The 1970 Tilghman baseball team was a conglomeration of students from all over Paducah, a town of about thirty thousand in West Kentucky. The Blue Tornado already had a proud history of success in football, basketball, track and baseball.
However, little was expected from this year's team. Fielding a starting roster and coaches with limited experience, the team began with a mediocre record, but became a tough opponent as the season progressed- ultimately surprising everyone by making it to the finals of the Kentucky State High School Tournament. The tournament was one of the most memorable in Kentucky sports history, including teams from Madisonville, Louisville Trinity, Lexington Lafayette, Somerset, Russell, Covington Catholic, Elizabethtown and Paducah Tilghman.
This is a story about growing up in a small Midwestern town - remembering life in Paducah and a tribute to the great players across the State as told through photographs, statistics, news accounts and memories of the 1960s.
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The Somerset Ball
From Wiffle Ball to Brooks Stadium: A Journey to the 1970 KHSAA Tournament
By Mikel D. Smith
iUniverseCopyright © 2015 Mikel D. Smith
All rights reserved.
Barnstorming in '66
Well I'm flyin' 'cross the land,
Tryin' to get a hand
Playin' in a travelin' band
— "Travelin' Band," Creedence Clearwater Revival; 1970
My dad drove us into the parking lot of J. Polk Brooks Stadium and continued around to the right to a stand of large old maple trees. We parked and walked through the trees to a vacant area of grass outside the right-field wall and beyond the stadium's foul pole. This was going to be our practice area today. Several players and coaches had already arrived and were playing catch.
In the 1950s and 1960s, baseball was truly America's pastime. Families spent their summers at the ballpark. Even after our organized leagues had ended their schedules and tournaments, we couldn't get enough of it. At the end of the summer, in the dog days before school began, teams were still playing pickup games and barnstorming to other towns for arranged games.
The practice my dad and I were headed to was for our barnstorming team, comprised of thirteen- to fifteen-year-old boys from all around the Paducah area who just wanted to play for another month. The Pony and Colt League season traditionally ended at the end of July, allowing for the play-off s and tournaments to finish in August, but school didn't start until after Labor Day. The stated purpose of this educational hiatus was to allow some time for parents and kids to go for the classic summer vacation — maybe on a car trip to a family reunion or to the beach.
However, for many of us, a vacation wasn't economically feasible, so we just continued to play ball. This year's traveling squad included Brent Gregston, pitcher and third baseman from Heath; David Roof, pitcher from Saint Mary's; Ray Bagwell, pitcher from Lone Oak; and Mike Severns, catcher from Reidland; along with Steve Seltzer, Mike Gipson, John Golliher, brothers Joe and Bob Page, and Gerald Barnette, from Paducah. I played second base in this year's travelin' band, and Gerald was our center fielder and leadoff hitter.
For a barnstorming effort, the practices were loose and difficult to arrange. They often required a lot of phone calls, and then rounding up the team. Sometimes that meant driving around to pick the players up.
On that sticky, hot Sunday afternoon in August 1966, we had made a side trip to pick up Gerald Barnette prior to practice. The temperatures had climbed to around ninety degrees, the humidity was thick, and the air didn't move. Yet this was typical weather for midsummer in West Kentucky. The sweat beads popped out on my dad's and my forearms as we sat waiting in our tan 1965 Pontiac Bonneville with both front windows open.
"I don't see him," I said.
"Well, go knock on the door," he said.
I climbed out of the big car with the bench front seat and walked between the apartments of Elmwood Courts. I had been here before to pick up Gerald for a practice or game.
Gerald was an exceptional athlete, a star in basketball, football, and track at Jetton Junior HS. But I'd always suspected his passion was baseball.
He stood about five feet nine, so baseball also presented his best chance of playing professionally, something we all dreamed of doing. In our view, Gerald was the Curt Flood or Lou Brock of our league. He had blazing speed and a great eye, drew a lot of walks, and was never caught stealing. When he got on base, it nearly always meant a run.
My metal cleats clacked loudly on the concrete sidewalk behind the row of one-story apartments. The Courts were a low-budget government housing complex that resembled army barracks. The apartments were all connected in a U shape, with a row of clotheslines running up the middle, which the back of the houses faced. The clotheslines were rusty and little used but representative of the times. The small apartments had screens on the doors and windows but no air-conditioning, which was a luxury in cars and houses then. This neighborhood produced some of the best athletes (black and white) in the 1960s ever to play for Paducah Tilghman High School.
As I knocked on the screen door, somewhere down the row a baby cried, and then a dog barked in response.
Then he came to the door barefoot, cleats and socks in hand, dressed in an old white oversized sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off and gray sweat shorts. As he pulled on his shoes, I noticed how much more muscular his shoulders were than mine. By comparison, I was just a skinny kid. Although he probably only weighed 140 pounds dripping wet, at age sixteen, he had already developed a man's build. He grabbed his glove, said, "Hey, dude," and slipped me some skin by sliding his open hand across mine from wrist to fingertips. This was the usual greeting then, like that era's high five.
Gerald was black. In 1966 the country was about to be involved in its greatest battle over race since the Civil War. But for most of us in Paducah, it didn't seem unusual for black and white children to play together. By this summer, before I entered high school, I had already noticed signs of racial inequality, but I didn't think it unusual for black and white players to be on the same sports teams. Sports seemed to allow for common ground.
Yet the housing projects were a stark reminder of our economic differences. That summer, my family lived in a rented house on Kentucky Avenue near Western Baptist Hospital. The following year we moved to Lone Oak Road, directly across the street from Brazelton Junior High. That area was located at the bottom of the Hill, an upper-middle-class section of Paducah.
Both my mom and dad had jobs — Mom worked for the health department and Dad taught at Paducah Junior College. Gerald's mom and dad also worked. His mom was a nanny for the Crounse family, who owned a barge and towing company based on the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers. Gerald's parents also ran a small restaurant near the Beltline. Since the war, it had become increasingly common for both parents, black and white, to work in order to get by, to make life better for their children.
As we headed back toward the car, waves of heat rose off the melting asphalt. Two young men, one black and one white, were going to a baseball field while the country was in turmoil over race. As for my dad, he was just giving one of his players a ride to practice.
I said, "Dude, it is hot."
Gerald agreed and broke into a smile when he saw my dad. His grin revealed a prominent gold front tooth.
My dad said hello and smiled, also revealing a gold tooth. Dad had had the gold-plated tooth for years, having been told by a dentist that it would last a lifetime. It was unusual for a middle-aged white man to sport a shiny gold tooth, and maybe this is why Gerald liked and trusted him. Perhaps it gave them an unspoken bond. Or maybe they just shared the closeness and mutual respect that came from playing and coaching baseball, as teammates and adversaries, on a dusty, grassless field. Gerald and I had known each other for the past two summers while playing baseball on opposing teams in the Pony League.
My father, Charles G. Smith, had been the coach of many Little League and Khoury League teams in Paducah in the 1960s. He had a lot of baseball experience having played for the legendary (College Hall of Fame) coach Abe Martin at Southern Illinois University after the war. That was when he had the full use of both arms.
In 1948, my father was in a near fatal accident while riding a motorcycle home from college on spring break. He was hospitalized for nearly a year, and after a number of surgeries, was left with a paralyzed left arm.
Today, as always, that left arm was tucked into his front pocket. He was so skilled with his right hand, and putting his left in his pocket had become so natural, that many people didn't know he was, as he said, "a one-armed bandit." He was dressed in a thin, long-sleeved, light tan shirt with the right sleeve rolled up. His summer shirts were so light you could see through them, so he always wore an undershirt. Light khaki pants and tennis shoes along with a maroon baseball hat completed the look.
Gerald and I jumped in the backseat of the boat-sized Bonneville and off we went driving the three short blocks to Brooks Stadium to meet the rest of the team for practice. Gerald didn't need a ride so much as he needed a reminder about practice.
In that moment, we didn't know it, but Barnette, Golliher and I would be teammates four summers later on the 1970 Paducah Tilghman Tornado team and playing against Gregston, Severns, Bagwell and Roof.
The collection of players on our freelance team ranged in age from fourteen to sixteen with a mixture of players from Pony and Colt Leagues from all over McCracken County. Our late-summer teammates would later become rivals during the high school season from March through June.
Coaches and parents arranged the barnstorming games through phone calls, and they provided a venue for players from each region to gain experience and notoriety by traveling to nearby towns. At that time, there were no additional organized teams or camps for players to participate in.
That summer we had already traveled to southern Illinois for games with Ridgway and Golconda. Since our teams were billed as "all-star" teams, the towns we came from had community bragging rights at stake. Therefore, fans were in abundance at these winner-take-all matchups. Our Paducah-area team had already lost to Golconda with a dramatic grand slam hit in the last inning by their cleanup batter. Golconda supporters stormed the field afterward.
Another big turnout was in Ridgway, Illinois, during the local Popcorn Festival. Ridgway was the center of a popcorn-growing area and the self-proclaimed Popcorn Capital of the World. A giant tub of popped corn sat beyond left field along with various amusement-park rides brought in just for this special event.
During that game, Steve Seltzer hit a massive home run that reached a combine tractor parked in left field — there was no fence to stop it! The left fielder stood nearly motionless as it rocketed over his head, and he walked the last hundred feet to retrieve it.
Our barnstorming idea had taken root two years before, in the 1964/65 season, when Mr. Stanley McMurtrie and my dad had arranged a series of games with Marion, Illinois, another with a county team from nearby Bardwell, Kentucky, and then a memorable game in Metropolis, Illinois.
Metropolis is a small town across the Ohio River and locally famous as the Home of Superman. The Massac County team was sponsored by Grace Gas Company, and rumor had it that they were loaded with talent, including Larry and Lanny Grace, for this game. They had won the Metropolis League and had been undefeated for three straight years (1964–66).
Many parents of players on both the Grace Gas team and our team worked at the Atomic Energy Plant in Calvert City and (reportedly) made a lot of bets on the game. This Paducah team was at a disadvantage because most of the best Pony-age players were still playing in the regional and national all-star tournaments.
However, a few solid players from the Midget League (which included twelve-to-thirteen-year-olds) were around on August 19, 1965, including Tom Brazell, Mike Bagwell, Eddie Hank, and Mike Driver, some of my best childhood friends. Since we had no uniforms (we had turned them in after the season), we had to borrow some old ones from the Khoury office. Mr. William M. "Bill" Switzer, the Paducah Khoury League commissioner, procured some that read "TVA," for Tennessee Valley Authority, on the front. That was fitting since we were representing neither Paducah nor one of the leagues.
The game was tight throughout and attended by several hundred fans from both sides of the Ohio River. We (Paducah-TVA) won that one 6–4. Greg Hite was the winning pitcher, and I played third base and recorded a save by pitching the last two innings.
One vivid memory of that game came from our disastrous fourth inning, when Grace Gas scored four runs to tie the game. They had two runners on and were threatening to blow the game wide open. Larry Grace, their leadoff hitter, hit a bullet of a ball just in front of my feet at third base. I was able to smother it on the short hop, and it bounced forward off my shoulder. I scrambled to recover it, and knew I would have to hurry the throw to get him since he was a fast runner. I gunned it over to Mike "Bags" Bagwell at first base to nip Grace by a step for the third out. I had thrown the ball so hard that I fell face first! Back in the dugout, Bags shook his glove hand as if in pain and showed me the red spot on his palm, saying, "Man, that was a fireball!"
These barnstorming games were always emotional, as they pitted town against town, but they gave us the experience of road trips. These traveling events along with all-star tournaments taught us how to play in away games in front of often rowdy crowds. They built character.
Finding a field for practice was difficult. Most of the baseball fields were in use every evening and weekend and, when not in use, were being prepared for scheduled games by "dragging" — a system of pulling a wooden trowel over the dirt infield with a little tractor to smooth the surface and break up clods. Then the field had to be "lined off" in white lime with a roller device. The operator first hammered a ten-penny nail into the ground at home plate, then unwrapped a long string attached to the nail, and then hammered a nail at the other end into the ground at first base. This string line provided a guide for the white line. He then repeated this process for the third base line and outfields, and then outlined the batter's box with a wooden frame. The scorebooks and press boxes had to be prepared too. It was a tedious process, one I did many times working as an umpire in the Khoury League from 1965 to '69, from age thirteen to seventeen. It was a labor of love, and it always took several hours.
Thus, all the teams had to search for other places to practice. These places often consisted of just flat fields around town or in the country. The spot outside Brooks Stadium was our location today, on a Sunday afternoon.
As my dad and I walked from the car in August '66 carrying the equipment bags, we saw a few teammates and fathers playing catch. To warm up, my teammates and I paired off and threw the ball back and forth. Initially, we lobbed it about twenty to thirty feet and then snapping, or "pegging" it, concentrating on chest-high accuracy, and trying to make it land in the toss partner's glove with a pop.
After we our arms were warm, we backed apart to throw some straight tosses as far as possible. We sometimes had a friendly competition to see who had the best arm.
Next, my dad (the coach of this group) shouted, "Okay, let's take some infield," which meant to take our positions for fielding practice. Since this was not a league team, we often had to be assigned to play shortstop, second base, or outfield. It really didn't matter much since we were glad to be here still playing ball and planning our next trip and game.
We were not, however, so happy with the field. This was not a well mowed or smooth dirt area but a combination of worn-down grass and uneven dirt. The knobby ground with clumps of crabgrass that was trying to hold on in the dry heat made for bad hops. The ever-present gnats and flies were good motivation to keep moving. Luckily, the bugs weren't mosquitoes or other biting insects and thus were just a nuisance. They were probably looking for any moisture, so sweaty skin and eyes and noses were popular places for them to land.
Despite the heat and lack of breeze, the practice was snappy. We had all played together for several years (some for ten years) and knew each other's moves, tendencies, and talents. Those who have played the game all know that each pitch is a chess match involving all the players on the field. For the best teams, pop flies don't drop in short right field, outfielders don't miss the cutoff man on a long hit, and pitchers always throw to the correct base because the catcher makes that call. Good teams have practiced all the situations and strategies.
After the end of our infield practice, we drilled on squeeze plays, rundowns, and hitting the relay man for actual game situations. There was no batting practice here since the area was too small and the backstop was a rusty discarded batting cage. The lower three feet of the wire mesh bulged outward as a result of the thousands of pitches and fouls that had struck it. These had also left a number of holes big enough to let the ball through, making it necessary for some little brother to stand behind it with a glove to retrieve the ones that escaped. All this was preparation for another barnstorming game, or just for the love of playing the game as the summer waned until school started after Labor Day, ending our baseball until the next spring.
Excerpted from The Somerset Ball by Mikel D. Smith. Copyright © 2015 Mikel D. Smith. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 Growing Up with Baseball in Paducah, Kentucky, in the 1960s,
Chapter 1: Barnstorming in '66, 3,
Chapter 2: Baseball at the Brooks, 14,
Chapter 3: Equipment of the Day and Campbell's Sporting Goods, 20,
Chapter 4: Noble Park and the Khoury League, 29,
Chapter 5: No Pepper Games: Learning the Skills of Baseball, 42,
Chapter 6: A Small Town in Middle America, 51,
Chapter 7: Paducah Tilghman: Best in Show, 55,
Part 2 What's Happenin' Now?,
Chapter 8: A Snapshot of 1969, 63,
Chapter 9: Beginning a New Decade: The Sexy Seventies, 79,
Part 3 The 1970 Tilghman Baseball Season,
Chapter 10: A Rookie Coach at the Helm, 95,
Chapter 11: Prospects for the 1970 Season: Who's Out, and Who's In?, 101,
Chapter 12: The Ghosts of the Past: Tornado Baseball, 1958–1969, 110,
Chapter 13: A Slow Start to the 1970 Season, 118,
Chapter 14: Stumbling Home in the Regular Season, 128,
Chapter 15: Captain Turmoil, 136,
Part 4 Tournament Time,
Chapter 16: The District: Trying to Find a Way to Win, 143,
Chapter 17: Regional Tournament: A Chance for Revenge, 152,
Part 5 The Final Act,
Chapter 18: The Age of Aquarius: Prom and Commencement, 163,
Chapter 19: The State Favorites: Lafayette, Bryan Station, Trinity, and Madisonville, 171,
Part 6 State Tournament Games,
Chapter 20: Passing through Possum Trot, 203,
Chapter 21: Practice on Transylvania's Field: A Bad-Luck Day, 211,
Chapter 22: Day One: The Longest Game in State History, 215,
Chapter 23: Day Two: A Complete Washout and Boredom at the Eldorado Motel, 238,
Chapter 24: Day 3: Covington Catholic Colonels vs. Russell Red Dogs, 240,
Chapter 25: Madisonville Maroons vs. Paducah Tilghman Tornado: A Semifinal Nail-Biter, 244,
Chapter 26: Elizabethtown Panthers vs. Russell Red Devils: Russell's Luck Runs Out, 252,
Chapter 27: Day 4: The State Finals, 258,
Chapter 28: The Nontriumphant Return, 271,