Despite—or perhaps because of—their ragtag roster and hippie manager, the 1971 Macon High Ironmen found themselves in the Illinois state baseball championship. Chris Ballard first chronicled the team in a long piece for SI in 2010, and he's explored them in even more depth in One Shot at Forever. In this excerpt, we visit the team on the eve of their unforgettable season.
John Heneberry fidgeted on the dark yellow couch of his living room, a familiar sense of unease washing over him. For years, this had been the family routine: John, his father, his mother, and his grandfather arrayed around the small color TV after dinner, watching the news. Once upon a time, the men on the television had talked about moonshots and John F. Kennedy. Now it seemed like all Heneberry saw were images of tanks and explosions in the jungle.
Like his teammates, Heneberry sometimes had a hard time remembering life before Vietnam. When he was in eighth grade, his history teacher had stood at the front of the class, full of confidence, and said, "Saturation bombing. It will be over in six months." But here it was, four years later, and troops were still shipping over. As insulated as Macon was, the town still felt the toll. Two of the Ottas' older brothers had served a tour, as had one of Stuart Arnold's brothers. People still talked about Joe Whittington, a member of the 1965-66 Macon High baseball team. In September of 1968, Whittington was assigned to the first infantry, near Quan Loi, Vietnam. The students at Macon High remember hearing about Whittington's deployment, and reading the updates in the Macon News. They also remember hearing the story about how, three months later at the age of twenty, Joe lit a cigarette on a dark night in the jungle and was shot in the head by a sniper, becoming the first casualty from Macon.
Now Heneberry had just turned eighteen years old. The war that had always seemed so distant, fought by others, no longer did. Neither did a lot of things. As a senior, this was the final athletic season of his final year of high school, just as it was for the Ottas and Mark Miller. In three months they would all graduate and either head off to college—as Sweet always pushed them to do, with the pie-in-the-sky dream being to secure a baseball scholarship—or get a job. The future was rushing at them, and awful fast.
As the TV filled with another shot of Nixon, face dour and pinched, Heneberry looked around him—at his parents and the small, one-story house where he'd spent much of his life. More than any of the boys on the team, he understood the illusory nature of this moment in his life. He longed to hold on to the feeling, to treasure the final months of high school and the upcoming baseball season. The world that awaited—the one Sweet spent so much time preparing them for—was exciting and scary and suddenly very real. But it was not yet upon him. As he saw it, he still had one last chance to be a boy.
Maybe this sentiment—the last chance to be a boy—is what drove Mark Miller on that cool Friday night. Then again, maybe it was the six-pack he'd consumed. Either way, the idea seemed genius at the time. Let's climb the grain elevator.
Granted, Miller had already outboozed Heneberry, who was saddled with a lower tolerance and had stumbled home for the night. Still, Miller was always up for a good time, especially if it involved friends. A born storyteller and expert practical joker, he was able to stretch a mundane anecdote into fifteen minutes of drawling comedy. Though a natural athlete, he lacked Shartzer's need for validation; if a teammate asked Miller his batting line for the day, he might not remember, even on days he went 3-4. He could, however, recount every detail of a key play someone else made. The year before, as a junior, he'd been deemed the glue of the team by no less than Doug Tomlinson.
If Miller treasured his friends and teammates more than some, it may have been on account of his own family situation. Ernie Miller was a distant father at times, and when he did show up at his son's games there was always a chance it would be reeking of beer, a spectacle that embarrassed Mark (hating how hard liquor made him behave, Ernie had forgone it years earlier but could still put back a case of Pabst in one night). When Mark was young, he had begged his father not to go out in the late afternoon, at times clinging to his legs when he tried to walk out the door. "If he left," Mark later told his wife, "I knew he was going to the tavern."
On this night, though, as on so many others, Mark aimed only to embrace life. Standing on a friend's shoulders, he peered up at the easternmost storage unit of the elevator, a towering vertical column some one hundred feet in height. Gathering himself, Miller leapt up and grabbed the bottom rung of a thin wire ladder that ran up the side of the storage unit, then pulled himself up. The iron dome loomed above him.
The rungs were a foot or so apart, and Miller climbed quickly, gaining elevation. Soon he was thirty, forty, then fifty feet above the ground. Reaching a small grated platform, he stepped up and kept climbing. Moments later, he emerged onto the roof, ten stories above Macon. Steadying himself, he stood up and surveyed the moonlit landscape. Turning in a circle, he could see for miles in every direction, from the oval racetrack of the Macon Speedway in the west to the water tower of Moweaqua in the south to Elwin in the north. For a boy from Macon, this was as close as it got to standing on top of the world.
Somewhere underneath the warm haze of the beers, Miller surely knew what he was doing was foolish. But then the boys had a long history of foolish endeavors. Shartzer and Miller were notorious for sneaking out of school and making donut runs to the general store during class, always returning with "two jellies" for Jack Burns. When someone stuck a snake in the desk of Carl Poelker, who everyone knew was deathly afraid of reptiles, many suspected one of the baseball players was responsible. And of course there was that business with the hogs.
The previous summer, a local farmer had refused hunting access to his land, a position Shartzer deemed less than neighborly. So Shartzer and Miller snuck onto the man's land one afternoon and flipped the latches on his hog pens. The boys then proceeded to herd a parade of squealing, grunting pigs straight into the heart of Macon, a chaotic sight locals remember to this day. Fearing they'd get caught, Shartzer and Miller then abandoned their herd and made for the Country Manor, where they vaulted into a vinyl booth and tried to look innocuous. A short time later, after rounding up his bewildered hogs, the irate farmer came busting into the restaurant, demanding to know who was responsible. As the boys cowered in the corner, boots covered in a patina of hog shit, the farmer made straight for Letha Tomlinson, the town's queen of gossip (and no relation to Doug Tomlinson). As usual, Letha was ensconced in one of the booths, from which she spent most afternoons monitoring the town's comings, goings, infidelities, and embarrassments. The farmer approached and, aiming a finger across the room at Shartzer and Miller, asked, "Was it them?" Slowly, Letha turned toward the boys, weighing her options. Finally, she turned back. "No sir," she said. "These boys have been here all afternoon." Then she winked at Shartzer.
That scheme, like so many others, had been ill-advised. Climbing the grain elevator was different, though. This was also dangerous.
In the end, it was the descent that got Miller. Perhaps he attempted to climb too fast, or maybe he just lost focus, or the beer finally got to him. What ever the reason, with sixty feet to go his foot slipped. His hands, so sure on the field, weren't quick enough to save him. There was a thud followed by a clank, and a body fell out of the night.
The next morning the phone rang at the Heneberry house. It was Diane Tomlinson, who was over visiting Mark Miller's sister. She sounded distraught. "John, Mark fell off the grain elevator last night. You gotta get over here!"
Heneberry threw on some clothes and hurried to the Miller house. Upon arriving, he found Mark lying on his bed, looking as though he'd lost a fight with a backhoe. A triangular gash ran down Miller's right leg, his back was skinned raw, and his swollen right wrist was the color of rotten fruit. Adding to the sorry scene, his eye was purple.
Truth be told, Miller had been incredibly lucky. As his teammates would say for years afterward, shaking their heads: "If it hadn't been for that cage . . ."
It was nothing more than a thin strip of iron that ran the vertical length of the ladder, secured by circular piping every five feet or so. But as Miller fell, he had caromed from one side of the enclosure to the other, slowing his descent. Those bounces likely saved his life.
Now Miller sat in his room, looking wretched. Heneberry asked the obvious question: What did the doctor say?
Miller smiled sheepishly. He hadn't been to the doctor. He was too afraid of what his father would think.
Then Heneberry asked the next question that came to mind. Again, Miller shook his head. No, he assured Heneberry, it wouldn't affect his ability to play baseball.
The roar of the Scout was audible from a block away, as if a mechanical lion were descending upon the blocky yellow structure at Arrowhead trailer park.
Sweet hopped out of the car and busted in the front door.
"Hey, baby, your muse has returned!"
Jeanne turned and smiled. She was at the stove, cooking sloppy joes in bell bottom jeans and a blouse. Her straight brown hair, which she'd been growing out for months, now fell past her shoulders. A half hour earlier, she'd returned from Warrensburg-Latham High School, where she was teaching business classes such as typing and bookkeeping. It was a welcome change after six months of student teaching at a high school in Decatur, especially financially. After barely getting by for so long, the Sweets finally had dual incomes.
Sweet threw his bag on the counter and checked the fridge for beer. The trailer felt more like a real home by the day. There was a color TV in one corner, not far from the stereo, and a few of Sweet's novels were collected in one corner. Jeanne had even added a few decorative touches: a framed photo in the kitchen, a throw rug, some candles. All in all, the couple was settling into Macon surprisingly well.
Sweet was already encouraging Jeanne to apply for a job in the local school district. It would be romantic, he said—they could ride to school together every day, meet for lunch. In a few years, and with Jeanne minding the money, they'd have enough of a nest egg to buy a house and start a family.
"How's the team look?" she asked.
"Good," said Sweet. That's what he always said, though. In reality, he wasn't sure. He knew the team wasn't as talented as the 1970 squad, at least on paper. For starters, Tomlinson was gone. Tomlinson, who had pitched nearly every important conference game the previous two years, been both the team's best hitter and pitcher, and made up for any number of weaknesses by turning opposing hitters into statues. Not that losing Atteberry was much easier, as he'd hit a team-high .419 the previous season and provided valuable leadership.
In previous years, new talent had always filled the void. When a host of seniors graduated in 1968, Steve Shartzer stepped in. When ace pitcher Ray Martin and others departed in 1969, along came Snitker and Arnold, more talented than those they replaced.
There were no wonder freshmen waiting in the wings in the spring of 1971. Quite the opposite, Sweet had arrived at the first practice a week earlier to find a 10-year-old boy fooling around on the mound. Or at least that's what he looked like. Then Sweet learned that the ten-year-old was actually one of his freshmen, a dusty-haired kid with teapot-handle ears named Jimmy Durbin. Despite his best efforts, Durbin had to arc the ball just to get it from the mound to home plate. He might one day be a pitcher, Sweet thought, but that day was still years away. The rest of the freshmen, he soon discovered, were equally green. That left Sweet with only nine regulars coming into the season: Shartzer, Arnold, Snitker, Miller, Heneberry, Dean Otta, Dale Otta, Jeff Glan, and sophomore David Wells.
Sweet knew what many around town thought, including some of the parents: Macon had missed its opportunity. The boys might be good, but few expected them to match the 1970 season, much less surpass it. Too much had come together too perfectly: the dominance of Tomlinson, the depth of talent, the feel-good vibe of a new coach, and the providence that came with winning games like the one against Stew-Stras. Towns like Macon just didn't make it to the regionals very often.
Complicating matters, despite the 16-2 record in 1970 and the playoff success, McClard hadn't opened the school coffers, something that came as little surprise given the enmity between him and Sweet. So, as before, there was no stipend for hiring an assistant coach, even though that was the norm for football and basketball. The balls were the same sorry assortment, as were the bats. As for the uniforms, they now consisted of relics from three different eras. On some, MACON was written in large letters, while on others it was in small letters and still others featured only a purple M. As for the pants, they varied between featuring white pinstripes, black pinstripes, and being pure gray.
Lacking resources, Sweet had once again decided to get creative. The week after his reinstatement, he'd walked into a study hall and made an announcement. Would any of you like to be the scorekeeper for the baseball team?
Sweet then scanned the room for boys who might be interested. Before he saw any, an unexpected voice spoke up.
"Me! I'd like to do it."
Near the front, a small hand was jacked to the sky. Sweet looked down and saw not a boy but freshman Barb Jesse, eyes wide with hope.
Sweet looked at her. Well, why not? he thought. After all, just because no one had ever had a girl scorekeeper in central Illinois didn't mean it was illegal.
And thus, on the eve of the 1971 season, the Ironmen were complete: one coach, a girl scorekeeper, nine skinny kids who played, and five even skinnier ones who didn't.
Excerpted from One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magical Baseball Season by Chris Ballard. Copyright © 2012 Chris Ballard. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold.