‘It seems like yesterday sometimes’
New Riegel’s 1969 state championship baseball team to be honored
NEW RIEGEL — There are times it doesn’t seem that long ago.
Faded pictures, news clippings and reminiscing bring back the memories of ball on bat, leather gloves, infield hops, fly balls to the outfield and running the bases.
And a state title.
The good times always seem a little easier to recall.
“It’s been 50 years and, with our memories and things, even as old as we are, it seems like yesterday sometimes,” Bob Brickner said. “It doesn’t seem like 50 years.”
Brickner and many of his New Riegel teammates — most still live in the area — will relive those memories again Sunday prior to the 1 p.m. Division IV title game in Akron when the Ohio High School Athletic Association honors the 50th anniversary of the team’s Class A state baseball title.
The Blue Jackets edged Bridgeport 1-0 in nine innings at Ohio State University on the last day of May 1969 to claim the school’s only state title.
A few days before heading off for this year’s event, a handful of the 1969 Blue Jackets gathered to remember old times.
Even before they got to high school, baseball was about all they did when the weather was warm.
“We played all the time. We’d go over and help pull weeds and stuff for each other so we could play ball, and play in the orchard at night,” said Steve Bouillon, who went from being the team’s left fielder to eventually serving as the school’s athletic director.
“The town kids, the parents wanted them out of the house, so we were sent right to the baseball diamond,” added Brickner, who held down third for the Blue Jackets.
It helped build a champion.
The starting nine for the ’69 champs played together from little league through high school, with one exception. Second baseman Jeff Underwood missed a few years in between because he helped his family farm, but returned in high school when asked.
The other starters included catcher Paul Gnepper, first baseman Chuck Reinbolt, shortstop Ed Clouse, center fielder Larry Gase and right fielder Steve Lucius.
And, of course, pitcher Larry Kinn.
The southpaw was a terror on the mound, going 10-0 and striking out 87 in the postseason and 119 overall that year.
Just twice in his eight tournament wins — he went the distance in all eight postseason games — did he fail to strike out at least 10 batters. The first time came in the 10-0 win against Carey in the sectional opener when he fanned six. The other time came in the 1-0 state semifinal win against Fairfield Union, when he struck out five.
But then, he tossed a no-hitter in the semifinal and relied on a lot of defensive help to counter the three walks he issued and the batter he hit.
Gnepper said Kinn’s success wasn’t that difficult to figure out.
“He had great control, No. 1, normally. And then he threw his fast ball and his curveball from the same location — the same arm location, the same release point. It all looked the same,” Gnepper said.
And the infielders knew how Kinn pitched, Brickner added.
He said Kinn’s fastballs tailed away from right-handers, so they usually hit them to first or second, while the same hitters would pull the curve to third or short — if they could hit the curve at all.
“When Paul called No. 2 for the curve ball, it was usually the strikeout pitch and it was usually an inside curveball and everybody on the left side (of the defense) was ready for that pitch because normally they would get around real early and it would be on the left side, infield roller,” Brickner said.
“We were pretty attuned to what kind of pitches he would throw and be ready,” he said. “Playing with somebody that long, you knew just about every pitch.”
They also generally played good defense.
Gnepper said few balls got out of the infield, and most of them were fly balls, while Reinbolt said Underwood at second and Clouse at short both covered ground well and got to balls many others couldn’t.
“It was just good defense all the way around,” Brickner said.
But miscues did occur.
Depending on who’s telling the story, Bouillon either dropped a fly ball in the state semifinal or had to make a last-second stab at it after Clouse couldn’t reach it.
“I’ve got an excuse and it’s the honest truth,” Bouillon said. “Ed’s not here, he’d deny it, but the wind was blowing real hard to left field that day and it’s a pop up to Ed. He’s calling it. I can still see this. He’s calling it, he’s calling it a couple times and he’s drifting back and all of a sudden it’s over his head and he yells, ‘take it!'”
Either way, the ball bounced off Bouillon’s glove to put a runner on.
“But then, in the final game, he got the last pop fly out. I was running out to you, and I thought, ‘you better catch it or I’m running over you,'” Underwood said to Bouillon while laughing.
“You had both hands and you wrapped that ball,” Underwood said. “There was no way that ball was going to hit the ground.”
But even with the fine pitching and solid defense, there were some tense moments.
After breezing through the sectional with wins of 10-0 against Carey and 9-0 against Republic, the Blue Jackets blanked Riverdale 2-0 to earn a game against Colonel Crawford for the district title.
It took 12 innings, but the Blue Jackets slipped away with a 4-3 win and a trip to their first regional since the 1941 team ended second at state.
Reinbolt was the hero in the district title game, doubling in two runs in the top of the 12th to break a 2-2 tie as part of a 4-for-6 day. He also quashed a Colonel Crawford rally in the eighth by spearing a line drive and touching first to double up a runner for the third out in a bases-loaded jam.
Other defensive gems from that game included Bouillon gunning down a runner at home for the third out in the bottom of the second after Colonel Crawford scored an unearned run, and Clouse knocking down a ball at short and firing from his knees to get a runner trying to score later in the game.
“We made three plays in this game. Any one we don’t make, and we don’t win that game,” Reinbolt said.
“We could have real easily just have been district runner-up,” Bouillon said. “A lot of good things happened. We were good in that game, but we were also good and lucky.”
Their reward was a game against Deshler and legendary coach Gerald Parrat. Deshler’s district title gave Parrat, who began coaching in 1930 and was stepping down at the end of the 1969 season, a career record of 1,000-118.
He never reached win No. 1,001.
Kinn fanned 14, but had to weather a shaky top of the seventh when the Blue Jackets blew a 3-0 lead and went to the bottom of the frame tied.
But Brickner singled to lead off the bottom of the frame, Underwood singled and Clouse drew a walk to load the bases.
Bouillon then popped out, but Reinbolt followed with a sac fly to right and Brickner beat the throw home standing up for the 4-3 win.
An anticlimactic 5-0 regional title win against Pettisville — who beat defending state champ Old Fort in the other semifinal — sent the Blue Jackets to state. Kinn struck out 10 and walked one in a one-hitter.
Oh, and Gnepper helped.
He blasted a two-run, 350-foot triple in the third and scored later in the inning.
“You know why the regional (final) was easy?” he asked his former teammates. “I came out of my slump. If you remember, I struck out four times — you didn’t hear this — in the district final game. In the regional final, I had at least two hits and drove in two runs.
“One was the triple; most people, it would’ve been a home run,” he said.
New Riegel could have used either in their two remaining games. It would have made things easier.
The Blue Jackets managed just three hits in the semifinal against Fairfield Union and stellar pitcher John Snider. Snider entered the game on a 38-game win streak, with his only loss coming in the first game he pitched as a freshman.
But the hits were timely.
Bouillon broke up Snider’s no-hit bid with a bloop to center to lead off the sixth, racing all the way to second when the second baseman didn’t cover the bag. Reinbolt followed with an RBI single.
That was it for scoring, and often that was all Kinn needed. But that day, he needed a little something extra. The southpaw struggled on the mound, striking out only five while walking three and hitting Snider to lead off the seventh — all in a no-hitter he didn’t know he threw until after the game.
But even that was threatened.
After Snider got on, Kinn induced a pop up for the first out before Bob Bode crushed a ball to right in a hit-and-run play. Lucius circled and back-peddled before finally hauling in the ball. Snider, who had already rounded second, beat the throw back to first.
Kinn then struck out Tom Jones to end the game and send the Blue Jackets to the final.
It wasn’t the only time the Falcons put the pressure on. They had at least one runner on in every inning but the sixth, and twice had good scoring chances.
In the fourth, Fairfield Union had Rod Dennison on second when Wells McDonald sent a dribbler down the third base line. Dennison raced all the way home while Brickner patiently watched the ball finally roll foul, sending Dennison back to second.
In the fifth, Jones reached on an error, stole second, and went to third on an infield out. He then tried to steal home, but Kinn put the pitch low on the corner and Gnepper tagged him out.
Then came the state final against Bridgeport, a nine-inning pitchers’ duel.
Kinn struck out 10 and walked one while allowing just one hit. Bridgeport’s Mark Thompson fanned 11, walked one and scattered five hits.
As in the semifinal, things got exciting for New Riegel.
Bridgeport’s Jim Tomolonis led off the bottom of the seventh by reaching on an error, stole second and went to third on a passed ball — 90 feet away from a win.
Kinn then struck out Thompson, bringing up Allan Glitch.
“I remember thinking, ‘for the first time ever this season, we might not win.’ It’s looking pretty bad,” Bouillon said.
“He’s on third and I’m thinking the same thing you are, ‘how the hell we getting out of this,'” Reinbolt said to Bouillon.
That’s when luck and good defense stepped in.
Bridgeport coach Michael Rose called for a suicide squeeze and Tomolonis broke for home.
“Being at second base, I could see it all happening,” Underwood recounted. “Here comes the guy and I said, ‘well, we just lost, here he comes, that guy’s going to score, he’s already in Paul’s lap down there.’
“The guy bunts a line drive back to Kinn and everybody’s going, ‘throw to third, throw to third, throw to third!'” he said.
After a moment of disbelief, Kinn tossed to third. Brickner dropped the ball, but quickly corralled it to complete the double play and end the inning in scoreless tie.
It stayed that way until the ninth.
Gnepper hit a one-out single and stole second before Kinn struck out for the second out.
Gase then stepped into the batter’s box and worked a 3-2 count.
Then Gnepper made it interesting because, even with two outs but no one on first, he thought he had to get moving.
“I’m in my mind, I’m thinking, ‘OK, 3-2, two out, I’ve got to be running on the pitch.’ As it turns out, I’m stealing third and if he throws Ball 4, I can be thrown out at third base for the third out of the inning,” Gnepper said. “But Larry Gase hit a roller between short and third and I’m running and as I’m rounding third I’m looking back and the shortstop’s fielding the ball, picking it up and throwing to first. And I don’t slow down, I don’t stop, I just keep right on going.
“He throws the ball into the dirt, the first baseman doesn’t come up with it cleanly,” he said. “By the time he picks it up and throws home, I’ve scored.”
Kinn gave up a walk leading off the bottom of the ninth, but a pop up, strikeout and fly ball to Bouillon in left ended the game and gave New Riegel and coach Charles Hendricks the title.
And any team, especially a champion, wouldn’t be complete with some superstitions.
One for the Blue Jackets involved just getting to the games — Gnepper drove the six juniors to each one — while another was having to hear a certain song before playing.
“We each sat in the same place, had to hear that ‘Oh Happy Day’ song by the Edwin Hawkins Singers,” Gnepper said. “That included Columbus. I drove to Columbus. That’s unheard of now.”
Hearing the song even proved difficult at times.
The team adopted it early in the spring as a good luck charm, but almost went without hearing it before the regional title win against Deshler.
In stepped Gene Kinn, brother of Larry and radio host for WFOB in Fostoria. He made sure to play the popular gospel crossover hit song before every game and even put it on a tape recorder so it could be played in Columbus.
Legend has it it was played three times during the semifinal.
Left unmentioned was whether it had an encore performance on the drive home, with the car of juniors hauling the trophy.
They drew escort duty only after making sure the trophy would fit in the car.
“I remember shutting the car door,” Underwood said. “I said, ‘wait a minute.’ We laid the trophy across our laps. I said, ‘I’ve got to test this door to make sure I can get that door shut because I’m not popping the head off this trophy.'”
And why did the juniors haul the trophy home?
“The seniors couldn’t have rode together because our heads were so damn big they wouldn’t fit in the car after that state championship,” Brickner said to laughter.
They probably only got bigger when a parade of cars met the team in McCutchenville on the way home and, according to published reports, took the Blue Jackets on a victory tour through Tiffin before heading to New Riegel. Those who didn’t take part in the caravan crowded the streets to welcome the state champions home.
The hardware — trophy and game ball — now set in the school’s trophy case, still providing the former players a chance to relieve the moment and make sure friends, family and others know.
“Funny story about when I was coaching at Riverdale,” Gnepper said. “We went into the New Riegel gym and there were banners — this one, 1941,” he said, pointing to a story about the school’s 1941 state runner-up team, “and 1969. And I told the players, ‘look, I was part of that.’ A player said, ‘which one?’
“It’s a pride thing,” Gnepper said. “Everybody’s pretty proud of having their picture up there and having been on a state championship team. Everybody feels really good about it.”
Oh happy day, indeed.