’63 Ashland American All-Stars were almost Little League World Series darlings

Ashland American’s John Mullins (on ground at left) tries to get teammate Mike Griffith into home plate against Houston in 1963. Griffith was called out at the plate with pitcher Mike Smithey tagging him.

ASHLAND, Ky. – Every year at this time, there is a television force that draws me right into it. What is it about the Little League World Series that makes it must-see TV?

Part of it is how the games are covered by ESPN with the backstories of the players and the shots of their mothers and fathers in the stands who are like cats in a room full of rocking chairs.

I’m not sure if any of the mothers really ever watch their sons play. They are usually sitting with their hands covering their faces when their son (or daughter) comes to the plate.

I can understand that. There’s so much pressure on these young boys to perform. You feel it as a parent in a regular season Little League game. Multiply that times about a million.

When the Little League World Series rolls around, it always reminds me of 1963 when Ashland American nearly made it to Williamsport. That’s right, almost to Williamsport. They fell one game short, losing to Houston, Texas, 6-3 in the Southern Regional championship game in Norfolk, Virginia. I’m sure those players who were on that team have special memories of that time. Mine have come from writing stories and doing research about the ’63 Boys of Summer, including a chapter in my book Tomcat Dynasty (shameless plug).

Several of those boys will have a mini-reunion on Saturday during the CP-1 Hall of Fame ceremony as part of the class of 2017. Tim Huff, Johnny Mullins and Bo Carter were part of those all-stars and will all be enshrined Saturday.

Here is the 1963 Ashland American roster with their regular-season team in parenthesis: John Mullins (Indians), David Staten (Twins), Tim Huff (Yankees), John Brislin and Jocko Greening (Angels), David McPeek and Mike Griffith (White Sox), Robert Ison and Mike Johnson (Orioles), Ricky Dixon, Mike Tackett, Charles Jackson, Joe Mantle and Jackie Daniels (Tigers). There was some diversity – Johnson and Jackson are black – during a time when race riots were raging, but not in Ashland.

Jim Stewart was the manager and George Riffe his assistant. Stewart was hard-nosed, a taskmaster who demanded perfection but who loved his players like his own sons.

Back then the tournament was one-and-done. You win or you go home. So you had to be perfect. Early in tournament play, Ashland faced a young lefthander pitcher from Greenup named Don Gullett and escaped with a 2-1 victory.

Mullins and Huff were starters and stars, pitchers and home run hitters. But the best player was Ricky Dixon. They rode their stud in a 3-1 win over Louisville Buechel in the state championship game in Lexington with 15 strikeouts and then in the Southern Division championship game he was the winning pitcher against St. Albans, West Virginia, 4-2 in a game that was played in Central Park.

That victory advanced Ashland to Norfolk where Florida, Mississippi and Texas awaited.

Ashland blanked Sarasota, Florida, 2-0 as Dixon and McPeek crushed back-to-back home runs in the fourth inning to break a scoreless tie. Mullins almost made it three in a row as his long blast curved foul in the same spot in right field where the other homers had gone. Mike Griffith pitched a three-hit shutout.

Houston belted Biloxi, Miss., 11-1 and looked invincible. It would be Texas vs. Kentucky in the championship game.

Ashland gave them a battle, leading 3-2 before a three-run rally put it away for Texas in the fifth inning. Ashland had only one hit, a single by Dixon that scored two runs in the third inning.

Houston was on the way to Williamsport the next day and Ashland was on its way home.

Can you imagine if Ashland had been the team going to Williamsport instead? How much would we have celebrated them over the years? Legendary wouldn’t begin to describe it. Yet they lost, just once, and they’re just another team.

Kind of sad isn’t it?

Houston, by the way, fell to Granada Hills, California, 3-2 in nine innings in the first game of the 1963 Little League World Series. The California team went on to win it all.

CP-1 Hall of Fame day always packed with emotion

The historic marker at Central Park will be dedicated on Saturday.

ASHLAND, Ky. – Saturday is going to be an emotional day in Central Park.

The third class of the CP-1 Ashland Baseball Hall of Fame will be enshrined beside the big diamond where these men and their families spent countless hours.

We started this three years ago and it’s become a summer highlight. And I know it’s going to be emotional because the first two years certainly had their moments.

Watching “Big” Ed Hughes be wheeled up to the podium and hold the bat that he used to hit one of the longest home runs in park history and then watching even bigger Juan Thomas fight back tears while talking about his mother who had recently died.

The thread between all of these classes is interesting to watch unfold. J.D. Browne, a 1961 Holy Family graduate, even has a tie to our oldest honoree, Nard Pergrem, who officiated basketball and baseball games when he played.

Nard isn’t with us anymore but his family is coming out in full force to represent him.

Browne also played with Jim Speaks in the early 1960s. Don Frailie, a schoolmate and teammate of Browne, said he first heard Speaks threw hard when he pitched for Charles Russell Elementary’s team. That’s right, in the 1960s, even the elementary schools had baseball teams.

Ashland has such a rich baseball heritage and this Saturday is the day to celebrate it. We will be dedicating the Kentucky historic marker recognizing Central Park.

I know how special the park is to everybody because the fundraising for the marker took about two days. Everybody wanted to contribute to the cause. Well, your marker is up already and we’ll put the official touches on it before the Hall of Fame ceremony.

Every one of this year’s honorees has a story to tell and they will have the opportunity to do it from 1 to 4 p.m. in front of the big diamond. Come with casual dress and enjoy The Show.

But sure to bring a hanky.

The 2017 class:

J.D. Browne

Bo Carter

Joe Conley

Kevin Gothard

Mike Gothard

Dale Griffith

Steve Hemlepp

Tim Huff

John Mullins

Nard Pergrem

Mike Smith

Jim Speaks

John Thomas

 

You were there, church, and it meant everything

Dear Fruit Cove Baptist Church family,

You were there.

You were always there.

And for that, we will never forget.

You were there when my brother – and your pastor – received the most heart-wrenching news he would ever receive in his life. His Pam, the absolute love of his life, his confidante, his partner in ministry, his dear Pam, had brain cancer. There is no reasoning, no understanding when that kind of news is delivered. It’s like being pushed off a cliff.

But you were there.

You were waiting at the gates, reaching out, reaching deep for some kind of comfort even as the early diagnosis came in and overtook their lives in an unrelenting storm. Their love never waivered and neither did yours. Bad news hit them at every corner. It was a living nightmare for them. I don’t have to tell you that because, well, you were there.

You did what churches are supposed to do. You loved collectively, prayed earnestly, and you were there. Sometimes it’s the best thing we can do. Sometimes it’s the only thing.

With life in a free-fall for your pastor and his wife, you did what you could to make the landing not as bad as it maybe could have been for them and you did it by being there. You gave them space when it was needed and a comforting hug when that was needed. You cried out to God for them and kept them in your every prayer.

I know it was hard on you too, Church, and it will continue to be in the days ahead. But as my brother so often reminded you, we have a good, good father.

Our Good Father has used you, Church, to be a blessing. He did it by asking you to be there.

Whether it was bringing food every day since this horrible news came into their lives or the show of support exhibited at the funeral for sweet Pam on Tuesday, you were there. Phone calls, text messages, Facebook posts. It was you. You were there.

You have been at the center of their storm and helplessly watched for the past four months as Tim and Pam did their best to cope with a situation that we pray nobody has to ever experience. They were examples of courage and strength the likes of which clearly shows us that, yes, we serve a good, good father. Tim said it was the greatest message they would ever preach and he’s right.

When you didn’t know what to do, you did the only thing you could do.

You were there.

When my wife and I came up for a brief visit at the end of June, we didn’t once leave their welcoming home. We had a near revival in their living room with some straight talk. We experienced a closeness to God that makes you yearn for more. You made that possible, dear church, by providing meal after meal after meal.

You allowed Tim to put all of his focus, all of his energy, and all of his ministry into caring for Pam. Your staff stepped up for him, filling the pulpit with the same kind of great preaching that has come to be the norm at Fruit Cove. Your deacons led and kept the church on task with reaching the needs of a lost world. The church must keep that focus.

You took care of financial and physical needs for them. But it wasn’t just the food or even the money. It was the prayers, the encouragement, the cards and letters, the way you collectively wrapped loving arms around Tim and Pam that meant so much. I have been blessed by watching you, dear church.

You were there.

Always there.

We looked into your eyes on Tuesday as the receiving line curved through the auditorium with seemingly no end in sight. With photographs of Pam and Tim and their family playing on the walls behind us, we looked at your faces and felt the pain you were feeling too. You were hurting yet your compassion ministered to us.

The funeral was a Celebration of Life like I’ve never witnessed. It was two hours long and ended far too soon. Every seat was taken and every eye moist. God met with us in that place.

But you know all that because, well, you were there.

Ginny Carter was the diamond of Central Park

Ginny Carter with her daughter, Susie, at the CP-1 Hall of Fame event in 2015.

ASHLAND, Ky. – Virginia “Ginny” Carter was officially a mother to three children: Kenny, Bo and Susie.

Unofficially? Well, they lost count years ago.

Ginny Carter enjoyed the 1960s more than the Beatles did. While Liverpool England’s band was punching out hit after hit in the decade, Ginny Carter watched “her boys” in the Ashland American Little League do likewise – only on the baseball field.

She was as much a fixture in Central Park as some of the beautiful trees that line the baseball fields in one of Ashland’s most picturesque settings.

Ginny loved the park and all it has meant to so many. She was a regular at the CP-1 baseball reunions and hall of fame ceremonies. Her goal this year was to make it to watch her son Bo be inducted on Aug. 19. But God had other plans and took this sweet 96-year-old woman to a heavenly hall of fame on Wednesday night with family by her side.

Ginny Carter is a part of Ashland’s rich sports heritage, part of the landscape that makes this one of the greatest places to live and at least part of the reason why many “boys” from the 1960s era became great men.

They will remember the mother who came to the games on Saturday wearing her lucky gold shorts and carrying a picnic basket. She was there for the day and so were her children. That’s just how she rolled. Ginny didn’t watch only her son’s games with the Tigers. No, that wasn’t enough. She watched – and cheered – for everybody else’s teams, too. Single games were played Monday through Thursday and then everybody played on Saturdays. She was there for all of them.

Ginny’s boys won back-to-back state championships in 1963 and 1964 and came within a game of reaching the Little League World Series in ’63. They were also valuable cogs in the Ashland Tomcat baseball dynasty era from 1965 to 1969 that produced the first state championship three-peat from 1966-68.

If these boys weren’t playing Little League games that counted in the standings then they were likely somewhere in her neighborhood or inside her house. She would feed them, watch over them, counsel them and even scold them when necessary.

She had a welcoming home with an open-door policy to her children’s friends. Ginny was a mom’s mom, a role model and one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met.

She loved her own children, but she cared for everybody else’s too. She and her late husband, David, often made sure those who didn’t have the best of family situations had what everybody else had. They didn’t want any attention for their kindness. The reward was in doing the deed itself.

This is what you need to understand about Ginny Carter: She gave more than she received and that’s the way she wanted it.

She worked 75 years as a volunteer for the American Red Cross. You read that right: 75 years of volunteer work.

Who does that? She was given the Clara Barton Lifetime Commitment Award in 2013 by the Northeast Kentucky Chapter of the American Red Cross.

Even as she grew older, she remained active in community affairs and events. Her daughter, Susie, has made her mother’s golden years simply that with a heart that could only have come from Ginny. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Susie was such a blessing to her sweet mother as a friend, caregiver and devoted daughter.

I will miss seeing Ginny next Saturday when the third CP-1 Hall of Fame class is inducted. So will everybody else, especially those men quickly approaching 70 who she once proudly called “her boys.”

 

 

 

Wiffle Ballers will be swinging for Amy For Africa on Saturday

ASHLAND, Ky. – When I think back on my summers growing up, wiffleball was a big part of it.

Every neighborhood in Ashland had “stadiums” where you could play 2-on-2 or 3-on-3 wiffleball for hours upon end.

Our favorite stadium was Greg Estep’s side yard. The beauty of our field was that while it was extremely narrow, it had the right trappings surrounding it. It had tall trees, but not so bushy a wiffleball couldn’t pinball its way down through the branches. You never knew for sure where it was going to come out, but it (almost) always did. We had to make some spectacular diving catches when, at the last second, the ball would take a sharp turn.

Our home run line was perfect, too — a line of thick bushes only about 4 feet tall. If you could get back there fast enough, robbing a home run was a possibility.

We played mostly 2-on-2 games of double-or-nothing. You pitch whatever you wanted — curveballs, drops, knucklers or even the high hard one. It was pretty much an anything goes kind of game.

We not only played the games, but we kept standings and statistics as we went along, too. (Is it any wonder I turned out to be a sportswriter?). Most of the time the day would end when either a) the wiffleball got stuck in the aforementioned tree or b) the ball split in half from so many hits.

We weren’t easy on the wiffleballs because we used our wooden bats. How many of you remember Little League coaches threatening you about the evils of wiffleball (not to mention swimming on the day of a game)?

They lectured us on how it was going to mess up our swing using that light, skinny yellow bat. So we heeded the warning and used the wooden bats. Of course, after so many hits with a wooden bat, the plastic wiffleball, which wasn’t made for such a beating, would split in half. That’s when we discovered the real reason why electrical tape was invented in the first place.

Truth is, those games of wiffleball did more to enhance our skills than dull them. We got to see how a curveball would spin and a knuckleball would flutter. It wasn’t so bad when you came across the pitches for the first time in a baseball game.

Those wiffleball games with my neighborhood pals in Estep’s side yard are still a special memory as are the days of basketball at the Henderson’s court and football and baseball at The Neighborhood Palace, aka Stafford’s Field. That’s where I learned to play and appreciate sports the most.

This coming Saturday the fifth annual Amy For Africa Wiffleball Classic takes place on the corner lots of Unity Baptist Church. The tournament has grown to 36 teams and this year includes first responder teams from the Ashland Fire Department, Ashland Police Department and Boyd County Sheriff’s Department.

Defending champion Shepherd’s Fold (now One-Hit Wonders) and former champions L-Train (now L&S Express), Kona Kannon Ballers and the Baseball Bunch (now Benny and the Jets).

Come on out and watch these Wiffle Ballers take a swing for missions in Uganda while taking a good long drink from the Fountain of Youth.

Showing of JAWS a night to remember … again

My wife and I were among the couple of hundred patrons who gathered in the Paramount Arts Center on Friday to watch the special showing of JAWS, the 1975 blockbuster classic that can still make you afraid of getting in the deep end of the water.

We arrived early, about an hour before show time, and had already shared most of a bag of popcorn while waiting for the doors to open. It didn’t exactly fit into my diet, but who can resist that smell as you walk into the place?

Once the doors opened at 7, we had only a 30-minute wait until the movie started. Or so we thought. The screen wasn’t as big as I remembered, but still much bigger than my television.

However, you could sense a bit of panic in the place and it wasn’t because of the giant shark. It was because of technology.

What was showing on the “big screen” was the DVD startup page with Play underscored – and in black and white. OK, we thought, it was a shot of the ocean with a buoy floating so maybe, just maybe, it was a darker shot.

Try as they might, though, the two workers who were frantically and faithfully trying to make the movie happen for us were failing. They were making multiple trips up and down the aisle and then behind the curtain on the stage to try and fix the problem.

It made you wonder about the man behind the curtain. But that’s another movie, isn’t it?

They kept making those trips, faster and faster it seemed and sometimes running with a cellphone to the ear. They were dripping with panic. You could almost smell it.

The audience came to witness the panic of JAWS, like we remembered it some forty-two years ago when the movie literally kept people out of the ocean water. We all knew that ,while it had been a few years since the movie was produced, the film wasn’t in black-and-white or silent.

When they were finally able to get the “play” button pushed, the movie came on not only in black-and-white but also without sound. Oh no! But here’s the best part: In a day when nobody exhibits patience, this friendly crowd did. We laughed a little, recited the lines because we’ve seen the movie so many times, and even tried to “sing” the JAWS theme when the giant shark came after the swimmers in those opening scenes.

My wife correctly observed today how cool it was that everybody in the place (or at least that we could see) was gracious and patient. There was no booing or hate speech toward the Paramount workers who tried so diligently to make this movie happen. The audience clapped and cheered each time they were able to start the movie, in black-and-white and with or without sound.

Eventually, forty-five minutes after the scheduled starting time, we enjoyed JAWS again in beautiful color and booming sound in the theater of our childhood (for a lot of us anyway) and on a screen that wouldn’t fit in your house. We jumped at several parts of the flick even though we knew what was going to happen.

One couple that got up to leave went back to their seats after the movie came back on in color. The crowd gave them a nice round of applause, too, and I’m sure they enjoyed the movie as much as anyone.

There were some good lines before the sound started: “How will the people know when the shark is coming without the music?” The JAWS theme song is epic. Even though the mechnical shark they named Bruce had few screen shots the use of constant, pulsing notes made the ocean monster even more mysterious and menacing.

Instead of a crowd turning ugly because of impatience, they were forgiving and determined to have a good time no matter what the circumstances. They applauded when the movie was over and have a good memory to share beyond watching the classic again.

To the two Paramount workers who never gave up, thank you for your diligence in making JAWS a night to remember again.

 

They will always be my Heroes of the Faith

It was nearly four months ago that my brother found out his sweet wife had a brain tumor. She passed away early this morning around 2:45 in their Jacksonville, Fla., home. Their journey brought sadness, but also spiritual strength to all those who were touched by the courage Pam showed throughout the ordeal.

She is certainly at peace now with her Heavenly Father while also enjoying time with her earthly father, Leonard Sloas, who went on before her several weeks ago. That had to be some kind of special reunion today.

Watching from the outside, we have stood amazed at the grace that fell all over my brother and our family, their church at Fruit Cove and their many other friends throughout the country and even world. What a joy to know and believe that God never leaves us nor forsakes us, even in the darkest of hours. As Tim has repeatedly said throughout this journey, our God is a good, good father.

Beth and I were blessed to spend a long weekend with them back in late June. It was some of the best spiritual refreshing that either of us could ever remember. God was in that place as we shared together. Nightly devotions became prayer meetings full of praise and tears. We prayed for complete healing and she has that now in heaven where there is no suffering. Tim and Pam showed remarkable faith that belied the situation. They had a way of making you feel better even when Pam’s outlook turned bleak.

I wrote a column for the newspaper back in April when they were at the beginning of this journey and, while a lot has changed, much has not. The sentiment expressed in the column remains the same and my brother and his wife are still at the top of my Heroes of the Faith list, maybe now more than ever before.

Here is the column from April 19:

http://www.dailyindependent.com/opinion/mark-maynard-brotherly-and-sisterly-love/article_50d9ea76-246c-11e7-a6bb-c312756b2279.html