Jack Hicks – Chapter 1

A Boy’s View – 1960

The muggy atmosphere was redolent with the comforting Owensboro-specific scents of of sour mash bourbon, the slight odor of Sulphur from a steel mill nearby, mixed with Hickory barbecue-smoke in the air. A heady dose of Springtime lilac and dogwood blooms in this lush and heavy Kentucky late Spring made as if Nature had planned an extreme contrast – the exact languid opposite of the energy being expressed on the gorgeous brilliant green grass infield at the baseball field where two teams battled it out for a year’s worth of bragging rights and certain immortality.

Chautauqua Park in Owensboro, Kentucky was a boy’s paradise. For a 13 year old, new to town, browsing the local Little League baseball talent among the local fields – all imminently reachable by bicycle – it was a comparative feast. But not only were there the “known un-knowns” such as a set of completely new guys spoken of by my few friends who still played in those leagues, this Bowling Green transplant also got to see the “big guys” play next door at Chautauqua Park, a venue which held Little League and Major League dimensioned fields, side by side. In the end, the choice of who to watch was always easy – more compelling for me was the near grown-up drama and skill shown by the American Legion team who were the only ‘big’ game in town that fresh and surprisingly new Summer. Nervousness over being “the new guy” disappeared in the face of this up-close vision of baseball electricity. Every one of my senses was heightened by the real time displays of athleticism produced by such awesome strength and speed.

No Little League sound could conceivably match the concussive echo of a “crack of the bat” by these guys. Home runs were sometimes hit at major league distances by supreme athletes produced by a town which was apparently sports crazy. The enormous gorgeous green hill – profuse in green grass as well as large shade trees – looming just across the small street leading into the park beyond left field – offered the equivalent of a left field bleacher seat at Fenway Park. Sitting a full 100 feet above the action, you could cut up with a friend or two, or one could watch in wonder at the baseball pageant below. Or you could roll down the big old hill for a while, laughing uproariously enduring the dizzying effects of gravity and anarchism. That happened a lot too. In fact, large cardboard boxes could supply the equivalent of an afternoon at the best amusement park in its pure recreational release of derring-do, speed and accidental hilarities.

The seriousness, however, of competition was a frankly almost fearful thing to a 12 year old represented by the virtual young adults playing baseball in front of me. Owensboro’s team had abundant players over 6’ tall, as did their opponent. Their seriousness seemed magnified by the image of a huge man I watched lumber slowly to the third base coaching box.

This was my first-ever image of Jack Hicks as I watched what eventually became a familiar image, his gait magnified by his straight right leg swung wide, buttressed by a few inches of heel added to the bottom of his boot, slowly making his way into position and voicing encouragement and hitting advice while passing to his accustomed spot in the third base coaching box. He busily sent signs to hitters, voiced pleasure and displeasure, waved runners towards home plate and acted in general as if the entire field were his domain. Mesmerized somewhat as children can be over physical handicaps, I watched his overall level of comfort and found him somehow a fixture of awesomeness. This was the leader of these guys. He belonged to a category I was literally mystified by and very unsure of. I have often thought this may have been one of my first glimpses of real Zen.

The Owensboro American Legion Post 9 “Velvet Bombers”, very creatively-named after their sponsor, Velvet Milk, Inc., became legendary for young boys with baseball fantasies, of which there were many – most pointedly including me. They seemed to – and did – play nearly every single night during those wonderfully long summers, at times in front of reasonabley large appreciative crowds. Teams would stream in from Nashville, Louisville, Memphis and, of course, the ever present local rivals from Henderson or Bowling Green, Kentucky and Evansville, Indiana to provide exotic and extremely high-quality opposition for the Owensboro teams and players who had met them at very advanced levels of post-season, tournament play. July 4th celebrations often included a home game and fireworks afterwards, usually against terrific competition.

Among the highlights distilled from a million impressions, I so recall watching Randy Embry patrolling shortstop. In one game I remember so vividly I still dream about it to this very day, Randy leaped straight up in a desperate grab for a hard-hit line drive shot off the bat of someone. His legs spread out in the splits in mid-air, Randy reached as high as he possibly could and actually speared that line drive – and “spear” is the appropriate verb. It all happened amazingly quickly, a feat accomplished within a second of earthly Time, but it left an impression of permanent durability – another incentive for a young baseball aspirant to hope he could someday match or even approach the unholy athleticism and sheer desire that produced such an impossibly elegant maneuver. These are the stuff of legends for young men. They are the motivations which inspire for literal lifetimes.

I recall a tense moment in the later stages of a ballgame between my former home town of Bowling Green and the “Bombers” when pitchers from either side had successfully dominated the game until the late innings. I believe Frank Ballard was pitching for Owensboro, just as I am partially certain Tom Gentry was throwing for Bowling Green’s team. In what I recall as being the 8th inning, I remember being mesmerized by the sheer velocity of Gentry’s fast ball – a common experience in we young fellows, marveling at the abilities of recently-arrived ‘grown men’ who had worked at the game for long years.

Gentry was throwing what we used to refer to as “Aspirin Tablets” – “BB’s” – fastballs thrown at such a velocity, it literally made the ball look tiny, if one could actually follow it at all. Owensboro had just had a guy walk, to make it to first base, had bunted him over to second to put him closer to scoring. I recall thinking the “no brainer” prediction would be that the batter, Frankie Williams, would undoubtedly be a virtual victim of anyone who could throw like Gentry.

I was wrong.

In a lesson which stayed with me for the entirety of my own baseball career and beyond, I watched Frankie Williams match the speed of Gentry’s next bullet with speed of his own, his bat whipping like it knew precisely what it was doing and sending this line drive blast with a ‘crack’ of incredible volume out into the nether realms of right centerfield. For the sheer beauty of baseball’s innate competitive sensibility, Frankie Williams’ hit that evening provided an absolute template for my future. I was surprised and shocked to find out that there was no one who was so overpowering that he could not be hit, and hit hard. I learned that intimidation was a 2 way street.

It was a complete revelation. The spectacle of speed on speed registered in that same place reserved for Space Travel and women like Marilyn Monroe. I was stricken with the forever-imprinted ghost of achieving something Impossible. What would mesmerize me for all time on those days of watching the “big guys play ball” became not just a goal and impetus for playing at that level, which I surely did, but provided the grist for a view of life itself which included the definition of World Class. It made everything seem possible.

But what equally mesmerizing on that perfect day was the very idea that a man could gather groups of athletes and help them realize that dream. The knowledge and wisdom inherent in this sort of enterprise bordered on the religious to my young mind. The fact is, this never changed. He became my first Guru.

This is the story of that man.

In 1926, Owensboro, Kentucky had become a bustling town of industry and agriculture of some 25,000 persons, complete with a police department, fire stations and infrastructure common to mid size towns. Among the residents was a local constable, Dayton Hicks, who was married to the love of his life, Nancy, and with whom sired a seemingly unending series of children. Young Jack was produced as the second youngest, when all was said and done, joining a retinue of 7 sisters and two older brothers. The 5 bedroom home on 9th Street was a busy site at the slowest of times and young Jack was as welcomed as the rest.

A year or two passed in infancy and then Fate delivered a dreadful blow to young Jack. He contracted polio, a common enough occurrence in an era which featured a panoply of dis-eases, many resulting from expanding populations and the inability of water and sewage systems to keep up with the standards which later reduced these incidents. Typhus and poliomyelitis were both products of sanitation issues regarding fecal matter and sanitation issues of a changing era of modernity and mass population. As a result, it can be considered a by-product of the Industrial Age, but it all – the worst of it – occurred at a strange segment of time, right when humanity seemed to be getting a grasp of the role of hygiene and who were adapting with the times.

A Word About Polio

History reveals poliomyelitis as a literal scourge of an era during the first half of the 20th Century. The dread of polio was most common just prior to the invention of the Salk Vaccine in the early 50’s and the universal application of preventative measures – including better water treatment. Those of us with parents who lived that era have heard of their absolute terror of birthing children in an era where Polio was so aggressive.

Outbreaks of polio epidemics began to inflict the fearful souls of expecting moms and dads with an abject fear soon after the turn of the 20th Century. Ironically, polio epidemics were virtually unknown prior to then, although the disease has a history extending far, far back through human pre-history and history. Alas, thousands of years of experience with the illness did not prepare the world for its first appearance as a literal epidemic until the 1880’s when widespread epidemics first appeared in Europe. In the US, the first report of multiple polio cases was published in 1843 and described an 1841 outbreak in Louisiana. A fifty-year gap occurs before the next U.S. report—a cluster of 26 cases in Boston in 1893.The first recognized U.S. polio “epidemic” occurred the following year in Vermont with 132 total cases (18 deaths), including several cases in adults. Numerous epidemics of varying magnitude began to appear throughout the country. By 1907 approximately 2,500 cases of poliomyelitis were reported in New York City. In 1916, they counted over 2,000 deaths in New York City alone, with 27,000 cases and over 6,000 deaths from Polio, nationally. Families were quarantined, names and addresses published and their homes were identified by placards placed in visible locations on the houses. Then the worst hit.

From 1916 until the Salk Vaccine was discovered on April 12, 1955, a polio epidemic struck somewhere in the United States every summer, with the most serious occurring in the 1940’s and 1950’s. In 1949, 27,000 cases were reported with nearly 3,000 deaths. The 1952 polio epidemic would be the worst outbreak in the nation’s history. Of the 57,628 cases re-ported that year 3,145 died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis. According-ly, it was the literal peak of parental fears of the disease. It also began the all-important fo-cus of public awareness on the need for a vaccine. In 1927, the year Jack was born, Ow-ensboro recorded some 12 cases, one of which included Jack.

Polio itself has as many various manifestations as it has causes. Ironically, younger children of 6 months old or less would not generally contract the disease, but those 6 months old to 4 years could suffer a variety of effects, from mild symptoms and thence to an immunity to polio to the more debilitating effects suffered in mostly the lower extremities. It was this which 2 year old Jack Hicks contracted.

Ironically, much later, Epidemiologists found a stunning, seemingly counterintuitive fact about these outbreaks. It turns out that all that terrific newly achieved hygiene – the purification of po-table house water – actually contributed to the problem rather than relieved it. Prior to that, they believe kids all contracted and beat polio with their natural immune systems, quietly and all on their own. As water systems became modernized, it led to the virtual eradication of Diphtheria, Typhoid and other scourges. However, in this theory, polio proved the exception to that rule. Evidently, for centuries, kids had beaten polio with their natural, inbuilt defense.

Jack’s right leg became paralyzed and unusable – it ‘withered’ early on, not keeping up with the growth of the rest of his body, unresponsive to stimulation or nutrients. About three in 1000 cases progress to paralytic disease, in which the muscles become weak, floppy and poorly controlled, and, finally, completely paralyzed; this condition is known as acute flaccid paralysis. He suffered from a “flapping knee” – which meant that his leg basically could not support him. It led to a system of heavy, bulky and ridiculously uncomfortable braces which were often made of iron or a heavier steel. Jacks speaks of the occasional exasperation suffered by the family as he would “break” the brace – probably “doing something stupid” – requiring a “fix” from a local ironworker and welder well aware of the boy and his trials. Jack would wait as he would re-weld broken parts for him, before launching out on his next boyhood adventure.

The brace Jack wore for long years attached to a canvas belt worn around his middle, which held it up. It also made for a stunningly uncomfortable ride. Heavy, bulky, clangorous, Jack’s edifice of mobility did, however perform the function of letting him get around. Make no mistake, Jack was delighted he could travel and, like any boy, he traveled and did everything any boy does. At the same time, Jacks upper body became wide and strong as he depended far more than others for arm strength for purposes of sitting and rising. He used an occasional cane, especially early, which also grew his always-impressive biceps and shoulders.

Father Dayton’s position as local police constable was a fortunate job to have during the Depression years which formed Jack’s earliest memories. Waste was unheard of. Many Owensboro families suffered as manufacturing slowed and the demand for its many agricultural products weakened. At the same time, Owensboro’s diversity – from its river port, to farms and their products, local coal mines as well as a small but well-managed manufacturing base helped guide it far more successfully than company towns dependent on, say, a single industry.

As young Jack grew, he became increasingly mobile and physically functional as the months and years following his acquisition of Polio passed. The benefit hidden in this scourge of young children lies in its numbers. While somewhat rare, the variety of polio suffered by Jack provided many examples of such coping. Needless to say, the children with similar syndromes learned early to move with the aid of a crutch and later perhaps a cane supplanting the anchor for the useless leg. Rising to a stand from any position became an effort equally demanding arms strong enough to lift one’s entire body temporarily, without the help of the strong leg. Typical of the youngest lads with lower extremity impairments, young Jack’s chest, shoulders, his hands and his strong arms developed over time into amazingly able and strong personal features. He was ‘broad shouldered’ at a very young age and his handshake could crush a friend’s hand.

Young Jack’s two older brothers and his large retinue of sisters were forever faithfully help-ing him cope with his infirmity from the very first. He was a quick study, in some ways, hungry to get on with devouring the world. He adapted as he should have – learning the methods of dealing with what life had presented him without rancor. He discovered early on that lamenting his fate was a destructive possibility. He made the single most important decision of his life.

He banished regret of his fate from thought as a very young person. It remained the signifi-cant and life-affirming value he maintained for his entire life. He would tell people later that he felt blessed to be who he was, active and alive in such a loving family at such grueling times in the nation. His compassion for the misfortunes of other people was formed early. He always felt his misfortunes were small compared to theirs. At the same time, he relished and even celebrated observing what men were capable of. He had zero jealousies about other men – in fact, it was the opposite. The only negative issues Jack would take with male physicality would be in the squandering of such a bounty. Later, as a coach of young men, he illustrated his learning in the form of their improvements. He taught technique and power. He became someone who ‘honed the rough edges’ to form a more perfect specimen.

As a student, from his first grade and further, Jack was attentive and diligent, and his grades reflected it. His family practiced a no-nonsense attitude towards schooling with little toleration for excessive frivolity. At home, young Jack had chores to accomplish just as did the rest of the Hicks family and they were unfailingly completed. Jack was responsible for the small lawn outside the home, as well as for daily feeding the family dogs. As an adult, he often hearkened back to his roots in describing a lifestyle which included hard work and a distinct lack of complaints. Things were simply done, no questions.

But there was also much love in his house. Nancy was an excellent cook who made the best out of their resources and who supplied increasing numbers of hungry young mouths. Visitors and young friends were never turned away at lunch or dinner time. And the Hicks kids were not small, it should be noted. Jack himself became 6’ tall and his brothers slightly taller. These were strapping young people.

Until Jack’s second year, Dayton and Nancy understood how fortunate they had been in making such a large family. But tragedy was also not unknown. Two sisters of Jack had died in their infancy. The times were very hard and heartbreak always hovered near above all the families of the era, a threatening companion of daily life, made worse by the Depression years during which young Jack grew up.

Jack’s polio was also a hard blow to his parents and family. Their response in making him as able and competent as possible led to a debt he never failed to acknowledge.

Dayton’s fellow police officers sympathized greatly. These hard men – the 24 members and constables of the Owensboro Police Department – adopted young Jack as if one of their own. His forays to the station were always boisterously welcomed – a welcome break from dealing with evil, as it were. Smiles beset the lad, hair-tousling and even quite a few trips skyward in their incredibly strong arms to squeals of delight at both parties. Jack explored the station, sometimes with the men, sometimes on his own. He nervously discovered the cells where criminals and drunks and scofflaws of all types were held. He witnessed resistance and the calming of out-of-control types at the hands of Dayton’s fellow officers, not as regular fare by any means, but on rare occasion. He developed not only a sense of justice and penalty, but of the competing factors to love and acceptance alive on the planet. He also witnessed true evil and larger social forces in action in a most galvanizing event.

A Murder and National Scandal

Jack Hicks – Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fixing The Leg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kitty League

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

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

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

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

Some Kitty League Implications

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

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

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

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

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

1964 – A Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack Hicks – Chapter 3

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

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

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

But war happened…………….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murray State

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graduation From Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.