First of its kind
1964 squad captured state title
Little League baseball was much different in 1964 than it is today. Then again, so were a lot of things.
So much so, that Jefferson County Little League all-star outfielder Willie Fortson used to walk eight miles home from practices, and sometimes he covered that distance on foot to games and to practices as well.
"A parent came to me during all-star practices and told me what Willie was doing," said 80-year-old Dick Souers, who coached the 1964 Jefferson County Little League majors baseball team, with tears in his eyes during a recent interview. "From that point on, I gave him a ride."
Players in the `60s practiced in jeans, there were no aluminum bats, and fields in Jefferson County were made of a dirt patches, chicken wire and movable bases. Locally, Little League was not that big of a deal, until the 1964 Jefferson County Majors all-star baseball team fueled an interest in baseball with a historic run that's been unmatched thus far.
"It really surprises me that we are the only (majors) team to win a state championship," said 1964 ace pitcher Joe Stensgar. "You would have thought that others would have bettered that accomplishment, but it's not easy to do. I'm very much honored to have been a part of that team."
In 1972, 1976 and 1999, Jefferson County earned Little League Senior state baseball championships, and Jefferson County earned the 2006 Junior all-star state baseball title. The 1999 squad finished second to Hawaii in regional play, but the 1964 team still stands as the only majors baseball team to capture a state title.
"It was like coaching a major league team," Souers said with a laugh about the 1964 squad. "Ed (Spino) and I would sit back and work those kids with drill after drill. They were an amazing bunch of kids and I'm very proud to have coached them."
In 1964 Souers and Spino, who has since passed away, led the local all-stars to the only Oregon state 11-12-year-old state baseball championship in the history of Jefferson County Little League. Made up of Junior Patt, Ray Thornton, Doug Utter, Gary Snow, Kelly Ceniga, Bo Van Orsow, Ray Thornton, Dick Ashby, Dennis Smith, Willie Stacona, Jerry Allen, Paul Reutlinger, Denny Keeton, Stensgar and Fortson, the 1964 squad won the District 6 Little League Championship and won the Oregon State Little League Championship, before the local all-stars lost in the championship game of the Northwest Divisional Championship tournament, which was televised regionally by CBS.
"They were special," Souers said of the 1964 Jefferson County all-stars. "They were all good, athletic ball players."
Led by strong pitching efforts by Stensgar, Snow and Utter, the 1964 team marched to the Northwest Divisional tournament, and had the local all-stars beaten Trail, British Columbia, in the televised finale, the team would have traveled to California to play for the West Regional championship tournament.
"I remember all the mothers on the team were really worried about how we would get the kids to the west regional tournament," Souers said with a laugh. "They were in quite the tizzy."
Jefferson County's run to the Northwest Divisional finale ignited Little League in the area, according to Souers. Residents of Jefferson County welcomed the team home with a police escort just north of town and also a welcome-home parade.
"The mayor welcomed us back and congratulated us," said Stensgar, who now resides in Gig Harbor, Wash. "Local merchants gave us gifts and prizes, and cool things of that type."
Madras Mayor Don Hatfield, Chamber of Commerce President Vic Bacon and Police Chief Irv Williams greeted the team upon arrival in Madras, and all had words of praise for them.
"People were excited," Souers said. "They didn't think we could go that far."
After the team thrilled the community with its deep run, Little League became more than just baseball on dirt fields. Respectable fields were erected in Warm Springs and Madras, and people took the game more seriously.
"We used to play on shaggy old fields all over the place," Souers said. "After we won the state championship, people started going crazy around here about Little League."
In the District 6 all-star tournament, chicken wire was used as backstops for the fields at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds, but it was torn down accidentally in celebration after Fortson hit a game-winning home run in the district championship game against Klamath Falls City in the seventh inning.
"My stepmother was so excited, she ran through the fence and tore the dang thing down," Fortson said with a laugh. "Nobody expected us to win the tournament, and it was quite a deal."
Honoring Souers, Spino
The 1964 Jefferson County Little League state championship team honored Souers and Spino with a salmon dinner at Kah-Nee-Ta Lodge May 12. Six players shared stories and thanked Souers, his family and Spino's family for all the dedication given to them when they were 11 and 12 years old.
"It was a way to pay our respects to Dick and his family and also Ed and his family," Stensgar said. "We wanted to show our appreciation for what they did for us. Dick has dedicated 40-50 years to help the youth of Jefferson County, boys and girls, develop their skills, which have spilled over to the rest of our lives."
Team members remembered and spoke of how Souers and Spino were like the good cop and bad cop duo.
"Dick was always pretty chill and never did a lot of screaming and yelling," Stensgar said "We did do plays over and over until we got them right."
A plaque was given to Souers' and Spino's family at the Kah-Nee-Ta event with a picture of the Jefferson County Little League state championship team engraved with the words, "In Recognition of a Half Century Dedicated to Coaching and Inspiration of the Youth of Warm Springs, Madras and Jefferson County."
"I was unable to make the ceremony because my kids threw me a 60th birthday party, but the first thing I think of when I think of the 1964 season is coach Souers," Fortson said. "He may not know it, but he helped shape my life. He taught me to never give up and has been a father figure to me."
Heading into the 1964 District 6 tournament, host Jefferson County had never won a district title, let alone hosted an all-star tournament. The youngsters wearing Jefferson County uniforms were not expected to do much against the powerful teams from Klamath Falls, but no one realized other than the local team just how good Stensgar and Utter could be on the hill.
"We were not something that just popped up," Souers said. "These kids had worked for a long time and half the state was afraid of us because we played all over and beat teams pretty good."
Stensgar struck out nine batters in leading the team to a 1-0 victory over South Suburban Klamath Falls, and Thornton hit a home run for Jefferson County to account for the team's lone hit in the game.
"Hell, Joe was a big kid," Souers said of Stensgar, who would later become a Madras High School standout in multiple sports, before he earned a scholarship to play baseball for Dartmouth College. "Most the kids were scared to bat against him."
Not to be out-done, Utter led Jefferson County in the District 6 championship game with a seven-inning victory over Klamath Falls City League.
Utter booked six strike outs, but it was Fortson's game-winning home run in the seventh inning that stole headlines in the team's 3-2 victory.
"We had some really good pitchers," Fortson said. "Joe (Stensgar) and Doug (Utter) could really throw, and we hit against them in practices, which made us better."
Fortson struck out three times prior to his game-winning home run, and approached Souers late in the game, because he said his confidence was shaken.
"It was a guy named Little Al Davis and he struck me out three times, so I went to Mr. Souers and asked him to take me out of the game and put somebody in my spot," Fortson said. "Mr. Souers told me I was the team's center fielder and that I could do it. My next at bat, I hit the home run, and it took us over the top."
In the 1964 state tournament held at Astoria, Stensgar earned pitching victories over the Pendleton Nationals (8-3) and against Kenton (2-0).
Stensgar allowed one hit over six innings against Kenton in the championship game, and he also ripped a two-run home run.
"Joe was awesome," Fortson said. "It was like having this huge monster out there on the mound."
Jefferson County made headlines with a triple play against the Pendleton Nationals. Stensgar snagged a bunted fly ball and fired to Utter at first base for the second out, and Utter threw to Smith at second base to complete the triple play.
"I remember coming off the field and a parent in the stands had pretty big eyes and he said, `I've never seen a triple play before,'" Fortson said. "People were amazed, and I think we were as well."
Utter also led Jefferson County to a 3-1 victory over Meadowland of Portland with a complete-game pitching victory in the team's second game. Thornton and Stensgar provided the power, as each hit home runs against Meadowland.
"We just didn't turn the kids lose and let them play during practices," Souers said. "We worked them hard and did lots of drills until we got it right."
Prior to the 1964 Northwest Divisional tournament, arrangements were made for players to stay with host families near Alpenrose Park in Portland. No one would take Fortson because of the color of his skin, but as it turned out, Fortson ended up with the best accommodations.
"Nobody would take Willie because he was black," Souers said. "Finally, one of the tournament directors got a hold of me and said he would take Willie. Come to find out, Willie had a swimming pool and a great big house, and all the other players were mad."
During the divisional tournament, Jefferson County played late into the night on a Friday to earn a 10-inning 6-5 victory over Quincy, Wash.
"By the time the game ended, it was 12 in the morning and we didn't leave the fields until 1 a.m.," Fortson said. "I think it tired us out some for the championship."
Utter started the game on the mound, but was pulled in the fourth inning with Jefferson County trailing 3-0. Snow took over in relief and allowed two runs over the final six innings to earn the victory.
"Talk about a ball player. Gary was really good," Souers said. "He really saved us in that first game."
Jefferson County struck out 15 times against Randy Hall of Quincy, Wash., but the locals rallied for five runs in the fourth inning, taking advantage of four errors.
Quincy, Wash., evened the game in the top of the sixth frame, but Fortson's game winning single to center field handed Jefferson County another walk-off victory and a berth in the championship game against Trail, British Columbia, that was televised regionally on CBS.
"Back then, Wide World of Sports was not a household name or a big deal, so it didn't really affect us," Fortson said of playing on television. "We were just focused on taking care of business."
Trail, British Columbia, proved to be a better team than Jefferson County in the Northwest Divisional tournament. The Canadians earned a 5-0 victory to eliminate the local squad.
"I think our late game the night before really wore the kids out," Souers said.
Stensgar struck out 10 batters and allowed just four hits, but he walked eight batters in a game where Jefferson County trailed 4-0 after two innings.
Jeff Mainland of Trail carried a no-hitter into the final inning, before Smith singled and Fortson doubled. Mainland, who struck out 11, worked out of the jam and ended Jefferson County's historical run.
"We always thought Joe (Stensgar) was a really big guy, but that pitcher from Trail was like 6-3," Fortson said. "It was intimidating at first because we couldn't believe someone could be bigger than Joe."