Commentary

Little support for OU's 1951 title team

Originally Published: June 24, 2010
By Ryan McGee | ESPN.com


And then there was one.

As the lineup for the 2010 College World Series took shape, it became obvious that the always-jovial Johnny Rosenblatt had decided to pull one last laugh before his ballpark hosted its last Series.

Only two schools in this year's eight-team field had won the national baseball championship before. And only one of those schools, Arizona State, could be considered a traditional Omaha regular, with 22 CWS appearances and five titles.

But now the Sun Devils are gone. Two and cue.

That leaves the Oklahoma Sooners as the last remaining 2010 participant with a CWS trophy in the cabinet back home. If you've listened at all to Nomar Garciaparra's analysis in the ESPN broadcast booth this week, then you know when the Sooners last won the title, defeating Nomar's and Jason Varitek's Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in 1994.

But that OU team, despite the fact that it included future big leaguers Russ Ortiz, Mark Redman and Ryan Minor, still ranks second in Sooners baseball lore.

Who's first? A squad that had to wait a half-century before finally receiving championship rings.

[+] EnlargeBud Wilkinson
David Boss/US PresswireFormer OU football coach and AD Bud Wilkinson was underwhelmed by the 1951 baseball team and refused to pay for their way to Omaha. He was overruled by the school's president.

The 1951 College World Series was just the second held at Rosenblatt Stadium, then known as Municipal Stadium. City councilman Johnny Rosenblatt had lobbied to build the ballpark in the hopes of attracting a minor league baseball team to Omaha.

Part of the plan to prove that the city was ready for pro ball was to first show that it could host a big baseball event, so Rosenblatt dispatched a group of negotiators to the NCAA and convinced them to move their struggling three-year old college baseball tournament to his new facility.

It was a hard sell to the people of Omaha, Neb. The Big O was then, as it is now, a college football town first and foremost. As was, and is, Norman, Okla.

So when the '51 Sooners managed to turn around an abysmal 0-7 start to the season and rallied to win the Big Seven (now the Big 12) baseball title and a regional -- clinching a berth in the eight-team CWS field -- few in the Sooner State noticed or cared. Foremost among the apathetic? Oklahoma athletic director and football coach Bud Wilkinson.

Wilkinson, underwhelmed by the team's 15-9 record (they were 10-1 in league play), declared that they simply weren't good enough to make the 500-mile trip north to Nebraska, and so the university wouldn't pay for the trip. Postwar times were tight financially, and to the biggest sports figure in the state, it just didn't seem worth it.

Baseball coach Jack Baer, in his ninth year on the job, gathered his team's small band of supporters and pleaded with university president George Lynn Cross. Cross overruled Wilkinson and declared that the team could indeed go to Omaha, but that finances were what they were and the budget for the trip would be tight.

Once they got there, they were welcomed by a very tough gang of rivals. The powerhouse teams of Southern Cal, Tennessee and Ohio State were waiting in Omaha, as were Princeton (20-4), Utah (15-1) and old foe Texas A&M. Even Springfield College sported a 15-5 record.

"Our own people didn't want us to go and they gave us barely enough money to get there," right fielder Jim Antonio said by phone from his home in Southern California. "We rode in an old school bus, and we slept in an old motel with no air conditioning. Luckily they played four games a day back then and the whole Series only lasted four or five days. If it lasted as long as it does now, they would have pulled the plug and called us home at the halfway point, even if we were winning."

Against all odds, the Sooners were winning. They needed 10 innings to outlast Ohio State in the opener before dismissing Springfield 7-1 in the second game. Next was a semifinal matchup against USC, already considered the best program in the land, which OU won 4-1.

"There wasn't a single superstar on that team," Baer remembered years later. "We had a couple of good hitters and two good pitchers, three really."

The team took the "nobody cares about us" attitude and turned it into motivation, a collective chip on the shoulder that got larger every night when they had to load up their rickety bus to go sleep four to a room in their fleabag digs.

Fittingly, they had to come from behind to defeat Tennessee in the title game, trailing 2-0 after five innings, with CWS MVP Sid Hatfield on the mound for the Vols. But Oklahoma's patience at the plate forced Hatfield into a pile of walks in the sixth. OU ace Jack Shirley shut Tennessee down, and the Sooners ended up winning the championship by a score of 3-2. They'd finished the season with 13 consecutive wins and a national title.

Our own people didn't want us to go and they gave us barely enough money to get there. We rode in an old school bus, and we slept in an old motel with no air conditioning.

-- Jim Antonio, right fielder for the 1951 Oklahoma baseball team

"We were so excited, and we really wanted to stay the night and celebrate," recalls Antonio. "But we were out of money and couldn't afford a motel room, so we had to load up the bus and drive back to Norman that night."

When they got home, there was no party waiting for them. Coverage in the local media had been nearly nonexistent, presumably to not ruffle the feathers of Wilkinson. These days, the school would've sold T-shirts proclaiming the fact that OU had won national championships in football, wrestling and baseball in the same year. Instead, there was silence.

No one from the '51 Sooners team made it to the big leagues, though several did play minor league ball. Shirley, the team's best chance at a major league star, had his career interrupted and a likely call-up to MLB cancelled out by the Korean War.

Antonio became the most famous of the group, going on to a successful career as a Broadway and Hollywood actor. In the movie "Outbreak," he's the doctor who tells Rene Russo, "The chances of this virus showing up in the U.S. are virtually nil." In the next scene, the virus shows up in the U.S.

For five decades, the members of the '51 squad quietly lobbied the school for some sign of recognition and respect. Finally, in 2001, the 50th anniversary of their trip to Omaha, the team received national championship rings from the Oklahoma athletic department.

Joked Shirley: "They were probably waiting for us to all pass away."

Or to become living legends.

Ryan McGee is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Road To Omaha: Hits, Hopes and History at the College World Series," which chronicles the excitement and passion of the CWS, is now available on paperback.

Ryan McGee | email

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