Memories of Moyes: The golden era of baseball in Muskegon

By Jim Moyes
Local Sports Journal

The 2013 June Amateur Major League Baseball Draft has once again come and gone and, for what has been true for more than a decade, nary one Muskegon Area baseball player was selected of the 1,218 players picked by major league baseball clubs.

That certainly wasn’t the case during the early years of the MLB draft.

If one were to only judge local talent based on the annual drafting of baseball talent, it is clear to see when the Golden Age of baseball in this area took place.

The Major League draft was first adopted back in 1965 when the Big League hierarchy selected four of our area lads in that inaugural year. Nearly 50 years has passed since that first class of draftees, and this area has never had more than two names added to a draft listing in a single year.

Toss in two Muskegon diamond stars picked in 1966, and one who was signed by the Detroit Tigers in 1964, and one can clearly visualize the outstanding talent produced in our area nearly a half century ago.

The local who penned his signature on a contract in 1964 was the eccentric Ray Newman, signed as a free agent with the Tigers back in 1964. Newman would make it all the way to the big show where he played in the major leagues for three years from 1971-73.

That talented foursome drafted back in 1965 included John Sluka, Ron Jancek, John Huizenga, and Roger Hansen.

Following a sensational all around high school career at Grand Haven High School, Sluka was picked in the 11th round in that first class in 1965.

John can always brag to his grandchildren that he was the 220th player selected in the first year of the draft.

Six picks later the New York Mets selected a guy that had a decent MLB career, Hall of Famer and career strikeout leader, Nolan Ryan.

The St. Louis Cardinals in the 26th round took Jancek, a former Muskegon Catholic Central hurler.

The hard throwing southpaw was drafted out of Weber State College, one of many local athletes who followed (recruited might be a better word) by my longtime broadcasting partner, Weber State grad Gene Young.

Former Big Red catcher, and Western Michigan All-American, John Huizenga surprisingly had to wait until the 39th round before the Tigers finally called his name.

Although he never made it the Big Show, Huizenga did make it all the way to AAA ball, just one step from Tiger Stadium.

Huizenga did advance one level higher in the Tiger Minor League farm system then another catcher who was selected as a free agent with Newman in 1964— current Tiger skipper Jim Leyland.

It should be noted that Leyland was the catcher for his teammate Newman for Lakeland in 1964, while Huizenga had a brief stint in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, a roster that included Leyland and current Tiger coach Gene Lamont.

Newman’s high school teammate, and classmate at Muskegon High, Jim Johnson, fell all the way to the 36th round following an outstanding junior year at Western Michigan University.

Scouts recognized that Johnson was bent on making education his top priority, and he did not sign on the dotted line with Detroit, but would complete his senior year at Western where he was drafted in the 3rd round by the San Francisco Giants the following year.

This would prove to be a sound move on the part of the future Superintendent of Schools at North Muskegon as he posted an unheard of ERA of .054 in the spring of 1967 for the Broncos, and sported a perfect 7-0 record.

Inducted into the Muskegon Area Hall of Fame in 1992, Johnson, more than 40 years after getting his degree from WMU, still holds the all time record for the Broncos in winning percentage (18-2 for .900 pct) and the career leader in ERA at 1.34.

Freshmen were not eligible to compete at the varsity level until 1970 or Johnson conceivably could also have walked away with Bronco career bests in wins and strikeouts.

We have had four Muskegon area players during the draft age that made it to the big leagues, and only Johnson was drafted anywhere near the early rounds.

In fact, Newman and Grand Haven’s Howard Bailey (1978) went undrafted, each signing as free agents.

And don’t you think that Nate McLouth was an absolute steal in the 2000 draft when he lasted until the 25th round?

There was one other Muskegon area resident who also made it the big leagues; John ‘Lefty’ Dobb had a cup of coffee for the Chicago White Sox way back in 1924.

Dobb’s brief two game stints for the ChiSox nearly 90 years ago is still a mystery to me, as well as long time Muskegon area baseball historian Marc Okkonen.

We can find no record that Dobb played even one game in the minor leagues.  ‘Lefty’ Dobb remained an area resident until he passed away here in the port city in 1991 at the age of 89.

Dobb was one of the pioneer coaches in Little League baseball in Muskegon, where one of his ‘star’ pitchers was my long time broadcasting sidekick — Gene Young.

Our four big league pitchers (Dobb, Johnson, Newman, and Bailey) shared one slightly unconventional trait —they were all left-handed pitchers!

The 1960’s boasted not only of many talented individual players, but also produced some outstanding teams, including one team that is currently ensconced in the Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame.

John Sluka played a major role in Grand Haven’s 56 game winning streak in the early 1960’s, a state record that was not broken for 43 years, but the 11th round draft pick back in 1965 had plenty of support on that great Buccaneer nine.

Doug Vanderwall (yet another left-handed pitcher) won 31 straight games during his high school career, and was backed up by another flame throwing pitcher, Roger Wheeler.

Wheeler finished with a career ERA of a miniscule 1.10, including a perfect game thrown against North Muskegon in 1960.

If Grand Haven was the dominant high school team of this era, then surely Harry Potter’s Muskegon Big Reds were a very close second.

These two powerhouses from a half-century ago would meet in a game for the ages.

One would think it would be virtually impossible to pick out one game that would stand the test of time as the greatest game of them all.

But in this ‘ole’ sportscaster’s opinion, the answer is easy.  The date is May 24, 1961, Muskegon vs. Grand Haven, in a game witnessed by more than 1000 fans at old Marsh Field.

The game was full of suspense, but none more so than the Muskegon half of the eleventh inning.  The Big Reds loaded the bases with but one out.

The winning run to end the streak was on third base when hard-hitting Ross Recknagle came to the plate for the Big Reds.

Recknagle executed what he thought was a game winning bunt. Buccaneer first baseman Larry Kieft, however, was alert to the possibility of a squeeze play and quickly tossed the ball to catcher Bob Kent just in time for the force out at home.

Recknagle, in a moment he’ll never forget, stopped a few steps toward first, raising his arms in celebration thinking that surely his bunt was the game winner.

And it should have been.

But the base runner on third didn’t get a good break for the plate and the alert Bob Kent fired to first to double up the surprised Recknagle and end the Big Red threat.

The stunned Big Reds saw Vic Geisler score the winning run in the next inning and Grand Haven had won the biggest game in their school’s history, 7-6.

Vanderwall and Wheeler, were indeed a dynamite 1-2 pitching duo, but what the combination of Muskegon’s Ray Newman and Jim Johnson would accomplish was an absolute rarity in high school sports.

A few short years after leading Muskegon to a 23-1 record in their senior in 1963, these two high school classmates would achieve their dream of pitching in the major leagues.

During the summer months, many of these players would play for teams like the Muskegon Pepsis, a team so laden with talent that they won the state National Baseball Congress tourney back in 1967, upsetting a Grand Rapids Sullivan team that was loaded with retired major league baseball players.

But lets save this team for another Moyes’ memory down the road.

It has now been an unfathomable 13 years since a MLB team drafted a Muskegon area player.

That player selected in the 25th round, Whitehall’s Nate McLouth, is having a banner year as the starting left fielder for the Baltimore Orioles.

Listed below are all the known players selected in the draft since 1965.  Please e-mail me if I inadvertently omitted a local player. (* = played in Major League.)

Year                  Name                           Round           High School
1965                  John Sluka                  11                   Grand Haven
1965                  Ron Jancek                 26                  Muskegon Catholic
1965                  John Huizenga          39                  Muskegon
1965                  Roger Hansen            66                  Muskegon
1966                  Jim Johnson*            36                  Muskegon
1966                  Terry Kirkpatrick       46                  Mona Shores
1967                  Jim Johnson*             3                   Muskegon
1968                  Rod Beckman              9                   Shelby
1971                  Duane Bickel                21                 Orchard View
1978                  Howard Bailey*          FA                Grand Haven
1979                  Larry Williams            23                 North Muskegon
1983                  Matt Suida                    9                   Muskegon
1986                  Bob Cavanaugh           29                Oakridge
1987                  Kip Southland              44                Mona Shores
1991                  Dennis Winicki            9                  Mona Shores
1994                  Stacey Chaipulo            35               Mona Shores
1995                  Adam Bolthouse           41               Spring Lake
1997                  Taco Wood                    22                Muskegon
1999                  Phillip Mixer                 43               Muskegon
2000                  Nate McLouth*            25               Whitehall

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