May 2, 2008
By Tim Bourret
The first time you accomplish a major goal it is always special. That is certainly the case when it comes to athletics. Clemson’s first Bowl team, the 1939 squad that went to the Cotton Bowl behind the legendary Banks McFadden, set the standard for Clemson football. Clemson’s first NCAA basketball tournament team led by Coach Bill Foster in 1980 made a run to the Final Eight of the tournament. Jim Davis did the same in women’s basketball when his Lady Tigers won the ACC Tournament in 1995.
Clemson has a strong baseball heritage that dates to the early 1900s when John Heisman served as the head coach. He had a 10-2 season his first year in 1901 the first 10 win season in Clemson history. But, it took until 1958 before the Tigers reached the College World Series. When twenty-nine-year old Bill Wilhelm took over the Clemson baseball program in 1958, he was just two years younger than Heisman was when he coached the Tigers for the first time 1901.
During the 1957 season Wilhelm, who had played professional baseball at the minor league level in the early 1950s, served as an assistant coach under Walter Rabb at North Carolina. When Frank Howard, then head football coach and athletic director, finally decided to have a full-time baseball coach, he called Rabb and asked for some recommendations. Rabb, one of the most respected baseball coaches in the nation at the time, recommended Wilhelm and the rest is history.
Clemson won the first ACC baseball championship in 1954 under Bob Smith, but other schools were putting more into their programs during the period. In 1955 Wake Forest won the national championship, something an ACC team has not duplicated since. Smith also doubled as an assistant football coach so it was amazing that he did as well as he did. But, when the Tigers finished 6-12 overall, 3-11 and in last place in the ACC in 1957, Howard decided he needed to have a full time baseball coach.
Wilhelm inherited a young team and he didn’t have that many players on the roster compared to other schools. In fact, Clemson had just 18 different players participate in a game in 1958, and some of them were football players who joined the squad after spring practice. That same year Southern Cal brought 16 pitchers to the College World Series.
The 1958 season began on a chilly day at the Clemson baseball field (which was located where the Clemson tennis facility is today) against Michigan State, who also started its season. Frank Howard’s coaching career got off to a great start in 1940 when George Floyd scored on an 18-yard run on the first offensive play. Wilhelm had just about as much fortune as his first three batters in his first inning as head coach scored on a three-run homer by Bud Spiers.
Clemson defeated Ron Perranowski that day even though the Michigan State left-hander struck out 10 Tigers. Five years later Perranowski would lead the National League in winning percentage thanks to a 16-3 record as the top relief pitcher in baseball for the World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers. That was quite an accomplishment considering he was playing on the same Los Angeles Dodgers pitching staff that had Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.
Clemson opened the season with a four-game winning streak, then lost to Michigan State and Perranowski 2-1 in a second game 10 days later when the Spartans came back through at the end of their spring break trip. So, Wilhelm’s first win and first loss were against the same team, but 10 days apart.
As stated previously, Clemson finished eighth in the eight-team ACC in 1957, but went on an 8-0 run to start the 1958 ACC schedule. Wilhelm energized the program with an aggressive approach that stressed the fundamentals of the game. One of the reasons the fundamentals were so strong could have been because of the lack of facilities at the time.
“During the fall of my first year we had practice, but at 4:00 PM Coach Howard held football practice,” said Wilhelm. “In those days, part of the football practice fields were in right field of the baseball diamond. So, when the football team came out, we couldn’t hit or scrimmage. So, for the last hour of practice we worked on infield drills, bunting and other fundamentals of the game.”
On the one hand you can see these were simpler times, but on another level they were much more difficult times.
There were come pivotal wins over those first eight ACC victories. One was a 2-1 win over North Carolina and Coach Rabb that had to be very gratifying for Wilhelm. Harold Stowe struck out 10 and did not walk a batter in that victory over Wayne Young and the Tar Heels. Later in the regular season the tables were turned when Young beat Stowe, 2-1, in Chapel Hill. That year, including an ACC playoff game, Stowe and Young faced off three times and both pitchers went the distance in all three games.
This was a different era of college baseball in many ways. With wooden bats, Clemson hit just 13 home runs the entire 1958 season, but five of them came in a 13-4 win at Maryland. One of the home runs was hit by Dave Lynn, a member of the Clemson football team who had just two at bats all year. Ed Lackey got the win and hit a home run in that victory.
Wilhelm won his first game against rival South Carolina, then an ACC opponent, 5-3. South Carolina out-hit the Tigers 13-6, but Harold Stowe and Lakey made the clutch pitches to complete Clemson’s eight-game ACC winning streak.
The streak ended in that aforementioned 2-1 loss at North Carolina. But, on May 1, Clemson got back on track with an 8-1 win over Duke. That was a statement game at the time because Duke was the defending ACC champion. Clemson got 19 hits in that game and Harold Stowe elevated his record to 8-1.
Clemson and North Carolina both had the opportunity to win the ACC title on May 12. There was no tournament in those days. But, Clemson lost to Duke and North Carolina lost to Maryland, a team that had just two conference wins entering the game. When North Carolina beat Wake Forest the following Thursday, Clemson and the Tar Heels tied for first place in the regular season.
In those days normally only the conference champion and some independent schools were chosen for the NCAA Tournament. So, Clemson and North Carolina had a one-game playoff for the league title and an NCAA bid at a neutral site in Gastonia on May 19. The game was held at Sims Legion Park, a small stadium you can still see today on the right side of the road as you travel up I-85 from Clemson towards Charlotte.
Pitching in his hometown, Stowe was outstanding and limited the Tar Heels to just four hits and one run while striking out nine batters. The 4-1 Clemson victory gave Stowe an ACC record 11 victories.
After the game the Clemson team threw Wilhelm in the shower. When he came out to talk to the media, he was drenched. “I’m wet, but this is my greatest thrill in baseball,” said Wilhelm.
That ACC championship victory took place on May 19 and the NCAA Tournament did not start until June 5. There were exams to take and of course the normal spring semester was much longer in those days because the first semester didn’t end until the middle of January.
Clemson had the good fortune of returning to the same Sims Legion Park for the NCAA District III playoff so they had fond memories of that facility. It was a four-team double elimination playoff with the winner going to Omaha for the College World Series.
Florida was the Southeastern Conference representative and faced Clemson in the first round. Auburn actually won the SEC championship that year, but was on probation and could not participate in the NCAA Tournament.
The Gators out-scored Clemson 7-1 over the first three innings and went on to an 8-6 win in the opening round on June 5. The next day, Clemson played George Washington in the loser’s bracket game and for the second straight day, Stowe was hit hard early. He had pitched just the first 1 2/3 against Florida, so Wilhelm put him back out there against George Washington.
Stowe was even worse in the second game and GW scored seven runs in the first two innings on a grand slam and a three-run homer. But, in the bottom of the second, a big rain storm hit the area and washed out the game and the two games that were to follow. In those days the rules stated that the game would be restarted since it didn’t go five innings. George Washington’s 7-0 lead was washed away.
The next day, June 7, Clemson had to win a pair of games. First, they defeated George Washington, 4-2, behind Ed Lakey. Bailey Hendley started the second game against Florida State, and gave the Tigers a 5-0 lead. Stowe came on in the seventh, but gave up five runs, including one in the bottom of the ninth when future Major League Manager Dick Howser hit a triple and scored the tying run on a single by Charlie Rogers, who had earlier hit a three-run homer.
In the top of the 10th, Bobby Norris, who had just four hits all year, hit a slow roller down the third baseline and Florida State pitcher Frank Slusser threw the ball into right field, sending Norris all the way to third. Florida State manager Danny Litwiler, a former major league player, then walked the next two Clemson batters intentionally. It was an odd move considering it was the top of the inning and the two walks brought up arguably Clemson’s best player in Bud Spiers. Spiers then hit a bases clearing double to give the Tigers an 8-5 lead, the eventual final score.
Those two victories took place on Saturday, June 7. Another rule of that time stated that you could not play an NCAA Tournament game on a Sunday. The Tigers faced Florida on Monday, June 9 and Clemson had two win both games to go to Omaha. Even though there was the possibility of playing two games, and it was the Monday night prior to the start of the College World Series on Friday, the first game did not start until 7:00 PM.
Clemson fell behind 10-3 entering the bottom of the fifth, then made an incredible run to take a 14-11 lead going into the top of the ninth. Fred DeBerry, who hit .319 that year, had four hits in that game and was Clemson’s top hitter at the District tournament with nine hits in 19 at bats. But, Florida tied the game in the ninth on a two-run home run by Charlie Smith, his second home run of the game. The home run came off of Bailey Hendley.
Hendley then “bailed” himself out in the bottom of the inning when he singled with the bases loaded to drive in the winning run and a 15-14 Tiger victory. Hendley did not start the game, but finished with three of Clemson’s 18 hits. Bailey’s hit came at 10:20 PM, so the teams had to turn around and start the championship game at 10:40 PM.
Wilhelm had used Lakey, Stowe and Hendley, the only three pitchers to get a win the entire season, in that first game. “He had been our best pitcher all year. He had been our most dependable guy so I told him to go out and start the game and see what he could do.”
Even thought Stowe had been ineffective to that point in the tournament, giving up 18 hits and 16 runs (including the rained out George Washington game) he had faith in his left hander. “The more tired Harold got, the more his ball seemed to move,” recalled Wilhelm. “He was not as fast, but the ball moved all over the place. That was the case in that second game against Florida.”
Stowe pitched the game of his life. Again pitching in his hometown of Gastonia and with his mother and wife in the stands, he struck out a career high 17 batters, leading the Tigers to a 3-1 victory. He struck out at least one batter in all nine innings and had two innings in which he struck out the side. No Clemson pitcher has struck out that many batters in an NCAA Tournament game since. Bud Spiers had the key hit offensively when he tripled in the three-run third.
After the game and with the clock now showing 1:00 AM, Clemson’s players carried Wilhelm and Stowe off the field.
The next day, Wilhelm had much to do. Aside from thinking about practice, he had to somehow get his team to Omaha for a Saturday game with Arizona. He spent most of the morning calling airlines trying to get 20 spots on a commercial flight or work out a charter. There was nothing available. Just about the time he was going to book a bus, he got a call from one of the airlines.
“Mr. Wilhelm, we just got a call from the University of Florida and they have cancelled 20 seats on one of our planes that will be going to Omaha,” said an airline representative. “Would you like them?” Seems the Gators had made some reservations earlier on Monday when they needed just one win to go to Omaha.
Clemson won its first game in Omaha against Arizona behind another outstanding effort by Stowe. He struck out 13, giving him 30 strikeouts in two games. It was his 14th victory of the season. A look to the final season stats shows that he won 14 of the 22 Tiger victories that year, 64 percent. No Clemson pitcher has had more than 41 percent of his teams wins since then. The way managers use pitchers today, that record will never be broken. Stowe led the nation in wins, strikeouts and innings pitched that year.
Clemson dropped decisions to Holy Cross and Western Michigan after the opening round win against Arizona. Southern California, who brought as many pitchers to Omaha as Clemson had players, won the National Championship by defeating Missouri in the championship game.
When the team returned to the Greenville Airport it was met by many Clemson fans in celebration of an outstanding season. “They gave me 115 percent and a new sport coat,” said Wilhelm to the media at the airport.” The team had gotten together and bought Wilhelm a sport coat in Omaha in appreciation for the season.
“I’m very proud…just as proud as I can be. Our boys came a long way this season. They had a lot of that stuff called desire.”
And we are sure Bill Wilhelm will be just as proud this Saturday (May 3) when his first team is welcomed back to Clemson for its 50-year reunion. The 1958 team’s drive to the College World Series is among the most significant accomplishments in Clemson athletics history.
Pictured on the front page is Bud Spiers, one of the offensive heroes in the Tigers’ run to their first College World Series in 1958.
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