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1949 Red Birds

One of the lasting legacies of life in Minden is the contributions made to the young people of Minden by Mr. and Mrs. Larry Hunter. Much has been written about Hunter’s Playground and Hunter’s Playhouse. Many people do not realize that Larry Hunter largely funded the entire recreations program for Minden for nearly two decades and then leased his facilities to the city for $1 per year after the city finally started picking up part of the tab. Beyond young people, Hunter’s first love was baseball (I guess alongside Coca Cola) and he started sponsoring the Hunter’s playground teams of all levels in the 1930s. Teams of all age groups played under the Hunter’s banner and kids from parishes all across North Louisiana came to Minden to play ball. Hunter was famous for taking his “boys” to a Major League game in St. Louis each year and usually on a trip to Florida. Today’s Echo is going to look at one very special Hunter’s team. The American Legion squad from 70 years ago this summer – the season of 1949. A year that has never been equaled in the history of local Legion baseball.

The local Hunter’s Red Bird Legion squad was expected to be strong. (This team is not to be confused with the semi-pro Minden Red Birds of the Big Eight League, also a Hunter project that began playing in 1950.) Drawing players from a very good Minden High team and an excellent Heflin Hawks squad, the team was truly an all-star collection. The Shreveport Times claimed the team drew players from 10 different schools. I am not sure that is accurate, but Hunter did meld varied talents into a cohesive winning team. 

The Red Bird’s season kicked off on June 1 and by June 7, the local squad had ripped off five straight wins. Perhaps the highlight being a 1-0 win over the Magnolia Ark Legion team in which Minden pitcher “Red” Wilson struck out 15 of the 21 outs he recorded in a complete game three-hit shutout. The winning streak continued and by June 14, after defeating Pine Bluff Ark, the local squad carried a record of 10-0. They were still undefeated when they launched their 10-day road trip through the south. After defeating the Hattiesburg Mississippi team, raising their record to 18-0, the Hattiesburg American newspaper carried a column about the Red Birds, that I am repeating a portion of below. “Minden is just a small town in Louisiana. It has a population of only 7,000, but it is far ahead of our fair city when it comes to providing recreation for its youth. Just yesterday, the Hunter’s Playground American Legion Junior team from that town stopped here, en route to Florida for a one-game stand with the Barron Motor Company Junior nine. Larry Hunter, well-to-do businessman in Minden and donor of the playground mentioned above, is the main backer of this touring team, getting aid from the Coca Cola Bottling Company of Minden. The team has played, or will play, in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas and other southern states. It is definitely a good thing for the boys on the team and the advertisement they are giving their little town and parish certainly isn’t doing any harm.” 

The highlight of the trip was to be the game against the Barron Motors team from Jacksonville, Florida that had been the runner-up to the national championship of American Legion baseball in 1948. The travelling party for Minden included the following players: Marvin Selby, Buddy Burns, Gayle Wise, Harold Wilson, Buddy Akin, Jack Maxey, Arthur Stewart, Johnny Carter, Douglas Logan, Edward Pruett, Billy Smith, Jack Fuller, Wayne Thrash, Bob Parker, Harry Davis, Albert Schroll and Bill Thompson. Also, with the team were James McCabe as bat boy, Lamar Pace as scorekeeper, and Whit Vascocu as the bus driver. Larry, Jack and Ben Hunter were also on the trip. The team spent time at Daytona Beach, went deep sea fishing and visited several other tourist attractions, beyond just playing baseball. 

While the Red Birds would triumph over Jacksonville, they did drop a game to Pensacola during the 10-day trip prior to the game against the defending national runners-up. However, after that loss they launched a seven-game winning streak, highlighted by a win over the defending Arkansas state champions the Little Rock Doughboys. Following the huge victory over Little Rock, a rare thing happened, Minden lost a game, falling to El Dorado, 4-9. That loss dropped the Red Bird’s record to 25-2 on the season. 

As the regular season came to an end after the trip to Arkansas, the Minden squad entered the playoffs facing Wray-Dickinson of Shreveport in a best of three game series for the 4th District Championship. Minden won the first game in Shreveport 6-1 and then came home to Minden and wrapped up the title, beating the Shreveport squad 13-7 in front of a crowd of over 1000 people at Hunter’s Park (it would not get the moniker Red Bird Park until the next season when the Big Eight League team also called the Red Birds began competition.) 

The victory over Shreveport sent the team on to play the champions of the 5th District, the Twin City American Legion team, based in West Monroe, in a best of three series for the North Louisiana championship. The first game was played at Cloyd Park in West Monroe and Minden won by a margin of 9-3. Then in the second game at Hunter’s Park, Minden used a six-run 7th inning to beat the Monroe team 13-7, raising their season record to 33-2. The local team moved on to play Opelousas in the state semifinals. Opelousas proved to be no match for the Minden team as they fell to the Red Birds in two shutouts – 6-0 and 9-0. In an odd note, the Opelousas team – since they were already in North Louisiana — asked to go ahead and play the third game as an exhibition. It did not turn out any better for the Avoyelles Parish squad as Minden won that game 11-1, behind a no-hitter pitched by Wayne Thrash (his 2nd of the season.) 

The Birds now moved on to the state finals with a record of 36-2. Their foe in the championship series would be Holsum Bread of New Orleans, based out of Fortier High School. The Shreveport Times emphasized that Minden’s excellent team gave North Louisiana a chance to break the streak held by New Orleans teams. Every Legion state championship since 1928 had gone to the Crescent City champion. The Times mentioned that Minden had a team batting average of .292 with four .300 hitters: Arthur Stewart, .351; Harry Davis, .328; Marvin Selby, .317; and Buddy Burns, .315.  Among the pitchers Jack Fuller led with a 7-0 record while Buddy Akin, Albert Schroll, Bill Smith and Wayne Thrash had 4-0 records. Jack Maxey and Harry Davis carried 4-1 records on the mound. The series was set to begin in Hunter’s Park in Minden and then go to New Orleans for the second and (if needed) third game. In an editorial (the “real” editorial page, not the sports section) the Times encouraged all Shreveport baseball fans to make the trip to Minden for the playoff game and congratulate Minden on its team, the last paragraph expressed a sentiment shared by many. In closing it stated: “Many persons deserve credit for the success not only of Legion baseball in the Minden area, but for all junior athletics there. However, it is our guess that if a vote were taken, Mr. Hunter, who sponsors so much in Junior athletics in Minden and who has given so generously of his money in providing play facilities would win hands down. To him especially we extend our commendation.” 

The first game at Hunter’s Park drew a crowd of over 2,500 people. Jack Fuller pitched for Minden and spun a three-hitter at the New Orleans squad. But defensive lapses let down the local pitcher. New Orleans scored first in the third inning on a throwing error. Minden came back with two runs in the bottom of the third to take a 2-1 lead. In the fifth inning, New Orleans scored two “clean” runs with a walk, triple and a single. Then in the top of the sixth a dropped fly by a Minden outfielder allowed Fortier to get a fourth run. In the bottom of the ninth, trailing 4-2. Stewart drew a one-out walk and was scored on a double by Selby. The New Orleans pitcher rallied and got the next two Minden batters on a strike out and a pop-up, sending the series to New Orleans with the South Louisiana squad with a 1-0 lead. The ninth inning rally proved to be Minden’s “last hurrah” of a wonderful season. On Wednesday night, August 3, at Municipal Park in New Orleans, Malcom McCall of the Holsum team shutout Minden on two hits in a 6-0 victory for the Crescent City squad. Interestingly, McCall was the only member of the Holsum team that did not play in high school for Fortier, he attended New Orleans Academy. Minden did string their two hits back-to-back in the seventh inning. But McCall snuffed out that attempted rally. Interestingly, the New Orleans squad would go on to lose the four-state regional championship to the Little Rock Doughboys that Minden had defeated earlier in the season. 

So, the Minden Red Birds fell short of their ultimate goal, but had an amazing campaign compiling a record of 36-4 for the 1949 season. While Minden has had tremendous success in high school baseball, winning five state championships since that 1949 Legion season, no local Legion team has gained the national attention and reputation of those 1949 Red Birds The players were so fortunate to get the opportunity to travel across the south as good-will ambassadors for our community and spreading the word of the amazing philanthropy of Larry Hunter, baseball fan and lover of kids. The memory of that team on its seventieth anniversary is truly a wonderful Echo of Our Past.

Webster Parish Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald