Glory Days

Over Six Decades Before Being Victimized by Cuts to Athletics, the Cal Baseball Team Fought Its Way to the Pinnacle of the Collegiate Ranks

Photo: The 1947 Cal baseball team
Cal Media Relations/Courtesy
The 1947 Cal baseball team

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Lyle Palmer

Former Cal outfielder Lyle Palmer reflects on the 1947 College World Series, George H.W. Bush and the recent cuts to his old sport.


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Photo: Coach Clint Evans   Photo:    Photo: Pitcher/outfielder Jackie Jensen

Photo: Center fielder Lyle Palmer   


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The year was 1947. June 28, 1947 to be exact.

It was a warm late afternoon in Kalamazoo, Mich., at Hyames Field on the Western Michigan College campus. The sun was a welcome relief after a torrential downpour the day before had threatened to wash out the first game of a best-of-three series between the Yale Bulldogs and the California Golden Bears. Both were playing for the first-ever College World Series title.

The two teams were in a tight battle deep in the ninth inning by the time the sun began to set. Cal was up, 8-7, on the Bulldogs with relief pitcher Virgil Butler staring down the last out of the game.

The slim 6-foot-2 pitcher knew the gravity of the situation: His team was moments away from winning the nation's first-ever college baseball championship. Standing on the mound in front of 3,000 paying fans and a handful of freeloaders pressed against the outfield fence, the lefty was unfazed.

Like many of his teammates, Butler had come to Cal the year earlier after serving in World War II. As a member of the USS Nassau crew, he had seen considerable action in the Aleutian Islands before returning to school. To a veteran like himself, this last out seemed pedestrian compared to the intensity of war.

Standing across from Butler was Yale's junior first baseman. The young man was going through his warm-up swings in his button-up white uniform with the austere "YALE" lettering embroidered across his chest. Digging in, his knee-length shorts billowed out below his belted waist. He stepped into the batter's box and returned Butler's steely glare.

That young man represented the final roadblock between the Bears and the culmination of a charmed season. One more out and they were national champions.

***

In 1939, the NCAA held its first basketball championship tournament, which Oregon won to much fanfare and media attention. Other college sports took notice, and in 1947, baseball decided to emulate its hardwood contemporaries.

It seemed fitting that the Bears would be in the first College World Series. The concept was the brainchild of legendary Cal coach Clint Evans, who first saw the opportunity for increased revenue, media attention and recruits in crowning a champion each year. A Cal graduate in 1912, Evans was the leading coach in the country.

"He was a great guy. He'd do anything for you," former Bears center fielder Lyle Palmer says of Evans. "You played against him, you hated his guts. You played for him, he was the greatest guy in the world."

By the mid-1940s, Evans had managed to convince his fellow coaches of the merits of a championship series modeled after pro baseball's popular World Series. And on Feb. 7, 1947, Evans' idea was adopted by the NCAA Baseball Committee.

The Bears had earned their place in the CWS by winning the Pacific Coast Conference, a now defunct organization that roughly mirrored the Pac-10. In the Western Regional, the Bears dispatched Denver and Texas by one run each at Merchants Park in Denver.

Cal, a veteran club feared for its hitting, swept into the series with momentum. But that trip to Michigan wasn't without its hiccups - for reasons entirely unrelated to baseball.

***

One of the team's rising young stars, and a standout halfback on the football team, Jack Jensen was anxious around airplanes. Standing on the tarmac at Oakland Airport, Palmer noticed that the team's DC-6 plane had turned off its inboard propellers to save fuel as it taxied along the runway.

"Oh jeez, Jack," the former naval air corps service member and consummate prankster said to the 17-year-old Jensen, already jumpy from the nerves. "Two engines quit already!"

"(Jack) took off running," Palmer recounts with a chuckle. "We had to catch him and bring him back."

Despite the rain, game one went relatively smoothly. The ceremonies were christened by MLB commissioner A.B. "Happy" Chandler, who threw out the inaugural first pitch.

The hard-hitting Bears came out true to form, blanking Yale, 17-4, with an 11-run ninth inning against Bulldog pitcher Phil Kemp. The inning set a benchmark for single-inning runs which stood for years to come.

However, game two would not prove so easy for Cal.

***

Yale, which had won the Eastern Division by defeating NYU, played what some might call dirty baseball. After a back-and-forth affair through five innings, the score was 7-6. With the Bulldogs' Gordon Davis on first, left fielder Bolt Elwell hit a slow roller down the first baseline.

As Butler ran to cover the base and assure an easy out, Elwell crashed into the pitcher, knocking the pitcher down and dislodging the ball in what the New York Times called a "football play." While Butler writhed in pain at first, Gordon advanced to third; he would score on a groundout.

It was not the first time that Yale tested the Bears' grit. The day before, Cal's Bob Melton had been struck in the chest by a pitch. Staggering to first, Melton collapsed halfway to the base.

The war-tested Bears proved unflappable, however. In the seventh inning, with the score still knotted at seven apiece, Cal second baseman Johnny Ramos scored the go-ahead run on an errant throw by Yale catcher Norm Felske, who was attempting to throw out a stealing Palmer at second. Whatever Yale did, Cal had an answer.

By the time Butler stood face to face with Yale's first baseman for the final out, the pressure was palpable. Settling in, he pitched a gem of an at-bat, working the count and whittling away at the hapless Bulldog hitter. Dialing up his final pitch, Butler struck out the batter with a curveball. Evans would later tell him it was the best curve he had ever thrown.

As the Cal players celebrated, the first baseman walked off in disgust after his no-hit performance. It wouldn't be the last time that "Poppy," as his teammates called him, lost in the CWS. The very next year, Yale lost to USC in the second annual series.

Years later, at a commemorative event, Butler was told that "Poppy," the man he had dueled for a national championship, is better known today as George H.W. Bush - the 41st President of the United States of America.

"(It was) a golden moment," Butler says.

***

Today, Virgil Butler and his teammates have slipped into old age.

Butler retired from baseball after a two-year minor league career with the Albuquerque Dukes and became a stock broker. Virg, as his friends call him, turns 90 in May. He now lives in the Mountain Meadows retirement home in Ashland, Ore., where he swims every day and sounds as sprightly as a much younger man.

Lyle Palmer signed with the Oakland Oakes for $500 before becoming a teacher. He is 86 now and lives in Pleasant Hill, Calif.

Many players have passed away. Coach Evans died in 1975, finishing his illustrious 25-year coaching career with 547 victories. After the series, eight players went on to sign professional contracts and play in the minors. Young Jackie Jensen was one of the only Bears to crack a major league roster. Playing in the outfield, Jensen was the 1958 American League Most Valuable Player with the Boston Red Sox.

Those who remain look back at that series with pride. They swell with delight and excited energy at the mention of the game, recounting the time they beat George Bush on the diamond.

But something weighs heavy on their minds.

"I feel bad Cal had to cut baseball after 118 years," a distraught Butler says. "(But they) can't take away my World Series ring nor the teammates that became lifelong friends."

They can take away a program.

More than a half century later, Cal baseball is on its way to becoming a relic, a victim of the Great Recession and budget shortfalls. After so many years, memories, championships, heartaches, strike outs, walks, games and batting practices, one of the country's richest historic programs will sink into the sands of time.

Such is life; nothing lasts forever. A year after Butler walked off the field in Kalamazoo, the CWS emptied out of Hyames Field, eventually moving west down the I-6 to greener pastures in Omaha.

As the Bears play their final season this spring, their home field will face a similar fate. But the final out of the final game may find an appropriate resting place - one named after the heart and soul of the 1947 College World Series champions, Clint Evans.

Tags: CAL BASEBALL, LYLE PALMER, VIRGIL BUTLER, CLINT EVANS, COLLEGE WORLD SERIES, YALE, GEORGE H.W. BUSH


Contact Chris Haugh at [email protected]



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