In 1954, the stories were already great. At the MU baseball team’s 40-year reunion in 1994, they got a little bit better. Now, after 50 years, some have gained legendary status.
“The older you get, the better you were,” said pitcher Emil Kammer, who really did win eight games for the Tigers’ 1954 national champions. “I think all of us have gotten a lot better, all of us were 5-for-5 every game.”
Even in reality, those Tigers were good. They ended the season 22-4, won the Big Seven Conference Championship with an 11-1 record and beat Rollins College 4-1 for the only national championship in MU sports history.
This past weekend, all but one of the team’s surviving members, now mostly in their 70s, gathered in Columbia for the 50-year anniversary of that magical season. From listening to them, though, one might think they were still in college, on a road trip or joking around after practice.
Norm Stewart, a pitcher for the 1954 squad who went on to coach the MU basketball team from 1967-1999, approaches pitcher Bert Beckmann and outfielder Lee Wynn at a Saturday morning breakfast and starts another round of jibes.
“Now I’m going to tell you the truth,” Stewart jokes. “Bert pitched three no-hitters, Lee had 17 consecutive hits, until (hall-of-fame pitcher) Bob Feller got him out on a hard ground ball. Bob Feller, he was a pretty good pitcher, but he wasn’t as good as Beckmann.”
Then, Stewart adds, “I’m their agent.”
“Hey, I can throw 95 (miles per hour),” Beckmann says from across the table. “On two throws, 47 plus 48.”
The table erupts in laughter, as it does so many times when Stewart gets going with his fibbers.
Sometimes, Beckmann says, the team has to get back together to “renew old lies.”
Seconds later, Stewart has returned to the table to announce that shortstop Dick Dickinson was the first player to cork a bat, another joke that gets the table giggling.
For all the jokes and laughs, the players all seem to realize how important that championship season was in their lives.
Jerry Schoonmaker, an outfielder who hit an incredible .425 during the 1954 season and was named an All-American, eventually signed with the Washington Senators. He played in the big leagues for two years, the only ‘54 Tiger to make it that far.
Friday night, he distributed a letter to his former teammates telling them how thankful he was to be a part of team, partly because it made the media and scouts aware of his performance.
“I got to be an All-American … I got to go into the big leagues, I signed with Louisville Slugger and got my name on a bat,” Schoonmaker said. “I signed with Topps bubble-gum cards and I’ve got two years of my own baseball card . . . And all of these things came to me because of our team, because we were national champions.”
He said there was a good mixture of personalities on the team.
“Everybody didn’t operate the same way, and talk the same way and laugh at the same things,” he said. “Every life was different, but we were all close together and had good times. I don’t see any difference today.”
Schoonmaker said the team’s resiliency was one of its greatest attributes. The Tigers lost the first game of the season, the first game of the conference season and the second game of the College World Series and still came out on top.
“It’s not easy to win,” Schoonmaker said. “Think of all the coaches in the United States that aren’t able to be a winner and a national champion. How many years would it take for every one to get to be a champion? When you think of it that way, it’s almost impossible.”
Another one of the keys to winning the championship, Kammer said, was how well the MU players got along with each other.
“They had enough of a mix between the young and the old to make the team work well,” Kammer said. “The older guys, they kind of kept some sense in us.”
Schoonmaker said coach John “Hi” Simmons also held the team together in many respects.
“Our team was successful, and I think it’s because of how we were coached and taught on our inward feelings and attitudes.”
Simmons died in 1995, but most of the team lives on. Bob Schoonmaker, Jerry’s brother and later an executive for Southwestern Bell, is one of only two ‘54 Tigers who has died.
Catcher George Gleason worked for IBM for many years. Beckmann was a teacher. Jerry Schoonmaker was a union representative for Ford Motor Company. But the championship has kept them together.
Kammer said, for the first 35 years after the championship season, the team members spread apart and didn’t keep in contact with one another. After the reunion in 1994 and another meeting last spring, though, he and a few other players who live in the St. Louis area have decided to eat lunch and catch a Cardinals game together every few months.
Shortstop Dick Dickinson was the captain of the 1954 team and was one of the players who organized the reunion.
“Nobody’s ever (won a championship) before in the history of the university,” Dickinson said. “So, right there, that says, ‘Hey, if you did it back then and you’ve lived 50 years, you deserve to be honored.’ Because, hell, just being around talking about it is an accomplishment.”
Friday afternoon, the team was presented with national championship rings, a common award for champion teams in present times, but something for which these Tigers had to wait 50 years. The team was also honored at halftime of the MU football game against Arkansas State on Saturday night.
For the players, though, the gifts and honors aren’t what this reunion was about. It was about the friendships and the memories.
“It’s great,” Schoonmaker said. “They’ve got memories that I don’t have, they saw things that I didn’t see, but now I remember them, and they bring back a good memory of events that took place in our times together.”