By Sam Blackman
Legendary Head Baseball Coach Bill Wilhelm was a winner at Clemson right out of the gate. His first game as a head coach in 1958 was against the touring Michigan State Spartans of the Big 10. Clemson not only defeated the Spartans, 7-5, that day but it also handed Spartan pitcher Ron Peranowski his only loss of the season. Peranowski later enjoyed a sparkling major league career and was the Los Angeles pitching coach for many years after that.
The Spartans came back nine days later and handed Wilhelm his first collegiate loss on their way back to East Lansing, MI. Prior to the 3-2 loss, the Tigers had won their first four games under Wilhelm.
“He was a young man, himself, but he taught us so much at the time,” said Harold Stowe, who pitched on Wilhelm’s first Clemson team.
Wilhelm taught his players how to win by teaching them first how to work and to prepare for it.
“If you are going to be good, you better prepare to get better,” he said.
Wilhelm prepared them to get better by first making them feel better about themselves. No one thought the appearance and organization of a team meant more to a team’s success than the Clemson coach.
First Wilhelm bought new uniforms, new equipment and new Louisville Slugger bats. Then he required his players to dress nicely when out on the town and to look sharp at all times.
“I made them feel better about themselves,” Wilhelm told the ACC.com in 2008. “I had them wear a coat and tie on the road. I told them not to argue with the umpires, to respect the game. They were able to perceive that things were going to be different and they bought into it.”
It did not take long for the 1958 team to buy in.
“We were a bunch of country boys. Wilhelm put us in new uniforms, something you could go to town in,” Stowe said. “His attitude was to get after it. Have fun, be assertive and don’t beat yourself. He gave us confidence and confidence can take you a long way.”
The Tigers’ confidence won them 22 games that year, five more victories than the previous three seasons combined.
“He was tough,” right fielder Bailey Hendley said. “He emphasized fundamentals. He was demanding, but fair. If you didn’t do your job, you didn’t play. He was big on not talking back to the umpires or the opposition.
“His attitude was ‘Never talk to the other team. Let ‘em sleep. We’ll beat their brains out before they wake up.’”
Clemson beat a lot of teams’ brains out that first year. After getting off to an 8-0 start in league play, the Tigers finished with an 11-3 record in ACC play as Wilhelm found himself in a tie with his old team and mentor, Walter Rabb, for first place.
The two had split a pair of regular season games, each winning by scores of 2-1. Back then only one team was selected from each conference for what was called the NCAA District Playoffs.
In the ACC playoff game, subsequently a championship game, Clemson put up three runs in the top of the first inning thanks to an RBI single by shortstop Bud Spiers and two Tar Heel errors. Another UNC error in the ninth gave the Tigers another unearned run.
Clemson’s 4-1 win gave Wilhelm the first of his 18 regular season ACC championships. The Tigers ultimately ended the 1958 postseason with a 5-1 record in elimination games.
“We really didn’t have a tremendous amount of talent, but we had heart and we wanted to play,” Spiers said. “We didn’t quit, we didn’t take off plays; we came after you for nine innings. Everybody did their jobs, everybody pulled for their teammates.”
The 1958 NCAA District Tournament was held in Sims Legion Park in Gastonia, NC where the Tigers had dispatched the Tar Heels two weeks earlier to win the ACC Championship. The Tigers drew Florida, the Southeastern Conference champions, while George Washington represented the Southern Conference and Florida State was the independent entry.
It took Wilhelm one game to find out how quick it took to get backed into a corner. Stowe, who ended up owning 14 of Clemson’s 22 wins that season, was the natural choice to open against the Gators. But he was yanked in the second inning after the lefty gave up three runs on three walks, a single and an error.
Although Clemson rallied to score five runs in the sixth and seventh innings, Florida built a seven-run lead early in the game and hung on for an 8-6 win. In the meantime, the Seminoles had taken care of the Colonials, pitting George Washington against Clemson the next day, with the loser going home.
Wilhelm gave Stowe another chance. But it was not to be. Stowe served up a grand slam in the first and surrendered a three-run blast in the second as the Tigers found themselves seven runs down coming to bat in the second inning.
“That bus ride to Clemson seemed not far away,” Spiers recalled feeling.
And then, what has been described by some as the “prettiest thunderstorm ever” came through and washed out that game as well as the FSU-Florida fracas, pushing everything back 24 hours.
Unlike now, any game that had not gone five innings had to start from scratch. Thus, George Washington’s 7-0 lead was washed away with the storm.
The next day, Wilhelm started right-hander Ed Lakey and the sophomore went out and sat the Colonials down on six hits as Clemson remained alive with a 4-2 victory.
The Tigers had to wait around for the outcome of the FSU-Florida affair and play the loser in another elimination game that night. Florida bumped the ‘Noles into the loser’s bracket and was in the driver’s seat at 2-0.
Hendley started on the mound for Clemson and had a six-hit, 5-0 lead going into the last half of the seventh inning when a pair of doubles scored a run, causing Wilhelm to bring Stowe in from out of the bullpen.
After striking out a pinch hitter in the No. 9 slot, Stowe walked Dick Howser, whose
name is synonymous with Florida State baseball, and then gave up a three-run homer to Charlie Rogers to close the gap to 5-4.
In the bottom of the ninth, Howser slashed a one-out triple and then a single by Rodgers, his fifth hit of the game, tied the score at 5.
In the Clemson 10th, Bobby Norris hit one down the third base line and pitcher Frank Slusser threw the ball into right field as Norris ended up on third on what Wilhelm often referred to as “a 30-foot triple.”
FSU coach Danny Litwiler, who had been in the “Big Leagues” a number of years, ordered Slusser to intentionally walk Hendley and Fred DeBerry, Clemson’s No. 1 and No. 2 hitters. While this was going on, Wilhelm was having a conversation with Spiers, the club’s leading RBI man.
Wilhelm later said he told Spiers he didn’t quite understand why Litwiler was loading the bases in the top of the inning, but that if he saw a pitch he liked, to start swinging.
And he did.
“We didn’t understand it then and I don’t understand it now,” Spiers said.
The result was a bases-clearing double up the left centerfield alley, giving the Tigers a 10-7 lead. A one-out single in the bottom of the 10th inning was all Florida State could muster as Clemson moved on to play Florida and the Seminoles went back to Tallahassee.
After getting Sunday off—the NCAA did not play on Sundays in those days—Lakey got the starting nod against Florida. Lakey surrendered four runs in the top of the first thanks to a Charlie Smith grand slam, but Clemson got three runs of its own in the last half of the inning.
The Gators scored four more runs in the second inning, By the time Hendley relieved to start the sixth inning, the Gators were up, 10-5, and things were anything but promising for the Tigers.
But Clemson scored five runs in the sixth inning, another in the seventh and took a 14-11 lead with a three-run outburst in the eighth. But Smith hit a three-run bomb in the top of the ninth to tie the game at 14.
Clemson was not done, though. The Tigers loaded the bases with two walks and an error in the bottom of the ninth, while Hendley drove in the winning run with a base hit for a 15-14 victory. First baseman Fred DeBerry had four hits that afternoon to lead the Tigers.
After the three-hour, 25-minute marathon, another game had to be played to decide the title because the winner had to be in Omaha, NB on Thursday for the start of the College World Series.
In between games, Wilhelm looked down his bench and there were Stowe, Lakey and Hendley. They had all pitched in the first game. Stowe had a 12-3 season mark and Wilhelm looked him in the eye and said, “You’re my most dependable man. See what you can do.”
Stowe literally pitched the game of his career, giving up only four hits, and though he walked four batters, he struck out a career-high 17 that evening. Clemson managed only two hits, both by Spiers, but three walks, a single and an error chased in three runs in the third and Stowe continued his mastery of the Gators as he had at least one strikeout in each inning and fanned the side in both the second and seventh innings.
A two-out double and a single produced Florida’s lone run in the eighth as the Tigers advanced to their first College World Series with a 3-1 victory.
Stowe continued in Omaha where he left off in Gastonia as he struck out 13 in a 4-1 win over Arizona in the first game of the CWS. But, Clemson’s magical run finally came to an end in the two next two games.
“We were all dead tired, exhausted,” said Stowe, who ended his junior year with a 14-4 record, which included 120 strikeouts.
Holy Cross ripped through the Tigers’ pitching in the second game as it pounded out 19 hits in a 17-4 win, while Western Michigan eliminated them in the third game with a 5-3 victory.
The 1958 Clemson team had only 15 players on its roster, while some teams in the College World Series—like top-seeded Southern Cal—had 16 pitchers on its roster alone.
“None of us expected to be in Omaha when the season began,” said Spiers.
Nobody except Wilhelm of course, who later admitted it was harder to do than he first thought after accomplishing it in his first two seasons at Clemson.
“I was so new to college baseball, maybe I didn’t realize how hard it was,” he said years later. “The College World Series wasn’t as well-known as it later became, but it was still a big deal.
“My 1958 team wasn’t my best, but it was my first and we accomplished something memorable.”
October 21, 2018