Hometown Legend Award

1974 Little League Baseball Team

The Jackson-Madison County Sports Hall of Fame is pleased to introduce the first Hometown Legends Award this year. Its purpose is to recognize and honor teams or individuals who have made an exceptional impact on Jackson’s sports history. Email nominations and pertinent information to bethsedberry@gmail.com.   

Exploring an upstairs bedroom when he was 4 years old, Austin Weaver discovered his dad’s Little League scrapbook for the first time. So his dad, Stan Weaver, patiently browsed through the articles and pictures with his son, then left the room. Moments later in absolute awe, Austin looked up at his mom and said, “Daddy must have been the greatest player ever.”   For a dazzling month in 1974, Daddy and his teammates were indeed among the greatest. Jackson’s American League All-Stars advanced to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. that summer, a feat no other West Tennessee team has ever accomplished.   

It was an incredible journey, filled with drama and adventure that provided a treasure of memories for the players, their coaches and families. They were magical days, when 14 Little Leaguers dared to dream of glory, then earned it for all time.   This year is the 50th anniversary of that momentous experience, and the Jackson-Madison County Sports Hall of Fame is pleased to honor the ’74 team with the Hall’s inaugural Hometown Legends Award. The team has never had a reunion, until today.   There were many “firsts” for the squad of 12-year-olds who lived to play ball and knew little about life beyond Jackson. Most had never traveled outside the state, much less visited Florida’s beaches, gone to a Major League Baseball game or visited the White House. Most had never been on an airplane.   

They just loved baseball, and it was do-or-die for Jackson’s All-Stars in every tournament game that summer. Using a single-elimination format, they won 11 consecutive tournament games. Five of their contests were decided by one run, including the state and Southern Regional championships. They beat Farragut-Cedar Bluff, 2-1, to earn Jackson’s first state title since 1963. They defeated Texas, 1-0, for the regional championship and a trip to Williamsport.   Outfielder Ronnie Giddens twice hit a last-inning home run to keep Jackson alive in the Southern Regional at St. Petersburg, Fla. He is the only all-star who had a shot at professional ball, playing four years in the minors.   

“For a bunch of 12-year-olds, we were living high on the hog,” said Giddens, who still lives in Jackson. “We literally thought we were in the big leagues.”   Stan Weaver, who won six tournament games pitching, and Giddens weren’t the only heroes. Curve-ball pitcher Jeff Fleming won six games, and several players made stellar defensive efforts for key outs.   

“There was a lot of luck along the way,” said Fleming, who ended his Little League career with 27 straight victories on the mound. He lives in the Memphis area.   

“There were games when we were down to our last at-bat, but we always thought we could win,” Fleming said. “That was one of the key ingredients. We never quit.”   

Fleming, Weaver and Giddens were joined by Barry Buckley, Bruce Davis, Daryl Dershimer, Perry Franks, Bethel Fuller, Dean Hamilton, Cooper Murray, Don Nelson, Pat O’Keefe, Steve Shelton and Mark Smith. All were 12 except Fuller, 11. Wil Dershimer was head coach, Ed Fleming was assistant coach and Gary Lovejoy was an aide. Coach Dershimer and Smith are deceased.   

Weaver, a hard-throwing right-hander, pitched the first game at the World Series on Aug. 21. He had a one-hitter through the regulation six innings against Venezuela before giving up a leadoff home run in the bottom of the seventh to lose, 1-0.   “I can see that ball going to the fence like it was yesterday,” said Weaver, a former Memphis State football player who lives in Shelby County. Though crushed by the heartbreaking loss, Jackson regrouped to beat Canada, 10-1, and Connecticut, 14-2, and finish fifth in the world. Venezuela placed third, and Taiwan beat California for the championship.   

After the tournament, Jackson’s All-Stars saw the Orioles play in Baltimore, toured Washington, D.C., went to the White House and met President Gerald Ford, then returned home to a hero’s welcome at the Civic Center.   Billy Ray Cox, still a student at Union University in 1974, covered the Little League for The Jackson Sun and went to St. Petersburg and Williamsport, Pa. He later became The Sun’s sports editor and now lives in Florida.   “They were a lot of fun to be around, really great kids,” Cox said. “It was one of the top five things I ever did in the newspaper business, just a great ride.”   The players and coaches scattered. Only four are still in Jackson. But they remain connected by their creation of local baseball lore and the feelings once shared on the diamonds of youth.   “I played football in college in front of nearly 100,000 fans, but nothing has come close to the experience of that summer,” Weaver said. “It was absolutely incredible.”     

In the summer of 1974, confidence was abundant among Jackson’s Little League All-Stars. That started with the pitchers.   No one in Little League threw harder than Stan Weaver, and Jeff Fleming’s curve ball had won him 21 straight games. Weaver led the league that year with two no-hitters, a .621 batting average and 11 home runs. He alternated at pitcher and catcher with Fleming on the Elks team.   Shortstop Daryl Dershimer had hit .557 with five homers in the regular season. All three had played for All-Stars head coach Wil Dershimer on the 19-0 Elks. In fact, half the All-Stars played on the Elks from the time they were drafted in 1971. When those seven were joined by the rest of the American League All-Stars, head coach Dershimer, assistant Ed Fleming and aide Gary Lovejoy knew they had potential. Joining Weaver, Fleming and Dershimer were Barry Buckley, Bruce Davis, Perry Franks, Bethel Fuller, Ronnie Giddens, Dean Hamilton, Cooper Murray, Don Nelson, Pat O’Keefe, Steve Shelton and Mark Smith.   

In the first two tournaments, Jackson cruised to area and district championships. It beat Lexington, 25-0, for the district title. Fleming pitched a no-hitter in that one, and Dershimer hit three of Jackson’s seven home runs.   

The state tournament was at Jackson’s Lions Field. Outfielder Ronnie Giddens’ three-run homer and Weaver’s three-hit pitching led to a 4-1 win over Sparta in the opener.   Jackson scored nine runs in the first inning of the semifinals and crushed Clinton, 28-2, on 24 hits. Then came the first true test. Jackson beat Farragut-Cedar Bluff, 2-1, to earn its first state crown since 1963 and a trip to St. Petersburg, Fla., for the Southern Regional.   Down 1-0 in the top of the sixth, second baseman Mark Smith singled. Then pinch-hitter Steve Shelton was ruled safe on a grounder to first when the first baseman pulled his foot off the bag. One out later, Bruce Davis hit a two-run single down the first-base line, setting up the victory.   

Next stop was Florida sand, but not before players in their uniforms combed the city seeking donations to help pay the bills. Jackson responded favorably as excitement mounted.   There was enough cash for the team to fly to St. Petersburg early and get used to Florida’s August heat. But it was a low-budget excursion. The team slept in tents near the beach and fought nightly wars with raccoons, mosquitoes and lizards. The first day there the players collected a cooler full of sand crabs.   “That night the raccoons got into it and ate everything we had, including all our food for the next day,” said third baseman O’Keefe.   It was a relief when all 13 Southern Regional teams checked into the tournament complex. But living conditions were far from luxurious.   “They put us behind locked gates and wire fences, just like a prison,” Fleming said. “The kids couldn’t see their parents except at the games.”   And if they sneaked out of their barracks after lights out, they would have to deal with a guard dog. Some wanted to escape just to get a good meal.   “The security was unbelievable,” first baseman Murray said. “They wouldn’t let us out of the compound.”   

Finally ready for action, Jackson’s first game at Al Lang Memorial Stadium was an omen of things to come. Weaver, who threw nothing but heat, had his worst outing, walking five and hitting a batter to allow Louisiana three first-inning runs.   He made up for it with a two-run homer in the third. O’Keefe singled home the tying run in the fifth, setting up Giddens’ first dramatic home run. With one out in the bottom of the sixth, he hit a shot over the right-centerfield wall to win it, 4-3.   Alabama and the infirmary were the next opponents. Fleming started on the mound against Alabama but became ill. He gave up three home runs before his exit. For the first time since tournament play began, someone other than Weaver and Fleming had to pitch.   The honor went to reserve Dean Hamilton, who coached third base. Adults weren’t allowed on the field in those days. Hamilton and his curve only allowed seven hits, but five were homers. Alabama had 8 home runs in the game, a tournament record, but Jackson kept pace for a 16-13 victory. In the last inning, with a man on first and two out, Hamilton was drained. So O’Keefe was asked to pitch.   “I promptly walked two straight batters to load the bases,” O’Keefe said. “I had two strikes on the next guy and decided to throw my famous changeup, which meant I would wind up fast and lob the ball. The guy killed it, but Mark Smith made the great (diving) catch at second and threw him out.”   

With Fleming on the disabled list, Shelton got his first start at catcher in the regional semifinals against North Carolina. He responded with three line-drive hits and three runs. Weaver pitched a three-hitter, striking out 14. And Giddens provided the winning run for the second time in three days when he hit a homer over the left-centerfield fence in the sixth to make it 5-4.   That set up a showdown with Texas for the regional championship. Fleming recovered in time to pitch a four-hitter, striking out 10 and walking two in a 1-0 victory. Weaver provided the only run in the second inning. He was hit by a pitch, went to second on a wild pitch, and reached third on O’Keefe’s sacrifice fly. He raced home on another wild pitch and slid under the tag.   

Next stop was Williamsport, Pa., home of Little League baseball. Jackson’s team flew there from Florida and encountered more strict living quarters. But the World Series excitement overshadowed it all.   Venezuela was Jackson’s first opponent, and it featured Alfredo Urdaneta, a tall, muscular, left-handed pitcher who was just as tough as Weaver. The game was Aug. 21, and it turned into a pitcher’s duel. It was scoreless after the regulation six innings. Weaver had only allowed a bunt single and had gotten Jackson’s only hit. Giddens had barely missed a home run that went foul in the sixth.   Venezuela’s Urdaneta led off the bottom of the seventh, worked Weaver to a full count, and sent the next pitch over the left-centerfield wall.   “That was probably the best game I ever pitched,” Weaver said. “That guy had no business even swinging at that ball. It was almost in the dirt. I can see the ball going to the fence like it was yesterday and thinking, ‘Well, we’re not going to be on TV.’ Then I remember trying to keep my composure and not go berserk and embarrass the city. But we all cried.”   “I watched the ball go over the fence, bent down and cried my eyes out,” shortstop Dershimer said. “The ride was over.”   Jackson breezed to fifth place in the World Series with a 10-1 victory over Canada and a 14-2 win over Connecticut.   

When the series ended, all eight teams were taken to Baltimore to see the Orioles play Minnesota. The next day they toured Washington, D.C. and went to the White House. They were President Gerald Ford’s first official guests after he took office following Richard Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal. The team returned to Jackson the following day and was greeted at the airport by 200 fans. Players rode fire trucks in a parade through downtown Jackson and were honored, along with the state-champion American Legion team, at a Civic Center banquet.   

“It’s amazing all the attention we got and what the people of Jackson did for us,” all-star Dershimer said. “We were just kids, but we were treated like royalty.”   

“Something like that may never happen to Jackson again,” Buckley said. “I know I’ll remember it all my life.”   

Most of this story, written by Dan Morris, originally appeared in The Jackson Sun on Aug. 21, 1994. Morris was The Sun’s sports editor at the time. Used by permission.