Tony Smith’s “reflections” on hitting: a decade-long slump

by Tony Smith

 

“If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant’s life, she will choose to save the infant without even considering if there are men on base.

 

Dave  Barry, American humorist

 

Ah, spring! Little League baseball parades, rays of sunshine accompanied by a slight breeze; delicate bundles of new needles on the larch; flowering apple and purple-leaf crab trees on Mirror Lake Country Club in Bonners Ferry; Cyclone, Red Top, Meadow and Spread creeks running clear, and a perfect time to witness the Yaak Falls before it becomes roily and turbulent from excessive “runoff.” Just think what the senses might experience should we disregard our cell phones for a moment or two. But I digress.

It was an article in a local newspaper from several years ago that continued to perturb me and “stick in my craw,” so to speak. It featured Libby’s Legion baseball team statistics in the midst of my season as a 17-year old, one that highlighted a rather “sparkling” pitching record (if the reader doesn’t mind my saying so), but also mentioned my 150 batting average. A buck fifty?

Now, understand that I haven’t minded the good-natured ribbing from friends and former students from Troy who were, at the time, participating in Libby’s Legion program under the direction of Kelly Morford. Furthermore, I am not questioning the veracity of the writer who published this data, as the stats were provided by the Legion team itself. No, my “beef” in this particular case, is with an obviously over-empathetic statistic-taker who inflated my batting average by at least 50 points! In fact, if memory serves me well, I only remember getting two “clean” hits that season, one up the middle against the Missoula Mavericks, the other against the Kalispell Lakers, a shot over the second baseman that surely would have cleared the right field fence with any elevation at all (or so I thought). The other two “hits” I recall occurred when the Laker shortstop inadvertently slipped on a muddy field in Kalispell and let a routine popup fall behind him; the other a “dribbler” up the third base line in Cut Bank, one that was also due to field conditions. For you see, Cut Bank’s old Legion field was, well, a bit “kitty-wampus.” It was downhill to first base, uphill to second, relatively level from second base to third, but pronouncedly downhill from third base to home plate. Thus, a “dribbler” up the third base line had natural backspin like a Phil Mickelson 60-degree wedge, and even for someone not known for barn-burning speed, a base hit was the likely result. Additionally, I vividly recall being placed in right field, where, according to the Cut Bank players, rattlesnakes had been spotted the day before. Right field was a perilous place to be since Eureka’s Jack Mitchell was on the mound for the Loggers (he threw bullets), and any ball hit out of the infield by a Cut Bank player would surely end up in right field (fortunately, none did). Trying to ward off potential rattlesnakes and an accidental ball hit my way made for an extremely nerve-racking experience. Yes, that was a memorable “Highline” road trip. We played golf in Conrad the evening before on a course with sand greens. One could draw a “line in the sand” towards the hole (is that where that expression came from?) to facilitate one’s putting. Rattlesnakes and sand greens. Those were the days!

Context is important to understand how one could be such an incompetent hitter. To begin with, as a pitcher, I bunted. A lot! Frank Peck and Lee Gehring were experts at “small ball” before it ever became an expression. We advanced runners, and both coaches took the “bat out of my hands,” as they say, in order to move runners up. I bunted my way into the University of Montana (recruited primarily as a late inning reliever against left-handed hitters) and learned to take pride in what many consider a lost art.

Secondly, I invite the reader to take a walk into Libby’s High School gymnasium foyer and see the Athletic Hall of Fame pictures of Ed Gehring and John Tushaus. Ed still has Libby’s shot put record, and John the javelin record. While both eventually became Legion teammates, many of us had to face them in Little League.

Libby’s first Little League field was a virtual work of art, tucked in up against the overpass crossing the railroad tracks leading to Highway 37, and carefully tended to by the likes of Harold Hatlen, Joe Kelly, and Brick Wallaston. Like today’s Legion field, it was truly a thing of beauty, but unfortunately in a toxic location, one spewed with vermiculite. Ed Gehring was the only hitter I remember capable of hitting a ball up on that overpass, and did so on several occasions ( I believe Dale Phillips was the other Little League player I witnessed who also could have hit it there had he played on that field- he hit virtual moonshots). Ed was a 150-pound lefty with a sweeping windup that was, from 46 feet, aimed directly at the mid-section of a 98-pound, left-handed hitter, and in the midst of his windup that 98-pound hitter’s first step was toward the first base dugout. It was an absolute terrifying experience to face him. Many players Dads, mine included, would yell from the stands, “stand in there, son,” and I for one was thinking, “you come down and stand in here!” And facing Ed’s older brother, Jack Gehring, was no picnic either. Jack, a “righty” with an overhead motion, was the epitome of a power pitcher, more in the mold of a Jim Stedman and Jared Winslow. Jack, like Jim and Jared would tuck a rising fastball underneath ones chin. Physicists claim that a pitched ball can’t rise, but baseball experts know otherwise—a 4-seam fastball applied with enough spin and velocity can overcome the downward force of gravity and make the ball rise. I can attest to rising fastballs as I caught enough pitches from Jim Stedman, witnessed Jared’s rising fastball, and personally experienced Jack Gehring’s fastball as a hitter. For a left-handed hitter, Jack wasn’t as fearsome to face as Ed, but most of us couldn’t catch up to that high, rising fastball.

Not only has Ed Gehring retained the Libby High shot put record for nearly 50 years, he went on to a very successful collegiate track and field career at Eastern Washington College in Cheney ( Eastern Washington University).

Now, facing John Tushaus was another story altogether. Let’s be candid and say that John had “command” problems. As a legion pitcher, John threw a wicked “split-fingered” fastball, a ball that damaged more screen on the front of the stands than foul balls did. Coach Gehring (who would throw a dancing knuckleball at us in practice—not only couldn’t we hit it, we couldn’t even catch it), would request hitters to face John in batting practice, but rarely would he get any takers. “No thanks Coach, I’ll pass,” was the most common reply. And to practice one’s bunting against him was absolutely out of the question. To turn frontally towards him was simply demonstrating suicidal behavior! Even opposing players were in high alert in the “on deck” circle when John was on the mound.

However, one must recognize that John Tushaus threw a baseball as if it were a javelin, and what a javelin thrower he was! Not only does he retain the Libby High record from 1964 for the “old” javelin, John Tushaus was recruited by the finest collegiate javelin school in America at that time, Polomar Jr. College in California, and transferred from there to the University of Arizona where he won the NCAA Javelin National Championship for two consecutive years!  In July, 1966, at the Coliseum Relays in Los Angeles, John Tushaus threw the javelin 284 feet to break the American record. Rumor has it that before the summer Olympics, John was throwing over 300 feet, but then suffered a debilitating shoulder injury. “The good lord gave him that arm, said University of Arizona coach Carl Cooper. John didn’t even have a high school javelin coach. He learned techniques of the javelin by studying sequential pictures of the discipline in an encyclopedia.”

In the end, I never learned the art of hitting, but I love to stand beneath Libby’s Athletic Hall of Fame pictures and reminisce about my classmates, the greatness of an Ed Gehring, John Tushaus, and so many others. John has, on occasion, attended Logger basketball games and track practice over the past few years. How could you know you were confronting greatness if you didn’t recognize him, or know of his enormous accomplishments? It is a remarkably profound story, this Libby guy from the 1960’s, at one time the finest javelin thrower in America!