Legion Baseball: 1969 team completed what it started

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 5, 2009

By Mike London
Complete games have become rarer for modern pitchers than balks.
Starting pitchers haven’t necessarily gotten worse ó or better ó but their role has definitely changed. No pitcher on Rowan County’s current state champions has worked nine innings in a game all season.
Forty years ago, life was simpler and boxscores were briefer. Rowan County coach Joe Ferebee handed the ball to his starting pitcher and didn’t take it back.
“Coach Ferebee was just a fantastic coach and I was lucky to have played for him, but he didn’t like to use a whole lot of relief pitchers,” Legion legend Randy Benson said with a chuckle.
August 12 will mark the 40th anniversary for Ferebee’s 1969 state champs. That team won a title with an iron-willed and rubber-armed staff whose innings-pitched numbers now look like typographical errors.
No one on that 1969 team hit close to .400. No one clubbed more than five homers or knocked in more than 36. But the mound numbers were phenomenal.
There were no mercy rules and no metal bats in 1969, and Rowan players sweated by the gallon in heavy wool uniforms, but it’s not like they played in the deadball era. They were Baby Boomers, boys of the space age. After all, astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon in the middle of the 1969 playoffs.
The oldest member of Ferebee’s four-man rotation was Benson, a lefty who entered the world as Vernon Randall Benson on Dec. 15, 1950. The youngest was Claude Morris Yates Jr., born Jan. 10, 1953. Everyone called the stocky right-hander C.M., and, yes, he also could throw a football.
Benson, whose father, Vern, was a Cincinnati Reds coach in 1969, was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 27th round the first week of June. He stuck around.
“There wasn’t much money involved and I knew I wasn’t ready for pro ball physically or mentally,” Benson said. “It wasn’t a hard decision not to sign.
Benson would sign instead in 1972 when Baltimore took him in the third round after an amazing career at Pfeiffer that included a personal, 23-game winning streak. In his first three pro starts, Benson struck out 29 and walked one. He had serious stuff.
The 1969 Rowan squad hit its low point on June 18. That’s the night Lexington came to Newman Park, smacked seven homers and embarrassed Rowan 21-1.
Ferebee fixed whatever was wrong by handing Benson the ball for the next game. Benson fanned 20 Winston-Salem batters at Newman Park and went the distance. That outing ignited a run of 10 straight complete games. After Benson came North Rowan right-hander Jimmy Paul, East southpaw Donnie Bassinger and East’s Yates, another righty.
“A key to the pitching staff was (catcher) Perry Bernhardt,” Benson said. “With two strikes on a hitter we could throw a curveball. If it was in the dirt, Perry always blocked it.”
With all those complete games, Rowan ripped off 12 straight wins, a spree that clinched the Southern Division of Area III title and erased Thomasville and Greensboro Cone in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Center fielder Barry Curlee had a lot do with taking care of Greensboro. In a three-game sweep, he delivered 13 RBIs. In Game 2, Rowan trailed 3-0 in the ninth when Curlee crushed a grand slam ó a 390-foot drive at War Memorial Stadium. In Game 3, Curlee was 5-for-5 with five RBIs.
“I wonder how many homers Barry would have hit with an aluminum bat,” Benson mused.
A lot more than the five he did swat. Rowan hit only 14 longballs as a team in 1969 ómatching the number Trey Holmes alone has launched in 2009.
Shortstop Cass Safrit, who had batted .537 at West Rowan to join East’s Benson on the All-State team, also hit five homers to tie Curlee for the team lead.
Rowan fell 4-2 in the opener of the Area III championship series to Charlotte Post 9. Rowan was in trouble but Paul, Bassinger, Yates and Benson won the next four ó all complete games.
Bassinger was the No. 2 starter but one of the better No. 2s in history. In 1969-70, he was 19-1 at East. He was 20-5 in Legion ball.
Fans flocked to Newman Park for the playoffs. Benson recalls roped-off sections down both foul lines for Standing Room Only. Paid admissions often topped 3,000.
That fan support helped as Rowan won a tough, six-game series with Gastonia for the Western N.C. title. With the series tied 2-all, Benson pitched a one-hitter and struck out 18 in Game 5.
“It was a total team effort,” he said. “We had chemistry and good defense. Coach Ferebee’s teams were sound. If we got beat, someone had to beat us. We didn’t beat ourselves.”
The 1969 team got leadership from third baseman and N.C. State freshman Kelly Sparger and became part of Rowan’s greatest run. In a four-year stretch from 1968-71, Rowan was state champ twice and runner-up twice.
Rowan played Wilmington for the 1969 state title. Benson pitched a shutout in Game 1 on the road, but Wilmington lefty Dave Sandlin no-hit Rowan in Game 2.
The series moved to Newman Park for the next three. Bassinger won Game 3. Many thought Benson would throw in Game 4 against Wilmington star Mule Reynolds, but Ferebee stuck with Paul. Statistically, Paul was Rowan’s No. 4 starter, but he pitched a three-hitter and won that pivotal game. Benson credits that decision by Ferebee as the key to winning the series.
Game 5 is still remembered. It was 1-1, bottom of the ninth, with two outs, when Benson, Rowan’s pitcher, lined one of Sandlin’s pitches over the left-field wall. Benson paced the team in batting average, but that was his first homer. Calling the game, Marty Brennaman went crazy.
“The most surprised person in the ballpark was me,” Benson said. “I had no idea it was a homer until I got to second base and saw Coach Ferebee jumping four feet off the ground. On paper, Wilmington was better than us, but we had a great coach and we had great fans. As players, we had a lot of heart and determination, and that series was decided between the lines, not on paper.”
Rowan’s run ended in the Southeast Regional in West Palm Beach, Fla., although Benson shut out Greenwood, S.C., in Rowan’s first game. It was his sixth shutout. In his last 50 innings on the mound that season, he allowed one earned run.
Rowan dropped Game 2 despite brilliant pitching by Bassinger. Host team Palm Beach beat Rowan 1-0 on a sac fly in the ninth. Curlee made a perfect throw from center field. Bernhardt blocked the plate and tagged the runner on the hip. The call was safe.
“That runner was stomping off to the dugout and knew he was out until they called him safe,” Benson said. “Big letdown. If we win that one and stay in the winner’s bracket, who knows what might’ve happened.”
Instead, Rowan lost 8-3 in a rematch with Greenwood and was eliminated. Palm Beach won the regional.
Rowan finished 32-9.
Benson was 11-2 with an 0.51 ERA. He had 186 strikeouts and 39 walks in 1232/3 innings. He completed 13 of his 14 starts. Bassinger (10-1) finished all 10 of his starts with a 1.32 ERA. Yates was 5-1 with a 1.65 ERA. Paul was 4-2. The staff turned in 32 complete games.
Pitching philosophies have changed. Rowan’s long run of success hasn’t.