’67 state champion Tomcats to be recognized Friday in Putnam Stadium

 

Ashland is honoring its 1967 state champions on the 50th anniversary Friday night in Putnam Stadium. These Tomcats were the first outright championship team since the playoff system that started in 1959.

When the last regular-season game was played in 1967, the Ashland Tomcats looked like it was all dressed up with nowhere to go.

The Tomcats polished off Raceland 26-6 for a 10-1 record, but the prospects of making the Class AA playoffs seemed mighty slim.

Coach Jake Hallum had already done the math and, barring a monumental upset in northern Kentucky, where Fort Thomas Highlands was playing Campbell County, the season was going to end with the game against Raceland.

Ashland finished its district schedule the previous week and stood at 5-0. Highlands was 4-0 with a likely win over Campbell County coming in the last week of the regular season. If the teams were tied at 5-0, which seemed probable, the complicated Dickinson System determined the winner – and the news wasn’t good for Ashland.

Hallum knew it and so did the players. After they finished off the Ramblers, they boarded the bus for Blazer where they dressed. Hallum told them to put the equipment in separate piles in the middle of the room .

For 18 senior football players who had worked hard and did everything the coaches asked of them, it didn’t seem right. It wasn’t fair. Paul Hill, a co-captain, was in denial. He told Hallum he would not turn in his equipment, that he had done everything he was asked to do and he would see him at practice on Monday and stormed out of the dressing room area.

Hallum was speechless, not knowing what to say to Hill or the rest of the Tomcat seniors who it seemed had played their last high school football game.

Hill left the building and the rest of the team kept dropping off the equipment in the appropriate piles. And then came word from a manager with a startling message: Campbell County had upset Highlands 6-0 in a muddy quagmire in northern Kentucky. The door had been reopened for the Tomcats to be in the playoffs.

Hallum couldn’t believe what he had heard and began making calls on his own. Confirmation came that indeed Campbell County, which finished 4-4-2, had pulled off the upset. The Bluebirds (6-4) were stunned and angered over the loss. The following year they would take out some of that frustration on the Tomcats with a 61-0 victory in Putnam Stadium.

But in 1967, Ashland was king of the district and would be home for the playoffs.

The players went back into their equipment piles and gathered up gear but not until after taking a dip in the Blazer pool. By the time they got out, the mud from the uniforms made the pool resemble the Mississippi River.

Ashland didn’t miss its opportunity to shine once the postseason started, defeating Belfry 42-0, Harrison County 20-13 and Elizabethtown 19-14 in the state finals to complete a 13-1 season.

In the western half of the state, an Owensboro team that had gone 9-1 was wondering what might have been. The Red Devils had lost only to eventual Class AAA champion Flaget 20-7 and had eight shutouts in 10 games.

But because of circumstances surrounding the last regular-season game of 1966 between Henderson and Owensboro, which had fights before, during and after the game, the Red Devils would not be eligible to participate in the postseason in 1967.

Owensboro was ranked No. 3 in the final AP poll for all classes. Harrison County was No. 2, Elizabethtown was No. 8 and Ashland was No. 9.

In the Litkenhaus Ratings, Harrison County (103.6) and Owensboro (100.7) were 1-2 while Elizabethtown was No. 5 (90.3) and Ashland was No. 10 (79.3).

By those rankings, the Tomcats were two-point favorites over Belfry, 24-point underdogs to Harrison County and 11-point underdogs to Elizabethtown.

But they were state champions.

Read more about the Tomcats’ 1967 season in the book Tragedy and Triumph. Contact Mark Maynard at mainrod@windstream.net to purchase one.

 

Seeing is believing with solar eclipse

ASHLAND, Ky. – So did you watch the eclipse on Monday?

If so, you should no longer be in the dark – approved glasses or no glasses – about an Almighty God who created our universe. His unbelievable power was on full display for all to witness. Millions looked up toward the heavens (Is there a better place to look?) and saw this miraculous sight.

Do we really think we can alter anything He has created? How can anyone doubt His existence? He is showing Himself to each one of us – to you, you, you and to  you.

It simply doesn’t make sense that the universe is the result of a blind process. Eclipses occur on earth because the moon is both 400 times closer and 400 times smaller than the sun. That perfect ratio (Do you think that was by happenstance?) allows the moon to completely block the sun on rare occasions.

We are talking about a universe in such divine and precise order that we knew in advance that a solar eclipse was going to happen on Aug. 21, 2017 and that the next one is coming April 8, 2024. Could that possibly be chance? Hardly. It’s an all-powerful, all-knowing God who divinely made this universe and remains in control of it. He suspends the stars in place and calms the winds and the seas. He knows all about you – the good and the bad – and He loves you anyway.

We are significant to Him and that’s really something when you consider the majesty we witnessed today.

All of this is His creation and the way that He continues to reveal Himself to a lost world. His creation couldn’t have been more obvious and in better display than during the total solar eclipse on Monday.

Seeing was indeed believing.

Joy on display again at CP-1 Hall of Fame ceremony

The 2017 CP-1 Hall of Fame inductees and representatives. (Tim Gearhart photo)

ASHLAND, Ky. – When it comes right down to it, Saturdays in August for me are both exhilarating and exhausting.

Whether it’s a 36-team Amy For Africa wiffleball tournament or the CP-1 Hall of Fame inductions, they both rate as two of my favorite Saturdays of the year.

They both take preparation and keen attention to detail.

I was asked by a reporter (now there’s a change for me) what my motivation was for the CP-1 Hall of Fame ceremonies on Saturday.

It’s simple and described in one word: joy.

It’s the joy on the faces of the inductees.

It’s the joy on the faces of their families and friends.

It’s the joy that comes when people begin pouring into Central Park’s big diamond (yes, that’s CP-1) about 30 minutes before the scheduled starting time. Some of them haven’t seen each other since the last time we met for a CP-1 reunion.

It’s all pure joy and that’s my motivation.

As a respecter of history, it’s important that we not only recognize our past but that we celebrate it. That’s what we did Saturday in Central Park where 13 more were inducted into our Hall of Fame.

The speeches from the 10 living inductees and the three deceased inductees who had family speaking for them were emotional and thankful. You don’t think it’s going to get you and then it does.

A poignant moment came when Terry Hemlepp, who was speaking for Steve Hemlepp, brought up two of Steve’s grandsons for a closing story. We were able to present them with the plaque and commemorative baseball.

Another was Tim Huff emotionally thanking his father for making him the player he became and Joe Conley humbling breaking down while speaking.

Or inductee Johnny Mullins, bad back and all, standing behind teammate Bo Carter as he spoke last. It was extra emotionally charged for Bo because he buried his dear mother and spoke at her funeral only a week ago.

We missed Ginny Carter on Saturday, but Bo was certain she had a front row seat for the show. I have to agree.

As a special tribute to Ginny Carter, we passed out maroon-tipped carnations to every woman in the audience that wanted one and gave a single red rose to her daughter and caregiver Susie Carter. It was another moment full of emotion.

Moms and baseball: Does it get better?

We heard from the daughter of an umpire, Dale Griffith, and Marla Haller made sure her daddy was represented in the most proper way possible. As Charlie Reliford so eloquently put it in an emailed message, putting Dale Griffith in the Hall of Fame was certainly a great call.

Each of the inductees spoke from the heart and it was beautiful.

Brothers Kevin and Mike Gothard thanked their parents, Denny and Helen, for always being there and always teaching them not just how to play baseball, but how to be good people.

Pride took a backseat to saying thank you for always being there for us. The inductees thanked parents, coaches, friends and teammates.

Each class we’ve been able to honor has been unique and special and the couple of hundred who witnessed Saturday’s ceremony will remember this one.

What Gary Wright started 10 years ago with a $125,000 donation to revamp and rebuild the baseball field at Central Park has turned into a reason to make another trip to the ‘ol ball field something special.

That happened for the inductees and their families on a sunny day in Central Park on Saturday.

 

 

2017 CP-1 HOF class carries some clout

Joe Conley, left, and Charlie Reliford at the CP-1 Hall of Fame ceremonies in 2015 when Reliford was inducted in the first class. Conley is among 13 in the 2017 class.

ASHLAND, Ky. – Looking over the 2017 CP-1 Ashland Baseball Hall of Fame class it’s clear this bunch has a little bit of everything.

You want pitchers? We have some of the best.

Hard-throwing Jim Speaks and John Mullins, dominating lefties Tim Huff and J.D. Browne and the incredibly steady Bo Carter makes for an incredible staff.

Browne owned the mound during his day and he picked off everybody in his generation at least once.

Nard Pergrem and Mike Smith or Kevin Gothard make for a dandy shortstop-second base combo. Gothard also played in the outfield some as did Joe Conley, who turned in some spectacular plays for the 1968 state champions.

Catchers? We’ve got three great ones with Mike Gothard, John Thomas and Steve Hemlepp. That trio brings the power to a lineup that would be hard to beat.

We even have umpires. Two of the greatest umpires in CP-1 history are on the field with us in Dale Griffith (also an outstanding player in the 1950s) and Conley (a member of all three Tomcat championship teams).

Try this lineup on for size:

1.Nard Pergrem, ss

2.Mike Smith, 2b

3.Kevin Gothard, rf

4.Mike Gothard, 3b

5.John Thomas, cf

6.John Mullins, lf

7.Tim Huff, dh

8.Steve Hemlepp, c

9.Bo Carter, 1b

Pitchers, J.D. Browe and Jim Speaks

Umpires, Joe Conley and Dale Griffith

Every one of this year’s honorees has a story to tell and they (or a representative) will have the opportunity to do it from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday in front of the big diamond in Central Park.

We will also be dedicating the historic marker recognizing Baseball in Central Park and have some special recognitions planned.

Come in casual dress and enjoy The Show.

And be sure to bring a hanky because it’s going to get emotional.

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

Gene Bennett: A well-lived life of adventure

A few years ago, I shared a lunch with Gene Bennett, the Cincinnati Reds amazing scout of 58 years, at the invitation of major league umpire Greg Gibson.

Bennett held court with us by telling baseball stories, basketball officiating stories and many more. Gene was 86 but could recount people, places and dates like few others.

He was part of the Cincinnati Reds family for almost 60 years, from when he was signed as a player in 1952. He moved into scouting in 1958 and was promoted to scouting supervisor in 1975. His notable signings include Reds Hall of Famers Don Gullett, Barry Larkin and Chris Sabo along with Jeff Russell, Charlie Leibrandt and Paul O’Neill.

Bennett, who lived in Wheelersburg, was a treasure for the entire area for years. He died on Wednesday at the age of 89 in Portsmouth. His wife Loretta preceded him in death.

If baseball was the subject — and it almost always was if Gene Bennett was in the room — then the clock was turned back.

Bennett’s life was certainly an amazing one. He met two presidents — President Jimmy Carter and President George W. Bush — and was known throughout the baseball world for his scouting prowess.

He met President Carter in Atlanta while chatting it up with Bobby Cox and met President Bush in the Astrodome.

He also had a secondmeeting with President Bush when he came through Portsmouth on a campaign swing.

Bennett recounted that story during that lunch a few years ago, telling us it was when the Portsmouth Mural project had just started. Al Oliver’s portrait was going up but not quite finished. The socks he was wearing were still white.

President Bush took notice that it was indeed, Oliver, who had also played for the Texas Rangers when Bush was a minority owner there. He also noticed the uncompleted socks.

“He pointed that out right away,” Bennett said. “But he knew who Al Oliver was.”

He met President Carter and to his amazement the president actually remembered his name on a later trip to Atlanta when they met again.

“What a memory!” Bennett said.

Of course, he probably remembered Bennett because he has that kind of effect on people.

He was a warm person from top to bottom.

I didn’t know Bennett’s college basketball officiating background but it included stints with the Ohio Valley Conference, Missouri Valley Conference and Mid-American Conference. He called games until 1991.

His first game was between Morehead State and Western Kentucky University in Laughlin Gymnasium.

Bennett said he never called a game involving the University of Kentucky or Ohio State, so he never dealt with the wrath of Adolph Rupp.

Baseball has always been Gene Bennett’s calling card.

In January 2009 he received the Legends In Scouting Award from the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation and at the December 2009 Winter Meetings he received the Midwest Scout of the Year Award.

More recently, Bennett penned a book My 58 years with the Cincinnati Reds and donated the proceeds to the Wheelersburg Little League baseball program.

He was also in the inaugural class of the CP-1 Ashland Baseball Hall of Fame three years ago. Bennett spent more than a few days watching baseball in Central Park.

His funeral arrangements are incomplete.

’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