Dr. Garold Holstine, the president of Bacone Junior College in Muskogee, Okla., is an old-fashioned fundamentalist. A humorless, sermonizing man who wears severe glasses and a Cotton Mather expression, he does not take to his students smoking or drinking spirits, nor is he partial to exaggeration, particularly in monetary matters. When Dr. Holstine says, "We have the nation's worst-financed athletic program," he can be taken at his word. What is hard to believe—but true—is that Bacone, which was founded in 1880 as an Indian school and remains essentially that today, has used its slim budget to build the strongest junior college baseball program in the country and this year is good enough to challenge all but the toughest university teams.
The Warriors, who are favored to win their second NJCAA National Championship in three years at Grand Junction, Colo. this week, have a 69-8 record for their fall and spring seasons. Two weeks ago they swept to their regional title by outscoring (33-2) the three best JC teams from an area stretching from Kentucky to Colorado. A thumping performance like that would prompt most college presidents to authorize a new pitching machine or at least a cushy rug for the clubhouse. At Bacone the Iron Mike is old and unworkable, and the players dress in their dorms because there is no locker room.
It is not a dislike of baseball that causes Dr. Holstine to be so parsimonious in supporting his team. He and just about everyone else at Bacone are wildly proud of it, but the administration realizes that the money most colleges might put into sports is more urgently needed for other things at Bacone.
The college of 700 students sits on a hill overlooking Muskogee, a sleepy little city where the Ford dealer's name is Clem and the drugstore on the corner of Main Street advertises livestock remedies in old, fluted script. The school has been there ever since the Creek nation gave the American Baptist church 160 acres of lush northeastern Oklahoma land to found an Indian university in the days when the state was still red man's territory.
June 1, 1969
John D. Rockefeller Sr. set Bacone off to a booming start by paying for its first building, but today it survives on a slender dole from a variety of churches, foundations and private individuals.
Indians who come from 49 tribes in 33 states make up half the student body. The rest are a conglomerate of whites and blacks, most of them from Oklahoma. Racial diversity is the school's most striking characteristic even though there is a heavy overlay of Indian culture, much of it generated by Dick West, a Southern Cheyenne who heads the art department and is this country's most distinguished Indian painter and sculptor. In one dorm adjacent rooms have signs reading: "Black Is Beautiful" and "Custer Died For Your Sins," but the sloganeering seems directed at people outside the college. On campus, red, black and white mingle freely, and it was routinely accepted when the white student-body president—there have been Indians and Negroes in other years—came to the spring prom this month with a black girl.
"Of all the surface impressions you might get walking around here and just looking, the feeling that the students are genuinely color blind is probably the truest," says Bacone's dean of students, Bill Burgess.
If the students are racially dissimilar, they are almost all economically alike—poor. "Just about everyone is on a scholarship or work-study program," says Burgess. "They have to be because 60% of them come from families earning under $4,000 a year and 20% from families with less than $1,800 a year." The burden of student support forces Bacone's baseball budget and its other expenses, like faculty salaries, down low. Still, the school has attracted a group of exceptionally dedicated teachers and administrators to match its fine ballplayers.
Burgess, a round, gregarious man, is a nationally recognized expert on career development for the underprivileged and a tireless fighter for Indian, Negro and Mexican-American civil rights. He has turned down a sub-Cabinet appointment in the Federal Government and numerous better-paying posts at universities to remain at Bacone. "My case is not unusual," he says. "Most of the staff has had opportunities to go other places for more money. But they don't because they feel we're doing something special here."
The specialty is educating the Indian, who has ended up at the bottom of the great American totem pole. Not only is the average red man indigent but, Burgess points out, he is also badly un-cared for. "The life expectancy of the white American is 72 years, of the Negro 65 years and of the Indian 47 years," he says.
In the situation that these statistics reflect, Baseball Coach Negial King is hardly in a position to ask for more money. His budget of $3,000 this year—which was slashed by 20% at mid-season to help the college pay some bills—is less than a third of a major college's despite the fact that Bacone plays more games than all but a handful of collegiate teams. King, a "good old boy," as they say in Oklahoma, has been around the state's depressed rural economy all his life and he knows how to stretch a dollar, particularly with Dr. Holstine looking over his shoulder. The coach was pleased to find he could buy baseballs at a saving of $2.95 a dozen this spring, but that was not enough to keep the president from questioning his expenditures for bats. "It seems your boys are breaking too many bats," said Dr. Holstine. "Are you sure they know how to hold them correctly?" With eight starting fielders averaging a combined .341, King was sure they did.
Bacone players lack a fancy ball park—they helped the coach build the bleachers during the winter—training-table meals and extra trimmings like warm-up jackets, but there is no lack of talent. Seven members of the 1967 national champs were drafted by pro teams, and two of them, the Cubs' Jim Dunegan and the Senators' Gary Ratliff, a Cherokee, are now considered among the two or three top prospects in their teams' systems. Of the other draftees, four of whom are full-blood or part Indian, all but one have worked up to Triple A.
This year's Bacone team, the sixth to make the national tournament in the past seven years, may be even better, although there are no Indians among the regulars. Pitcher Gary Weese, who is 10-1 with an 0.77 ERA, Leftfielder Ron Shepard, who hit .600 during the divisional and regional playoffs, and freshman Second Baseman Beau Robinson have already been picked by the pros. Most of their teammates, particularly Tim O'Donnell, a .408 batter, and Shortstop Roy Staiger, a sure fielder who hit .398, are almost equally good. Bob Guerin, only the fourth starter in Bacone's rotation despite a spectacular 7-2 record and 1.22 ERA, says, "I don't believe there's a guy on this team who doesn't want to play pro ball and most of them can do it. You'd have to feel that way to do all the practicing and play all the games we do."
King, who can relax, sip a Dr. Pepper and down-home it on a recruiting trip with the best of the good old boys, draws most of his players from Oklahoma, and anyone who ever heard of the Waner brothers, Allie Reynolds, Mickey Mantle and Bobby Murcer knows what that can mean. Even though he must often tell a prospect that he will have to take a job to pay his way through Bacone, King is so successful that his team is two deep in high school all-stars at some positions, and Doug Wood, a pitcher who was drafted in the second round by the Reds, could not break into the Warriors' starting rotation this year. Bacone used to play Oklahoma City and Tulsa Universities and never lost. These four-year schools have refused to meet the Warriors in official games this season, but Tulsa, the eighth-ranked major college team, lost to Bacone 10-5 in a practice game. "All we have to do is put on our uniforms and we know we can't lose," says Catcher Glenn Dye. "It's something special about Bacone."
It is very special. Sometimes the lockerless Warriors wear their uniforms to class. Last week, with the team's finances in their typically depleted state, a Muskogee radio station conducted a telethon to round up the money to pay the team's way to Grand Junction. Kathy Ballard, a cheerleader who had put aside $65 to make the trip to the nationals, gave all her savings to the cause, and the townspeople responded generously. But the players still cannot look forward to steak dinners as they roll west in the 1947 bus that is usually reserved for the school choir. "About the best I can do is get the boys a nice chicken fry before a game," says King. "It might cost us about $1.60 for each of them, but that's better for the players than the hamburgers they buy themselves when I give them $1.25."
Those cheap chicken dinners, bargain-priced baseballs and the broken-down pitching machine all seemed worth it one evening last week shortly after practice. A small group of white and black students gathered to one side as three Indian boys with a tom-tom chanted a Navajo song and Indian girls circle-danced around them on the right-field grass. At Bacone, it was obvious that the players were not the only people in the ball park coming up winners.