Almost 400 high school baseball teams start the University Interscholastic League playoffs this week in hopes of reaching the state tournament.
It will be a magical three or four weeks for teams and their fans who reach Austin, which was the case for the Stephen F. Austin Broncos when they won the 1957 Class 3A title. That was 64 years ago, but the players fondly remember the buzz.
“When we won state, you could not buy gas in the city of Bryan,” outfielder Henry “Bully” Batten said. “[The caravan] was six and a half miles long with the sheriff and police chief leading it. The DPS boys came up on the backside going to Austin for the games.”
Both trips had a happy ending. The Broncos eked out 5-4 victory over Garland in eight innings in the semifinals, then beat Cuero 6-2 for the title.
SFA (20-4) dominated the all-tournament team, earning half the selections. Senior first baseman Dickie Hickerson, senior shortstop Joe Burt, junior third baseman John Rocha and outfielders junior Lloyd Sheffield and Batten, a senior, rounded out the picks.
SFA won the title despite ace pitcher Joe Brooks Thompson hurting his arm in the regional sweep of Bay City. Thompson threw a no-hitter and struck out six in a 6-0 victory. Six days later, the curveball specialist struck out 12 in a 2-0, 12-inning victory.
With Thompson nursing a sore arm, Jack Stockton started against Garland and relieved against Cuero. Stockton didn’t win a game at state, but he was the team’s most valuable player. He pitched six strong innings against Garland, allowing the Broncos to rally from a 4-1 deficit.
Roy Carpenter had to throw the last two innings after the umpires claimed SFA coach Peck Vass asked for a pitching change, though Vass and the Bronco argued that wasn’t the case. The Broncos survived the hiccup, and Thompson started the next day against Cuero. The Broncos gave him a big lead, but he was constantly in trouble. He was pulled in the sixth inning with runners on second and third and a 3-0 count on the batter.
“I managed to throw three straight strikes,” Stockton said. “I remember my first five pitches that inning were strikes. For some reason, I could do no wrong out there.”
A slider was typically his best pitch, but his curveball was exceptional as he pitched two hitless innings.
“I remember one batter swung at a ball that bounced in front of the plate,” Stockton said. “Balls were just going in there and dropping. I’ve never done that. That’s the only time I ever did that. I never pitched that good in my whole life.”
The 1957 team was SFA’s third to make the state tournament. The other teams (1952 and ’53) lost in the semifinals. The 1957 baseball team capped one of the most successful athletics seasons in SFA history, winning the school’s fourth district title of the school year. As baseball players, they accomplished many firsts.
“The seniors on that team, we were the first 12-year-olds on the first Little League team here in Bryan-College Station,” said Hickerson, who went on to play at Texas A&M and was in the Baltimore Orioles organization for seven years. “Bryan had six teams and College Station had two teams. There was an American League and National League, each divided into four teams. My dad was a coach of one of the National teams. We built the first ballpark over there right next to Travis Park. We played one year in Little League, then two years in junior teenage and then we went into American Legion. We built that Legion field over by the American Legion Hall. The parents and kids all built it together.”
They also built the first Little League field.
“Mr. Williamson donated the land to us,” Batten said. “Us kids and our parents went out there and built the ballpark, maintained the ballpark, ran the ballpark. The mothers would sit up in the stands for the first game their sons were in, and then when their sons finished their games, they’d go down and work in the concession stand for the second game.”
The 1957 SFA team set many state tournament records at what was the ninth state tournament, which was the first time it included a second division (4A and 3A). Sheffield’s three stolen bases in a game remains the current 4A record. Bryan’s eight steals against Garland and 11 for the tournament also remain 4A records.
SFA almost didn’t make it to the postseason, needing to win its last two district games. SFA avenged an 8-3 first-round loss to Brenham with a 5-1 road victory as Thompson threw a three-hitter. The Broncos then beat Huntsville 5-4 with two runs in the bottom of the seventh at Travis Park. Bill Cartwright tied it with a pinch-hit triple and scored on an error.
“I hit it right down the left-field line,” Cartwright said. “Brooks [Thompson] scored, and coming around second the throw comes in and they overthrew the catcher and it bounced off the concrete, and I scored.”
SFA’s postseason had a sour start as Waco La Vega scored two runs in the first inning and held on for a 2-1 victory at Travis Park in the opener of the best-of-3 bi-district series. SFA bounced back to even the series with an 8-4, 13-inning victory at La Vega, which loaded the bases in the 12th with one out but didn’t score. La Vega ace Ken Makowski threw 20 straight innings, while Thompson, the loser in the opener, pitched six shutout innings of relief after La Vega tied the game in the bottom of the seventh. SFA easily won the rubber game 7-2.
“Those were our toughest games,” Hickerson said. “Nobody else ever came that close to us.”
SFA’s exploits that spring overshadowed an amazing season by A&M Consolidated. The Tigers (16-7) beat Belton 3-0 in a one-game 2A regional playoff as left-hander Alton Arnold (10-4) threw a two-hitter. In 2A at that time, regionals was as far as teams could advance.
Arnold struck out 203 in 96 innings that season and didn’t allow an earned run in his last 31 innings. Edgar Feldman, who had two hits against Belton, was the right-handed complement of Arnold. Feldman and Arnold each threw shutouts in a doubleheader sweep of Elgin in the regional semifinal series as Consol bounced back from losing the opener 3-2 in 11 innings despite Arnold striking out 27.
Bryan and Consol managed to play that year in the semifinals of the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce tournament. Bryan scored six runs in the first en route to an 11-5 victory.
“Baseball was the No. 1 national sport at that time,” said Batten, adding that they benefitted from a semipro team of the Brooklyn Dodgers playing at Travis Park along with the Bryan Air Force fielding a team.
“We got to play against those guys,” Batten said. “We’re 16, 17 and 18 years old and we’re playing against real semipros. All they did in the Air Force was play baseball. Back in those days, we wore real cleats. They’d sit there in the dugout and get a file out and file their damn cleats and look at us.”
The youth couldn’t get enough baseball back then.
“In American Legion, we’d go down to Beaumont and play six games on Saturday and would drive over to Galveston and play two games there Sunday, staying with the firemen in each town,” Batten said.