TIME LONG AGO stole their youth, but it never dimmed their enthusiasm.
Not even 50 years could do that.
Members of Tulsa's 1963 Babe Ruth League World Series championship team gathered for their 50th reunion at a midtown restaurant. Good food and great memories and tall tales of short pitchers filled up the night.
They were adolescent boys when manager Charles "Bud" Barkley first gathered together his all-star squad of 14- and 15-year-olds. Now they're grandfathers, lawyers, coaches, plumbers, dentists, some retired, some not. "A lot of us are still here," said Don Jernigan, the reunion's chief organizer and an outfielder on that amazing team. "We're close. We just stayed together and played well together. That's what made us so good as a team."
In all, seven of the 14 players showed up. One, Bob Daily, died in 1970, the day he graduated from the University of Arkansas. Nobody could find another. The five others simply couldn't make it this time. "We're here tonight. Close then, close now," said Mike Barkley, the manager's son and a middle infielder. "We didn't have dissension. There were no egos. No one was better than another, and no one was less than another. We really had a strong team."
Since their first reunion 25 years ago at Bud Barkley's home - a total surprise, and he "bawled like a baby," said infielder Jerry Hill - they've gotten the gang back together every few years. But this recent reunion was "a special deal," said catcher Rick Amilian. "I haven't seen a lot of these guys in 15-20 years."
In Farmington, New Mexico, where the Babe Ruth League World Series was staged, Babe Ruth's widow herself attended the annual pre-tournament banquet, and Yankees star Lefty Gomez was the guest of honor. Pepper Martin and Bob Feller also attended.
Tulsa, comprised mostly of sophomores from Central and Rogers, became the first Babe Ruth team to go 14-0 in the state tournament (played in Tulsa), the regional tournament (in El Paso, Texas) and the World Series.
Two major elements led to their success.
In the World Series opener against the local Farmington club, pitcher Jim Mastin only allowed a leadoff home run, then pitched a shutout the rest of the way. Farmington's pitcher, meanwhile, was cruising with a no-hitter going into the seventh until he mishandled a leadoff grounder up the middle by Bob Banfield. Jernigan then broke up the no-hitter with a single to right. Farmington retired the next two Tulsa hitters, but Amilian lofted a fly ball to right field that was dropped. Both base runners scored and Tulsa, the home team, prevailed 2-1.
"I think the kid probably lost it in the lights," Banfield said. Said Amilian, "That was probably the first time in my entire life, from sixth grade on up, that I ever hit a ball to right field."
The other key was pitcher Eli Gourd.
Tulsa crushed Klamath Falls, Oregon, in the semifinals, as the left-handed Gourd - at 14 the youngest player on the team, and at about 5-foot-4, the shortest player on the team - took over. Gourd gave up only four hits in a 9-2 victory.
"Very crafty," Amilian said. "They used to call him Sly Eli. He had a curve and slider that just seemed like major league. He threw with pretty good velocity, too, but he threw a lot of junk, and he could control it."
That victory set up a championship showdown against mighty Puerto Rico. Although having lost earlier in the tournament and coming through the losers bracket, Puerto Rico was a physically imposing favorite over the Tulsans.
"They all had beards," Mike Barkley cracked. "They were probably driving cars to the stadium. But we took 'em out."
Said Amilian, "I turn around and this little kid goes, 'Come on, Daddy!' I'm going, 'Daddy?' I mean, these guys were big."
Before a crowd of 8,350, Gourd held Puerto Rico to six hits in a 9-0 championship performance. "I had a great coach," Gourd said. "Mike's dad taught me the curveball, the dropball that I threw. He was just a wonderful man.
"The things that he taught me were real simple. He taught me muscle memory. Once you practice it enough, it's there. There were little techniques that Bud taught me that, when I wasn't doing so well, I would just think about those things."
Gourd made the final out, flipping a ground ball to Banfield at first base, but there was no dog pile. "We kind of went crazy," said center fielder Gary Marrs, who got things rolling with a third-inning home run. "But the other team didn't come out to shake hands. They had started getting real aggressive and stuff when they got behind - matter of fact, I hate to say this, but they came out of the dugout with bats after the game. They were wanting to put a whipping on somebody."
One reason that Tulsa team was so good: All 14 players either eventually played college sports or had scholarship offers.
Amilian was a linebacker at Oklahoma State and roomed with Jon Kolb. Barkley played football at Kansas State. Banfield played basketball for Eddie Sutton at Southern Idaho (he now coaches girls basketball at Mannford). Hill was a two-time state champion wrestler and played baseball at OU. Marrs played baseball at NEO and Northeastern State. Jernigan and others played at NEO. Gourd said he had offers from Oral Roberts and Tulsa, but declined college baseball, figuring now he probably became burned out.
"We take a bus ride home 18 hours, get home the next morning, and Gary Marrs and I had to go at 6 a.m. to report for football practice," Barkley said. "So we never had a chance to ever really enjoy this."
Just four years after the 1959 Tulsa Babe Ruth team, led by future major leaguer Rich Calmus, won the World Series, the '63 Tulsa club was made up mostly of players off Bud Barkley's Northside Civitans team. He hand-picked the rest from teams sponsored by First National Bank, Murphy Safety Switch and the VFW.
Troy Money is the team's the last living coach but, at 85, players say he's recently become ill and was unable to attend the reunion. Hill, who homered in the semifinals, said Money was a big contributor to the postseason run.
"He was my coach all year long with First National Bank," Hill said. "He was really a stern coach and very excitable."
Not far from where Tulsa's Babe Ruth Leaguers used to play at old Virgin Street Field - lovingly hand-manicured by groundskeeper Frank "Red" Anderson, now obliterated under a highway overpass - Jernigan's billboard company recently erected a display north of downtown, depicting a black-and-white photograph of a bunch of 15-year-olds holding up a giant "World Champions" pennant.
"I never did think we had that great a team, but everybody was just Steady Eddie," Hill said. "We only made two errors all through the state tournament, the regional tournament and the World Series."
The talent was there, no question. But long after athletic ability has shriveled in the dungeons of time, character remains. On this team, that's as plain in 2013 as it was in 1963.
"Everybody in this group would give you the shirt off their back," Gourd said. "Except for Barkley. Mike would probably just buy you a new shirt." Said Marrs, "We were all blue-collar kids that didn't have much, but we were scrappy. And good athletes."
Manager: Charles "Bud" Barkley
Coaches: Troy Money, Richard Burden
Director: Benton Fields
Batboy: Mike McHugh