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With or without interview, Fred Leibee’s place in Tomcat history secure

When I was writing Tomcat Dynasty, the book about Ashland’s unmatched baseball run from 1965 to 1969, interviews with players who could tell me the rest of the story was imperative to making it a great book.

Most were more than willing, even thrilled, to be interviewed about some of the greatest times of their lives. Bill and Bob Lynch were my top contacts and they helped me track down many others. Some were still in Ashland, including Fred Leibee.

I’d known Fred for years and knew how good of an athlete he was for the Tomcats in basketball and baseball since he played when I started paying attention to sports. I was 11 years old in the spring of 1969 when Ashland’s basketball team went to the Sweet Sixteen in Freedom Hall. I knew the players – Ray Kleykamp, Roger Baldridge, John Mullins, Jerry Owens, Dave Staten and Fred Leibee.

Like the rest of Ashland, it was a tough going through that 82-80 loss in the semifinals to Ohio County that was a heartbreaking defeat, even though Louisville Central, one of the greatest teams in Sweet Sixteen history, would have been waiting in the finals. Still, it was a hard loss, with Ohio County rallying from 15 points behind and then Kleykamp missing a jumper at the buzzer that could have tied the game.

Ashland never makes it to the semifinals without Leibee, who scored 19 against Harlan and 20 against Shelby County to help get them to Ohio County and the final four. It would be Ashland’s best showing since 1962.

Then there was the 1969 baseball season and Ashland had won three state championships in a row. They defeated Don Gullett in the regional semifinals in Morehead  during that ’69 season in one of the greatest victories in Ashland history with Tim Huff outdueling the future Cincinnati Red in a 1-0 thriller.

Fred Leibee was in the middle of all that. I asked Fred multiple times to talk with me about the good ‘ol days but he was never interested. “Ah, Mark, that’s ancient history,” he told me more than once. He didn’t want to replay or live in the past. That part of his life was over and he’d put it behind him. I remember trying one last time to convince him and both Bill and Bob Lynch asked him about it too. “Nah, guys, that’s ancient history.”

It was a history that he helped write for the Tomcats.

Many people may live too much in the past and often they live in a past that frankly wasn’t all that great except in their minds. That wasn’t so for Fred Leibee. He was great.

I wrote the book without him quoted but not without him in it. He was too integral a part of that 1968 championship season and the 1969 runner-up team to be left out.

Leibee was such a tremendous baseball player both as a fielder, hard-throwing pitcher and clutch hitter. He made some fabulous plays at third base in the ’69 tournament and was named to the All-State tournament team.

During the regular season he was part of a doubleheader sweep of Lexington Catholic where 27 players went down swinging against the Tomcats’ Huff (12) and Leibee (15). The headline in the next day’s newspaper read: “Uncle Huff, Nephew Leibee Hurl AHS to Twin Bill Sweep.”

Leibee was overpowering with the 15 strikeouts and no walks in a 7-2 win. Huff got more offensive help in a 12-1 rout. Lexington Catholic went home not seeing much of what either of these guys threw at them. That’s 27 strikeouts out of 42 outs. Uncle Tim was the brother of Leibee’s mother and they were friends for life.

They also got in plenty of trouble, including in that ’69 season when coach Shorty Blanton suspended them after smelling alcohol when they showed up for a game. They had taken advantage of Senior Skip Day and went to the strip mines where they “had a little too much to drink,” confessed Huff in an interview with me. He wasn’t so much confessing as laughing. “Shorty kind of smelled it on us. He suspended us. Everybody pretty well knew.”

Another big victory for Leibee was a 2-1 decision against Holy Family and Dave Brislin in a pitcher’s duel. There were a lot of other big moments, too. It was a team that led the state in having fun but they were serious between the lines. Only a 1-0 loss to Owensboro kept them from a fourth consecutive state championship.

A few years ago we did convince Fred to accept an invitation to be in the CP-1 Hall of Fame, even though he had to give a speech. In typical fashion, his “speech” lasted about 15 seconds. Another record for Fred: shortest induction speech ever.

Fred Leibee is gone now. He died on Monday at the age of 68. His legacy as one of Ashland’s greatest athletes during the golden era of Tomcat sports in the 1960s remains forever, with or without interviews.

 

By Mark Maynard

Managing editor of Kentucky Today, the digital newspaper of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, since July 2017. Worked 42 years for The Daily Independent in Ashland, Kentucky, the last 12 as managing editor and editor and the previous 30 before that in the sports department, including 17 years as sports editor. I have been in the business since 1975 with more than 75 writing awards from the Kentucky Press Association. I have also have written eight books, used to run fast but now look more like I have a piano on my back. President of Amy For Africa, a faith-based Christian ministry serving Uganda. I'm a husband to Beth and father to Stephen and Sally, grandfather to Brooks and human to Opie!

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