Jack Hicks Chapter 4

The 50’s

There is a singularly very correct statement in writing about another person’s life: “Biography is also history.”

A story about the real life of Jack Hicks would include a smattering of Depression Era events and attitudes; it would also include the Second World War in which both his brothers fought as Jack, like everyone back then, waited breathlessly of news. It would especially include – in fact, would specialize in – that era we all so often seem to address with a smattering of reminiscent adoration and occasional aberrant fantasy – the 1950’s. Thus, it would be assigned to America’s literal ‘flowering’ as a society while undergoing the single largest transformation to middle class existence that the world has ever seen.

There is no mistaking the cooperative spirit of a time when huge numbers of American men and women returned from war and thence assigned themselves the task of making a better world for their children and those who would follow. The economic expansion was immense and substantial, and it was inclusive. A grateful world gave more than a few benefits to these returning heroes who had laid so much on the line for an indeterminate period of time. The juxtaposition of a grateful public at every remove – the soldiers returned with their undoubted maturation under fire – which often conflicted with the emotional remnants which could lead to the tempting madness which war always demands. Local attitudes were extremely healthy and helpful for these now ex-soldiers. A complex Post War individual psychology included equal parts gratitude and the imprint of mortal fear on the psyches of these men who experienced the massive destructive power of insane warfare first hand. They had seen the raging beast – with a direct vision that stares into the Abyss and comes away somewhat surprised at having survived while other more deserving’ persons decidedly did not. Soldiers often refer to walking through the devastated cities and plains of Europe or Japan in a transforming wonderment at what had just happened. The smell alone never really left their dreams. The savagery of war was never in brighter display than the killing fields, the camps and ovens of World War 2.

Owensboro in the late 40’s and early 50’s was just a few years into the next “Normal”. The business and economic climate of the day was invariably optimistic – to a fault, in fact. New businesses were devoted to new technologies such as the new “Television”, appliances like washers and dryers, or dedicated to the modern and yearly updated automobiles which graduated into wild realms of chrome and powerful motoring whimsy as they so famously evolved. Highways were being laid out in mind-bending numbers for unheard of stretches of miles, seemingly daily. Increasing numbers of technological achievements produced astounding technological wonders almost weekly which came to define the era even more forcefully. Lawn mowers, record-players, tape recorders – indeed, recording equipment of all kinds including homemade movie technology – lent an air of anticipation to everyday events. Even space and what it contained – or did not – arrived on the local radar.

But perhaps above all, the period dealt with an amazing graduation as a culture from the semi-rural isolation of the earlier American Historical Epoch into a world of power and influence in the larger sphere, bringing the world closer to us all in theory and action, but also at the ground level where the new technologies made a seamless transition of delivering the world to our living rooms. It was a period of moral certitude and confidence; a period of living accomplishments available to increasing numbers of persons; a period of the literal expansion of possibility and optimism and it contained the seeds of an unparalleled social justice.

Owensboro’s gift following all the social progress and economic acceleration became devoted to its youth. Profoundly safe, modestly devout in religion, commercially mature, Owensboro of that era produced open children in love with life, enabled by mature adults exhausted by the conflicts of war, a Depression, the Dust Bowl, and they were bent hard. They were very much collectively into the task of forming a better society. A society whose most general aspect was a primary focus on its youth. A city which came to stress education provided committed teachers, counselors and school boards who were not confused about the role education played in a good society. Local high schools developed an exciting and excellent reputation for producing college graduates and highly intelligent youngsters. Standards set at the level of education have thus decidedly become yet another almost unique asset amidst a set of communities separated by small increments of accomplishment and the fear or the welcoming of futuristic aspirations.

The consistent ideals about the future of the United States at this time the bore the intuitive understanding of the famous Confucius quote: “If your plan is for one year, plant rice. If it is for ten years, plant trees. If your plan is for 100 years, educate children.”

Of course, the entire nation was undergoing a similar eruption of commerce and education. Enthusiasm carried over from the successful war effort and the much-anticipated return of her fighters and production workers here at home became a well-designed, government-enhanced expansion of unique vintage. It resulted in the largest expansion of the middle class ever seen on Earth.

I have always realized how the Ohio River and its astoundingly abundant traffic over a few hundred years introduced a novel worldview to an essentially conservative, mixed semi-urban, semi-rural population. Owensboro’s establishment of a Bourbon Industry was a natural congruence of having a corn crop in such abundance in the flat river basin surrounding the river, combined with a ready method of shipment, right out the front door, as it were. Indeed, with crops and grains, tobacco and bourbon, Owensboro had a unique and enviable position as an exporter.

The profusion of ultimately creative and fabulously crafted pre Civl War luxury Paddle Wheeler riverboats helped produce an urban energy. In the post-Civil War era, farming loomed large as a saving grace for the lean times following all the destruction and the ruin of large swaths of the South. Manufacturing appeared in some abundance before the turn of the century and lasted until today as an economic mover in Owensboro. The river has a million tales and it’s gigantic mystery supplies a locally reverent poetry. The fishing is not bad either.

Eons of almost yearly delivered new silt and loam soil from the recurring flooding of the river draining the entire Northern and Midwestern geography of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky helped produce a farming cornucopia, perfect for corn and now for soybeans. The climate is also inherently designed to successfully grow crops with a pretty dependable regular summer rainfall. That recurring flooding made this area of the Ohio somewhat ‘Nile-like’, with its consistent regeneration of the soil growing medium. Fresh new soils and silt are sent down the mighty mile-wide river and they drop in place. Vegetables for an enormous crowd of gardeners were produced throughout the city and countryside. Canning and pickling joined with the hickory barbecue industry, to produce incredibly great tasting and healthy meals.

For long months during the growing season, Owensboroans traded veggies and fruit or simply gave the surpluses away so as not to waste any. In other words, even the city was semi-rural, and especially during hard times. Gardening remains an obvious passion even to this day in a town so appreciative of Nature’s goods. Owensboro is a City of Trees to this day. Stately, mature Oaks, Elms, Catalpa’s – you name it, even Kentucky Coffee Trees! – they grace the city as a gorgeous vertical necklace.

There was even a beautifully spitfire 100 pound lady who lived alone in a huge house on the main drag – Frederica – who adored her gigantic and gorgeously stately Sassafrass Tree out in her front yard. When the City arrived to reroute Frederica and widen the street into a main drag, she stood between her Sassafrass and the bulldozer, shotgun in hand. Her unrelenting stand made her famous and a locally acknowledged heroine when they rerouted the excavations. It is – or at least was (Ice Storms did their worst) – the world’s largest Sassafrass.

Tobacco became every bit as adapted to this climate and a bursting industry surrounded it as time went on – even as it became a restricted crop, and thus even more valuable. But it was always extremely profitable, if more labor intensive than corn, beans or grain. Early on, Owensboro burley tobacco was sent down the river to places such as Havana, Cuba and New Orleans for cigar making. Hundreds of tons were exported, all known for their high quality,

At some point in the 50’s, oil was also discovered in sufficient quantity locally to sustain its own mini industry. Wealth was quietly attached to these discoveries as the crude simply kept coming in steady supply for years and decades of time. Attendant industries found the centrality of Owensboro’s relative geographical location perfect for establishing businesses devoted to such things as pipeline transmission, sending oil and gas along the many pipe routes abounding in this geography, up to and including today. The forging and production of steel became as huge as the raw supplies could be easily enough delivered and transported via water and overland over the new highways. The World’s Largest Shovel also plied its tasks nearby as coal produced from strip-mining was easily enough accessed, ripped from the ground in monstrous quantities in more remote sections of the Owensboro’s own – and nearby counties.

The more modern city’s manufacturing base included the locally very lucrative General Electric’s near-entire light bulb production and the ever-evolving patents gained from the GE vacuum tube research teams based in Owensboro. The general manufacturing base of Owensboro, which had once included the literal production of an automobile for a couple of failed years – the Ames Automobile – was a hugely contributing labor factor. Owensboro therefore became a scene comprising an extremely well-rounded totality of economic sectors which not only settled employment issues, but which also included an intellectual class of literal inventors. Literally hundreds of patents were gained by these GE Researchers in all phases. Some brilliant children were produced from the families of the GE research teams. Hundreds of patents were awarded from the work of these inventive individuals, gaining huge credit for the burgeoning GE brand and products.

Socially, Owensboro’s self-possession was never particularly snooty, although it – like all Southern towns – suffered from the racial disconnect which also defined this era with a less-appealing tone. The literal Uncle Tom’s Cabin of literary fame sits not 5 miles away from downtown Owensboro. The story was told by the ‘real’ Uncle Tom, Josiah Henson, whose story was so captivating to Harriet Beecher Stowe that she penned the incredibly popular and very evocative book. Sent to his brother’s plantation by his owner, Isaac Riley, Henson became a model slave and overseer of the slaves on a farm in Owensboro’s eastern fringe, until he bolted for Canada in 1830. All that remains of the plantation now is an historical marker on Highway 60, hard by the tiny hamlet of Maceo. Incredibly, there is a huge number of Owensboroans who discover this anew all the time, but usually later in life owing to the scarcity of local pride for the institution of slavery itself. Producing a noteworthy and laudable crowd of players on the world stage, from Pulitzer Prize winners to Broadway and Opera stars, authors, editors, military notables and professional athletes, Owensboro itself regards these graduates with pride. By appreciating the many accomplishments of its native sons and daughters, a proud city could pose as a place where “anything could happen” and actually be accurate. As many have noted, Owensboro has quietly produced an almost outsized representative crowd of over- and high-achieving folks in many separate spheres.

We are all now aware of Jack Hicks’ fascination with Miller Field and his favorite Pro Team, the Oilers. We understand his avid interest which also resulted in making himself as indispensable as possible for the crew running things. Jack was inherently taking notes on organizational politics and the functioning of organizations. These characteristics would find purchase shortly in a way no one could have foreseen.

Upon graduating, Jack became interested in the Jaycee’s, joining this growing association on his return to Owensboro, yet still a fair distance away from undertaking the coaching and teaching which defined his ultimate moments later. Jack’s focus centered on acquiring experience in organizational matters, later helping his friend Wendell Ford make a breathtaking run to the Presidency of the National Jaycee’s, complete with backroom dealing which absolutely resembled politics. But this followed a few other noteworthy events the young and ambitious Jack Hicks experienced in a life filled with many accomplishments as an adult and especially as a young adult.

The Sportscenter

When the freshly graduated Jack was looking for work, the Owensboro Sportscenter had just been constructed, a magnificent Arena at the time featuring an edifice holding nearly 6,500-7,000 screaming fans as well as club facilities for youth under the bleachers (concession areas). It also had a huge public swimming pool. It was a huge step for the town. For kids growing up in Owensboro after its construction the Sportscenter instituted a familiarity with the pool on an intimate level. Not only functioning as a major source for recreational swimming for young kids, always completely packed all Summer, but also classes in lifesaving and swimming in general were a major force in Owensboro’s youngsters’ physical educations. The Sportscenter Swimming Pool was the major form of summer recreation for the Owensboro’s youth at the time. It is also otherwise noteworthy – and terribly unreported – that a pool was also constructed for African American children, on 5th Street, which served the same function for them, just separately. America was still far away from racial sensitivity, and Owensboro was no game changer as yet. Marvelous athletes and otherwise talented and beautiful people in the black community were miles away as yet from complete social acceptance.

Also extremely well-attended was the Youth Center below the stands of the Sportscenter, a sort of Boys and Girls club which preceded the eventual Parks and Rec-run summer open parks which eventually spread to 8 different locations. A marvelous break from the hot Summers of the Ohio valley, the Sportscenter was a fabulous addition to the lives and recreations of the growing little town. Ping Pong, checkers, some baseball nearby and a cluster of group events were a part of the recreational package and was a monstrous success. Kids had places to go.

In 1950, after 3 years of teaching and coaching, Jack was approached by local home and commercial builder Bill Thompson about taking over the management of the recently built Owensboro Sportscenter, home of local Kentucky Wesleyan University basketball games as well as Owensboro Catholic and Owensboro Senior High School. The Sportscenter was – or would be – the very new and attractive site of many Owensboro cultural events requiring seating for substantial crowds of up to 6.500.

One of the biggest attractions at the time was Pro Wrestling. Monday nights, 1,000 local fans would pack the Sportscenter to watch the wrestlers have at it. It was for this reason that Scotty Williams – himself a local whose wife was on the Owensboro City Council – and who also wrestled himself, was named Administrator over the bookings, maintenance and all general affairs of the business end of the Sportscenter.

In a matter of weeks, however, Scotty expressed his displeasure and the sense that he was a bit overmatched as so many events clashed with his wrestling dates in Nashville and other points of the wrestling compass. He asked out of the position and the 3-person board assigned Bill Thompson, the owner of the company who built the Sportscenter and local home builder,  the task of finding a qualified candidate for the position. Bill took a chance, asking Jack if he would like to take over all aspects of running the place.

The position was a fabulous challenge, being so new and potentially central to the city’s pulse and offering such relatively exciting personal connections. The challenge for a young man with a Journalism and business background and the energy to make it something special was stimulating and eye-opening. Jack was delighted to accept. It was an offer out of left field – to a position whose potential which waved itself in front of Jack like a brilliant red flag. He relished the challenge as well as the role itself. There would always be a certain level of acceptance into the business and political community of Owensboro which accompanied this position. This was a natural networker’s fondest dream.

Thompson’s – and the board’s – selection of Jack seems to have been a prescient choice. Jack really bent into the challenge. He immediately saw the potentials in a multitude of ways. His creative running of the Sportscenter would become one of his own personal greatest accomplishments. He treasured the position for reasons which we will understand as we become more acquainted with the times.

Jack cultivated connections among the real “players” in local regional and national entertainment and colleges. He soon placed an “Owensboro Sportscenter” ad in an important entertainment magazine out of Memphis, describing the Sportscenter and the town and drawing the attention of various individuals who sought venues like Owensboro to offer events such as the Bob Hope Show, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and even Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry stars. Major promoters such as Early Maxwell out of Memphis took notice and contacted Jack. Abe Saperstein of the Harlem Globetrotters got in touch. Agents for the famous were on the line for young 24 year old Jack Hicks and he responded with an optimistic hello and a sales pitch of his own which was as honest as it was appealing.

Young Jack also saw opportunity in the crazed importance of the sport of basketball among both the local Kentucky populous as well as that of the urban patch of Evansville, Indiana, a mere 35 miles to the West, who were experiencing a heady love affair with their own local’s burgeoning power in the Division 2 level of college hoops. Basketball games were extremely well-attended for the local high school rivalries, their end of season tournaments and the home games at the collegiate level of Kentucky Wesleyan. Owensboro has and always had a love affair with basketball as well as baseball.

Jack and Bill Thompson – a reasonably close contact of Adolph Rupp – conspired to ask the University of Kentucky to schedule a game or two where their star player – (“Little Cliffy”) Cliff Hagan – was from and on whose basketball team he played, memorably winning a state championship at Owensboro. Rupp consented. What was remarkable about this were the crowds. University of Kentucky fans absolutely streamed into Owensboro, delighted at the venue and watching their team compete at heady levels in an arena far closer than the long drives involving trips to Lexington. The crowds were immense.

Jack occasionally laughed and called the Sportscenter “The House That Cliff Hagan Built” because of the games hosted at this Western venue of the state, beginning with a game with national power Bradley University. The University of Kentucky played a total of 5 “Home” games in Owensboro – including “conference games” with Ole Miss and Mississippi State – with Hagan featured, drawing an average of 7.000 fans per game. Bill Thompson’s relationship with UK coach Adolph Rupp resulted in Rupp’s teams happily paying visits to All American Hagan’s hometown in a brilliant advertising coup which cemented Owensboro’s passion for UK basketball for decades to come. The head count resulted in substantial revenue for the new enterprise.

Next up was Evansville. Yet another fanatical fan base for basketball, the University of Evansville of the late 40’s and early 50’s was a very legitimate Small College (Division 2 at the time) power, winning national championships and producing future professionals such as Jerry Sloan. They also filled the arena during ensuing years of a very – extremely!! –  focused rivalry with Owensboro’s Kentucky Wesleyan University, forming a focal point of national small college basketball significance for decades to come. The stadium was always packed to the rafters for these intense rivalry games, drawing average crowds of 6,500-7,000 of screaming partisans. It was an era of basketball greatness, in truth, with future pros and amazing individual and team performances the standard rather than the exception.

Jack had conspired with University of Evansville officials to schedule some home games for The Aces – who, at that time, were bereft of a facility large enough to house their rising numbers of fans. The cars from the Evansville fans on the way into Owensboro would stretch long and patient, awaiting the crossing of the Toll Bridge to get into Owensboro, across the Ohio. An interesting side effect of drawing the large and fanatic Evansville basketball crowds early in the Sportscenter’s history dealt with the long-term bond payments for the Glover Cary Bridge connecting Kentucky and Indiana leading from the Indiana side to downtown Owensboro. Its debt was retired early owing to this basketball and entertainment package as car upon car streamed into town to watch their own local heroes. The Sportscenter experience looms high on Jack’s list of favorite experiences. His stories of that era are full of incredible people and memories. Kitty Wells, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Harlem Globetrotters and Jack’s close and personal relationship with Globetrotter founder and manager Abe Saperstein are at the top.

His office was roomy and well positioned within the confines of the arena, with easy access down a ticketed fan entry/hall to the office itself on the side, then continuing to the guts of the arena itself. There was a very private office for himself, a larger meeting room for groups of people, and Jack’s position included a secretary and Girl Friday, Mary Wolfe, a pleasant and affable and very efficient help mate. Mary was married to the Player Coach of the Owensboro Oilers, Wally Lance, and she proved to be a real and vital contributor to the success of the enterprise.

Many of the events themselves provide a scrolling list of brilliant and amazing stories packed so solidly into the 3 years Jack ran the Sportscenter.

Jack Hicks Bar Owner? Chapter 6

Jack was absolutely devastated by his sudden rude unemployment. He faced not just the crippling vacuum of obligation into and from local influence in business, Jaycees and Sportscenter phenomenology – as a central figure in his beloved home town’s progress – but he was out of work. It was stunning. He was no longer around kids. He was handling ones and tens instead of thousands of dollars. Time took on a different dimension altogether.

His first hire as a civilian was by an auto sales dealership, at which he lasted nearly a year. He laughs when recounting the period, announcing that he was so bad at car sales, that of the only two cars he sold in that entire year, one was bought by a sympathetic friend. Both of these years, while interesting for any number of reasons, qualify as “Years in the Wilderness” for someone as intelligent and active-minded as Jack Hicks. He maintained his position as coach of the Velvet Bombers and he continued his role as an avid supporter and advisor of the local Little Leagues.

Jack cast about with wide open feelings about his future. He was intercepted in his musings by the local doctor, Bill Oldham, who proposed a joint venture in purchasing a reasonably successful local bar Taylor Tavern – of all things. “Doctor Bill” as he was known around town, was a fairly wealthy and highly successful doctor whose motives in this venture, Jack suspected, included a personal interest in having his own private getaway, as well as the obvious benefits in making money. But it was timely for Jack, nor is it hard to imagine a smart man overlooking Jack’s honesty and business acumen. So, for a year or so, Jack opened and closed the bar, dealt with typical bar problems, made great money on pinball machines and vending machines and finally discovered that he really didn’t much like drunks. Without mentioning personalities, certain events of an extremely ugly nature intruded at sufficient intervals enough for Jack to ask out and try his hand elsewhere. He had “done the bar thing” and he had had more than enough.

It was a time to act.

Finally, in 1956, Jack applied again with the Owensboro Schools as a teacher. He had been approached by Coach Mac and the superintendent of schools to take over the reins of the Owensboro High School baseball program. A position at a local middle school – Foust Junior High School – was open. Jack would teach Math and coach the Foust football and basketball programs during those seasons and then coach Owensboro High baseball in Spring. Inasmuch as his successes as the American Legion coach had proceeded unabated during the 2 “Wilderness Years”, Jack was an obvious choice when the mutual coaching duties shared by Lawrence McGuinnes and Joe O. Brown were given up. Both were more than delighted to have Jack replace them. Joe Brown coached the football team and Coach Mac handled basketball, State Titles and all. The team had been reasonably successful, winning the 8th District under their tutelage. But neither felt natural as a baseball coach. Plus, each was close to Jack – for years.

There was no real status yet in Owensboro for the high school division of the sport which the state had only first empowered at the high school level since 1947 – 8 years prior. By this time, a small dominance in the state had been established by Louisville Manual and the Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati, most notably Newport Catholic. Baseball had truly arrived in the state at the high school level. It would take a newly-motivated young Jack Hicks to change a perception which could overlook Owensboro as a state power in the sport.

By the way, there were some hilarious and inspiringly unique moments during his “recovery period”. For one thing, he met his future wife, Betty Brown, a local nurse. It would be a while until they actually tied the knot, but Betty gave him something unique for his self-respect if not for the more lighthearted areas of his bruised Psyche. She was surprisingly influential in the changes and decisions he made. Confidant and true friend, Betty had been “fixed up” with Jack by his loveable nursing sister and mutual friend, Jean. (She was my favorite Hicks, lol). In the end, Jean’s cupidity worked and they were married, but that was a while off yet. Suffice it to say, Betty helped Jack lick his wounds during this “period in the desert.” We’ll return to Betty, his career and professional progress later, after this:

Implications of What Jack Accomplished So Far

Catching up with the last near-breathless 4-5 years reveals a magnificent, if not a purely genius level of insight into what would help a community into the modern world, fastest and the most. Jack had basically single-handedly introduced Owensboro into a larger world. The levers of influence provided by the new Sportscenter itself were mind boggling. Culturally, Owensboro was able to acquaint itself, up close and personal, with previously unavailable personalities, teams and events and the locals found that they really liked it. Jazz bands, country music stars, teams of all varieties of sports arrived and performed before what was now a privileged audience. Graduation ceremonies for the entire town, including the college, now took place at this arena. Occasional large dances, Sermons, parties and all the various diverse enterprises people engage in took place under the watchful eye of the 20-something Jack Hicks. To say the Sportscenter was a smashing success robs it of its actual power. It very much revolutionized the town and brought it into the very informed forefront of Modern America. The town emerged as a true cultural center, a well-earned and insightful position which it maintains to this day.

Moving along…………for no real reason

On The Road in High School Baseball

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. Or, of course, becoming Mom’s.

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 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 our 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, Unlimited Hydroplanes, a budding national passion. 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 1200 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 lime green leaves of early Spring and the aroma of freshly-tilled field of rich, loamy farmers’ soil, included me in an unnamed vehicle which now is misty as hell to recall. I probably traveled with Jack or Assistant Coach Tom Meredith. 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 modest 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 catfish 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 earthy Goddess. It is one of the most timeless gifts I have ever entertained. It’s in that league of events, anyway. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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 the wonderful family and 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 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. This 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. 

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 romantic reasons, among very few others. He upgraded vehicles in our sophomore years, 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.

A look backwards at Jack Hick’s record of accomplishments delivers a sense of success and excellence. His life, in fact, is a series of events well-accomplished – and not simply the sporting life. While he will have had his regrets, just as we all do, the color, form, noise and sensations of these highest moments are 360 degrees of experience and are represented by the impressions delivered by a thousand players who each brought something different to the games. They also had an equally different perspective on the lessons learned and the thrills implied. But Inspiration was a dynamic factor in it all. Jack took advantage of the kids’ enthusiasm. Not a Rah Rah guy at all…………..sometimes he’d lose it a little……..but more an interpreter of talent. You knew his lessons were straight stuff. That was what was special.

I have included reminiscences from various players in my analysis of these seasons. They somewhat complete a picture not only of glory but of youthful experience and the education for life which constitute the character-building enterprise of athletics in general and of Owensboro, Kentucky baseball specifically.

Included are heart-breaking disappointments. My own experiences include the losing end of a 17 inning marathon, 5 and a half hours of baseball played on a warm early Summer day in the Semi Finals of the Kentucky High School State Championships in Lexington. We were all near tears – exhausted, failed and especially sad for our pitcher who pitched the entire game – Wayne Greenwell – who deserved a better fate after striking out 27 batters in what had to be a 200 pitch performance. That was the hardest loss I ever experienced in sports.

Jack’s earliest team reached the State Finals in the first year he ever coached high school in 1957 and in 2 other years following soon on the heels of that. It was their misfortune to run up against the Louisville Manual baseball juggernaut of that era. Yes, they also fell short and the bitterness of loss was a palpable thing. “Loss”, as a concept, is probably the single most vital element of sports. Especially in baseball. I know from my own perceptions, even with the team I played on who won it all, there was never a moment before a game, watching another team warm up and do their pregame drills, when I did not wonder how the heck we were going to beat anyone that “good”. Secretly, I often wondered after ball games how we could have done so well with such equality in talent. The unfolding of success was always such a wonder to me. I felt so lucky to have the players around me that I did. We could do anything.

I believe the magic lies there. The every day refreshment of competition is a self-sustaining thing. It is actually a secret reward to play for a team. Everyone “wins” who competes. I believe this with every fiber of my being and I know this is Jack Hicks’ approach to the game of baseball and , even life itself. For every sublime moment of outright success and venerable accomplishment, there is a Shadow Element of failure motivating the winning. Humility becomes a team’s most prominent ally, proven so often it should be etched as script for every Mom and Dad who suffers with their sons’ and daughters’ experience as athletes.

When your tomorrows look as rosy as they should, great things happen.

Jack Hicks – Chapter 2

Rainey Bethea was not an intelligent man. As Jack says, “Today, he may well not have gotten the death penalty under the modern concept of mental retardation.” What was most noteworthy about the crime was its aftermath: .

In August of 1936, Owensboro hosted the final public hanging in United States history.

Raimey had climbed up and into the second floor window of the apartment of a modest older woman and viciously beat her to death and raped her. He then helped himself to her things.

At the advent of the crime and its implications, Dayton Hicks was a foot patrolman who operated in the downtown Owensboro area. At the time, Owensboro only had twenty-four police officers and Hicks’s “beat” was a solo foot patrol beat downtown. Bethea had remained at large after the simplest identification of the crime. Early in the investigation, the ring he left behind was compelling evidence. Not only were his initials engraved on it, but also others identified the ring as Bethea’s, which readily pointed to him as the guilty party.

It had taken less than a day to certify Bethea’s guilt, based on the most compelling and obvious indicators. He then evaded capture for 3 days as the community experienced a small panic and the local newspaper, The Messenger & Inquirer, had posted an editorial slamming the police for the pace of the investigation and apprehension.

A local house painter recognized Rainey walking near the downtown, spoke with him briefly, and then had alerted the police. Dayton and another officer made their way to the downtown riverbank site of the current River Park where they could see the plumes of smoke rising from a campfire down below. Dayton immediately recognized Bethea and yelled to him to come up which, surprisingly, one supposes, he did, climbing up the nearly sheer embankment up to where the officers were. Denying his name, referring to himself as someone else, the officers nonetheless hustled him over to the jail in a police wagon summoned for the purpose.

It was a short matter of time before Bethea was fully admitting it all and provided yet more
excruciating detail about the murder. This was an incredibly vicious and inordinately tragic event, based on the most pathetic of causes – simple greed.

The case made national news, long before the trial and subsequent execution. Over the next 2 months, Dayton Hicks and others spent abundant time answering reporters’ questions regarding the crime and subsequent trial, the sentencing and, afterwards, the hanging. Owensboro became a lightning rod for news, also featuring a female Sheriff – a novelty at the time – who had taken over the job of her husband who had recently died of pneumonia and who was appointed to finish his term by a sympathetic Judge who feared for her “pre Social Security” financial nakedness and the family’s inability to cope raising the 3 now fatherless children.

Her position was one of interest to reporters, as unique as it was, and she had managed in the time she served prior to Bethea’s hanging, to please the populace and do an outstanding job as Sheriff. The hanging event, however, she found so emotionally and spiritually challenging, she eventually declined to preside over it, changing her mind entirely.

On August 14, 1936, Rainey Bethea was publicly hanged before a crowd of 20,000 onlookers, on the site now of the River Park, overlooking the Ohio River. It was the last public execution ever held in the United States. It had drawn an explosion of interest from newspapers in regions all over the United States, creating a huge controversy which played all the Law and Order themes of the day.

Like any kid would do, Jack, who was 10, asked to go attend the event but was prohibited by his parents. Naturally, of course, he heard all about it for years to come. Whether he might have gone if allowed is open to question, because Jack was completely repulsed by the violence of the crime and even its aftermath the hanging. In the end. the realities, it turned out, were far different from the scandalous, sensationalized reportage sent in by the many reporters in the media, to say nothing of the vast editorial license taken by all, back at home in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago.

It was not a disorderly crowd by any stretch, although there were reports of surging crowds and souvenir-taking off the dead man’s person. In fact, there was an enormous sense of solemnity and gravity attached to the event, made more responsible by the presiding priest in this surprisingly densely Catholic town who prayed over the soul of the condemned prisoner.

It was a tough-on-crime era sharp on the heels of the Lindbergh kidnapping, the murder of Huey Long and the rise of the FBI, attracting the attention and emotions that such eras can collect.

Rainey’s hanging was most assuredly not an attractive event for Owensboro history. There are various attitudes towards the event, but by far the most common at the time was the sense of justice applied to such heinous acts. The psychiatrist’s takes on mental retardation, to say nothing of the advances in psychology depicting the relationship of mental disease and murder, had not become popular as yet. Justice was meted out regarding the injustice of taking someone’s life, and especially in such brutal and apparently useless fashion. Needless to say, the Death Penalty controversy was rather nonexistent at the time in the wider world, although this event, as much as any other later event, galvanized some thoughts about state sanctioned executions.

Fixing The Leg

In 1940, at the age of 14, Jack was fortunate enough to encounter a Doctor at Kosair Hospital in Louisville who was performing surgeries on Polio victims which could overcome the “flaccid knee and leg” syndrome Jack suffered from. A Louisville doctor, he recommended “fusing” the knee joint into a completely straight, yet totally supportive appendage which could support Jack’s weight and result in the removal of the onerous and unGodly heavy brace. Incredibly hopeful, Jack received the news with excitement. As promised, the trip to Louisville was done and the operation proved successful. Terribly painful, Jack rehabbed for months back at home from the surgery and then gradually became more and more able to stand – and then walk.

For Jack, such a result was an enabling, freeing event of titanic magnitude. Among the many implications, it meant no more time spent in mornings arranging the heavy brace, making the adjustments and straps fit for a full day, then facing adjustments and rashes from the abrasiveness of steel and skin as the day wore on. There were other, equally-freeing factors in this life-changing event, but they all revolved around one thing and one thing only – better mobility with less trouble.

Jack refers to this event glowingly and gratefully. His personality was long since set as to who he would be later, but this event provided an element of literal luxury compared to the status quo. He could cover more ground with less tiring effort – a result which would please absolutely any human.

It also led to an ironic situation. Later, in 1941, Jack volunteered to temporarily coach the local American Legion team when the current coach was called away. It was his first experience as a coach of any sport and he relished not just the challenge, but the gathering of respect through winning which was not the norm for the Legion Nine at the time. They actually won the District Championship, a feat which would not be repeated until 1953, in which, once again, Jack was – this time – the full time coach.

The surgical success thus enabled young Jack to act as the equipment and team manager for Owensboro High School’s various athletic teams, a function he took enormous pride in for the 3 years he attended there. In love with sports and sporting competition, young Jack had found a method of staying close to the games. He completed his chores daily – with relish and gloried in his responsibilities and relationships. Football, basketball and baseball were his domain.

A team manager’s role was multi-faceted and quite demanding. Managers were responsible for ensuring the uniforms were laundered, the equipment in general was in good shape, and that there were enough balls and other equipment to go around for basketball and football practices. It was a challenging daily grind which Jack undertook with much relish. His closest friends played, of course, which only generated tons more of his sense of brotherhood. The team managers would be working away both before and long after practices ended while the players sat at home in front of dinner. At times, as well, managers would be relied upon to address injured players, taping ankles, supplying balms and salves, powders for problem feet and even – when necessary – encouragement. Jack learned much about personalities and the human physical capacities while up close and personal, managing the sports teams he was such an integral part of.

It was, unfortunately at that time, as close as he could get to the games. But it satisfied no end as well. Long since adjusted to his physical situation, Jack proved resourceful in other ways. He studied the coaches and analyzed their systems and their styles. Grousing players would tell Jack when a coach was too demanding or too lax on a player. Equally, the players themselves gave feedback about the schemes devised to compete with. Naturally, Jack paid strict attention to what the coaches asked, both in terms of physical demands as well as the intricacies of plays and team cohesion. He lived the lessons firsthand, closer to the action than anyone other than players and coaches. By the time he graduated, Jack was most certainly a coach-in-waiting, although the truth was, in future career matters, he was more interested in becoming a lawyer.

It was very early on in Jack’s life that he discovered Miller Field and the professional baseball team – the Oilers – and the league – The Kitty League – which played there. His new-found abilities to travel allowed for climbing stairs, walking distances and becoming almost ubiquitous at the games on a daily basis. A Class D franchise, the Kitty League was the very bottom rung of professional baseball.

The Kitty League

Between 1903 and 1955, the Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee-League – otherwise known as the “Kitty League” – was a D level baseball “minor league” originally including franchises in Owensboro; Jackson, Tennessee; Clarksville, Tennessee; Cairo, Illinois; Henderson, Kentucky; Paducah, Kentucky; Hopkinsville, Kentucky; and Vincennes, Indiana. The league produced some excellent ballplayers over time, including future major leaguers Red Schoendienst, Ed Roush, Tony Kubek, Chuck Tanner and Don McMahon, among others.

The D League – and not just the Kitty League – was also arrogantly considered by national punditry as a solidly “dead end” league for players who could literally not see doing anything else but play baseball. It was the lowest rung of a minor league system which fed its major league clubs/sponsors in categories AAA, AA, A, B, C and D, each one solidly representing the varied levels of attainment. Ex major leaguers could people rosters as well, some of them hanging on to a game they could not let go of and others playing for the sheer joy of the sport.

The Owensboro Oilers hosted many eventual major leaguers as well as providing the “end of the line” for the same players too stubborn to quit the profession. The wide disparity of talent and attitude was eternally famous, made so by writers and commentary by both players and Big League lore. It was a colorful league, to say the least, and Owensboro’s Miller Field was considered the classiest stadium of its era.

Owensboro would consistently lead the league in attendance, with occasional ownerships sponsoring attractions and a very notable and colorful season where the townspeople bought and somewhat virtually owned the franchise, although still involved as a New York Yankee minor league club. A meeting at the Police Court premises obtained pledges enough from the townspeople, Modern Welding as well as their Union, to guarantee a match to the eventual $50,000 outlays spent in prior years. The challenge was thence to fill the stands and fill them they did. Therefore, Owensboro’s best and most entertaining and straight fun year was their last one. The league shut down all operations in 1955. Miller field was demolished soon thereafter.

Some Kitty League Implications

In the realm of baseball, among the ramifications of such aggressive young pro players moving to a town already enthused about the sport are a few pluses for the eventual sporting power which generally go under reported at times in any analysis of baseball in Owensboro – the relationships and the babies created by the players who hooked up with the always attractive female Owensboro contingent. Jack’s brother-in-law, in fact, was a man named Clarence Heffelfinger, father of two of my best boyhood friends, Bobby and Billy Heffelfinger and nephews of Jack. His Wiki biography from the Palmerton (Pa) High School entry:

“Heffelfinger graduated from Palmerton High School in 1937. He was an outstanding multi-sport athlete with four letters in basketball, four in baseball and three in track and field. He scored double figures in basketball and as a freshman, helped PHS (225) win the Lehigh Valley League title and a third straight PIAA District 11 title and extend their LVL win streak to 69. He was the leading rebounder his final three years and second leading scorer his junior and senior years. He was co-captain his senior year. The team record during the years he played was 65-24. Heffelfinger was also a starting pitcher for four years, and played American Legion baseball during the summer. He pitched PHS to the LVL title his sophomore season and was the mainstay of the PHS staff during his junior and senior seasons. He also played second base, hitting .384 one season. Heffelfinger threw the shot put, discus and javelin in track and field. After graduation, Heffelfinger pitched for the Kingsport Cherokees (193839), the Owensboro Oilers (1939), the Evansville Bees (1940) and Topeka (1941).

While playing for Owensboro, he met his future wife, Billie Hicks, an Owensboro native and Jack’s beloved older sister. Heffelfinger enlisted in the Army in 1943 and served in Europe during World War II. After being discharged in 1945, it was reported that he was offered contracts with two major league organizations, but chose to remain in the Palmerton area. He worked for the Chestnut Ridge Railroad. Heffelfinger was tragically killed on August 7, 1950 at the age of thirty-two in a workplace accident.”

Jack was later devastated by his passing in that accident. Clarence Heffelfinger was a very admired man.

So Owensboro had a definite professional start to its baseball affair and Jack Hicks spent his Summers in abundant time at the park, from initially watching the games to eventually being important around the park. Jack would take statistics or even man the PA microphone for team and inning announcements. Jack became useful and handy at the park. He began to understand the phenomenon of crowds and attendance, the use by fans of disposable income, all of which set him up well when he was given the position of Director of the new Owensboro Sportscenter later after graduation from Murray.

1964 – A Memory

The season opened during the Spring break of early April with games scheduled daily during a week whose weather shown glorious. Owensboro High School baseball opened with a double header at Paducah Reidland High School on a brilliant Spring day, 120 miles West. Owensboro’s starting shortstop, senior Ford Cox, broke his finger during infield practice and the young sophomore shortstop – I, Steve Snedeker – was inserted to plug the hole. This change began an unforeseen run of 3 consecutive years patrolling the position at shortstop for Owensboro, without missing a start. To describe my emotions at the time is nearly impossible. I was prepared but surprised to join so many admired upperclassmen athletes at such an impactful moment. The love for the delicious present was nearly impossible to contain. As were the nerves. In retrospect, reflecting on what Jack sometimes calls his favorite team, his faint praise for my performance includes the following: “Well, we had two sophomores on the left side of the infield, which is never a great thing. But you know what? You guys never hurt us!”

It was a rather remarkable week, all-in-all, and the vividness of it is amplified by my own set of sensations. The Red Devils took those first two games, and amassed a 7-2 record for the week. Playing my first game behind Kentucky Player of The Year Jimmy Howes in the first game, I collected a couple hits and we swept both games. The drive back was heady frolic as the ribbing commenced in the popular hazing methodology befitting the era. I suspect that shortstops suffer less of this than other players. Either that or I got lucky to have such cool team mates. They were gentle and satisfied. The following games that glorious week included a double header at Louisville Valley High and one game against local Louisville power, Male High School, and their much-ballyhooed Bonus Baby pitcher, Walter Harrison. We split the doubleheader against Valley and wandered into the Male game on the University of Louisville’s field with Jimmy Howes once again on the mound. It was set up to be a solid pitching duel with two of the state’s best.

This did not happen. In the first inning, with the bases loaded courtesy of a walk and a couple scratch hits, our centerfielder Herbie Kendall augmented his growing legend by reaching for a pitch completely out of the strike zone, clearly above his shoulders, and sent a blistering line drive at Mach 4 – or maybe Mach 5 – not only over the center fielder’s head but onto the railroad tracks in the far distance. Where the legend developed further was in the fact that he matched that hit with another nearly identical blast – just further this time – for another multi-RBI home run. Owensboro won the game 15-0 as Howes mowed through the Male batters like butter. This ballgame, from a my perspective was instructive for 2 reasons:

1. We could beat anyone.
2. These adult-sized players on our club could send balls an awfully long way against any pitchers.

A hilarious event also occurred in this ball game. Howes was batting and he connected for one of the few times in his notoriously terrible batting career and blasted a pop-up which only the state’s 6’ 5” 225 pound shot put and discus champion could hit. He smashed a ball straight up in the air while runners below it circled the bases with 2 out. I mean he connected! It was hit literally so high that we lost track of it, as did the Male infielders. When it finally came down, 5 feet from the nearest circling defensive player on this windless day, Jimmy was standing on second base – and he was not fast! He smiled over at the bench with this monstrously wide grin while we erupted.

The schedule resumed when school recommenced and we returned home and began a more normal, less cluttered schedule, winning most and losing a few. We endured one of those unseasonable cold snaps for a couple games in sub freezing temperatures. Most memorable of these was a game in Dale, Indiana where the temperature was clearly in the 20’s and hitting a ball felt like punishment. Between innings, players ran up the small rise to the team cars and sat with heaters running, only leaving for inning changes or for the task of getting “on deck” to hit. It was brutal. The car horns would start honking for either side when someone got a hit. The bleachers were virtually empty but there were a few hundred watching – from their automobiles. Very unserious mirth evolved. It was incalculably weird sitting in cars and talking about extraneous stuff in the middle of a ball game. Naturally we complained about the conditions as we blew on our hands upon entering the cars.

The season wound down and District Tournament play commenced. The roles on the team were set, as was the pitching rotation. We had some uncharacteristic losses during the regular season which concerned Jack owing to our occasional lack of focus. The team was solid in most respects, although lapses in pitching and in hitting troubled Jack. Defensively, however, the team was quite strong, and this became the secret to eventual success at the highest level. But it was vexing to him and it seemed entirely apropos that he not-so-secretly relegated our chances for tournament success less than in many years prior.

The outfield of Don Wetzel in left, Herbie Kendall in center and All American football player Frank Chambers in right field was fast and sure handed. Kendall, in particular, with Chambers close behind, were hugely quick to the ball and each could hit with power.

The infield of David Anderson at first, Jerry “JJ” Pulliam at second, me at short and sophomore Wayne Greenwell or Bobby Williams at third was actually excellent when all was said and done. For my part, I think I made 3 errors in 45 games which is more than respectable. The logic that Jack embedded and which I have never forgotten – “Make all the routine plays!” – was a substantially rewarding mantra in maintaining focus on the task of winning. We also had a catcher who was born to play the position in senior leader Jimmy Henderson.

We had two ”lights out” pitchers in Howes and Larry Shown, with a more than adequate third starter in lefty James Wellman. Looking back at this team, one can appreciate the elements which propelled their eventual success in the form of a team who coalesced and completely gelled at tourney time. The regular season that year was by all means the lead-in to the Main Act.

In District play, we first beat Owensboro Catholic handily in somewhat routine fashion. This was one of the last Owensboro Catholic High teams who were of less than highest quality talent. They inevitably became a substantial baseball force in short order which has since never changed. It set up a Final with Daviess County who were playing excellent ball.

The District Final that year was noteworthy for two reasons. First, fastball specialist Larry Shown started the game pitching. Jim Howes was busy 30 miles away in Henderson, qualifying for the State Track and Field finals in the shot put and discus. He would normally have started this important game. Howes was madly driven back from Henderson to the baseball field to take over for Larry immediately upon returning. We were trailing 1-0 when he finally arrived.
As an aside, I have always relished this bit of lore inasmuch as the individual athleticism required in what Howes accomplished that day is somewhat staggering in the galaxy of athletic achievement. That Jimmy would ultimately sign a basketball scholarship with a rebuilding and grateful Tulane University merely adds yet another twist to my contention that Jimmy Howes was the greatest athlete of my generation.

But back to the game . Howes’ return was also timely inasmuch as Larry was having trouble with his control. Jimmy arrived, warmed up on the sidelines, then commenced pitching, pretty much completely shutting them down.

The other noteworthy event during this game occurred around the time that Howes made it back to the ballpark. Batting 8th as usual, behind 1-0 in what was shaping up as a seriously pitching-rich ballgame, skinny sophomore shortstop Steve Snedeker hit his first-ever home run. All 155 pounds of me got hold of a Dean Young aspirin tablet and I got every single bit of the ball. Ironically, I had broken my favorite bat in a game prior and I was using a new club when I connected in a spot so sweet it gives chills to this day. It wasn’t a cheap homer either! It cleared the fence and bounced on the road on the other side, 330 feet away.

With the lead, we commenced finding more hits off Dean and it all resulted in a mauling. We won the game 11-1 in the end although it does not reflect the tensions which preceded the eventual blowout. Frank Chambers also connected with a shot to center which seemed to go forever, 405 feet from home, one of his characteristic blasts of immense, true power.

As we advanced to the Regional Tournament games, we were legitimately challenged. We easily won our first game, then we locked up with Meade County in the semi’s. We encountered a left-handed pitcher for Meade County who would haunt us for a couple years to come – Gary Timberlake. Gary was eventually drafted by the Yankees in the second round in 1966. We won the game in a ‘nail biter’ 7-6. I vividly remember the final out of that game – the bases were loaded as they mounted a rally with 2 outs. A crisp ground ball was sent to my left which I fielded and threw to first base, ignoring the easy force play at second. My throw sailed higher than normal but David Anderson plucked it out of the air with a leap, his foot descending on the bag barely in time. My relief was palpable.

In the Final Game against Greenville, we played a classic. Danny Morris – who later pitched in the Major Leagues – he of strikeout fame from the season before this, reluctantly gave up 2 late runs and we prevailed, 3-0. We were off to the State Tournament.

Jack’s interview in the local paper prior to the tourney featured his comment “This is a good team but not a great one. It is not the most talented team I’ve ever had.” As we read his comments, few of us were upset or angry because we all knew who had preceded us. But to say his comments had no effect would be wrong at the same time. My opinion to this day is that it served to focus us individually in ways which are the mysterious source of chemistry in all sports.

We beat Paducah Tilghman and their excellent pitcher Gary Harris in the first round, 4-2. Jimmy Howes pitched an excellent ballgame, shutting down rallies with a very effective curveball. It was Jim’s best pitch, actually. In spite of his huge and intimidating stature, in the end he was a finesse pitcher with an excellent control and a terrific curveball. He managed to keep it low in the strike zone and created abundant ground ball outs and double plays.

Our fireballer, Larry Shown pitched the second game against upset winners McKell and eventual Cincinnati Red Don Gullet in the semifinal game. We earned a lopsided win, 11-3, as the bats were hot and the strikeouts mounted for Larry. He simply overpowered them and Owensboro hit well.

In the Championship Game, Owensboro and Bowling Green matched up in an absolute extra-inning classic. Bowling Green’s remarkable lefty, Stan Markham, was busily putting a legendary stamp on state tournaments and had been the ace of the tourney so far, winning the first two games in indefatigable fashion. He brought heat and intelligence against us in an awesome pitching display.

We countered with Jim Howes. Bowling Green threatened early in the game, loading the bases with no one out but we were absolutely bailed out with a one out double play line drive hit to Pulliam at second by the powerful Jimmy Oller, who threw to me at second for a huge double play to end the inning. The game proceeded at 0-0 forever. Both pitchers fell into absolutely unhittable rhythms. Then, in the 7th, home team Bowling Green once again loaded the bases off Howes. With two outs, their excellent batsman David Wolf then hit a shot up the middle which took a tricky bounce. I remember tracking that ball. Time seemed to slow down. I adjusted and speared the nasty bounce, then flipped to Pulliam for the force play to end the inning.

Wolf gives me grief to this very day on that play.

In the top of the 8th, Owensboro managed a walk and a Frank Chambers bloop single to right which fell between fielders. The hit put runners at 2nd and third. 1st baseman David Anderson then stepped to the plate in a lefty-on-lefty dual. David drilled an absolute bullet line drive up the middle to drive in two runs. The celebrating was about to begin.

The bottom of the 8th was a case study in the nervousness of “closing out” in the sport of baseball. At the strictly personal level, one’s heart simply beat inside one’s throat. The heady sensation of being this close to victory and Jack’s and Owensboro’s first-ever state championship was mind boggling. Giddiness mixed with a self-admonishing search for grit accompanied the play. As the outs tumbled by in a near blur I remember throwing the all around the infield and aiming a curve ball at David Anderson, who was obviously as sky-high as I was. He gave me this ridiculously huge grin after he adjusted to it and we continued. Finally, we got the last out and the celebration was on.

Celebrating wildly, in new territory, our mood never touched the ground. The blur of the rest of the day was implicit. Consciousness began returning around dinner time when we were given a good old steak dinner by the KHSAA in one of Lexington’s more gorgeous restaurants. All showered and dressed in our best we saw Big old juicy steaks and baked spuds offering a mouthwatering feast as the boiling emotions of us all spilled out in inadvertent statements – silly stuff, in other words. We were still giddy.

Out on the table, I remember so well, this delicious looking “cole slaw” beckoned lavishly. Guys began slopping it onto their plates and then someone ventured: “Wow, this cole slaw sure is hot!” Well, it turns out the phantom “cole slaw” was a meticulously prepared Horseradish. We’d been shoveling it down, ha ha. Nevertheless, we showed our resolve and plowed out way though copious amounts of steak and spuds, our poor mouths on fire..

Driving back the next day, we were intercepted just out of town. The huge hook and ladder truck of the Owensboro Fire Department and a couple of cop cars were sitting there idling. We were subsequently told to hop on the truck for a ride through downtown. And we did! Honking and running the siren, Owensboro businesses came out to the street to applaud this bunch of silly characters and we loved every second of it. It was a memory of a lifetime.

Jack Hicks – Chapter 3

(Please note: This is the Home Page of the blog. I’m having trouble with my higher executive functions and the chronology got messed up.

Over on the right of the home page you will see Titles of other articles. Click on whichever one you want. Thanks for your patience.)

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.