Devils are capable of walking away with top honors. Using the Little Leagues and Babe Ruth Leagues as a foundation, Owensboro High has come up with a powerhouse this year and should continue to be strong in the future. This strong team probably comes as little surprise to the people around here………..
2 years ago, baseball had been dropped from the Owensboro High program….the Athletic Committee, in a meeting, just decided to end the sport as it cost money to have it and it didn’t bring in any dough. I heard about it and broke the story in this column……….There are denials on it but it was an established fact that the athletic committee had to meet in special session and vote it back in again………… Despite the fine baseball program in Owensboro, some school board officials were against having it in Owensboro and it was only at the insistence of Chubby Vittitow that it was kept in.
In fact, when it came up for a vote, one school board member still voted against having baseball in High School.
Wouldn’t it be ironical if the sport they didn’t want brings Owensboro its first state title since 1949?”
In the opening round of the State, Owensboro beat Paintsville, 3-1. Jimmy Ransom pitched a 3 hitter and Billy (“Woosie”) Woodward got the save when Jimmy got wild. Harold Pugh had him a day. He hit one out for a Home Run in the fourth inning after doubling in the first and then sending the Paintsville outfielder to the wall to make the catch later. Paul Anderson also had 3 hits of the 7 for the Devils.
In the second game, the semi-finals, the next morning, Woosie Woodward pitched a no-hitter against Russell County and the Devils pounded out 9 hits and 9 runs, winning 9-0. It set the stage for the Final, with Louisville Manual High School that afternoon.
Manual jumped on starter Jimmy Ransom and then as well onto Woosie. Both pitchers had control issues, walking a total of 10 batters. Timely hitting by Manual after the numerous walks determined the outcome. Owensboro could not overcome the wildness.
But it was absolutely an excellent season result. There was much to be proud of, establishing themselves with the Owensboro Brand as this team did.
(The Players: Parvin Bishop, Harold Pugh, Paul Anderson, Billy Woodward, Jackei Poynter, Gerald Wellman, Jimmy Ransom, Johnny Strehl, Charlie Sturgeon, Butch Thompson)
At the same time, or rather, just a touch later, Owensboro Baseball had another phenomenal result.
Harry Steele’s Eastern Little League All Stars won their second consecutive State Championship. Jack Hicks’ Post 9 American Legion team won another State Championship. The Babe Ruth Leagues All Stars lost in the finals of the State Championship.
The baseball fortunes of Owensboro were taking off.
Next Chapter – Bobby Woodward, baseball force of nature