When the Tars became stars
By Steven Pivovar / World-Herald Staff Writer
Connie Mack Butler still recalls the week he and his buddies spent in Omaha 47 years ago.
They chowed down on some good Nebraska beef. They drank some cold Omaha beer.
“It rained a lot that week,” Butler said. “We were a bunch of college guys stuck in a hotel. We had to do something.”
In between feeding their faces and quenching their thirsts, Butler and his friends fromRollins College played a little baseball. Played well enough to take the runner-up trophy from the eighth College World Series back home to Florida.
Their achievement hardly set the sporting world on end. Nor did it make a huge impression on the participants.
“We were young, and I don't know if we really thought that much about it,” said Nick Vancho, the Tars' shortstop. “I don't think we realized what a unique experience and honor it was to have participated in the College World Series.”
Therein lies the beauty in what Vancho, Butler and their teammates achieved during their week in Omaha.
Little Rollins College, with its 700 students, was better known at the time for producing world-class tennis players and golfers than shortstops and catchers. But the Tars challenged college baseball's heavyweights and nearly won it all.
Forty-seven years later, Rollins remains one of three schools that finished second in its only CWS appearance. Santa Clara matched Rollins' feat in 1962, and Hawaii fell one victory short of winning it all in its only trip to Omaha in 1979.
In recalling their near miss, players from Rollins' 1954 team are careful not to paint their adventure as some baseball version of David vs. Goliath. The boys from Rollins hardly thought of themselves as underdogs in 1954, and the passing years have done nothing to alter the thinking of either the players or former coach Joe Justice.
“When people think of baseball in Florida now, they think of Miami and Florida State. Back then, we beat Florida State and Miami with regularity,” said Justice, pride still evident in the voice of the 84-year-old former coach. “Heck, Ron Fraser quit playing us because we would beat him every year and he couldn't get invited to the NCAA playoffs.
“Look through our schedules from those days. We played teams such as Michigan State, Ohio State, Holy Cross. We played all the better teams in the country.”
And beat them almost two out of every three times in the 25 seasons that Justice served as Rollins' coach. He won 482 games, with 25 coming in 1954 when he brought his team from the idyllic campus located in Winter Park, Fla., to play in Omaha.
Rollins won its first three CWS games, knocking off Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State), Missouri and Michigan State. Under the format used at the time, Rollins had to come back the night after posting a 5-4 win over Michigan State and face the Spartans again.
Michigan State won the rematch 3-2 in 10 innings, but Rollins won a blind draw to receive a bye into the championship game. Missouri eliminated Michigan State to gain the other spot in the title game. After a one-day delay because of rain, Missouri posted a 4-1 win over Rollins to win the championship.
Justice still wonders what might have happened had the rains not come or had he started pitcher Art Brophy, a tap-dancing left-hander, instead of Bill Cary in the title game. Brophy, described in a World-Herald account as an “18-karat ball player,” had beaten Missouri earlier in the tournament.
“We should have won that game,” said Justice, who still lives in the Winter Park area. “I made a mistake or two. I should have started Art. And the thing that really hurt us was getting that game rained out. You get used to playing, and then we ended up having to sit around for two days doing nothing.”
Justice's players did find a few things to occupy their time.
“I remember one of the guys had his bathtub full of beer,” Butler said. “It kept raining and we kept drinking beer. We probably should have stopped.”
Asked if Justice was aware of such behavior, Butler replied, “Oh, my goodness, no.” He paused, chuckled and added, “Or if he knew, he didn't make a big issue of it.”
Described by his players as a “clean liver,” Justice served as the school's dean of male students. He also coached basketball and had been the school's football coach until it dropped the sport in 1949.
A 1940 graduate of Rollins, Justice was a football, basketball and baseball star at the school.
“Basketball might have been my best sport,” said Justice, who played three seasons of minor league baseball. “I was going to go to North Carolina at one time, but I wound up at Rollins.”
After becoming a coach at his former school, Justice often would return to his North Carolina roots to recruit players. That's where he found Butler, a multi-sport star who was named after the hall of fame baseball manager.
“I got to meet the grand, old man himself when I was about 7 or 8,” Butler said of Mack.
Butler met Justice when the coach showed up at a North Carolina high school basketball game. Kansas State and North Carolina were recruiting Butler to play basketball.
“Joe shows up and wants to know if I would be interested in playing basketball and baseball at Rollins,” said Butler, who had never heard of the school. “When he said Rollins, I thought he meant Rawlings, like the name on the baseball glove.”
Although Butler started at a North Carolina college, he eventually headed to Florida to a school he had never seen before enrolling. There, he discovered that others had made leaps of faith considerably longer than his.
Justice spent his summers in Maine, and each trip north was part vacations, part recruiting junket. He came across a pitcher-outfielder named Art Brophy while attending a baseball game in Massachusetts.
“Joe had come out to see a guy named Billy Snow,” Brophy said. “He was going to give Billy a scholarship, but I make this play and he ends up talking to me. He kept calling me Billy, and I kept telling him my name was Art.
“Well, he ends up giving me a scholarship.”
At least Justice saw Brophy play before offering him a scholarship. That wasn't the case with Vancho, a two-sport star from Bridgeport, Conn., who was ready to attend the University of Connecticut on a basketball scholarship.
“One afternoon, the doorbell rings and here's Joe Justice standing at my door,” Vancho said. “I had no idea who he was. He hadn't called or anything. He just shows up. He told me that he had heard that I had just broken a New England single-game scoring record, and he wanted to know if I wanted to come to Rollins to play basketball and baseball.”
Justice's collection of athletes came from the mean streets of New England and the mill towns of North Carolina — in contrast to the average Rollins student.
“It was a country club school,” Brophy said.
Said Butler: “We had some guys who grew up in some tough areas. It was very expensive to go to Rollins, and none of us could have afforded it had we not had the scholarships.
“Joe ran with a bunch of rich dudes, and I think he had each one of them pick up the cost of a scholarship. Joe had a lot of influence around town, and he scrounged together enough money to field a pretty good basketball team.”
The baseball team wasn't bad, either. The Tars qualified for the NCAA tournament four straight years, beginning in 1952. They compiled a 22-9-1 record in 1953 and almost made it to Omaha. Rollins got the job done the next year, defeating Virginia Tech in a best-of-three playoff to win the right to make the long train trip to Omaha.
Among the teams the Tars defeated during the regular season was an Ohio State squad that included Heisman Trophy winner Hopalong Cassady and Frank Howard, who later went on to hit 382 homers in the big leagues.
To make it to Omaha, the Tars had to outplay Duke, Florida and Clemson — among the best teams in the South.
“We had already stepped over a bunch of big snakes by the time we got to Omaha, “ Butler said.
Rollins' first CWS opponent was Oklahoma A&M, the Missouri Valley Conference champion, and the Tars pulled out a 9-5 win in 11 innings.
The next night, behind the six-hit, 12-strikeout pitching of Brophy, Rollins handed Missouri, the Big Seven Conference champion, a 4-1 loss. The win was one of 21 that Brophy recorded against just one loss in his Rollins' career.
“Art was one in a million, a real showman,” Vancho said. “He was an excellent pitcher, a guy who could really spot the ball. He wasn't overpowering, but he had a lot of stuff. He was a stylish left-hander.”
Brophy attributed his control to an unusual practice routine.
“As a kid, I would practice pitching with a blindfold on,” he said. “I got so I could usually throw eight of 10 pitches for strikes. I wasn't the biggest guy around, so I knew I needed to have good control.”
After pestering Justice for a chance to pitch, Brophy got it late in the 1953 season. He responded by throwing a three-hitter in a 3-1 win over Miami. He came back in his next outing to throw 16 innings — and almost 200 pitches — in a game against Florida that ended in a 1-1 tie because of darkness.
Victory wasn't the only thing on Brophy's mind that game.
“As a freshman, I picked up money on the weekend by tap dancing at the Moose Hall,” Brophy said. “I usually made around $20 a night, and I had a show set for about 9:30.
“In the 16th inning, Coach Justice came to the mound to ask how I was doing. He thought I was running out of gas. I told him I was fine, but that I had to get out of there soon because I had to go to work. Fortunately, the game ended shortly after that because of darkness, and I made it to work on time.”
At the CWS, Brophy danced through Missouri's lineup in the second-round win, allowing just an unearned run in the second inning.
That advanced Justice's team to face Big Ten champion Michigan State in a battle of unbeatens. The Spartans had been tagged as the pre-tournament favorite.
Michigan State took a 4-2 lead into the eighth inning, but Rollins scored once in the eighth and twice in the ninth for a 5-4 victory. Brophy scored the tying run in the ninth on Fred Talbot's single, and Delton Helms' RBI single produced the winning run.
“Winning those first three games probably should have put us in the final game,” Justice said. “But the way they had it set up, we had to come right back and play Michigan State two nights in a row.”
Under the format used in the 1953, 1954 and 1955 tournaments, the teams that played in the third-round battle of unbeatens were forced to come right back and play again. The Spartans took advantage of the rematch to pull off a 3-2 win in 10 innings.
That left three teams — Rollins, Michigan State and Missouri — with one loss apiece in the double-elimination tournament. Rollins won the draw to gain a spot in the final, then sat back to watch Missouri eliminate Michigan State 4-3.
The Tars were forced to sit some more when rain pushed the championship game back another day. The delay allowed Justice to rethink his pitching plans. He went with Cary instead of Brophy, in part because Brophy could play the outfield and Cary was strictly a pitcher.
“We could have had 18 players on the team, but we could only scrape up 15 for the College World Series,” Justice said. “I should have started Art against Missouri, but Cary couldn't do anything else. I just felt we might need Art to hit.”
Brophy batted three times, getting two hits, after taking over for Cary in the third inning. Missouri collected three of its six hits in the first two innings, scoring once in each inning to take a 2-0 lead. Brophy gave up runs in the fourth and fifth inning, and Rollins managed just six hits off Missouri pitcher Ed Cook in dropping a 4-1 decision.
“We waited for two days to play the title game because of rain,” Brophy said. “We just could not swing the bat like we were capable.”
The Tars left Omaha the day after the championship game, flying to Chicago and then scattering around the country. Several players were members of the Marines Reserves and had to report for duty shortly after the CWS.
Justice, with a senior-laden team in 1955, almost made it back to Omaha, but the Tars lost the district championship game to Wake Forest. Two years later, Rollins began playing in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) instead of the NCAA.
Many of the players from the 1954 team signed professional contracts, but none made it to the major leagues.
Connie Mack Butler played one season in the minor leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals before deciding to attend graduate school at Florida State.
“My mother never wanted me to be a ballplayer,” he said. “Ty Cobb had tried to sign me when I was coming out of high school, and he offered my mother a house and money. My mother wouldn't go for it. After my freshman year of college, the Phillies wanted to sign me, but my wife talked me into staying at Rollins.
“I guess there was something about the females in my life who wanted me to stay in school.”
Butler became a research chemist and eventually started his own bio-technical business. He now does consulting work in his home in Tryon, N.C.
Vancho signed with the Milwaukee Braves and played in the Nebraska State League. Deciding that baseball wasn't going to make him wealthy, he left the game after one season and went into private business in Connecticut.
Brophy played briefly in the Washington Senators' organization before an arm injury ended his career. He went into the entertainment business as a dancer and musician, did some scouting and invented a batting-aid machine. Among his clients was hall of famer Carl Yastrzemski.
Justice coached Rollins' baseball teams until 1971 before turning the program over to one of his former players, Boyd Coffie. Coffie directed the Tars until 1991, when he took a job in the front office of the Colorado Rockies.
Now an NCAA Division II member, Rollins no longer competes with college baseball's “big boys” for a spot in the Division I CWS.
“A lot of things have changed,” Butler said. “The only thing that's the same about the College World Series is the name. Rollins has grown in almost every way possible.
“But I don't know if Rollins will ever reach a point athletically where it can better what a little group of rag-tail athletes did back then. It was our moment in the big leagues, and we almost won it all.”
Contact the writer:
402-679-2298, email@example.com, twitter.com/PivOWH