Photo: Michigan State's 1954 baseball team
I've reposted this story from a year ago that was lost from a hacker episode. The story was written by Bob Reising, who played on the Spartans' 1954 College World Series team. Thanks, Tom Shanahan
NOTE: Bob Reising was invited by his teammates on the 1954 Michigan State University baseball team to write the above article. He earned the doctorate at Duke University, where his dissertation treated LITERATURE AND SPORTS and where he served as Interim Head Baseball Coach. He worked in intercollegiate athletics for nine years, compiling a 106 and 89 win-loss record in eight seasons as a Head Baseball Coach while guiding teams to both the NAIA College World Series and the NCAA National Tournament. He is a Professor Emeritus at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, where he held a joint appointment in English and in American Indian Studies for 34 years (1971-2005).
Hang the Almanac’s cheat and the Catalogue’s spite!
Old Time is a liar! We’re twenty to-night!
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Team chemistry is the degree to which
players are invested in their teammates
and embrace a shared set of team-oriented
goals, including a willingness to make sacrifices
for the good of the team.
President: Society of
March 13, 2013: YouTube
“You guys are crazy! No team meets for fifty-five years,” screamed a friend of Bob Powell’s when the former major leaguer announced in late winter of 2008 that on a weekend in the following May, he would be re-uniting at Michigan State with his baseball teammates of 1954. Bob did not object or argue. He simply smiled. He knew what his colleague could neither fathom nor appreciate: that more than half-a-century earlier, his Alma Mater had fielded not a distinctive but a unique team, one in which Michigan State will forever take pride, and one whose every player delights not only in proclaiming that Spartan Green runs in his veins but also in returning to the campus every five years to renew ties he holds dear.
Had the insanity-certain gentleman been in East Lansing in May of 2014, unadulterated confusion would have invaded his mind, ear to ear. The insanity he attributed to the Spartans of ’54 would have been his, not theirs. The 60th-year reunion was a joyously sane occasion, a memorable mix of past and present that every one of the twelve team members attending will cherish for the rest of his life. In the history of intercollegiate sports, and certainly in the history of intercollegiate baseball, no team had ever met for a longer period. More noteworthy, however, was a difficult-to-describe but impossible-to-deny quality discernible in the interactions among the twelve during the three-day festivities. That quality had typified all previous reunions since the first, held in 1964. What the team possessed in 1954, when capturing the Big Ten title and third place in the College World Series, they retained for six decades and in eleven reunions. In 2000, pitcher Bud Erickson, perfect in his reunion attendance, pinpointed it in print in just five words: “…what we had was chemistry.” Thirteen years later, Vince Gennaro defined it in thirty-three. Clearly, the Spartans of ’54 were “heavily invested in their teammates and embrace[d] a shared set of team-oriented goals.” Clearly, too, the talent-rich contingent could claim “a willingness to make sacrifices for the good of the team.” Gennaro’s search for an intercollegiate team to illustrate his definition could be short: he can find that team on the banks of the Red Cedar, in the unit that the University labels its best ever.
That chemistry emerged only because of the efforts of one person. John H. Kobs, Michigan State’s Head Baseball Coach for thirty-eight years (1925-1963), was no ordinary mentor, winning over sixty-percent of the contests in which his Spartan teams competed. A shrewd judge and recruiter of talent, he developed in the ’54 Spartans the depth and camaraderie he knew crucial to success in national competition. Other squads he coached included super stars who graduated to major-league success, including Hall of Famer Robin Roberts and premier relief pitchers Dick Radatz and Ron Perranoski. The ’54 team, in contrast, claimed no super stars but possessed something more valuable: twenty-eight competitive, compatible performers who, in the words of outfielder Jack Risch,” battled each other during the week, and then…battled the other guys on the weekend.” Thanks to Coach Kobs, no “clubhouse lawyers” were among the twenty-eight, a squad two-deep at every position, enriched by ten proven or promising pitchers. Thus neither injuries nor slumps—nor malcontents-- ever had an opportunity to diminish chances for success during the twenty-five victory season.
Coach Kobs attended just one reunion, the ten-year in 1964. Dead since 1968, he, fortunately, left a worthy successor, his grandson, John Kobs III, now an honorary member of the Spartans of ’54. At the 2014 reunion, he was his customary cordial self, delighting, as he later wrote, in “the traditions of the team.” In that communication, John Kobs III provided a second telling point: “…if you look at the photo of the ’64 reunion, the smile on my grandfather’s face tells you everything you need to know about the special place the ’54 team held in his heart.”
Nor was that smile absent on the evening of Friday, May 9, 2014. Hanging on the wall of the spacious den at 1112 Sandhill Drive in DeWitt, just a few miles from the Michigan State campus, was a team picture, taken sixty years earlier. A smiling John H. Kobs continued to reveal “the special place the ’54 team held in his heart,” thanks to the generosity of Dan and Arlene Brown, hosts of the Friday-evening mixers launching the gatherings since the third, in 1974. For nine consecutive five-year reunions, catcher/outfielder Dan and his bride of over sixty years had opened their handsome home to the Spartans of ’54, providing them with delectable refreshments and cushy comforts in a setting ideal for reminiscing and story-swapping. And a more appreciative group of diamond performers never existed. When the request for an article on the ’54 squad arrived, it was not unaccompanied. Team member after team member urged—demanded, really—that it provide praise for the Browns, “for Dan and Arlene,” as one of them argued, “because they have gone far, far out of their way for us for decades.” Meeting that demand is not a chore but a pleasure.
Like every other reception since 1964, the most recent contained its memorable happenings. Two rank with the most touching ever. When promptly at 6:30 p.m., the first team members to arrive descended the stairs to the Browns’ den, they were delighted to see one of their own already comfortably situated. A beaming, proud Erickson had kept his promise, communicated in late winter by outfielder Ray Collard, “Communicator Extraordinaire” for the Spartans of ’54. Roughly thirty minutes prior to “game time,” Bud had negotiated the approximately twenty steps without the benefit of his legs, amputated earlier in 2014. The Big Ten’s “Winningest Pitcher” of 1954 proved six decades later that he could still triumph over tough opposition.
Also remarkable was the presence of a mature male whom no team member had seen before. But Mike Gorman was cordially welcomed by everyone who shook his hand. The son of Charlie Gorman, one of the team’s top pitchers in the championship season, had requested an opportunity to visit with teammates of his late father, tragically killed in an automobile accident in 1966. On a team of equals, the righthanded hurler had no equal when opportunities for pranks and tomfoolery appeared, or could be created. But a toddler when he lost his father, Mike Gorman left the Browns’ residence on May 9 with a mind full of tales and tidbits that, indeed, provided insight into a fun-loving parent who died much too early.
Following the evening of private partying came a Saturday afternoon of public parading and pitching. Stuffed by a lunch of hot dogs, chips, soft drinks, ketchup, and mustard, the by-then “Dirty Dozen” were twice asked to appear on Kobs Field to receive the plaudits of a crowd anxious to see the 2014 Spartan baseballers battle foes from the University of Nebraska. A few innings into the contest, the second trek to the diamond was a journey of joy: accompanying the ’54 team were a host of players from other successful Michigan State diamond squads of the past, including, even, a representative from a 1940’s team. A tip of the cap and a smile of gratitude were the lone expectations of the overseers of the celebratory activities.
More traumatic, however, was the pre-game appearance. Throwing a baseball 60 feet 6 inches, from the pitcher’s mound to home plate, was a challenge neither anticipated nor welcomed. When the twelve learned of the task that lay just minutes ahead, more than a few sheepishly confessed that they had not thrown a baseball in years. Fear not of injury but of embarrassment peppered reactions to the imposed demand. Dick Idzkowski, probably the hardest thrower on the ’54 pitching staff, countered with a suggestion that several teammates believed sensible, that the twelve be asked to line up shoulder to shoulder between the mound and home plate and be allowed to toss (hand?) a ball from player to player until it reached a catcher from the current year’s team. But teamwork could not prevail over the pre-ordained. A dozen 2014 players already expected to catch pitches. Thus, equally spaced on each side of the mound, the twelve from ’54 soon unleashed pitches of questionable velocity that hopped their way to home plate. Since none of the twelve was confident or comfortable enough to follow any pitch other than his own, all twelve jokingly claimed success while parading off the field to the applause of a grateful crowd.
In 1954, Coach Kobs was aided on the diamond by Assistant Coach, Frank Pellerin, especially adept at charting players’ strengths and weaknesses. But, unofficially, he possessed a second assistant. No athletic team has been blessed with a more laudable leader than “Captain Jack,” formally known as Monsignor John Zeitler, a Roman Catholic clergyman revered for his decades of service and assistance to needy humans in and near Buffalo, New York, his native city. Had “Captain Jack” not opted for the priesthood, the agile, alert ex-infielder could have excelled as a late-night television host after ending his professional baseball career in 1956. He was at his incomparable best at the third event of the 2014 reunion, the Saturday-evening banquet at Kellogg Center. He emceed with such facility that a torrent of rapid-fire narratives of pure pleasure unfolded, too numerous and clever for even the best minds in the audience to retain or retell later. His string of jokes was endless, one more comic than the other. Yet, with a pacing acquired only through countless Sundays in the pulpit and even more days officiating at christenings, weddings, and funerals, he inserted or invited serious commentary at adroitly timed intervals.
Paramount among the insertions was a reading of four names that the twelve—and their many relatives assembled with them—hoped never to hear. A quartet of teammates had passed away since the 2009 reunion: Don Moffat, a hustling catcher; Earl Morrall, a valuable infielder and later a star in the National Football League; Dr. John Polomsky, a skillful outfielder who had served in “the Korean Conflict” prior to his university enrollment; and Powell, a second gifted outfielder. “Captain Jack,” however, refused to allow death to darken the evening’s gaiety. He immediately proceeded to lighter fare. A gracefully worded letter from infielder Bill Hopping, residing in New Mexico, expressed regret that obligations elsewhere kept him and his wife from attending; and an update on happenings involving other absentees like first baseman Bob Williams and pitcher Mike Wallace, both employed in professional baseball, was provided by Collard. Soon thereafter, pitcher Ed Hobaugh, seldom effusive, sprang to his feet and surprised and entertained the group with an exegesis on the bumps, bruises and bone breaks accruing to baseball pitchers in a sport that the uninitiated routinely view as “non-contact.” The veteran of three major-league campaigns was complete, convincing, and comic in itemizing the head-to-toe aches and pains that he carried into retirement because of his years toiling on the mound. No part of his anatomy was spared, he humorously emphasized. He was living—and limping--proof that hurling a baseball for a huge portion of one’s life imposes permanent bodily harm.
The evening raced to a conclusion that no one welcomed. Filling its final minutes were animated picture-taking and reluctant farewells. Audible were not only buoyant expressions of gratitude to Collard, Idzkowski, and infielder Jim Sack for organizing the festivities that had proven so enjoyable but also infielder Ron Stead’s several, always-sincere requests to “stay in touch.” Outfielder Chuck Bodary could be heard campaigning for the 2017 three-year reunion that he had earlier recommended to the group when “Captain Jack” invited “other requests?” Finality was detested. Departures from the Kellogg Center banquet room were painfully slow.
Lingering in the minds of the twelve on the following day were pleasant recollections of an unforgettable evening that “Captain Jack” had orchestrated into existence. Casual walks around the scenic campus vied for popularity with frenzied attempts to “check out,” to pack vehicles, or to race to the Lansing Airport to meet scheduled plane departures. Church attendance was an obligation that several of the twelve could not overlook, as were luncheon engagements planned weeks earlier. Like previous reunions, the three-day event had no ending, simply a disappearance accompanied by a hope that notice of another would quickly surface.
Sixty years earlier, on the eve of what sports aficionados assumed would be just another winning baseball season for the Spartans, “Captain Jack” predicted otherwise. He sensed what Coach Kobs knew, that 1954 could be different, better, even—just maybe--the best in school history. Years later, Hopping recalled the impact of the captain’s inspiring pep talk: “I’m convinced that Jack’s first speech set the tone and made the winning possible.” The record-setting success that followed, the twelve gratefully acknowledged on one weekend in May of 2014, when—on a sunny afternoon, sandwiched between two fun-filled evenings—they proved, yet again, that “Old Time” can, indeed, be “a liar.” On the following day, had their captain requested, they gladly would have returned to the Kobs Field bleachers on which they had sat for his pre-season talk of 1954 and been no less moved by sentiments that echo those ending Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous poem:
Then here’s to our boyhood, its gold and its gray!
The stars of its winter, the dews of its May!
And when we have done with our life-lasting toys,
Dear Father, take care of thy children, THE BOYS!
Simultaneously, they would have sensed and enjoyed the lasting power not of insanity but of chemistry.