By Terrell Lester
Editor at Large
Editor’s Note: Terrell Lester covered the University of Tulsa baseball team as a sports writer for the Tulsa World and filed daily reports from Omaha, Nebraska, during the 1969 College World Series.
His plan was to create an unobtrusive scrapbook.
It became, instead, a panoramic treatise.
Roger Whitaker has compiled and published an insider’s view of the University of Tulsa baseball program, some four decades after its demise.
Whitaker was the leftfielder for TU in 1969 when a mostly home-grown roster of talent put together a surprising and memorable run to the College World Series championship game.
No other men’s athletics program at TU has come so close to a national championship than that team in the spring of 1969.
Then, at the dawning of the decade of the ’80s, the program was dead. Abruptly and determinately disbanded in 1981.
Now, the captain of that 1969 team has brushed aside the ashes and the dust that have since dulled the sheen of the once-proud, once-incandescent outfit.
Not only has Whitaker reawakened the memories of TU’s 1969 success, but also he has brought to life the long-forgotten past of a program that traces its roots to 1900.
“A View From the Dugout: The History of University of Tulsa Baseball,” is available at Amazon.com in addition to eBay and Barnes & Noble. The 206-page hardcover book is $39.99. Whitaker says that proceeds will be donated to TU athletics.
Whitaker arranged to have books for sale at two events during the Oct. 8-9 TU Homecoming schedule, at LaFortune Golf Course during the TU Letterwinners golf tournament and at H.A. Chapman Stadium, prior to TU-Memphis football game.
“I’m not doing this book for me,” Whitaker said recently as he spread a few volumes across a table inside his home workspace.
“I wrote this book for them, the players.
“Somehow, I was put in a position where I can represent the guys that played baseball all those years at TU.
“I want to give back to the university a little of what I got out of it,” he said. “They gave me a great education. I got a good job out of it. And, the wonderful experience with baseball and all the friends I made during the years.
“I have a passion for the University of Tulsa.”
Whitaker, who turns 74 in October, graduated from McLain High School in 1966 and earned All-American honors during two years as a consistently fine hitter at Northeastern A&M College.
In 1968, he rejoined many of his schoolboy contemporaries at TU as Coach Gene Shell was crafting the blueprint for what would become an elite college program.
Shell was hired away from Edison High School in 1965 to join the football staff of Coach Glenn Dobbs. A state-championship baseball coach at Webster earlier, Shell was handed the reins to TU’s undistinguished program for the spring of 1966.
Part of his recruiting spiel to Whitaker, to all the others, was qualifying for the College World Series.
It was an audacious dream for a program that had no on-campus baseball field.
Practices were held on neighbor-
(Continued on page 15)
(Continued from page 14)
hood peewee fields, on open fields at the Tulsa fairgrounds. Even in the football stadium, Skelly Stadium. Players drove their own cars to practices.
Home games were played at city parks, at LaFortune and O’Brien. In Sand Springs, too.
Shell’s first three teams produced records of 15-9, 19-5 and 24-4. Not exactly headline-makers.
Then came 1969. Whitaker was a senior. A dozen of the 20 players on the roster came from the ranks of Tulsa high schools.
Shell’s recruiting dream suddenly became a record-breaking reality. His audacious recruiting pitches were hitting their marks.
The season included a 21-game winning streak. TU roared into the Top 5 of the national rankings. There was the school’s first Missouri Valley Conference championship.
Fan interest peaked. Crowds demanded that TU schedule games at Oiler Park, home of the Triple-A pro team. All-American laurels awaited third baseman Les Rogers (from McLain) and pitcher Cliff Butcher (from Hale). Whitaker was one of four Golden Hurricane on the all-Missouri Valley Conference team.
TU polished off Oklahoma State, reigning Oklahoma baseball power under Coach Chet Bryan, in two games in the NCAA district playoffs at Oiler Park.
That put TU into the College World Series for the first time in school history.
In Omaha, TU handled traditional powers UCLA and Texas and shut out New York University en route to the championship showdown with Arizona State.
Despite dropping the last game of the season, 10-1, TU had accomplished something no other Golden Hurricane team had: compete for a NCAA national championship.
That is the memory Whitaker wanted to revive when in 2019 he envisioned a modest scrapbook for his teammates. Something of a 50-year memento.
Retired after a 37-year American Airlines career in Information Technology management, Whitaker had become quite proficient at self-publishing keepsake books for his family. Nice little volumes to spotlight grandchildren and a comfortable life.
While planning a reunion of the 1969 team, Whitaker was encouraged by teammates to work up a similar keepsake book for his baseball family.
It was a suggestion that Whitaker fully embraced. He had a scrapbook from his playing days. He gathered scrapbooks from others.
Suddenly, as word spread among TU ballplayers from earlier years, Whitaker’s flicker became a flame. Then a wildfire.
He had planned a book of some 50 pages. Concentrate on 1969. Maybe include his junior season of 1968.
But there was so much more to TU baseball. Shell took the Golden Hurricane back to the College World Series in 1971. Finished third. Won a school record 44 games in 1972.
Players from those teams offered their stories, their scrapbooks, their memories.
Whitaker sought, and received, help from the TU athletics department. Local sports historian Wayne McCombs contributed insights. Francis Shell served up her husband’s scrapbooks, notebooks and memorabilia following his death in October 2020.
As 2021 turned to spring, Whitaker had collected a library of information, flashbacks and numbers. He was able to track TU baseball from its origins in 1900 through to its dissolution in 1980-81.
His book plans took a major turn.
In the beginning, he was looking just to reach base.
Today, he has cleared the bases, hitting a home run with a treasure trove of anecdotes, photographs, newspaper clippings and, the lifeblood of baseball, statistics.
Whitaker has pulled together an endearing and enduring portrait of a coach and his players.
Shell, a veteran of the Korean War, was a feisty, give-no-quarter coaching mystic. Players respected him. Opponents feared him. No one out-worked him.
He was a one-man coaching staff. No assistant. No staff. The buck stopped at his feet.
He took TU from also-ran status to the No. 1 ranking in the baseball world.
As Whitaker writes: “He was our mentor and kind of a second dad to all of us. To say we played for coach Shell is quite an honor.
“He may push you hard, cuss you out, threaten you, and live a lifestyle that was just as tough. But, beneath all that was a man with a big caring heart.”
Shell, with his 450 wins over 15 years at TU, gave Whitaker a solid foundation from which to launch this tour de force.
The players, the teammates, the brotherhood provided the finishing touches.
From Whitaker’s perspective in the TU dugout, it is a splendid View.
TU Baseball Greatness Highlighted in Former Player Roger Whitaker’s Classic on Greater Tulsa Reporter