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.
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.
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:
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