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 Chapter 5

Little League Baseball

The formation of Little League Baseball was the brainchild of Carl Stolz of Williamsport, Pennsylvania who was desirous of helping his nephews and their friends develop their games and having an adult presence overseeing. Talented at organization, Mr. Stolz experimented in 1939 with field dimensions and, in 1939, formed 3 local teams, managed by adult friends, and played an informal season. The following year, these three teams coalesced into an official league, sponsored by 3 local businesses.  The first teams, Jumbo Pretzel, Lycoming Dairy, and Lundy Lumber, were managed by Carl Stotz and  two of his friends, George and Bert Bebble. The men, joined by their wives and another couple, formed the first-ever  Little League Board of Directors. Stotz’ dream of establishing a baseball league for boys to teach fair play and teamwork  had come true.

The following year, 3 more teams were added in Williamsport, including a second league and the organization was on its way  to its eventual 200,000 teams in 80 different countries.

By 1946, Little League had expanded to 12 teams, all in Pennsylvania. In 1947 the first Little League organization outside  the state of Pennsylvania was formed in Hammonton, New jersey. In 1948, Little league baseball had grown to 94 different  leagues throughout the United States. US Rubber became its first corporate sponsor, who donated Pro Keds shoes to  participants in Williamsport’s 3rd World Series, won by the Lock Haven team from Pennsylvania of a team from St.  Petersburg, Florida.

It was 1948 when Little league “went viral”.  The Saturday Evening Post and Newsweek Magazine each ran special articles on  Little Leagues. Suddenly, Carl Stolz was inundated with hundreds of requests asking how to form leagues at the local level  from all over the United States. Little League incorporated in that year in New York.

In 1951, Little League opened leagues in British Columbia, Canada and Panama, making them the first leagues outside of  America. 1953 became noteworthy as the first televised Little League World Series was telecast live from Williamsport. Jim  McKay did the TV announcing and Howard Cosell did the radio. In that year, Joey Jay became the first Little Leaguer to  make it to the Major leagues of baseball. Little League had very much arrived.

Little League Baseball and Owensboro

Meanwhile, in Owensboro, a curious Jack Hicks also investigated the possibilities of a Little League franchise in  Owensboro. Fully employed as Business Manager of the Owensboro Sportscenter and highly regarded as an officer in the  Owensboro Jaycees, Jack saw an opportunity to form an absolute match for the successes obtained elsewhere with this  growing organization. Like many others around the United States and even the world, Jack saw a superb avenue for young  boys to actively participate in a first love.

Jack obtained the principles for the league’s formation from the National Headquarters and set about analyzing the local  scene to test its interest. What he found – like so many like-minded men around the globe – was a very profound interest,  indeed. Local coaches would be easily found, facilities would be made available and the very necessary volunteer corps  would be the least of his worries. He also knew full well he could enlist the aid of community groups, especially inasmuch  as he was so central to their existence in so many varied ways. The truth was, he was perfectly situated to manage its  beginnings into what it is today. Intimately involved in the youth center he ran underneath the Sportscenter, Jack then  queried the kids about whether they would participate. To say the response was 100% in favor is an understatement. The  boys had long since read the Saturday Evening Post articles or talked about them as the Little League fever had hit their  own communication airways.

So Jack arranged an organizational meeting featuring persons he felt held the most enthusiasm, as well as others invited  by those chosen. The initial meeting was overwhelmingly in favor. Volunteer Coaches were generally chosen, tasks assigned  including the acquisition of land and premises for the games and a crew of volunteers was set up to do the actual work of  constructing the physical aspects of the League.

The remarkable civic achievements of the selfless adult volunteers who made Little League and all the rest of this era’s  social enablement work so fluidly stand today as symbolic, not only of the era celebrating the return of the soldiers and  participants in the dreadful and extended ugliness of World War 2 but also of the era which saw the largest expansion of  the middle class, in economic terms, in World History. (And, of course, the fact that the men and women were producing  lots and lots of babies.) Wild numbers of Dads, Uncles, Moms and friends made the Little league world possible, crafting  ball fields out of empty lots and experiencing the attention of many City Halls who funded, acquired the land for and so  enabled such developmental facilities for little sportsmen and for boys and girls to experience as a mass for the first  time.

In August of 1952 a group of 11 and 12 year old boys found themselves traveling together on the road to Murray, Kentucky in a small group of  cars on what was then a 3 hour trip of exciting sights and sounds, including driving by the world’s largest man-made body  of water at that time: Kentucky Lake. All involved had no idea of what to expect. This bubbly and nervous group of kids  were in their very first year of competing in the newly-formed Owensboro Little League Baseball, having been granted the  franchise the year before under the National Umbrella of this still-very-current organization. At the time, Owensboro was  not, strictly speaking, an early entrant to this blossoming organization, joining after more established groups had formed  in Louisville, Lexington, the Cincinnati suburb of Newport, Harlan, Paducah and Murray. Along with neighboring Henderson,  Owensboro joined this very season, in 1952.

That an All Star team would be chosen and that this group would travel together to compete with other towns, while  exciting, was never a large consideration over the course of this exciting new concept back during the regular season,  where each team was far too busy enjoying the new competition, learning the rules of the more formal parts of the sport  and just flat out loving “playing ball”. Of course, when appropriate – which was often –  beating the snot out of each  other on the field was equally satisfying. There was no shortage of competitive fire in this small group of players,  proven in spades as the tournament commenced. Nor was there any shortage in sheer athleticism, a subject we will revisit  often regarding this city and its enduring love of the game of baseball.

So for 2 days, what occurred in Murray, a “mature” league of 4 years with gorgeous ball fields and well-developed players,  along with Hopkinsville and Bowling Green, would rather quietly announce to the world that a true baseball-competent force  was developing in Owensboro. Led by Coach Jack Hicks, in his first-ever coaching role, having taken the team over by  acclamation from the league’s “real” coaches, all of whom were so wrapped up in local – business – events they feared they could not adequately perform the practices and trips themselves, the kids dominated in an almost embarrassing display.  They won the Semi-State Championship and made it look suspiciously easy.

In one day, behind 3 home runs from 12 year old Lloyd Nash in the first game,and behind the pitching of Woosie Woodward,  the youngsters won 23-0 over Hopkinsville, then 13-0 over Murray. As baseball scores go, these are about as lopsided as it  gets.

Later, traveling to Harlan to play in the State Championship Game, they trounced Harlan as well, winning the State  Championship in their very first year. Owensboro baseball had arrived with a solid and resounding “thwack”.|

American Legion Baseball

In the Summer of 1953, as if he did not have enough challenges, Jack took the coaching reins for the James Yates American Legion Post 9 baseball team. “Legion  ball” – a national organization – had a long history in America, far more so than Little league and the later boy’s  leagues. Begun in 1925, American Legion baseball originated as a somewhat struggling program, aided by donations from the  major leagues to reach its feet after some initial misfires. Thence, unfortunate timing encountered the fledgling  operation with the Depression Era, when various newspapers filled the funding gap left by Major League Baseball. Later,  Major League Baseball recommenced their donations in 1935. American Legion baseball reached Owensboro in 1937 and the  local Post 9 maintained a baseball presence for decades without a lot of fanfare. It typically drew players from local  high schools, many of whom were the best players in the area, but they never really approached what happened until Jack  Hicks took over coaching duties.

With the rock-like dedication of local businessman Jake Winkler, Jack found an ally who could barely believe his fabulous  good fortune in not just acquiring Jack to coach his favorite team and passion, but who also won the post’s first State  Championship in its history in his first managerial season.

As Jack said, “Jake wanted to buy me a car!!”

Over the next 26 years, the true barometer of baseball competency in Owensboro may very well have been exemplified the  most.by the success of these various very capable American Legion teams. And absolutely no one was prouder than Jake  Winkler, the previously long-suffering and insanely devoted occasional sponsor and biggest fan to the team, who suddenly  found himself astride a mini-Colossus.

Jack’s off-field American Legion enterprises included a search for a corporate sponsor early on. In a serendipitous stroke  of mutual interests, Jack was able to find the funding he needed for the team by addressing the President of Velvet Milk  at the time for sponsorship. Learning that about $1,500 was necessary to fund the team for the season, an agreement was reached  to honor the sponsor by sporting the brand name, “Velvet” somewhere in the team name. An impressive and masterful marketing coup was discovered in the title “Velvet Bombers” – an image rich term which has become synonymous  in Owensboro with competence.

Any way, from this point on, for the next 3 decades, the Velvet Bombers won 11 state titles and many times advanced to  regionals. With the opportunity to recruit a wider source of talent within the larger Owensboro and Daviess County community, Legion  ball suddenly became a rather hot ticket during  Summers, featuring a nice bunch of future pros, both on the Bomber’s  roster as well as the various visiting teams. Memphis, St Louis, arch-rival Evansville Funkhouser, among many others both  hosted and traveled to play Owensboro. The Owensboro brand spread and respect was earned around the  country as the Velvet Bombers so succeeded at winning baseball.

Sportscenter Stories

A year after hosting the Globetrotters to an un-noteworthy crowd of a couple thousand souls, Jack got a phone call from Saperstein, asking if he could pry a Monday evening open because the ‘Trotters had an open date they badly wanted to fill. Jack thought about it and booked the event and decided he could still have time to do just a bit of last-minute advertising. Expecting a modest crowd, but more than enough for Abe and the Sportscenter to make a buck, they completely overlooked the publicity the Globetrotters had earned by virtue of a trip they had taken to Russia, where they became virtual international celebrities’. It was the Globetrotters’ “coming out party”. The advent of television also played a major role. TV was rather new in general, but soon the world would gasp at how wonderfully and warmly the ‘Trotters were received. Their popularity went through the roof, not just in Owensboro but over the entire globe. TV had introduced an adoring public to the Harlem Globetrotters. For purposes of this tale, for better or worse, this was not conventional wisdom, at least in Owensboro and Jack Hicks  Just a few hours before the event as Jack prepared for another night of oversight and receipt-counting, while sitting in his office, Jack was interrupted by a lady he knew well who came into the office and who was complaining that she wanted a refund. When Jack asked why, wondering at this outlier of opinion about something like the always-popular basketball games, she mentioned that she “could not get in”, even after having bought her ticket days before. Jack went “Huh??” and took a stroll with her outside.

Passing through the Sportscenter, Jack noticed the place was filling nicely, piquing his curiosity about this complaint. Then, outside, at all 4 corners of the arena, lines formed stretching out into the street and parking lots. There were hundreds no, thousands – of fans waiting to buy tickets and get inside. And it was already packed! There was this insane image of thousands of fans in an endless series of ticket-wanting people getting slowly upset with the slow pace of purchases. It was looking every bit like a real problem.

In order to facilitate the crowds, they made room inside. Over 8,500 people attended that event, in an arena which comfortably seated 7,000. Jack had even called the Fire Marshall, complaining that things were crazy and almost out of control at the packed house end. In a much-appreciated favorable analysis, the Fire Marshall laughed and mentioned to Jack that he was far too busy to check, to go ahead and have a ball. The event was a smashing success. (He also had made sure the lady and her entourage were seated.)

Another peculiar and noteworthy story revolves around Roy Rogers, who brought Trigger, Dale Evans and himself to Owensboro in an event where they allowed kids to pet and ride Trigger, allowed Roy and Dale “face time” and autograph-signing with adoring fans. At the time, Roy’s TV show was one of the hottest shows on television. In other areas of outstanding media success, Roy and Dale sold music records of their excellent work and made some kid-friendly cowboy movies. They were just the mega stars of their day – icons in an extremely kid-friendly era, and the Owensboro visit was highly anticipated and enthusiastically attended.

As the event wound down, their newborn – Dusty – had developed a respiratory infection. They decided against taking a crowded bus to the airport. Roy and Dale found themselves all packed and ready to go but with no ride for his airplane trip out of nearby Evansville. It was a little bizarre, but Roy ended up asking Jack if he could run them over to the Evansville airport. Jack said of course he could, so they hopped into Jack’s car and drove over.

The chat on the way over was a revelation to Jack. It was an easy-going gabfest between these two, while Dale nursed and doted over Dusty in the back seat. Jack was totally impressed with Roy’s honesty, his humanity and pleasant style, fully realizing it was not an act at all. As they spoke about things, Jack became a fan himself, (even after having turned down Roy’s offer of one-on-one time with Trigger – a treat valued incredibly highly by Roy’s devoted following!). Finally, they made it all the way across Evansville to the airport – a longer drive than one might believe, considering Evansville’s penchant for stop lights. As they approached Roy’s debarkation point, they saw an enormous crowd lining the street, all waiting for a glimpse at “The” Roy Rogers. Jack sighed and asked Roy if he wanted to drive around all the hubbub to avoid the crush. Roy answered with an honesty and purity which defined his memory to Jack for life.

“No, Jack. If you would please take Dale and Dusty to the main gate. These people are why I am in the position I am in today. I owe them everything. You take care, buddy, I’ll get out here.”

With that, Jack watched him get swallowed happily amidst the crush of his fans and admirers and he learned a valuable lesson about humility amid ridiculous fame. And Roy Rogers became a bit of an icon to Jack for gentlemanly behavior.

In 1954, Jack was running the Sportscenter and extremely successful at it. The frequency of dates for visiting cultural  events, including a wide range of performers ranging from the always tremendously successful Ice Capades to those links  made with his promoter connections in Memphis and Nashville produced the Bob Hope visit, a huge and very hilarious sell  out. It also retained the services of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Grand ol’ Opry stars such as Charlie Pride and Kitty  Wells. Porter Wagner and Dolly Parton, the Globetrotters – simply a Who’s Who? of American media heroes. Owensboro became  rich in entertainment as young Jack Hicks provided a tone for an entire city.

The Youth Center was thriving, as was the public Sportscenter swimming pool, a recreational Summer destination for  hundreds if not thousands of young Owensboroans and the stuff of legend in everyone’s tales of growing up in this  progress-imbibing town. It was a virtual hangout and meeting place, chaperoned by scowling and serious life guards and its  overseer, eventual High School principal, ex-Marine Joe O. Brown.

Jack was also advancing the Jaycees cause in Owensboro, correctly and somewhat excitedly deducing the impact a social  organization such as this could have on communities and the culture at large. Hugely instrumental in the Jaycee  contributions to the the foundation off the fledgling Little League and Owensboro Youth Baseball, Jack became vitally  interested in promoting the Jaycees themselves. In an era where so many cooperative young men had returned from war ready  to invest themselves in the lives of their children and their communities, the combination of younger non combatants with  a similar hunger for progress and social betterment coalesced in a virtual outburst of Associations such as Optimists,  Jaycees, Kiwanis Clubs, veterans organizations and many others in spirited efforts aimed at improving their communities.

Jack began a process which would eventually become an entrenched civic organization:

Owensboro Youth Baseball.

Jack oversaw the  training and selections of umpires as well – at every level including the eventual Babe Rurh League formed soon after Little League. These were all recreations created by the now amazingly active Jack Hicks. His status in the  Jaycees also skyrocketed as he accompanied the young Wendell Ford to various State and National Jaycee events. In one  notable period back then, Wendell – the Kentucky State President of the Jaycees – ran for National President of this  increasingly influential organization. Armed with glowing rapports with the political big wigs of the times in Kentucky  such as US Senator John Sherman Cooper and State Representative William Natcher, Wendell – and Jack by the osmosis of his  position – climbed to a lofty spot, nationally.

In an all-out effort at lobbying and back-room negotiations at the National Convention, Jack  helped guide Wendell Ford to  the National Chairmanship of the Jaycees. The machinations were heady and fascinating as Jack himself received the annual  award for the state’s most appreciative honor as Jaycee of The Year. It was a peak experience for Jack and it truly  cemented eventual US Senator Wendell Ford as a budding political player in the state and nation.

In 1953, Jack was announced as Owensboro’s Young Man Of the Year.

The successes there led to the formation of Jaycee organizations around the state, for towns such as Greenville and  Madisonville which had not yet formed. Wendell and Jack began meeting with those locals to set up and familiarize them with by laws for setting systems in place. It required some travel and overnight stays to shepherd the process for the  eager new communities. It was a huge demand on time, but Jack was more than able to make it work. He was rather driven by  the successes and hopeful with the spread of a strictly objective, inspiring cooperative message and medium as the  Jaycees.

Back at home, the Sportscenter’s oversight apparatus completely changed. Owensboro changed the form of their city government. The basic city style became more board- centered with the implementation of a new city plan. In  place of the 3 former tight and mutually-friendly overseers who  had overseen the Sportscenter’s initial development and its running’s, a new board was established, composed of 7  completely new people and chaired by the President of Texas Gas. What Jack was not aware of at the time was exactly “how  new” to the Sportscenter’s management this board was. As it turned out – and in spite of the absolute roaring successes  attained by the organization – Jack’s extra-curricular activities had become something of an issue. “People suspected he was too busy” with outside interests such as Little League, Babe Ruth leagues, the Jaycees, coaching the Velvet Bombers and his peripatetic style which also had him on the road with his true baseball mentor, Wally Lance. All it took was one  seemingly unimportant event to put a gas flame to Jack’s position and thereby wreck it.

Wally Lance

While at the Sportscenter, Jack encountered one of his greatest influences in sports, Wally Lance, who had married Jack’s executive assistant at the time, Mary Wolfe.  Since Mary doubled as business manager of the Owensboro Oiler Class D Kitty League minor league baseball team, a 6 month job, her time segued marvelously into the Winter-heavy schedule of the Sportscenter’s events, filling two needs for busy organizations in 6 month increments. She was a very appreciated asset to Jack and the Sportscenter in general, running accounts and bookkeeping and helping with phone work with the numerous clients and prospective clients.

Wally Lance’s own workload included refereeing major college basketball games as well as his baseball gig. He had a BS in Chemistry from The University of Tennessee and he was a player/manager for the Owensboro Oilers. At times Wally was called to travel relatively far to referee ball games, from places as diverse and far-flung as Southern Illinois to Arkansas and even Chicago. These diverse and numerous venues were areas to which Owensboro was somewhat central. Many times he asked Jack to travel along to keep himself awake and to provide society during the long rides. That he genuinely liked Jack is implicit, of course, and Jack’s reverence and hunger for his baseball knowledge became a mining expedition for advice on in-game situations, training, and even recognizing potential. Wally was simply a fount of baseball information. The easy give and take provided an amazing abundance of lore and the knowledge a professional can cede to a young, ambitious aspiring coach. Jack had always read voraciously about baseball but Wally Lance was like a visit to an Encyclopedia who also smiled. Make no mistake, Wally had “been there”.

Jack relates his own awareness of traveling with such an asset as he tried to make the most of his own perceived great good fortune. But this is to say nothing of the interest generated by the basketball games themselves – a sport which of course Jack also coached. Jack speaks of accompanying Wally in hideously nasty weather, driving through the inclement weather with some close calls and adventures specific to those days of far less safe vehicles and road manners. 

The baseball-specific conversations involved many situational questions and the enormously variable baseball strategies of any game or even of programs. Training questions, major league drills for development, hitting strategies, cut-off plays, defensive choreography, pitching ins and outs, sliding phenomenology, fundamentals of defense – simply everything a professional is concerned with – jumped off the mental page in an unmatchable educational transfer, forming many of Jack’s future tactics and approach to the game. Jack became a willing sponge for knowledge as Wally somewhat adopted him after a fashion and they spoke of their purest sporting passions.

It was a sort of Perfect Storm for Jack, learning all this abundant theory at the side of a literal master of the sport. As deeply embedded as Jack was into the entire subject of baseball, complete with an already-abundant sense of the game’s strategies and talents, the adventures with Lance cemented an extra layer – a different level – of baseball competency. Still 4 years away from coaching at Owensboro High School, Jack found himself able to implement much of what he learned by taking over coaching the Owensboro American Legion team the Summer of 1953.


One afternoon, Jack was huddling with the visiting Abe Saperstein in the Sportscenter office, negotiating the dates and receipts of next visit of the Harlem Globetrotters. By this time, Abe had seen a very competent young compadre in the person of young Jack, as they had experienced the ‘Trotters stratospheric rise together and had some true fun together  while doing so. As they were talking and closing in on completion of the project, Jack heard a knock on his door. As he  opened the door, he beheld the face of one of the members of the newly-minted Sportscenter Board who asked what Jack was  doing. Jack replied by describing his visitor, Abe, and the nature of the talk, mentioning they were near the end of the  visit and that they – he and Abe – had done this often in the past.

“Don’t you think I should join you?” the member asked Jack, who regrets to this day his reply:

“Not really.”

He also again explained they were nearly finished, dismissing the now-hostile board member and wrapping up Abe’s  visit with the successful signing of a contract.

Days later, Jack got summoned to appear before the board at an “extraordinary meeting”. Curious and unsuspecting, Jack  made the meeting and found himself sitting before the entire board in what became a hostile environment. The Chairman  recited an account of the visit made by a ‘cooperative member’, citing an act of rudeness and possible disdain on behalf  of Jack himself. Jack sensed the worst. Unbidden, they had come for his job. It seemed stunningly ludicrous to Jack,  considering the absolute success he had earned on behalf of the Sportscenter with Mr.Saperstein.

The Board took issue with a litany of “issues”, among them Jack’s involvement with so many enterprises which were not  Sportscenter-related. As the list scrolled on – his Little League endeavors, his work with Jaycees, coaching the American  Legion team, Owensboro Youth baseball – Jack could tell it was a virtual witch hunt and that they were intent on firing  him. It was the single most depressing event of his young life, beyond compare, really. Nor could he see the sense of any  of it. He had literally put everything he had into the project and now he found himself victimized by a committee with a  heedless sense of actual achievement, replete with bitter animosity, the origins of which he could only guess at.

Jack  resigned. He reeled from the event. Having given up his teaching career for purposes of running the affairs of such a  busy enterprise, Jack found himself unemployed. No more daily challenges and promoting his own home town in trade papers,  no more speaking with the cultural icons and leaders America, no more hobnobbing and enjoying the personal actuality of  celebrities. Jack was now required to rebuild.

Next: Jack Hicks Copes

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.

Chapter 7

As mentioned previously, Jack’s introduction to organized coaching really began at the American Legion level. Yes, he did squire the Little Leaguers to a state championship in 1952, but that was coaching by acclamation. Harry Steele, Ernie Knight and other well-known coaches to my generation were affected by the conflicts of their work and the demands of practicing and gelling a diverse group of all-star boys into a team. Jack asked his best friend Joe Bandy Penrod to help out and they gathered a local high school kid as manager (whose name escapes me, I apologize). Needless to say, they were successful.


In the Spring of 1953, Jake Winkler, head of the American Legion ball team since its inception, invited Jack to take over as coach of the local James L Yates post American Legion baseball team. At the time, Ideal Milk and car dealer Harry Holder happily sponsored Jake’s efforts. The team was known as the “Ideal Holder Kids”, just 2 years away from adopting the more memorable “Velvet Bombers” title in honor of new sponsor Velvet Ice Cream. Jack was a great choice, proven by events. 

On June 8, Bobby Cravens’ bat and defense powered the team to a 12-6 victory over Tell City, Indiana in the opening game. Jack used 16 players in the game, in an effort to decide who will play. Six Owensboro High players were still involved in tournament play when the team began, delaying final roster decisions.

Eventually, it worked out well. The elements together had excellent team power with Cravens, Jim Jolly, Jackie Jewell and Lynn Wilkins supplying the power. Cravens had a year. He led the team in hitting and his center field defense was at times stunning. He threw out a baserunner at home from deep centerfield to keep a lead in one of the early games. The team gelled well. They finished 13-4 on the season, prior to the Regional, then State Championships, where they won an additional 5 games, finishing at 19-6.

The primary pitcher was Ralph Head, with 9 wins, Leonard McGlothlin and Bobby Bratcher excellent #2 and #3 starters. Head was almost dominating, however. Used for Big Games and tourney starts, Head racked up an excellent record, eventually winning the State Championship. This would be Number One for Jack, to be followed 10 more times in 25 years. It was the first visit  by an Owensboro Legion team to the State Championship Games since. 1941, and the Kids swept Lexington in 2 games.

They traveled to North Carolina to compete in the next, National Regional level, and got soundly beaten twice in a row by teams from Norfolk, Virginia and Memphis. But they thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It set the hook.

The players:

Bob Elson, Morris Kirkendall, Harry Bellew, Bobby Cravens, Ralph Head, Jim Jolly, Wayne Hall, Sonny Sturgeon, Paul Anderson, Billy Martin, L. P. Royal, Jerry Wiggins, Tom Wieting, Jimmy Coons, Leonard McLothlin, Jackie Jewell, Lynn Wilkins, Scotty Plain, Bob Bratcher

Jack took the job offer to teach for the Fall of 1957. Back into teaching Math, he also coached both football and basketball teams at Foust Junior High. Inasmuch as he loved both sports and had spent his life around such matters, he was capable and instructive.

In a classically “small town” such as Owensboro, to some degree or another, everyone “knew” – or perhaps knew of – each other. By this time, Owensboro had reached around 35,000 in population, a population boom brought about by General Electric’s massive enterprise, the relocation of Texas Gas Transmission to the town, a booming steel industry and better, more modern farming techniques and machinery. Kentucky Wesleyan University and Brescia College were expanding slowly but relentlessly. Much local forestry land was cleared for farming, carving out whole sections to take advantage of benign weather and Kentucky’s excellent soil conditions. Make no mistake, 35,000 is not a small number. One could still meet someone new every day. But the town was taking on an almost new identity. Declared an All American City, Owensboro was proud to reach this level. New ideas and Hope abounded, eager to meet the future. Educationally, Owensboro became second to none. Great effort was assigned the task of educating its children and the kids responded. A long running scroll of achievements were an annual rite. The town was at the peak of their game.

For Jack, the “small town” feel lived in the kids he taught. He knew parents, brothers, relatives and friends of his charges. It added a sense of comfort for him. Jack liked everyone, he was no small-minded man, beset with jealousies or rumor. This sense of inclusion was an important adjunct to someone who was so grievously hurt by the humiliation caused by his former employment. In this case, his Home Town rescued him. He gave the town another chance.

After getting his feet wet in a classroom again and after successful football and basketball seasons at Foust, Jack took the reins of the Owensboro Senior High Baseball team in the Spring. Suddenly, the circular nature of excellent preparation made that Karmic sense implicit in any successful organization. A bunch of Jack’s players this bright new season were much the same bunch of Little Leaguers he had cultivated in 1952.

A Personal Detour

Something I wrote………..Fall, 2016

The miles burn by through a lush and gorgeous maze of green forests, untended fields and manicured farms as I drive the 118 miles to Jack Hicks’ home in Owensboro. I reflect on the beauty of Southern Indiana countryside along Highway 64, then  South on Hwy 231, a gorgeous pastiche of nature and agriculture. It is shamelessly intoxicating, riveting automobile entertainment in all months of the year except for the Winter months. I often attach earphones as I drive and listen to the interview tapes Coach Hicks and I created together. I digest the “fresh” news, I have 40 hours of recordings, and I almost always dig up nuggets previously missed on the colorful history of this man and his times. On the seat beside me, I keep both a notebook  and a recorder handy to note my thoughts and reflections. The drive has become a deeply personal, heart-full experience.  I relish the biographical work, even including the physical act of the travel to the source. The work he and I have done  has caused me to reflect on my own life in the silence of this unfolding, deeply evocative movement of the land around me.  I often think of my travel as a testament to the America of roads, automobile power and my own well-chronicled personal  and powerful wanderlust. It becomes an accounting.

The irony of my current situation strikes me with the brutal realization that there seems to be so much mortality around  me these days. My mother, who is 95, is someone I help and care for back home in Louisville, where I relocated to help her  and my brother Tom. Her medical struggles are similar to Jack’s. Each are failing and a little frightened. Each has become in need of caregiving, even as Jack still hosts loving friends and family. Each might have jetted off this mortal coil and  well could have years ago, yet both hang on in ways which are unselfish and rather refreshing for that. Each of them exist  because the fire of their curiosity is still alive. Each are “waiting to see how things come out.” They are also surrounded  by an absurdly caring tribe who relish their remaining moments on Earth and who ask nothing more than that they stay  mentally active. One cannot miss the impression that each still very much enjoy living. Both now feel well beyond  desperate, and far more grateful than resentful. Their proud exhaustion fuels my sadness. What they have grown to  understand is beyond me..

When I took on the project of writing Jack’s life story, I had no idea my own mother’s medical fate would parallel his.  The days spent in Owensboro interviewing Jack, recording his words and recollections, kept us both fresh with newly- recorded reminiscences. Each meeting became richer than the last until all this momentum “stopped on a dime”.

 Last September, while going to her weekly lunch with ladies who had shared the tradition together for long years, Mother  broke her hip in a terrible fall. She shattered her hip. Her situation quickly deteriorated in the hospital hastened  further by kidney troubles. She was on heavy pain-killing medication and she suffered from hallucinations. Her  helplessness was something new to my brother Tom and me. We each struggled with our emotions and we felt the grimness of  the absolute finality we faced. Mortality haunted us for a while, an uncomfortable revelation of Nature’s power. 

I cut off my Owensboro visits with Jack to attend to Mother at home in Louisville. She eventually found herself in a rehab  facility where she slowly but effectively returned to some seriously robust health. We each visited her two times a day to  keep her spirits up and to encourage her improvement. Caring for Mom became our job.

Mother became one of the exemplary rehabilitations of her rehab facility at the young age of 94, full of spit and vinegar. She improved by leaps and bounds every day. She got to where she read the most of a book a day, and she was insanely and  absolutely delighted to finally get her release and return to her own bed. Honestly, it was very cool.

However, Mom’s broken hip set my work with Coach Hicks back five months, which would stretch to longer as Winter descended  and made traveling perilous. I lost momentum and barely communicated with Jack, who knew and had taught with Mom at  Owensboro High School. Jack asked about her often and fondly..

At the same time, Jack’s health began to decline. He had landed at an age and condition where the only question is “when?”  not “how?”. The question  was most certainly not “Why?” Few others could have made it so long and far as he had.

On my next visit to Owensboro, I am left to digest the bittersweet and dueling sensation of loss and accomplishment. I  entered Jack’s house without knocking and yelled out my presencet: “Anybody home??”

I hear the familiar as I walk back through the hall to Jack’s bedroom.“Come on in!!” 

It is baseball season and Jack scrolls through his beloved Christmas present of 3 years ago: The Major League Baseball  Channel’. Jack now has access to every single game of the day and he is already smiling.

The vibrant, huge sporting giant who loomed over my youth smiles at me through his never-ending bodily pain from his bed  and extends his hand. Jack’s hands themselves are personally legendary and worthy of a story themselves some day. Spare,  smooth and boney, large and amazingly strong even still, his hand engulfs mine with sincere pressure. Those hands lifted  his polio-ravaged lower body into a society which allowed him to excel. They have worked as hard as any hands in Western  Civilization.

His Beagle attacks me with licks, rotating upside down on my lap, schmoozing in even closer, recalling the serious petting  I was responsible for for quite some extended time now. The dog never fails to evince a smile out of Jack who will comment  about its recent behavior. Our ritual is established and wholesome, our smiles intact as Jack once again wonders why  anyone figures he is interesting enough to actually write a book about.

Occasionally we get visited during our meetings by various and sundry folks. Jack maintains a social life in his bed- ridden days which he still relishes. On the days when Randy Embry visits, he has an especially large smile. Randy’s  obvious love for Jack is reciprocated, all of which revolves around the nexus of Owensboro sports. In Randy’s case, I am  somewhat positive Jack’s admiration is more for his athletic gifts, inasmuch as few people in the world had talent  remotely close to his. But Randy was also among the coaching fraternity, fully furthered in his progress and career by  Jack. They “go back”, in short. We sit and cut up, swapping stories about our teams, asking questions we may always have  wondered about to these days. The time passes effortlessly and fluidly and I suddenly realize Jack’s eyes are drooping.

A couple of “attention rallies” later, coupled with another long story or two, I bid them both a fond good bye, already  missing this priceless ambiance.

I stop by Starbucks to sum up what just happened on an informational basis and drop notes on my laptop. A good large  espresso primes me for a visit to the Messenger & Inquirer archives on micro-film at the public library where I spend the  next 4 hours studying events of decades ago. At times the work seems insurmountable. There is just so much. Jack won 11  American Legion State Championships. He won 4 High School State Championships. His high school record was basically 700- 200. This guy won games at an 80% clip. He scheduled everyone from everywhere. So many stories…………..so many athletes……….so  many bizarre and impossible situations………..and so much respect this man earned from those who played for him.

Both he and Mom have limited time left. I have long since decided to enjoy what time they give me. That seems a near- perfect solution.

In addition to all of that……….I myself developed cancer and was operated on in the midst of all this………………. This led to a 7 year battle of my own. Indeed, I am taking a dose of Chemotherapy as we speak. I find it difficult to place this in light of the above. Maybe something like “Everyone got sick as hell.”

Back to 1957 – a remarkable year

The spring shone as gorgeous as usual as baseball players began practicing, unwinding unused sport-specific muscles and getting a chance to develop at a sport which, for most, was a First Love. Jack held a meeting at the ball park, as he often did later, with ballplayers sitting in the stands and he up front. He welcomed those players he had in Little League in 1952 and he also acknowledged that this was something new – to him, perhaps more than them. He spoke of the drills they were going to undergo and the process of becoming a team. He then asked who wanted to win. Jack was gratified at the alacrity his guys responded with. These guys he could work with.

In 1957 the schedule for the season saw a relatively small schedule of games by Jack’s later criterion. Indeed, before the tournaments began, the Red Devils record in the 1957 season was 10-1. In later years, that may have been a busy week. There was a point, eventually under Jack’s guidance, where Owensboro baseball played games every day, featuring weekend double headers. Jack came to believe in this: “Games give more input than practices. By the end of the season, a team playing 40-50 games will have experienced more pressure and understand the game better by facing mistakes made and successes digested.”

Jack stuck with this theory until it was legislated not to. He never changed this philosophy. It was blissful to ballplayers, make no mistake.

Sailing through both the District an Regional Championships, the Red Devils under Jack were off to their first ever state tournament………….it created the following column from sports editor Russ Melvin:

(Not commonly-known history………..)

June 6, 1957“Owensboro High is just 2 games away from a State Title and the Red Devils are capable of walking away with top honors. Using the Little Leagues and Babe Ruth Leagues as a foundation, Owensboro High has come up with a powerhouse this year and should continue to be strong in the future. This strong team probably comes as little surprise to the people around here………..

2 years ago, baseball had been dropped from the Owensboro High program….the Athletic Committee, in a meeting, just decided to end the sport as it cost money to have it and it didn’t bring in any dough. I heard about it and broke the story in this column……….There are denials on it but it was an established fact that the athletic committee had to meet in special session and vote it back in again………… Despite the fine baseball program in Owensboro, some school board officials were against having it in Owensboro and it was only at the insistence of Chubby Vittitow that it was kept in.

In fact, when it came up for a vote, one school board member still voted against having baseball in High School.

Wouldn’t it be ironical if the sport they didn’t want brings Owensboro its first state title since 1949?”

In the opening round of the State, Owensboro beat Paintsville, 3-1. Jimmy Ransom pitched a 3 hitter and Billy (“Woosie”) Woodward got the save when Jimmy got wild. Harold Pugh had him a day. He hit one out for a Home Run in the fourth inning after doubling in the first and then sending the Paintsville outfielder to the wall to make the catch later. Paul Anderson also had 3 hits of the 7 for the Devils.

In the second game, the semi-finals, the next morning, Woosie Woodward pitched a no-hitter against Russell County and the Devils pounded out 9 hits and 9 runs, winning 9-0. It set the stage for the Final, with Louisville Manual High School that afternoon.

Manual jumped on starter Jimmy Ransom and then as well onto Woosie. Both pitchers had control issues, walking a total of 10 batters. Timely hitting by Manual after the numerous walks determined the outcome. Owensboro could not overcome the wildness.

But it was absolutely an excellent season result. There was much to be proud of, establishing themselves with the Owensboro Brand as this team did.

(The Players: Parvin Bishop, Harold Pugh, Paul Anderson, Billy Woodward, Jackei Poynter, Gerald Wellman, Jimmy Ransom, Johnny Strehl, Charlie Sturgeon, Butch Thompson)

At the same time, or rather, just a touch later, Owensboro Baseball had another phenomenal result.

Harry Steele’s Eastern Little League All Stars won their second consecutive State Championship. Jack Hicks’ Post 9 American Legion team won another State Championship. The Babe Ruth Leagues All Stars lost in the finals of the State Championship.

The baseball fortunes of Owensboro were taking off.

Next Chapter – Bobby Woodward, baseball force of nature