The American Legion summer baseball program in S.W. Oklahoma is a mere shadow of its former self.
The Lawton Shockers is the nearest team and one of only 10 teams in the entire state of Oklahoma. The Am. Legion program in Altus and nearby towns used to be very strong. Most of us former legion players had a local team because of the late James Blackwell.
Even before Mr. Blackwell was in charge of Am. Legion baseball here, some of the toughest and stacked teams in the state’s history played right here in Altus. There were championships back in the hay day. The 1948 squad had one of the best summers I’ve ever heard of. It’s an amazing story conveyed to me by one of its former stars. The credit goes to him even though he has praised his teammates all along and taken no credit himself as being an integral part of that ‘48 title team.
Like any other Am. Legion team, the 1948 team was composed of players from county schools. High School baseball in S.W. Oklahoma was very strong and competitive. This run of dominant small school baseball in S.W. Oklahoma lasted for a longtime. As consolidation of the small rural communities progressed and families left the farms for bigger city opportunities, the populations in rural areas decreased and schools began to close. Talk to the old timers and turn the discussion towards what effect the closing of the rural schools and thereby the towns associated with those schools had on the culture of America and a common thread will appear.
Among many things that may come up, the old-timers will always associate this migration from rural spread to urban congestion with the struggle for Americans to maintain a fixed moral compass. If you shift the talk to sports, the old-timers will be quick to remind you that there is a reason that baseball in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s is referred to as its “hay day.” Take a look at the personnel on those squads and notice most of the players were farm boys who grew up working chores as a matter of survival. Chores most modern youngsters would deem back braking punishment by a prison warden. This way of life grew some strong, mentally tough kids who grew up on work and baseball.
I consider it comical when you witness a conversation tug-of-war between a modern youth and an old-timer. Watch the body language of the youngster as they are disgruntled and downtrodden claiming they have it better because of their gadgets or devices and make fun of the pleasant and content old-timer as they try to point out that the old-timers didn’t have anything to do. It’s funny and extremely sad at the same time. I know this, I’ve never heard a single old-timer ever mention that they were ever bored. They booted bird dogs not computers. They didn’t stare at mini-screens and the only face book they knew was their own face in whatever book was assigned. I am getting sidetracked from my intended article so let’s go back to 1948.
There was wonderful county wide support, interest and people attended the games in large numbers. This is a basketball reference but to confirm that they had better attendance in those days, my father tells of playing in a regional final played at the W.O.S.C gym. I’m sure many of us have attended a game or 100 games there and we have seen some large crowds. However, I’ve seen the seats filled and a few standing in the corners waiting on a seat. I’ve never seen what my father described as being so deep from out of bounds back to the wall with people that an inbounds effort would require the shuffling of bodies in a manner good enough to create space for the inbounder to throw the ball in. that is hard to imagine that many people attending a small school basketball game. Baseball attendance was right on par with that.
The really cool thing about playing American Legion baseball is the coming together of rivals from various high schools and joining as teammates to take on the world. The best players from each school joining forces meant the elimination of easy outs or weak spots in the lineup.
In 1948, five very capable high school ‘clean up’ batters were in the lineup in a row. Jerry Doyle (Victory), Joe Buck (Altus), Gerald Nipp (Blair), Mark Wright (Friendship) and Johnny Risinger (Southside). An American Legion ‘Murderer’s Row’, with stout batting averages. Pitching to this type of lineup means there is never a spot in the order you can downshift and just get outs with basic pitches. You simply couldn’t pitch around this lineup.
The season started in a local area of towns in a conference. However, it was clear after scores were getting way out of hand that there was big need for stronger competition.
Clarence Stipes and Bill Williams had Buick and International Harvester dealerships. They provided an IH School Bus, and Coach Hal Hilprit took the Altus team on a tour seeking acceptable competition. Their first trip provided little help concerning better competition. Altus played a double header in Canadian, TX. Altus played four innings in game one and two innings in game two. In the first game, Altus scored 42 runs an 12 more runs in game 2 before a halt was called to that second inning and Canadian was out of pitching and hadn’t recorded an out yet. Altus then traveled to Clovis, NM and scored almost 20 runs per game in two consecutive nights.
The next stop was in Plainview, TX. They had a large fastballer and they were pretty confident with that flamethrower on the mound. Altus felt sorry for him to be put in that situation. Altus won 25-3. Altus played Salina, KS, and OK Mosier Tires (coached by Ray Hogan) in Altus over the weekends. Then Altus traveled into North and Eastern OK competing against weak teams. The closest game on this trip was Tulsa Fred Jones. Altus defeated them 4-0 for a record of 33-0 to start the year.
Altus first loss was to Topeka, KS., 10-3. Altus won the following night 5-4.
Altus dropped 4 or 5 games that summer to teams of former pros or college players. Altus defeated a few of those teams as well.
Going into the state tournament, that ‘48 team was the favorite to win it. This can be a very dangerous position to be in. Altus blew out the first two rounds of the State Tournament.
Altus beat OK Mosier Tires in the semifinals. The Mosier team was stacked from players all over OKC metro area. All-Stater Jerry Shaw from Blair threw a complete game to win the Saturday semi-final game 6-4.
Altus faced Tulsa Fred Jones in the finals. Donnie Chisholm’s arm was too sore to throw. Jerry Shaw was called on again to pitch the Sunday final. Shaw again delivered and allowed only 1 run in throwing another complete game on back to back days. Altus won 6-1 in the first game of the double elimination, which gave Altus the championship.
After the season ended, the players returned to their high schools to renew their intense high school rivalries.
Jack Shirley, Harlan Tabb, Joe Boyles, Bill Herring, Bob Stevenson and Weldon Parker played on an earlier Altus team that won state. Lindy McDaniel, Von McDaniel and Eddie Fisher were on later Altus teams.
The 1948 team had catchers (Buck & Kirby), 1st B (Risinger), 2nd (Keith Wigington), shortstop (Doyle), 3rd B (Nipp), LF (Wright), CF (Tims), RF (Bunyard). Wigington was outstanding at 2nd base, Sonny Tims hit leadoff and was very fast and made some amazing catches, and Bunyard gave left-handed power as he followed Tims in the 2nd spot in the batting order. Doyle had unbelievable all-around skills, and by all accounts Gerald Nipp, also a Blair All-Stater, was a dominant hitter.
If the 1948 team wasn’t proof enough of the strength of baseball in S.W. Oklahoma. In the spring of 1949, two schools just 9 miles apart participated in the U. of Oklahoma Invitational Baseball Tournament and reached the finals. Blair defeated Friendship 4-1 for the championship.
Most summer baseball has been high schools continuing to play during the summer months. I think Navajo had a 31 game schedule this summer. I haven’t seen an Altus schedule.
Something has been lost here with the elimination of the Legion teams, though. Hopefully, it won’t be gone forever. Hopefully, there is a new stir of action in the Altus area towards a refocusing on youth baseball and the economical benefits that playing host to tournaments almost year round can yield. There is good quality baseball being played. You just have to travel to get it. People would travel here for it if it was here.
Remember, if you build it, they not only will come, but they will bring the rest of the family and their money, too.
Reach Brad Gilbert @ 482-1221 ext. 2076