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.