That Championship Season

By Charles Killinger ’64


photo: baseball
The 1961 championship baseball team

In the spring of 1961, as Southwestern students exchanged farewells, a small group packed its bags to travel north: The baseball team had qualified for the NCAA College Division Mid-East regional tournament. The season had been one of extraordinary success that would continue through the tournament and bring Rhodes College its only NCAA team championship. But because of the timing of the games, the historic success of that team went virtually unnoticed, only recently to be rediscovered.

Southwestern students of the early ’60s enjoyed an idyllic, if somewhat deceptive calm, a kind of extension of the more carefree 1950s, although events pointed to the turbulence that would dominate the decade in its latter years. Sit-in demonstrations and freedom rides signaled the acceleration of the civil rights movement, while the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s clash with President Kennedy at Vienna evidenced a hardening of the Cold War. Later in 1961 the Soviets exploded a 50-megaton hydrogen bomb and constructed the Berlin Wall, while Kennedy dispatched 2,000 military advisers to Vietnam. The dynamics of domestic and international conflict would soon breach the tranquility of campus, but on two sunny days in June 1961, far from Memphis and largely oblivious to the winds of change, the Southwestern baseball team could play that most pastoral of games much as boys had played it for more than a century-and-a-half.

Nothing seemed exceptional as the team prepared for the 1961 season. There were the usual damp, windy practices at the old Fargason Field and a fair measure of sore arms. Nevertheless, coach Woody Johnson must have noticed the striking array of talent that included a number of returning players, most of the backfield from the Lynx football team and three-fifths of the starting basketball team.

Never before had Southwestern fielded a winning baseball team, but the ’61 Lynx showed promise. Wins over undefeated Union University, Northeast Louisiana, Murray State and a ranked Arkansas State team highlighted a 14-game winning streak that brought attention from the Commercial Appeal. Apparently that attention had not escaped archrival Sewanee’s Shirley Majors and Lon Varnell, two of college coaching’s more colorful characters. Arriving on the mountain, the Lynx players were taunted by a raucous contingent of Sewanee partisans, separated from the team only by a chain-link fence. Five hours later, when the Sewanee pitcher retired the last Lynx batter of the second game, the bleachers were eerily vacant and the Lynx winning streak had come to an abrupt halt in 3-2 and 4-2 losses. The team lost only three more times that season.

By midseason it had become clear that this was a special group indeed. Cocaptains Robert Echols ’62 and Billy Landers ’61, shortstop Buddy McAfee ’63, catcher Jerry Manley ’63 and outfielders Lou Johnson ’61, Tommy Johnson ’63 and Pat Burke ’62 brought experience and stability to the younger contingent. Landers hit .472 and stole 38 bases in 22 games. The word was that a Landers single was as good as a triple. Freshman first baseman David Miles hit .368, helping to elevate the team batting average above the .300 benchmark, while the two lefthanders, Bob Moseley ’62 (1.45 E.R.A.) and Larry Thomas ’64 (5-1), held opponents in check, assuring the team that a mere few runs would usually suffice. Coach Johnson was, in baseball parlance, “manufacturing runs” with his aggressive style of forcing the action, and thus the team was never shut out over the entire season, an extraordinary accomplishment in any league.

Although baseball fans often dwell on statistics, there are intangible elements that weigh equally heavily, and this team seemed to have them all: leadership, tenacity and no small measure of zaniness that served to relieve pressure as the winning streak built. Of all the colorful personalities, none proved more entertaining than the cigar-chomping head coach, who conjured images of smoky pool halls and a palpable toughness. A man who chose his words carefully and whose eyes conveyed as much as the signals he flashed from the third-base coach’s box, Johnson guided this team to success. Anyone who doubted his grit would have been convinced when, after one of the season’s altercations, Johnson lifted a young man in street clothes by his shirt and deposited him rather rudely outside the fence with the proclamation: “Boy, what are you doing out here? You don’t even have a uniform on.” On road trips, curfews were always a subject for speculation among players, who wondered how the rules would be enforced by a coach who surely would not interrupt his pool game to do so. Johnson’s leathery demeanor, however, did not completely shield an inner generosity that a number of players came to appreciate.

The 450-mile drive north proved disorienting to a carload of Memphians who found themselves lost in Indianapolis on the way to the tournament. McAfee suggested that the driver get the attention of one of Indy’s finest by making an illegal turn, then asking directions, a maneuver that would not have been entirely out of character for this team. Earlier in the season, an Alabama trooper had stopped some players for speeding, only to escort them to the game when he discovered that they were running late.

Once the players located the DePauw University campus in Greencastle and began to gather on the diamond, they knew exactly where they were. Poised and confident, they focused on the task at hand. In the June 5 opening game, before a crowd that included a smattering of professional scouts, the Lynx scored six times, highlighted by Landers’ two-run triple. Moseley pitched a brilliant game, allowing two runs on four hits and striking out 13 for his 11th win against two losses. Only cofavorite Ball State, Indiana Collegiate Conference champion and first-round winner over Ohio Wesleyan, stood between the Lynx and the championship.

Relying on the strong pitching and aggressive style that had carried it through the season, the team built a lead behind Thomas, then held on for a 5-3 victory. Key hits in the final game came from McAfee, Miles and Lou Johnson, but the victory fittingly proved to be a total team effort. “Euphoric” was Landers’ response to the climax of the triumphant season. But there was little time for celebration after the gold medal ceremony. Driving all night, the Memphis contingent returned to an empty campus. Others dispersed. Bill Landers and Buddy McAfee were rewarded with professional contracts, signed respectively by the Houston Colt 45s and the St. Louis Cardinals. After graduation, Jerry Manley embarked on a career in the U.S. Navy. Mark Hartzog ’62 and Robert Echols enrolled in law school, Pat Burke ’62 in medical school.

The most successful baseball season in the college’s history was recently rescued from oblivion for one reason: Rhodes athletic director Mike Clary ’77 yielded to his curiosity and began to investigate the story behind the fading team photo with the caption “1961 NCAA Champions.” On a sunny Homecoming weekend in October 2006, the 1961 baseball team was inducted into the Rhodes College Athletic Hall of Fame, the first team to be so honored. The 11 teammates who gathered for the first time in 45 years shared a sense of gratification and numerous reminiscences, some undoubtedly embellished in the remembrance of faded glory.

“We were crowned national champions,” one player recalled, “because the other regionals were not played. But we would have beaten them all.”

“Bring them on!” another insisted. “We could take them now.”

Charles Killinger was a member of the 1961 baseball team.

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