Baseball is a game that usually generates a team feeling among the players, particularly as the level of competition rises. The hard work in practice, the mental preparation, the clutch situations in games, and the time spent together on and off the diamond all lead to a spirit of camaraderie. That team feeling often lingers long after events of the season are only memories.
But seldom does any team experience the lasting camaraderie which the Michigan State College (the name was changed to university in 1955) baseball team felt after winning the 1954 Big Ten Championship, winning the National Collegiate Athletic Association Regional Playoff, and finishing third in the NCAA World Series.
Those Spartans still hold a reunion every fifth year. Starting in 1964, ten years after winning Michigan State's first Big Ten baseball championship, a group of more than twenty players returned to East Lansing and Old College Field, their field of dreams.
"Our 1954 team did not have super stars like some other Spartan baseball teams have had," pitcher Bud Erickson explained. "But what we had was chemistry. That chemistry propelled us to the Big Ten Championship and to the College World Series.
"As evidence of this chemistry, our 1954 team has held regular reunions longer than any athletic team in Michigan State history. We are all just glued together."
Following an 11-17 record and a seventh-place finish in the Big Ten for 1953, the '54 Spartans, coached by John Kobs and assistant Frank Pellerin, produced an impressive regular season record of 25-10 and one tie. State led the conference in hitting with an excellent average of .313.
Further, after winning the NCAA Regionals over Ohio University, MSC traveled to Omaha and finally lost to eventual national champion Missouri by one run.
Three of those Spartans later made the major leagues - although few baseball fans would recognize their names:
enjoyed the longest big league career. The tall right-hander spent three seasons with the Washington Senators. Pitching in 61 games, about two-thirds of those in relief, he produced a lifetime record of 9-10 with a 4.34 ERA.
The others had what big leaguers call a "cup of coffee." Bob Powell, a 6'1" outfielder with a rifle arm and power in his swing, became a "bonus" rookie with the Chicago White Sox from mid-1955 to the spring of 1957. The prevailing major league bonus rule meant that Powell had to remain on Chicago's roster and could not be sent to the minors until two years elapsed.
Ironically, while the ball club signed Powell
for more than $30,000, he never got a single chance to bat. Chicago used him in two games as a pinch-runner, and he scored one run. Deeply disappointed with his lack of opportunity, Bob
left the game entirely. After obtaining his release from the Chisox in the spring of 1957, he began a successful career in civil engineering.
Tom Yewcic, a gifted all-around athlete and an excellent catcher, worked his way through the Detroit Tiger farm system. Called up in June 1957, he only got to bat once for Detroit and struck out. After that season, Tom
spent three years in the minors before switching to football. Also an All-American quarterback at Michigan State, he served as punter for the AFC's New England Patriots from 1961 to 1967.
In addition, seven other athletes from that excellent State team played pro baseball. Catcher Dan Brown, pitcher Dick Idzkowski, first baseman Chuck Mathews, outfielder Jack Risch, second baseman George Smith, outfielder Bob Williams, and third baseman Jack Zeitler all played one or more years in the minor leagues.
Thanks to his outstanding career as an outfielder in the Flint, Michigan, amateur City Baseball League, Ray Collard has been inducted into his hometown's Sports Hall of Fame. Also, pitcher Bud Erickson, who joined the Air Force after graduation, won more than 20 games in two seasons of service ball - and he competed in the Air Force World Series.
The quality of those Spartan performers was evident when eight made first, second, or third-team All-Big Ten in 1954. The first teamers were Chuck Mathews (MSC's batting champ with a mark of .352), Jack Risch, and Tom Yewcic. Shortstop John Matsock and Bud Erickson made the second team. And George Smith, Bob Powell, and Ed Hobaugh
were named to the all-conference third team.
With snow still on the ground, the Spartan dream season began in February 1954. In order to escape the frigid Michigan winter, State's baseball squad began spring training indoors at the college's Stock Pavilion. After a month of hitting practice and drills, the Kobsmen departed for a 10-day "spring break" of exhibition games with college and military service teams in North and South Carolina.
The Spartans collected three wins, over Duke, North Carolina, and Fort Eustis, lost four games, traveled more than 2,000 miles, and shared once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
Before the first game, senior Jack Zeitler, the captain, with his teammates sitting on the bleachers, gave an emotional pep talk. His theme was, "We can win the Big Ten."
Recalled Bill Hopping (who later suffered an ankle injury that limited his playing time), "Slowly our initial skepticism begin to turn into a solid reachable goal. While there were numerous factors that went into the season, I'm convinced that John's first speech set the tone and made the winning possible."
By April 12, when the regular season was about to begin, John Kobs, who had coached State's varsity nine since 1925, told the college's newspaper, the Michigan State News, that his most experienced players included:
Jack Zeitler, third base and team captain: the 5'9" senior from Buffalo, New York, was a two-year letterman, a fine fielder, and the on-the-field sparkplug
Chuck Mathews, first base: the 6'0" junior from Rosebush, Michigan, led the 1953 Spartans in hitting with a mark of .326 overall and .386 in the Big Ten
Bill Hopping, second base: a 5'10" senior from Detroit, Bill was a good infielder who had played most of 1953 as an alternate shortstop
Jack Risch, one of two married Spartans: the 6'0" senior from Milwaukee, was considered one of the best hitting and fielding outfielders in college ranks
Bob Powell, outfield: a muscular 6'1" junior from Flint with a rifle arm, he was the team's strongest player and a threat to hit the long ball
Chuck Bodary, outfield: a 5'11" junior from Flat Rock, Michigan, Chuck was an all-around athlete who could also play the infield
Tom Yewcic, catcher: a 5'11" senior, Tom was an excellent athlete from Conemaugh, Pennsylvania, and a Spartan quarterback
Yewcic, in effect a baseball quarterback, was expected to catch a strong group of pitchers. The mound corps featured 5'10" senior Bud Erickson, from White Plains, New York, the top returning right-hander who posted a Big Ten ERA of 1.42 in 1953; lanky Dick Idzkowski, of Hammond, Indiana, a hard-throwing 6'3" junior who was State's number two hurler the previous spring; and sophomore Ed Hobaugh.
Other pitchers included Bill "Junkman" Saffran, a 6'1" junior from Boyne City, Michigan, who threw an assortment of breaking stuff; Jack Wenner, a 6'0" sophomore from East Lansing, the team's only southpaw; Chuck Gorman, at 6'2" and age 23, a senior righthander from Lansing who was the nephew of Coach Kobs; and Bill Mansfield, a 6'0" sophomore from Madison, Wisconsin, the son of the University of Wisconsin's baseball coach and also John Kobs' nephew.
The shortstop position was open. Last year's shortstop, Stan Turner, State's first black baseballer, had signed with the Cleveland Indians. Junior John Matsock, the 1953 Spartan football quarterback and team MVP, had an excellent arm, good range, and strong hitting skills. The 5'11" Matsock, who became State's top clutch hitter, missed the spring trip but looked to be the best prospect at short. Sophomore Earl Morrall, the number-two quarterback in 1953 who became a longtime star in the NFL, had been a three-sport standout at Muskegon High. Morrall, a 6'1" all-around athlete, was expected to push Matsock at shortstop, once he gained game experience.
Besides the projected starters, Kobs had many talented underclassmen that would compete for starting positions. Sophomore George Smith, a 5'9" All-City second baseman from Detroit, would likely become a regular after gaining experience in Big Ten play. Sophomore Jim Sack, a 5'6" hustler from Grand Rapids, was the only player on the team besides Smith to wear glasses. A good left-handed hitter, Sack could play third as well as the outfield. Ray Collard, a 6'0" sophomore from Flint who batted right-handed, had won the Ki-Ki Cuyler MVP Award in the 1952 Michigan American Legion Tournament.
Michigan State enjoyed excellent depth. Dan Brown, a 6'0" senior from Charlotte, Michigan, was a transfer from Yale who shuttled between catcher and left field in 1953. Brown offered Kobs, who liked to platoon his players, another left-handed hitter who could play different positions.
Likewise, Ron Stead, a 6'2" sophomore from Midland, Michigan, was a left-handed batting infielder with good all-around skills. Also, left-handed hitting John Polomsky, a 6'2" former Marine and a Korean War veteran from Cleveland, Ohio, was fighting for an outfield spot.
The Spartans had many first-rate players on the 25-man roster. Before the season was over, every single man made one or more major contributions to the team.
"Besides talent, we had a lot of guys who were extremely competitive, aggressive, and intense," Jack Risch recalled. "Bud Erickson comes to mind. The other hitters will probably agree that their toughest at-bats in the whole year came in the cage at the Stock Pavilion against Erickson. He wanted to get you out in batting practice! He might be the toughest competitor that I've ever met.
"That doesn't slight other tough guys, such as Charley Mathews, George Smith, Ray Collard, Jim Sack, and Dan Brown. We had a car-load of guys who would fight you over the last pad of butter in a restaurant!"
On Saturday, April 17, State opened with a 4-2 win at Old College Field. Bud Erickson, Dick Idzkowski, and Chuck Gorman combined on a four-hitter. In the sixth inning, John Matsock doubled home State's final two runs. When the season ended, Matsock was MSC's top run-producer with 30 RBI in 28 games (four Spartans tied for second with 15 RBI each).
On Wednesday, April 21, State dumped the University of Detroit, 9-3. Matsock went 4-for-4, while Bill Mansfield, Ed Hobaugh, the winning pitcher, and Bill Saffran yielded 3 runs on 6 hits.
According to the Big Ten schedule for 1954, each university would play a single game on Friday and a double-header on Saturday, with the second game of the twin bill lasting seven innings.
On Friday, April 23, the Spartans, fueled by Erickson's two-hitter, launched their title run with a 4-0 win over Northwestern.
Moving to Madison, State battled Wisconsin to a 3-3 tie in 13 innings. Both teams scored three runs by the fourth inning. Dick Idzkowski pitched the first three innings. Chuck Gorman entered in the fourth and preserved the tie until rain ended the game.
Dan Brown recollected, "My Dad always said that if it weren't for the weather and Charlie Gorman, we wouldn't have won the Big Ten Championship. Charlie's relief pitching kept us in the game against Wisconsin, until the weather took over."
The following weekend State played three games at home, stopping Illinois, the conference's defending cochampion, 17-3, on Friday. Ray Collard led the 17-hit attack with a triple, four singles, and six RBI. On Saturday MSC dumped Purdue in the first game of the double-header, 12-0, as Bob Powell
and Dan Brown homered. But in the afternoon tilt, the Boilermakers handed the Spartans their first loss, 5-2.
State quickly bounced back. On Wednesday the Spartans won a non-conference game against Notre Dame, 8-1, as Powell
contributed a homer and two singles.
Hitting the road, State took over first place on Friday by beating Iowa, 6-3. On Saturday the Spartans stopped Minnesota twice, 8-5 and 6-2. In the opener, Ed Hobaugh
won his fourth game. Yewcic went 3-for-4 with a homer to lead an 11-hit parade, while Powell
and Brown also slugged home runs. Erickson notched his third Big Ten win in the second game, aided by run-scoring hits from Powell, Yewcic, Collard, Brown, and Zeitler's sacrifice fly,
State, now 6-1 and hitting .305 in the Big Ten, confronted the University of Michigan in a crucial three-game series on May 14-15. MSC needed to win twice. On Friday at Old College Field, Powell jump-started the victory with his two-run first inning home run, Hobaugh pitched a complete game, and State won, 6-4.
When a two-out error in the fifth opened the door to three unearned Michigan runs, Coach Kobs went out to calm his pitcher.
"John Kobs came to the mound during the Michigan game (a tight game)," Hobaugh reminisced, "and his advice was, 'Ed, get them out.'
"It really choked me up. I still think about that visit to the mound."
In two slugfests on Saturday in Ann Arbor, State won the first game, 8-4, but dropped the nightcap, 9-8. In the second game MSC used five pitchers, but neither Dick Idzkowski nor Jack Wenner could stop Michigan from scoring five runs in the seventh.
In the last weekend of the regular season, MSC won the Big Ten by sweeping the last three games. Playing at home on Friday, State stopped Indiana, 5-2. Erickson settled down after yielding two runs in the top of the first, and Spartan batters pounded out twelve hits for the third straight game.
On Saturday MSC needed one win to tie for first place with Ohio State and Wisconsin (both won on Friday), and two victories to claim the title. With ace receiver Tom Yewcic
out with a broken index finger, Dan Brown handled the catching.
Before a season-high crowd of 2,635 fans, Ed Hobaugh
won his fourth Big Ten tilt, 6-4, thanks to a strong ninth inning from Chuck Gorman. MSC committed five errors to four by the Buckeye nine. But the home team rapped 14 hits, including four singles by Jack Risch and three by George Smith. The Spartans won by scoring four times in the seventh, capped by Hobaugh's RBI single.
The game was marred by a fight between Chuck Mathews and OSU shortstop Howard "Hopalong" Cassaday, a star halfback. As it turned out, Coach Kobs had to replace Mathews at first base with Bob "Heel-and-Toe" Williams. Not known for his speed, Williams belted two long home runs and drove in three runs in the second game.
Upon crossing the plate and receiving the congratulations of his teammates after his second homer, big Bob quipped, "Boy, I sure am getting into a rut!"
MSC won the nightcap, 6-5, in eight innings. Dick Idzkowski pitched five frames, Walt Godfrey two, and Bill Mansfield set OSU down in order in the eighth. Trailing 5-3 with one out in the bottom of the seventh, MSC loaded the bases on three walks. Jack Zeitler bounced to the shortstop for an apparent game-ending double play.
But the hustling Zeitler beat the relay and MSC scored twice. Hobaugh scored from third, and George Smith surprised the Buckeye infield by flying all the way around from second and sliding home for the tying run!
After Mansfield retired the Buckeyes in the extra inning, the Spartans rallied once more. Collard struck out, Brown lined a single to center, and Williams walked.
On the second pitch, Powell, who had fanned earlier with a runner in scoring position, swung hard and looped an RBI single over the shortstop's head into left field. When Brown scored from second, Michigan State had the victory and the championship.
"It stung my hands terrible," Bob told the Flint Journal afterward. "I'm still shaking. It wasn't a solid hit but I guess it was good enough to win." Embarrassed to be the hero, the modest Powell produced his biggest hit in State's biggest season.
The '54 Spartans had jelled into a championship team. The hitters topped the conference with an above-.300 average all season. Ron Stead paced all batsmen with a .370 mark, and he contributed 12 RBI. Chuck Mathews led the regulars at .352 with 14 RBI, Jack Risch averaged .319 with 15 RBI, John Matsock hit .310 with 30 RBI, Tom Yewcic
batted .305 with 12 RBI, and Ray Collard hit .301 with 15 RBI.
Despite averages, almost every Spartan who started or played as a substitute delivered one or more big hits. Seldom-used players such as Don Moffat, a catcher who played in one game (going 1-for-4), flychaser Chuck Bodary who got into six games (2-for-11), and pitchers Bill Saffran (9 2/3 innings) and Bud Rollier (6 2/3 innings) played tough in the twice-a-week intrasquad battles. Catcher Bob Reising, who fractured his index finger after the spring trip (he hit a two-run double against Fort Eustis), missed most of the regular season.
When hitting fell off, State's pitching proved tough. Bud Erickson posted a 5-0 Big Ten mark, followed by Ed Hobaugh at 4-0. But every hurler on the squad contributed, including in the intrasquad games.
As John Kobs often said, "We have a very good team."
In the NCAA District IV Regional Playoff at Old College Field on Memorial Day, May 31, State outslugged Mid-America Conference champion Ohio University, 14-10. But in the second game, Ohio's Jack Mehl blanked hot-hitting MSC, 7-0.
In the title match on Tuesday, State prevailed, 5-3, in a game shortened by rain to five innings. The Spartans collected six hits and scored five runs in the first three innings, capped by Risch's two run homer in the third. Walt Godfrey pitched the first four innings, allowing three runs. Ed Hobaugh pitched the fifth, walking the bases full with one out but retiring the final two hitters. After a second rain delay, the game was called.
During the middle of the second year of Dwight Eisenhower's Presidency, the Spartans competed in what is still MSU's only College World Series. At Omaha in the double-elimination tourney, MSC blasted Massachusetts, 16-5, stopped Arizona, 2-1, lost to tiny Rollins College, 5-4, beat Rollins in 10 innings, 3-2, and fell to eventual NCAA champion Missouri, 4-3.
Playing the squad's fifth game in five days, Hobaugh pitched a strong game against Missouri while his teammates produced three runs. In the top of the ninth with the score tied, 3-3, State tried to rally with two outs, as Bill Hopping doubled to right and stole third. But pinch-hitter Ron Stead, who helped beat Arizona with a pinch double, popped out to end the threat.
In the bottom of the ninth with none out and runners on first and third, thanks to a controversial call on a missed third strike on the second hitter (Yewcic
thought it was a foul tip), Hobaugh yielded the game-winning RBI on a single to opposing pitcher Emil Kammer.
Still, the Spartans enjoyed a great season, going 25-10-1, winning the Big Ten, and finishing third in the College World Series. After the May 1st loss to Purdue, State won five straight conference games, lost to Michigan, 9-8, and played inspired baseball on the final weekend, beating Indiana once and Ohio State twice.
Those Spartans still treasure their 1954 experiences.
"We battled each other during the week," Jack Risch said, "and then we battled the other guys on the weekend.
"After that, we learned to respect and even like each other, and thank God that has continued over the years."
On June 10-12, 1999, sixteen '54 Spartans gathered again for a three-day reunion on the banks of the Red Cedar River. They renewed their camaraderie at an informal get-together on Friday night and a banquet on Saturday evening.
For those who came home, all of whom earned at least one college degree and enjoyed successful careers in education, the professions, or business, it was like reliving 1954.
Old friends were embraced, stories were told, memories were refreshed, glasses were hoisted, songs were sung, and pictures were taken. The laughter and good times helped evaporate the mists surrounding those often-remembered events.
Commenting on the value of the reunions, Ron Stead observed, "It gives me the opportunity to see men who were important influences on my college experience and whose friendships mean a great deal today."
In front of his teammates at one reunion, Bud Erickson offered the best reason why
the 1954 Spartans continue to gather together: "I love you guys."
Thinking it over, Jack Risch wrote, "I don't have a 'favorite story' about 1954. The reunions are the story."
In 1999, reflecting back to the championship won on their field of dreams thanks in part to a key base hit by Bob Powell, the Spartans of springtime once more reunited one of the best teams in the history of Michigan State sports.