Tuesday, July 31, 2012

One coach tops them all

     My favorite coach, and one of my favorite people, is a gentleman -- a gentle man -- named Lee Hedges.
     People who know me well, know that A.L. Williams, Jerry Adams and James C. Farrar rank near the top of my coaching list. But those three men will tell you that Lee Hedges also is at the top of their list.
       No high school football coach in Shreveport-Bossier ever won more games. Few in Louisiana, in fact, have a better won-loss record. But it's not wins and losses that define Coach Hedges; it's  respect.
       I have three football coaching favorites: Tom Landry (Dallas Cowboys), Joe Aillet (Louisiana Tech) and Lee Hedges. All of them have stadiums named for them. All of them were soft-spoken, low-key, brilliant strategists, superbly organized, born leaders.
      Two words is really all I need: Class act.
Lee Hedges, with quarterback Terry Bradshaw
at Woodlawn, 1965
     Coach Hedges obviously wasn't as high-profile as Landry and Aillet, but his coaching life lasted roughly as long and he had the same remarkable influence on the people whose lives he touched.
        He is almost 83 now, and life isn't as easy these days. He can't get around as well anymore; nothing debilitating, just the pains and aches and hardships that come with advancing age.
         But the honors -- well-deserved -- keep coming for him. On Saturday, he will be inducted into the Ark-La-Tex Sports Museum of Champions. Three years ago, he went into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
        He's been in my Hall of Fame for 50 years.
         I went from being a manager on his Woodlawn High football teams to a sports writer covering his teams, including the 1973 Captain Shreve team that gave him his only state championship.
          I always knew, as did everyone around him, that he was going to run a first-class program, that he was going to put what was best for his kids and the good of his school above anything personal.
         He is one of the most modest people I know, considering his success. And one of the most respected.
          "I don't know of a coach who is more respected than Lee Hedges, " A.L. Williams told a reporter a couple of years ago. "You always knew his teams would do things the right way because that's what he expected of them, and everyone around him wanted to please him so much.
          "People wanted Lee to coach their kids because they respected him so much."
          A.L. was part of Coach Hedges' staff when Woodlawn opened, a staff many regard as one of the best ever in North Louisiana high school football, a staff totally dedicated and focused. A.L. would succeed him as head coach after the 1965 season, then coach against him when Coach Hedges -- after one year on Coach Aillet's staff at Louisiana Tech -- started the program at Captain Shreve when it opened in 1967.
           Jerry Adams was also on that Woodlawn staff and also would end up coaching against Coach Hedges. Same for Billy Joe Adcox.
           "Lee was the shepherd, and we were his flock," Coach Adams has told me often. "Everything we did, all our success, was because of him. He set it all up for us."
---
         A quick summary of Lee Hedges' football coaching record: 27 seasons as a head coach, beginning at age 26 at Byrd in 1956 after only one year as an assistant; a 216-92-9 record (.698), only three losing seasons (two of them in first years at Woodlawn and Shreve); 11 district titles; 19 playoff years; three state finalists, two other times in the semifinals.
        With a few breaks here and there, he could have won five state titles. His teams lost some heartbreakers deep in the playoffs.
        His tennis teams at Captain Shreve -- and he was as good a tennis instructor as he was a football coach -- won 15 state championships.
        But, again, it's not the numbers. It was the method.
---
         I remember him saying often that coaching simply boiled down to this -- teaching. He was on the field to teach the game, to teach his players to be in the right spots, to play the right way.
         He was as diligent a teacher of football as he was of math in the classroom, which he did for decades in high school and adult education, and on the tennis court for thousands of kids, young and old, through his late 70s at Pierremont Oaks Tennis Club.
         Think Landry and Aillet. He didn't scream; he wasn't emotional. His practices, his meetings, were business-like. In all the years, I only saw him raise his voice a couple of times. When that happened, the practice field got real quiet. Conversely, when something really excited him, the most animated he might get was to greet someone with "attababy, attaboy." Practices were tough, but there was a degree of fun there, too.
Lee Hedges, as an LSU running back,
early 1950s
          He wasn't a disciplinarian; he let his assistants take care of much of that. But when he had to discipline a player, or dismiss one, he did. It wasn't something he enjoyed. He rarely cut anyone from the program.
           But he didn't have many problem kids, nor did they need much motivation. They wanted to play for him because they knew how much winning and playing well meant to him.
           He loved the running game, loved the old-school physical style of football way he had learned  when he was a star running back at Fair Park and LSU in the late 1940s/1950s. The people who saw him then, or knew of him, said he was just as respected and as much of a leader as he would be as a coach.
           But at Woodlawn and then at Captain Shreve, he opened up his offense to an extent few coaches did, and had some of the greatest passers and receivers in the state in the 1960s and '70s. He was a masterful teacher of quarterbacks, including the young, raw Terry Bradshaw.
 ---       
       From a media standpoint, he was a delight. He almost always had time, even when he was deep into film study, looking for ways to exploit defenses or ways to stop the other team. He'd stop the projector for a few minutes, and give you exactly what you needed for your story.
        He wasn't expansive with his answers; there wasn't a lot of bull. He knew what you wanted and he answered honestly and earnestly. His comments were succinct but exact.
        He was quiet and more reserved after losses -- he was a tough loser -- but he didn't deal in excuses. If there was something that displeased him, he would say, "Don't put this in there." But he was quiet after victories, too, not boastful. Injuries to players -- his and the other team's -- concerned him a great deal, win or lose.
        Mostly I loved going in and just talking with him. It was even better when he wasn't focused on a game, when he had time just to chat. Reserved as he is, Lee Hedges is an engaging people person.
        I can tell you this: After almost every game when I covered his team, he would say: "Give the kids a good writeup. They deserve it."
         A week ago when I told him I was going to write this piece, he said, "Oh, I don't know. I'm history. I'm done; I'm just a piece of history now."
          I can't look at it that way. Lee Hedges is a coach for forever, a coach for the ages.
  ---
       For two stories on Lee Hedges' Hall of Fame career and honors, please see:

Friday, July 27, 2012

The best of friends

Marion and Casey Baker
         Early September 1958, the day before sixth grade at Sunset Acres Elementary School. The tall, slender, brown-haired kid rode his bike into our yard, knocked on the front door and when I answered, announced, "Hey, we're in the same class again!"
          And with that, Casey Baker and I became best friends. We still are, and it's 54 years later.
          He chose me. How good is that?
           The "best friends" takes a qualifier now. Casey has Marion, and I have Bea. Best male friends is more accurate.
            We had been in fifth grade together, my first year at Sunset Acres. We were friends, but it was nothing special. But from that day in 1958 through the decades, the bond has been unbroken.
             We went to the same school, in the same grade, for 12 years -- two at Sunset Acres, three at Oak Terrace, three at Woodlawn, four at Louisiana Tech. We have seen hundreds of games together, checked out stadiums and gyms and schools, whatever, from Shreveport to Irving and Arlington to Kansas City.
             We covered every inch of Sunset Acres on our bikes, expanded the routes down the side of busy Mansfield Road to go see friends in Summer Grove and Southern Hills, then when Casey got his first car -- a dear old '48 Chevy with only two seats -- we covered all that area in Greenwood and Keithville and wherever our curiosity took us.
             I remember Casey's youngest brother, Chuck, as a baby in the crib at their old house on the other side of Sunset Acres. Soon they moved to Despot, a convenient long block away from our house on Amherst.
            Many, many Saturdays -- 7 a.m. or so -- began for me with a tap-tap-tap on my bedroom window. Casey was an early riser, and he was ready to go exploring. And off we went.
             We spent a lot of time at each other houses'. We invented ways to play football -- Casey by flipping pennies, me with cards and with a shoebox filled with folded slips of paper.
          He had some magazines -- uh, yeah -- and one of them was a basketball magazine in which the center spread was a 6-foot-11 phenom, an eighth grader (like us) in New York City named Lew Alcindor who was being touted as the next great player. You might know him now as Kareen Abdul-Jabbar, and he lived up to the billing.
            He touted the new TV shows he had seen, describing them in detail -- The Wild, Wild West and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. He charted the Top 40 weekly music chart as the songs came on the radio, and so did I. He created a disc jockey nickname for himself -- Carlton the C -- and gave me one -- Van Albert. He said that should be my penname.
           When Mickey Mantle won Game 3 of the 1964 World Series for the Yankees with a home run on the first pitch of the bottom of the ninth inning, the phone rang before Mantle even got around the bases. Casey wasn't a Yankees fan per se, but he knew how much I loved them and Mantle. He was screaming as loudly as I was.
           We have a lot of shared stories, a lot of code words. If I say "Chalmette" or "Forbing" or "Zarta station, middle of the night in Olathe, Kansas,"  "Uncle Urgly" or "as the sun set slowly in the West, he kissed his horse good-bye," Casey knows exactly what I mean. He can finish the stories.
 ---
           Can't recall if Casey was interested in sports in fifth grade. But he credits me with sparking his interest. That might be true, but he's taken it full blast. That sixth grade year, he and I hit each other ground balls and popups (mostly grounders, though) on the Sunset Acres playground. Then began three years we shared on some woeful St. James Episcopal Church-sponsored baseball teams.
A winning combination
for 54 years.
               Casey actually was one of the teams' best players, at second base, then at first. I played mostly right field (that's where they tried to hide the weakest players). Between pitching changes, we would visit and lament how badly things were going ... and how hot it was.
               But in junior high, Casey began playing football (offensive guard/linebacker) and participating in track and field. He could run well and was a good athlete, one of the city's best hurdlers and long jumpers.  I was a manager/statistician.
               Late in a couple of those summers, we would ride our bikes up to Oak Terrace waiting for the day the coaches -- Bruce and Ponder -- would arrive to begin preparations for football practice. We were so happy when they finally showed up, and we were in there helping them unpack the equipment, climbing into that locked loft in the dressing room.
               Then onto Woodlawn, where Casey played offensive line. He started at tackle as a senior on a very good team that finished 10-2, with two close losses. No two kids ever bought into the program more than we did. Maybe some equally, but no one cared more.
                 And it didn't stop when we graduated. We spent the next four years, while at Tech, caring just as much. That state football championship in 1968 was our long-awaited reward. I have no doubt that Casey will tell you that his favorite high school player of all time is Joe Ferguson.
 ---
              When an undefeated Woodlawn team played in the playoffs at Bogalusa in 1966, the game wasn't on radio. We were at Tech and I had to call the Shreveport paper to get the score. When I told Casey we had lost 18-14, he stormed out of the sports information office.
                Two years later, Woodlawn played Holy Cross in New Orleans in the playoffs' second round. This game was on radio in Ruston, but Casey bailed out when we quickly fell behind 14-0. He felt much better later; we won 35-14.
               The next week, Casey, Gary Pennington and I -- all seniors at Tech -- drove to New Orleans for Woodlawn's semifinal game at Chalmette. I was driving my dad's car, and we must've been map-challenged because we drove for 45 minutes trying to find our way to Chalmette. No luck. We ended up back in downtown New Orleans, stopped at a filling station -- we were so tired and frustrated -- and I got out to ask for directions.
             The attendant gave me the directions, then added, "You can't miss it."
             I was already laughing when I got back to the car. I barely got out the guy's words, "You can't miss it." Casey and Gary exploded with laughter. We laughed for a good 20 minutes before we got back on the road. It was the longest, loudest laugh of 54 years of friendship.
---
            Woodlawn's state football title was one great thrill. Three months later, we were in Alexandria as Woodlawn's basketball team played for the state championship. We had been bottom-feeders when we were in school, but under coach Ken Ivy, Woodlawn's teams made great strides in just three years.
            We didn't have a place to stay in Alexandria. Jerry Byrd let us crash in his room the night before the final game.
             When the game ended, and Woodlawn had won, I was the second person to race onto the floor to celebrate. I was a half-step behind Casey.
---
              In our first year of high school, Casey was our ride to school. It was me, Jere Welborn and Ray Boughton ... with two of us having to stand in the back behind the two-seater. The next summer, things changed.
             Marion Marie Ziobrowski moved into the neighborhood. They met one night, and that was it. I was out as No. 1 friend. She took our place in the car.
               They married in the summer of 1970, when Marion graduated from Tech. Casey, who had majored in business and fraternity at Tech, had begun working for JC Penney at the new mall in Irving, Texas. They lived in Irving for several years, then moved to Alexandria, La., when he was promoted. Then he switched from retail to hospital administration (human resources) and wound up back in Shreveport.
           Which is funny in a way. I thought I'd never leave Shreveport; Casey never thought he'd come back after moving to the Metroplex. Now he's back to stay, and I left for good in 1988, winding up in  Fort Worth.
              But we did overlap for a while in Shreveport-Bossier, with Casey helping out in The Times sports department -- thankfully -- in my one year as sports editor there.
              The Bakers' kids, Brian and Leslie, are about the same age as ours. He and Marion dote on their grandson, Anthony; we adore our three grandkids. The Bakers' house is a frequent stop for us when we're in Shreveport.
                Not everything has gone well for Casey. Like me, he's been told he was no longer needed in a couple of jobs. He went through a depressive period, but decided to go back for more schooling and changed career paths. He's now a counselor, he works hard at it, and he likes it.
               Losing his brother, James Royce "Spanky" Baker (one year younger ), to pancreatic cancer a few years ago was very tough for both of us.
 ---
           Marion said this a few years ago, "Casey is one of the smartest people I know," and I agree. I've always felt that way. He is full of opinions, on a variety of subjects (not just sports), but they're studied opinions. For instance, he is much more of a student of baseball statistics than I am.
           He is also more conservative in his views, but even if we don't agree, I listen to him and he listens to me.
              Our joke for years has been that if the NFL, NBA, MLB and NCAA would just listen to us, and let us run things, everything in athletics would go smoothly. We have answers.
             He is a big fan of Shreveport, of Shreveport schools, of North Louisiana. We don't always root for the same teams now. He loves the Texas Rangers -- he did when he lived in Irving -- and he loves Louisiana Tech. I love Tech, too, but I pull more for LSU these days. That confounds Casey, and has for years.
           Not too long ago, we were talking about Tech and LSU, and for one of the few times in all these years, he yelled at me, and basically hung up. He called early the next day, sheepishly apologizing and talking about the long friendship.
            He didn't have to do that. But he's got a big heart -- a heart that has given him problems over the years and left us all worried. He had nothing to prove to me. The kid who rode up on that bicycle in September 1958, the man who turns 65 today, proved himself to me a long, long time ago.
            Everyone should have a best friend like Casey Baker. Marion does. And so do I.


                
                          

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Can you hear the Olympic theme song?

        I love the Olympics; I always have.
        Love the Opening Ceremony, love the spectacular (and sometimes outrageous) show, love the parade of athletes by nations, the pomp of the Olympic flag being carried in, really love the lighting of the Olympic flame.
        Love the Olympic theme music -- the one made so famous by ABC Television. You know it ... dum, dum, de-dum-dum-dum-dum http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bXy72_4X8w. But I also love the theme written by John Williams -- the best composer of our era -- for the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles ... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbHw8DBCXQ8.
        So bring on Friday night's Opening Ceremony for the Summer Games' third time in London.
        Mostly I love the competition, the spirit of sport, the supposedly real reason why the Olympics began in the first place.
        Yes, I'll be pulling for the United States, and for Holland (which won't be much of a factor, except maybe in swimming). But I'll appreciate any of the outstanding performances and the drama which any Olympics inevitably produce.
         You had to marvel at Usain Bolt's of lightning in the sprints four years ago in Beijing, and Michael Phelps' eight gold-medal haul in swimming. But I could take you back to hundreds of moments to cherish over the years.
          As a kid, I absorbed the Olympics. I had several books on Olympics history -- a couple in Dutch -- and I practically memorized them. The first time I saw the Olympics on television -- Rome, 1960 -- I was hooked. Oh, the memories of the young boxer, Cassius Clay, proudly showing off his gold medal. He seemed just a bit confident.
          My dad loved the Olympics, too. He was 9 when the Summer Games came to his hometown, Amsterdam, in 1928, and he would tell me how exciting it was in the city those two weeks.
           My first Olympic heroes were two athletes from Holland who were among the world's best when we -- yes, it was "we" then -- didn't win much in anything.
Billy Mills, a miracle 10,000-meter run, 1964 Tokyo
           Fanny Blankers-Koen, "The Flying Housewife," who was 30 and the mother of two when she won four gold medals in track at the 1948 Games in London, and a speed skater, Kees Broekman, who won two silver medals in Helsinki, Finland, in the 1952 Winter Games.
           But starting in the Melbourne Games of 1956 -- the year Bobby Morrow of Abilene Christian dominated the sprints in track and field -- I pulled for the U.S. of A., and "we" won in almost everything. Nice.
           However, age creeps up, and I'm not an Olympics "nut" anymore (OK, go and laugh at the "nut" reference). I'll watch, but I won't spend hours and hours. And, honestly, I'm not so keen on the nationalism aspect of the Olympics these days. Not going to root against the U.S., but let's appreciate all of what we see and let's hope politics in judging -- always a factor -- doesn't get in the way of performance.
            And surely NBC will present some great stories -- just as ABC did all those years -- and we'll admire some of the world's best athletes, such as the young Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian gymnast who in 1976 (Montreal) was a perfect 10 a few years before Bo Derek hit that number in the movie.
             Maybe something will happen that will make it on my list of favorite Olympic moments. But it's going to be tough. I'll give you my top three:
              (3) Billy Mills, a Native American practically unheard of before the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games, charged down the middle of the track with a late sprint and won the 10,000-meter race, the only time a U.S. runner has ever won the event. They made a movie, Running Brave, on Mills' life and on this victory.
Muhammad Ali, Atlanta, 1996
              (2) Muhammad Ali -- maybe the best-known athlete in the world -- stepping out of the shadows, shakily taking the Olympic torch and then lighting the flame to begin the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. It was a moment for the ages.
              (1) The U.S. Olympic hockey team's victory against the Russians in the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid -- our college kids beating the world's greatest team. Al Michaels: Do you believe in miracles? ... Yes. 
                But so many heartbreaks, too.
                Jim Ryun, just graduated from high school but already the world's greatest middle distance runner ... until the 1,500-meter final in Mexico City when Kip Keino ran away from him in the final lap. We didn't know then, but that was the start of Kenya's world domination in distance running.
                The biggest ripoff in Olympic history: The U.S. men's basketball team -- which had never lost an Olympic game -- getting robbed of the gold medal when Russia was given two, three -- who was counting? -- chances to win the game in Munich in 1972. Sure, it was our kids against their men, but what a joke.
               Munich, 1972. Olympic losses on the track or in the pool or on a basketball court were nothing compared to Black Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1972 -- the day Palestinian terrorists went into the Olympic village and held members of the Israeli Olympic delegation hostage all day. That night Jim McKay, who had anchored ABC's coverage of the 16-hour saga, said those unforgettable words: "They're gone ... they're all gone."
               Eleven people murdered. Eleven Jews, on German ground. It was -- and is -- too haunting.
               Better to think of all the great memories the Olympics have given us, and to look forward to the memories to be created in the next couple of weeks.
                Which brings me to a couple of final points. Look, I love basketball, and I love great players. This might sound un-American, but I honestly don't look forward to watching the U.S. stomp these other countries. Any team with LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler, Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook figures to be pretty good.
                I don't want them to lose, but like I said, I like competition. So give the other teams a 20-point head start, for the sake of competitiveness. Make it interesting to watch.
                Otherwise, I'll be flipping channels looking for Holland in field hockey.
                Last, and I'm bragging here, on the afternoon of the start of the Atlanta Games, I predicted Ali would be the one to light the flame. So I will predict that the honor Friday night will go to Sir Roger Bannister.
                And it will be a great moment when Queen Elizabeth II -- in her 60th year as queen of England -- declares open the Games of the XXX Olympiad.

            

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

It was only Willie Mays

        He was the best baseball player of my lifetime, and I believe others will feel the same way. But even Willie Mays -- wondrous Willie -- was traded once.
         And when I think of baseball trades -- with this year's trading deadline coming up -- I think of Willie, and The Shreveport Times in 1972.
         When Willie was traded from the Giants, his team for 21 years, to the New York Mets, it sent  him from San Francisco (where the Giants moved in 1958) back to the city where his major-league career began with the then-New York Giants in 1951.
        Actually, it was not at the trading deadline (as my mind suggested). It was May 11, relatively early in the season.
         It was almost unbelievable at the time. Willie Mays traded? That had a "wow" factor.
         But he was 41 years old at the time. He was still playing center field -- no one ever played it better, in my opinion -- but he had slowed down and, at times, he was playing some at first base (just as Mickey Mantle in the final years of his career).
         Willie was still a superstar, but more on reputation than deed. And at his best, in the 1950s and 1960s, I'm saying there was no one better. No, not even Hank Aaron or Roberto Clemente.
           And so he went to the Mets because he still had drawing power in New York City and because he was still a viable player. But, please, what were the Giants thinking? This guy had been their franchise.
           OK, on with the story. The trade happened on a Thursday. Willie needed a few days for personal business until he reported to the Mets. It just happened that the visiting team at Shea Stadium for the weekend series was ... the San Francisco Giants.
            He did not play until the Sunday game, starting at first base and batting leadoff for the Mets.
  In his first at-bat, he drew a walk and scored on Rusty Staub's grand slam. But by the fifth inning, the Giants had rallied to tie the score 4-4.
           And then Willie hit a home run. Turned out to be the final run of the game, a game-winner, giving the Mets a three-game sweep of his old team, the Giants. Another "wow."
             In those days, my role on many Sunday evenings at The Times was to lay out (design) the sports section, edit the copy, pick the photos. I made the Giants-Mets game story the centerpiece of the section, with a fairly large picture of Mays swinging and hitting the home run.
              I thought the story deserved that kind of play.
             When I came in the next day, everyone in sports had a memo from the editor: We will not run any photos of black people above the fold in sports, until further notice.                   
               I am not making this up. Why would I?
              Sure, we were puzzled. It was 1972, schools were intergrated, most public facilities were. We had run photos of blacks on our front sports page before, such as Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
             Bill McIntyre, the sports editor, felt the memo had originated with the publisher, who was a member at East Ridge Country Club and had heard negative remarks about the photo from his friends (and possible advertisers) out there. The publisher didn't want those people angry.
               McIntyre and the paper's editor weren't about to challenge the publisher. It wouldn't have done any good.
                It was -- I felt this then and feel it now -- a chicken-spit thing to do. It was Willie Mays; it wasn't exactly an obscure name. And it was the story of the week in American sports.
---
               I wish that never would have happened again. But it did two years later.
               This time it involved a picture of Louis Dunbar, then a star basketball player at the University of Houston -- one of the nation's top programs. Dunbar was from Minden (30 miles from Shreveport), the best player I've ever covered other than Robert Parish, with whom Dunbar had some classsic duels in high school.
              Houston was in Shreveport to play against Centenary, an ongoing series and always a top draw on the Gents' home schedule. Dunbar, at 6-9, was a forward but could play liked a guard. He played any position he wanted. He was a Magic Johnson-type a few years before Magic.
             He was a personable young man; I knew that from a couple of stories I had done on him when he was at Webster High in Minden (he led his team to a state championship). He should have played in the NBA, but he didn't (for reasons I've yet to figure out).
             But his skills were so great -- and his personality so vivid -- that he became Sweet Lou Dunbar, clown prince of the Harlem Globetrotters for 25 years. He played until he was 49, then stayed  with the Globbies as a personnel director.
               Anyway, the advance story on Houston-at-Centenary had a photo of Dunbar on the lower half of the front sports page in The Times. Dunbar had a huge Afro, the type you saw often in those days.
             Next day, another memo from the publisher and editor: We are not to run photos like this again.
              Again, unbelievable.
              I have lots of great memories of Shreveport, North Louisiana and even some of The Shreveport Times. These two episodes are not among them.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The hidden Dutch child

      A little more than a dozen years ago, Bea was visiting my parents' house in Shreveport when my dad handed a slip of paper on which was written: Clara Van Thyn, Knoxville, Tenn.
      How my dad had this name was a mystery to us. But we lived in Knoxville then, and after Bea returned, we tried to find this person. No luck.
The young Sonja
        A few months later, I got a call from a woman in Knoxville who said she was Sonja Dubois, she was Dutch, and her name when she was born was ...Clara Van Thyn.
       But that was merely the start of the story. We would soon hear the rest.
     Sonja had found us in Knoxville because her husband, Ron, looked in the phone book and searched for Van Thyns.
     At about the same time, my sister had received a call from a man in Toronto. He said he was Leo Van Thyn, he was from Amsterdam, he was doing a genealogy on the Van Thyn family -- he also had corresponded with my parents -- and he thought we might be cousins.
      Turns out that Sonja and Leo also had connected a couple of years earlier -- thanks to the Internet.
       So the mystery that puzzled us was that my dad hadn't connected that Clara Van Thyn -- a name he'd gotten from Leo -- was the same person as Sonja Dubois.  
       The Holocaust was a key part of our connection. What makes Sonja's story special is that she was  a Hidden Child of World War II. She is a Holocaust survivor, but in a different way from my parents.
---
         It is a fascinating story, and here is a brief version.
         Clara was the only child of Mauritz and Sophie Van Thyn, who lived in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. She was 21 months old in 1942 when the Germans rounding up Jewish people, ordered her parents to board a train headed for ... who knew where.
        Before boarding that train, the Van Thyns made a decision that would save Clara's life. They turned their daughter over to an artist friend and neighbor, Dolf Henkes, a non-Jew.
Cousins: Leo Van Thyn, left; Sonja Dubois, center, and me
 (photo taken in November 2000, Knoxville, Tenn.)
       Eventually, Dolf found foster parents -- also non-Jewish -- for the toddler, Willem and Elizabeth Van der Kaden. They forever would be "Pop" and "Mom" to the girl whose name was changed to Sonja.
             She was dark-haired, so she stood out among the more fair, mostly blond Dutch kids. The Van der Kadens, moved to a suburb, Schiedam, to escape Rotterdam, to be less conspicuous.
           It worked; they were never betrayed; the war ended, life went on; Sonja was raised in a Christian home, in Dutch schools. But in 1952, the Van der Kadens decided to immigrate to the United States, to New Jersey.
           It was at that point, when Sonja was told the real story, that her real parents had died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
          She grew up with this knowledge. It haunted her, but she never searched it out.
          She and Ron married in 1962 -- it's 50 years this year -- and had two daughters (and now five grandchildren -- "the little people," as Sonja loves to call them) and, through several moves, settled in Knoxville. They became deeply involved in the Presbyterian church.
           When we met in 2000, Sonja was still reluctant to discuss her long-ago past, her Jewish heritage, with people in Knoxville, with people in her church. She was still working through anger with her parents and her foster parents, who had moved to Johnson City, Tenn. -- an hour east from Knoxville. "Mom" was alive; "Pop" had died five years earlier.
            Sonja did not want to -- for lack of a better word -- betray "Mom's" trust or the faith of her church and its people by talking about her Jewish side in public.
           (Her story, however, had appeared in print -- in Rotterdam in 1985 -- in an article entitled, "Waar is Clara toch gebleven?" Rough translation: Whatever happened to Clara? The source for that story was the artist, Dolf Henkes.)
           Meanwhile, she and Ron had found a distant cousin, Bev, on the Internet by researching Sonja's family name on her mother's side. Then a search for the name "Van Thyn" turned up a note from Leo in Canada, explaining his genealogical project and asking for any information on possible family members.
            So Sonja found Leo, Leo found my folks and Elsa and then me. After Bea and I met Ron and Sonja, and heard her story, we all got together -- with my parents -- for Thanksgiving 2000. It was quite a gathering of Van Thyns in Knoxville.
 ---
           Once "Mom's" health declined, Sonja began making her story public in Knoxville, began making speaking appearances. Perhaps my mother's experience as a Holocaust education speaker for many years was an influence; I'd like to think so. But it also took encouragement from Ron, Leo, Bea and me. 
            She now is a regular visitor to schools in the Greater Knoxville area, and she enjoys that role. She has a power-point presentation of graphics and photos -- some of her as a girl in Holland, one of her parents, several of "Mom" and "Pop" -- and her speaking engagements have broadened, area-wise, through the Tennessee  Holocaust Commission.
             "It was hard at first," she told me this week, "but it soothed me. It became healing to pay homage to my family."
            She's talked of her resentment at being given away and being adopted, but now she'll say this:
“My parents didn't stand a chance at that time and they knew it. They did the bravest thing on earth."
---
            Leo Van Thyn's story and mine are similar in many ways. We were born in the same year in Amsterdam, both sets of parents were Holocaust survivors, we both loved sports and remember the same teams from those days in the 1950s, and his family came to Canada the year after we came to the U.S.
           He grew up in the Toronto area, was a school teacher for 30 years, coached girls soccer for 13 years, loves words and language (slightly different from our English, though), and can write e-mails even longer than mine.
         He is a Blue Jays/Maple Leafs fan, bless him, but is a fan of many American sports, and we've educated him on LSU football.
           Carol and Leo have been married only a bit longer than Bea and I have, so they're almost at 36 years. They have kept the Jewish faith and traditions; they have three kids and three young grandchildren, and here is one fantastic common thread: We each have daughters named Rachel.
            Their Rachel Van Thyn is a rabbinical student in New York City; our Rachel is now Rachel Smith, wife and mother and middle-school media (library) specialist.
          Through his research, Leo has found that we indeed are cousins, although it takes a few generations for the connection.
           We also share this: We consider Sonja -- Clara, if you will -- a cousin, part of the family, and we admire the Hidden Child who came from shadows to tell her story.
---
           For more on Sonja Dubois, I recommend this blog piece by a Knoxville-area writer:
http://hnkns.com/hidden-child-2/

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Dutch connection (Part II)

        Coenraad Rood was a survivor, in many, many ways.
        He was a Holocaust survivor, like my parents. He spent three years in 11 different German labor camps. He lost almost all of his immediate family in the concentration camps, then returned to Amsterdam after World War II. He tragically lost a little boy. His first wife died only two years after they came to the United States with their daughter.
        Coen just kept putting his life back together. He died last Oct. 1 at the ripe age of 94, a longtime resident of White Oak, Texas.
        He was "Ome Coon" (Uncle Coon) to us. He was one of the most interesting, most engaging people you could ever meet. He was a piece of work.
         Of all the Dutch people my family would find in the U.S. and Canada, Coen Rood was the one with the longest ties. He was two years older than my dad, and here's the significant part: He was my dad's older brother Hyman's best friend as boys. So my dad knew Coen -- Coentje he called him -- practically all his life.
          I have distinct memories of Coen, his wife Elisabeth (everyone called her Bep) and daughter  Marleen, a couple of years younger than me, in Holland. Somewhere, there is a nice picture of Marleen and me  as little kids.
           Coen was a master tailor; he had a tailor shop in Amsterdam before and after the war. When his family came to Shreveport -- and Sunset Acres -- in 1960, with the encouragment of my parents, he found work as a tailor. Given a chance to buy a tailor shop in Longview a couple of years later, he did so.
            And then Bep -- always haunted by the loss of their little boy -- died soon after they moved to White Oak, which is just outside Longview. Coen, always the resourceful one, found another woman in Holland a year or two later, talked her into coming to the U.S. with him, and they married.
            In a couple of years, she bore him another daughter, Josepha. And last year, as Coen's health declined, Jo gave him his first grandchild, Felix. Those pictures of Coen and Felix together brought tears to my eyes.
           My mother was an excellent seamstress, so she knew the inner workings of Coen's business. But she probably never put together suits the way Coen could. Marleen always marveled at his skills, and he tried to teach her as much as he could.
          Coen was an upbeat, hearty guy, with wavy hair and bushy eyebrows that rivaled Andy Rooney's. He always had loads of stories, and corny jokes, and a loud laugh. He could talk to anyone, and connect, like my dad could. And he could talk. He talked often about his war/camp experiences and, with my parents, about the old times and old friends in Amsterdam.
          He could out-talk my parents, which was quite an achievement. When they got together, it was time for me to go find a quiet place.
           And when my mother and Coen disagreed ... whoa. But he frustrated her; she could never outlast him. My dad, though, loved Coentje like a brother.
            Like my mother, Coen was interested in politics and, like her, he was interested in educating students and civic and church groups about the Holocaust. Like my dad, he loved professional wrestling, although his sports interests weren't as broad or deep as my dad's.
            And he took care of his wives and his daughters.
           When I saw Marleen at Coen's funeral, it was our first meeting in maybe 45 years. She reminded me of the day in Sunset Acres, at their house, when she bashed me in the head (and drew blood) with an Etch-a-Sketch we were fighting for. I got sweet revenge a couple of years later (spare you the details). She's been a special friend for as long as anyone I know.
            Coen made a life for himself and his family in the U.S., and our connection with him was easily the strongest of any of our Dutch connections here. I hope one day Felix will know what a great character his grandfather was.
             But there are a lot of Dutch connections in our experience. Read on.
---
               In the previous blog, I wrote about the Thaxton-deBruyne families. There's an extension to that. In 1961, Jack deBruyne's sister -- Johanna ("Annie") -- and her husband, Jules Vercruysse, also came from Holland to Sunset Acres, with Yvonne (who was my age and by attending school at Oak Terrace and Woodlawn made it two Dutch kids there) and Hans.
            And just as we came to Sunset Acres, so did Herman "Van" VanderWal and wife Ann -- and young Jan, the blondest little boy I'd ever seen until I saw our Jason. They moved in only a couple of blocks from us. Nanette was born a few years later.
            Then there was the van den Boom connection -- three brothers who came to the U.S. from Holland.
          Somehow, we found Marinus "Took" van den Boom and Rini -- and their kids Will, Patricia ("Tootsie") and Terry -- just a neighborhood over in Werner Park. Took's brother, Pete, came to Shreveport in 1960, eventually married Katie Cascio at St. John's Catholic Cathedral (we went to the wedding) and they wound up living in another closeby neighborhood, Garden Valley, with their two little boys, Pete and Mike. Yet another brother, Dick, also came to the U.S. and settled in the Seattle area.
 ---
            Coen Rood wasn't our first White Oak connection, though. We already knew the fabulous Gosschalk family there. They were so much fun to be around.
            Ben and Jetty Gosschalk had come to the U.S., in 1948, following Jewish German friends with whom they had worked in the Resistance together during the war. They first came to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, with son Joost and daughter Conny (my age), and another son, Bobby, was born in America.
           My dad met Ben (by then working in Longview), I believe, through a business contact. We became regular visitors to White Oak, which I soon learned had won a share of the Texas 1957 Class A  state football championship (7-7 title-game tie). So because Joost -- a young man to admire -- was a sub running back on that team, I became a Roughnecks fan.
           The Gosschalks' connection continued, too, when Ben's brother Bert, wife Dora and daughers Frieda and Josine moved to Shreveport in the early 1960s. Frieda, in fact, graduated from Byrd High in 1963. Both the girls were our house guests for a week at a time, and we loved their personalties.
---
        Just as with White Oak, another special place for us was Minden, Louisiana, 30 miles from Shreveport. There was a strong Dutch connection there, too. Again, it began with a remarkable story.       
         Leo Elshout was a tall, rangy Dutch soldier who was a part of Operation Market Garden -- which helped turn the war in September 1944. He met an American soldier, Tinsley Connell from Minden, and they became friends.
          After the war, with Connell's influence, Leo and his new bride Lenie immigrated to the U.S., to Minden.
          Five kids -- Jerry, Martin, Tommy, Maria ("Sister") and little Mike -- made it a lively place in Minden. And there was more to the connection. Joining Leo and Lenie there was her brother, Martin VandenOord, who we all called "Tini." I liked him because he was as much a fan of the Dutch national soccer team as I was. He actually was our first contact with the Elshout family.
            Martin surprised us all, too, when he went back to Holland and brought back a wife, Ria. Together they ran the Holiday Inn in Minden for years and they had a son, Marcel.
          We went to Minden, to the Elshouts' home, often in the late 1950s, and I soon learned it was a golden age for Minden High athletics ... "The Home of Champions," the city's people called it.
          A brand-new school building, a heated indoor swimming pool, state championship teams in women's swimming, football, basketball and baseball. George Doherty as the football coach; the great Jackie Moreland the star basketball player.
          In my newspaper career, I covered Minden teams often, and I always had a fondness for that town, and that school, and the people who ran it and coached there. So many people from Minden  would become friends at Louisiana Tech and later on. But it started with the Elshouts and "Tini."
---
        Our Dutch connections also included Jewish friends from Amsterdam, even Holocaust survivors like my parents, who came to North America -- Leon and Lidy Van Witsen (and son Freddy) to Toronto, Max and Greta Himel to Culver City, Calif.  There were recripocal visits.
         And on and on: A couple of Dutch priests who resided in Natchitoches; a dairy farmer in Logansport, where we visited a couple of times; an older couple named Lejeune, who lived south of the Shreveport city limits near Forbing.
        Yep, my folks were partial to anything Dutch. Elsa and I still are. We miss a lot of those people, especially our dear Bep, who made the greatest meatballs to ever go in chicken soup and died far too soon, and our sweet Ann VanderWal, who we lost at age 86 to a massive stroke just a year ago.
         All our old Dutch friends came here as we did, with hope and prayers, and a new start. I trust their experiences were as rewarding as ours.
         NEXT: The Van Thyn connections

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Going Dutch ... in America

          Their names were Vanderwal, van den Boom, Vandenberg, Elshout, VandenOord, Gosschalk, Van Witsen, Himel, deBruyne, Thaxton*, Vercruysse, Gosschalk, Rood, and even Van Thyn (a couple of times).
          Our Dutch friends (and distant relatives) in America and Canada. Bless them all.
          Like us, they made the journey across the ocean, looking for a new life, with hope for a better future, for peace and prosperity ... and with deep, fond ties to the little country they left behind.
          My family came to Shreveport as 1956 began and found a welcoming Jewish community. Little did we know then how many Dutch connections we would find, and how close they were.
        And how fortuitous that would be. It gave my parents -- who cultivated friends -- repeated touches of the home country; it gave them people who would be part of their lives forever.
        We were always making trips to visit those Dutch people, whether it was in our own neighborhood, Sunset Acres, were at one point six Dutch families resided, to other neighborhoods in or close to Shreveport, to Minden; Logansport; Natchitoches; White Oak, Texas; Bismarck, Ark.; and even as far away as Toronto and Culver City, Calif.
            I have such great memories of so many good times, so many good families. Gatherings on Easter Sundays at Lake Bistineau State Park, and on each New Year's Eve (for more than 25 years) at Jack and Louisa deBruyne's house.
           Can't possibly cover it all in this chapter.
---
           How it began: We had been in the U.S., for maybe six weeks, trying to learn the language and adjust to American ways when my dad -- working at A.A. Gilbert Pipe & Supply -- got word of a Dutch native working on the construction of the Beck Building in downtown Shreveport.
          His name was Ed Vandenberg. Someone told him how to contact my dad.
          He was a 50ish, balding, portly man -- a plasterer. He came to the house, with a daughter, Janet, a tall, thin, single 26-year-old who also lived and worked in Shreveport. They made the trip back to Arkansas every weekend.
          Ed Vandenberg had come to the U.S. from Holland with his family when he was 4, settled in Michigan, which was full of Dutch folks lived. He spoke and read Dutch fluently, amazing for having left the country as young as he did.
          Don't know about his formal education, but he had a brilliant mind. He was engaging, well-read, a story teller, knew the Bible thoroughly and would quote regularly from it, opinionated as hell, and his views on blacks were, well, a bit stringent (those were the times).
           He had settled in Arkansas, as we came to find out, on a piece of land outside of Arkadelphia, with his wife Tina, who ran a mom-and-pop grocery store. It was on a dirt road; in fact, you had to take several dirt roads, off Highway 7, toward Bismarck, to find their place. There were five kids; the youngest, Barbara ("Bobbie"), was a senior in high school.
            My parents were delighted to meet Ed and Janet, to be able to have a conversation in Dutch.
            We fell in love with the Vanderbergs.
             We made many, many a trip to their farm -- outhouse, cows, pigs, chickens, guineas -- over the next few years. The first time Ed drove us up there -- in the pouring rain -- he went about 80 mph all the way on two-lane roads, yelling at people going too slow in front of him ("you lullies," he would scream and then fly by them when he could).
            We'd go through Arkadelphia, finally get to the dirt roads, and they were so rough (Elsa and I called them "the bumpity-bumpity roads,") It was country, country, country.
             We adored the girls -- Janet, Virginia ("Ginny"), Bobbie -- and Aunt Tina gave us (Elsa and me) anything we wanted from the store ... candy, ice cream, whatever. Mom and Dad and Elsa would go to church with the family on Sundays; I stayed with Tina while she cooked a great Sunday meal.
            We'd get to help feed the animals, watch Bobbie wring chicken's necks (hello, dinner), and then settle in while Ed and my mother debated politics and racism. Talk about two people who had their minds set.
            They had a big white dog named Snowball. When we got our first dog, a white Spitz, he was named Snowball. Later they had a German shepherd, Rudy, the most obedient dog I've ever seen. Rudy-toot-toot, Ed called him.
            We were at home in that little house and that neat old country store. Ed would've made for a great movie character. The whole scene there was out of a movie script.
            Best thing was that they had books to read, including the World Book Encyclopedia. The yearly annuals of the late 1950s/early 1960s were my favorite books to read; I read them over and over. That's why the historical events of those years stuck with me.
            The Vandenbergs. I'd love to one day try to find that place again. Maybe they've paved over those roads by now.
---

Our dear friends Ann and
 Frank Thaxton (1995 photo)
          Go back to the first paragraph and notice the asterisk by Thaxton. That's Frank Thaxton II -- yes, he's it's an American name. But we made him an honorary Dutchman ... or he made himself one by marriage.
         He was a U.S. serviceman in Holland when he met Ann De Beer in The Hague -- Den Haag, in Dutch -- right after World War II. In 1946, when Ann was 18, they married in Holland, and she came to the U.S. to live with him. And they're still together, in Southern Hills.
        But the connection with us began in 1957 when they moved to Sunset Acres. What a happy connection it was.
          My parents were looking to move out of our first apartment in Shreveport, on Jordan Street, and asked our landlord -- a Jewish immigrant from Poland -- if he had a bigger place. He did, at 1124 Mildred Street, a corner place right off Southern Avenue. It had just been vacated.
          "If you keep the place as clean as the Dutch lady who has been living there," he told my mother, "you are welcome to move in."
          The Dutch lady. You think my mother wasn't delighted to hear that?
          The Dutch lady was Ann Thaxton.
           My mother immediately asked the landlord how she could get in contact with Ann.
           "She wanted to get together that day, I think," Ann said the other night, "but I had come home that day from gall bladder surgery. But I was as excited to hear from her as she was to talk to me."
          Soon they did get together. A friendship began that was as close as my parents had, other than the Gwins next door in our Sunset Acres years, and the Gilbert family and Mrs. Cahn whom I've written about previously. And my sister Elsa and young Frank III, who joined their mothers on a trip to Holland in 1962, were always close, and still are.
          "Ya'll were like family to us," Ann remembered. "We really didn't know any other Dutch people in town. I was just in seventh heaven when your mother called."
            But there were other Dutch people in town. In fact, two houses over from the Thaxtons in Sunset Acres were Jack and Louisa deBruyne. Louisa -- or Wies, as we called her -- was Ann's older sister; she and Jack had come to Shreveport in 1954.
            A year later we moved to Sunset Acres. Have to believe the Thaxtons influenced my parents in picking that neighborhood.
          NEXT: More of the Dutch connection

Friday, July 13, 2012

C'mon, Jer-ree!

     We call each other Jerry; we have for more than 30 years. There is a "Jerry" group, and there's a reason for it, and I'm not going to explain it because ... well, it's an inside joke. A joke.
      His name is not Jerry; it's John W. Marshall III, and he's been one of my best friends for almost 40 years.
      Most weeks we trade a dozen e-mails and a couple of phone calls. If there are mistakes in this blog, or in any of my blogs, rest assured that John W. will correct them.
      So I better not drop any words, and I need to get my facts straight, plus my grammar and my spelling. Because John W. will find the errors. And I appreciate it.
      He works for an oil and gas company in Houston -- that is, when he's not looking up all sorts of information on baseball or on Shreveport or on history -- but he could be an editor.
      He is one of the most fastidious, conscientious, neatest people I know.
      We trade "scoops," trying to find a piece of information the other won't know, or be the first to report significant breaking news (such as prominent deaths). We "blast" each other when the information is too simple or too repetitive. "It's obvious you have nothing to do" is often the admonishment.
       There are a lot of inside terms, such as "light," or "huh" or "hooking someone." Some of our friends will understand; most people won't. A real blast is "C'mon, Jer-ree."
John W., with young Julian
 (from Maureen Marshall's Facebook page)
       He turns 65 today, which explains the timing of this. He is -- as his Twitter profile says --  a father of four, grandfather of two, Catholic, accountant, choir member, baseball fan, wine enthusiast.
       Add Jesuit (Shreveport) High School and LSU-Shreveport graduate, Loyola (New Orleans) dropout, U.S. Navy veteran, minor-league umpire, Shreveport Captains general manager, and longtime high school basketball and high school/college baseball ump (and a darned good one, in my opinion). He loves cemeteries and bands, and pomp. That should about cover it, right, Jerry?
        It is the baseball fan part that mostly drew us together.
        We both love the game itself, the tradition, the heroes, the quirks of the rules and umpiring and scorekeeping, the facts and figures, the minute details, the many stars from Shreveport and Louisiana. We love stadiums, old and new, love to study what makes them unique and what is lacking.
        Baseball is the topic of 90 percent of our e-mail conversations.
        We actually were opposing scorekeepers in high school -- John W. for a state championship team at Jesuit in 1964 -- but the real friendship began one night at a Shreveport Captains' game at SPAR Stadium in 1973. We began talking about the newspaper -- it was near the beginning of my career at The Times -- and John W. had a lot of questions.
        Why did we not have box scores on the West Coast games? Why were the standings not up to date? Why were some box scores messed up? How come we no longer used box scores on high school games? Why this? Why that?
         All good questions, better questions than I got from a lot of readers. I tried to give good answers, without excuses. And as we talked in the next few weeks and months, the friendship grew.
         Soon I was visiting the Marshall house. His dad, John W. Marshall Jr., was a man who was interested in many things, an expert photographer, a sports fan, and an avid reader, too. Younger brother Tommy would become an outstanding writer and editor, but was then a hard-trying Jesuit High basketball player. The mother -- everyone called her Giffy -- was one of those friendly, upbeat people who moody guys like John W. and I envied.
        We shared the baseball books we liked, such as the great writer Charles Einstein's A Flag for San Francisco -- about the Giants' 1962 pennant team. Plus, the Marshalls got me hooked on hopscotch ice cream (mixed squares of vanilla and chocolate).
        Soon, too, John W. was keeping stats for me at high school football games, allowing me more time to actually watch the game so I could write about it. It was a big help.
        In 1975, John W. and I went on a baseball adventure -- a flying trip on Allegheny Airlines, which offered a special fare and conditions (fly before 9 a.m. every day; make a connection in Pittsburgh almost every day). Starting with a drive to Memphis, we went to eight towns (and ballparks) in 12 days ... Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore. Did some sightseeing, but mostly it was baseball, baseball and more baseball.
Two old friends lurking at
 Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth
         I'm sure John W. still has his notes from the trip. I do remember one good argument about a scoring play on an August night when we sat in the upper deck at mammoth Cleveland Municipal Stadium -- it was so cold because of the wind blowing off adjoining Lake Erie -- and Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles dove to his left for a fabulous stop, then got up and threw the ball away. Hit or error? Can't remember how it went, but we disagreed. We're still disagreeing.
         A year later, John W. lost his dad. It was so quick. Jack was only 55, and it was when I learned the meaning of the word virulent -- highly infective, malignant or deadly. A virulent cancer. I've hated that word ever since.
        We barely got through a couple of years together working with the Captains; that tested the friendship. I had to move to Hawaii to get away (just kidding, Jerry).
         We have endured, followed each other's families, rejoiced at the births and grieved at the deaths (Giffy passed away earlier this year). We have tried to figure out life, alternately encouraging and gently ribbing each other.
         I will give you this "scoop": Having John W. Marshall III -- Jerry -- for a close friend all these years has been a real blast, and not at all in a negative sense. And I ain't kidding.
         Have a bowl of hopscotch today, Jerry. It's the light thing to do.

         
         
           
       
          
    
     
     


     

Monday, July 9, 2012

Ken Guettler: 62 in '56

Ken Guettler
 (from Out of the Park
Baseball web site)
      The summer of '56 -- 56 years ago -- was the most memorable summer of Shreveport baseball, for one singular achievement.
      That year -- my family's first year in Shreveport, in the United States -- was the year Ken Guettler hit 62 home runs for the Shreveport Sports. In all the years of professional baseball in the city, there was no story to top that.
       So why write about it now? Because, 32 years later, it led to one of my favorite stories in my sportswriting career. More on that in a moment.
       The Shreveport Sports and Ken Guettler -- not the New York Yankees and Mickey Mantle -- were the biggest reason I fell in love with baseball. That year, 1956, was Mantle's greatest season -- the year he first had people talking about him breaking Babe Ruth's immortal record of 60 home runs in a season.
        But Mantle "settled" for 52 home runs that year. Guettler surpassed the magic number.
        Guettler's story was -- is -- remarkable. He never played in the big leagues. In fact, he never came close.
        But he was no one-year wonder. Eight times he led his league in home runs; no minor-league player ever topped that. He had been a legend at Portsmouth, Va., in the early 1950s; he became player-manager there, and the only reason he became available to be purchased by Sports owner Bonneau Peters before the '56 season was that the Piedmont League had folded.
        He wasn't that big (5-11, 190), he didn't run all that well, and he was an outfielder, but he couldn't throw well. Because of an ice hockey injury as a boy, he couldn't straighten out his right arm; it was shorter than his left.
        He wore thick glasses, really couldn't see well without them. In fact, those glasses mysteriously disappeared before a series in Houston, infuriating Sports manager Mel McGaha, who flat-out accused the Houston club of sabotage.
A familiar sight in 1956: Ken Guettler, right, congratulated
 by Shreveport Sports manager Mel McGaha after
 one of his 62 home runs (Texas League photo).
        But he could hit the ball, and hit it a long way. And in '56, at age 29, in his 12th minor-league season, he was magic. He got to be known as Kenneth the Menneth. Writers of the day described him as "the little guy with muscles."
        He hit a home run for Shreveport on Opening Day, then three more the next day. From May 7 to May 29, he hit 18 home runs; he had 25 by the end of May.
        They kept going out of Shreveport's Texas League Park and other TL parks through June and July and, on Aug. 12, with his sixth consecutive game with a home run, Guettler hit No. 56, breaking the league record of 55 that had been held by Clarence "Big Boy" Kraft of Fort Worth since 1924.
        There were 31 games remaining in the season. Imagine that.
        By the time, Guettler was done, he led the TL in homers, RBIs (143) and runs (115), batted .293 ... and -- surprise -- was named the league's Most Valuable Player.
          But here's a couple of strange twists: (1) He didn't even lead the minor leagues in home runs that year ... Dick Stuart -- later to be known in the majors as Dr. Strangleglove (he was awful defensively) -- hit 66 for Lincoln (Neb.) in the Western League; and (2) his great year didn't help the Sports much (they finished seventh in the TL, 16 games below .500, 27 games out of first) and seventh in attendance (an average of 1,115 fans per home game).
         And it was his last great season. Mr. Peters, the Sports' owner who was an independent operator (meaning the team didn't have a major-league tie-in; he bought and sold players on his own), sold him to the Milwaukee Braves' organization.
         But in 1957, Guettler was outmatched in Triple-A (at Wichita in the American Association), then hurt a shoulder diving for a fly ball, wound up back in Double-A (Atlanta, Southern Association) and back in the Texas League the next year (in Dallas). But he wasn't the player he had been. Three seasons -- and only 12 home runs -- after Shreveport, he was done.
         Maybe these days, with 14 more teams than existed then (with 350 more major-league players) and, with the designated hitter, he might've made the big leagues. As it was, he was simply Shreveport's Greatest Player.
           I really don't remember him that well; I was too young and too new to baseball that summer. But I certainly remembered the name, and the feat, and I'm sure I saw him hit a few home runs.
          My friend Jon Pat Stephenson remembers that Guettler "hit high fly balls, very high, and they just carried and dropped over the fence."
          Texas League Park, later to be called SPAR Stadium, was mostly a hitters' park, but home runs weren't that cheap. In the 1950s, the outfield fence was double-decked, so it had to be about 20 feet high -- which meant not many line drives would go out. Guettler had the right stroke, though.
          "He hit very few cheap home runs," Mel McGaha, the player-manager that year, told Rick Woodson for a Shreveport Journal column in the 1970s. "He hit the kind of fly balls that looked like the outfielders would catch. But pretty soon the outfielder would have his back against the fence and the ball would keep going."
          His legend would keep going, too.
          He retired from baseball after the '59 season, settled with his family in Jacksonville, Fla., and became a postman. As far as anyone knew, he never came back to Shreveport. He died in his sleep of a heart attack on Christmas Day, 1977, at age 50. 
---
         In February 1988 -- during my one year as sports editor of The Shreveport Times -- I received a note (a postcard, I believe) from Selma Pett of Bay City, Mich., Ken Guettler's hometown. Selma was Ken's sister.
         "Inasmuch as we plan to be in the Shreveport area soon, could you give us information on how to find the Shreveport Texas League Stadium?" Mrs. Pett wrote. "We have never been there and would like to see the stadium as we pass through. It would mean a lot to us."
          It meant a lot to me, too.
          I called Selma and told her I would be honored to do it. She and her husband, Ollie, were on their way to Arizona on a baseball spring training trip when they came to town. I carried them to the place where Ken Guettler had that magical year in '56 -- it was a shell of a ballpark by then -- and then took them out to Fair Grounds Field, then only two years old.
          The resulting story, as I said, was one I'll always cherish. Not that it was that well done, but because it was on a topic -- a name -- I had always treasured. It was a story that found me, rather than me finding it.
          "He talked often of Shreveport and the year he had here," Mrs. Pett told me that day. "He was very proud of having done what he did here."
   
          For more on Ken Guettler, here is the link to a story on mlb.com: http://www.milb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20070402&content_id=198369&vkey=news_milb&fext=.jsp