Pirates' Defy Odds In Championship Run
April 25, 2011
by Sam Hickman
Charlie Johnson, a former East Carolina catcher who was a part of the 1961 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) National Championship team, wrote a poem after the Pirates claimed the title that summer in Sioux City, Iowa. The last line reads, "Yes we'll carry the memory with us, until our dying day; of when the East Carolina Pirates won the N.A.I.A." Johnson and other members of the "Pirate Nine" overcame all odds in the '61 season and it culminated with the ultimate prize, a national title.
East Carolina College entered the NAIA Baseball Championships with an impressive 18-3 record. However, the "Bucs," as they were often called by sports writers and broadcasters, ran into some challenges when planning for Sioux City. The college was faced with the difficulties of raising money for the trip, so the 13 players who made the trek to the Midwest had to leave four teammates behind in Greenville.
In present day, it would be unheard of for a college team to fight for a crown, especially a national one, with a limited roster. However, that was the bleak reality of the times in 1961 and a microcosm that helps demonstrate the metamorphosis that has taken place in collegiate athletics. Before the campaign opened, nobody predicted the Pirates would make any significant noise in the post-season, but defying expectations was what the team did best.
Earl Boykin, a member of the 1961 team and resident of Wilson, N.C., explained some of the difficulties that ECC faced as a program.
"A lot of the other teams, especially in Sioux City, had four or five scholarships and we only had two," Boykin smiled as he remembered the dog days of '61. "When we got out there and saw all the other teams, they had more players, were more organized and had nice-looking uniforms. To be honest, we never thought we could win it until we did."
The Diamond Bucs made the trip with only nine regular position players and four pitchers. Boykin was one of the pitchers. But he had thrown just two innings all season leading up to the tournament. As if the deck was not stacked high enough against the Pirates, shortstop Glenn Bass was injured early in the tournament, forcing head coach Jim Mallory to play pitcher Lacy West in left field.
Undermanned, injured and playing with a mix-and-match lineup, ECC went on a run that would shock the country and leave an indelible mark on the annals of East Carolina baseball history.
East Carolina opened its tournament run with an 8-4 victory over Winona (Minn.) State. They then faced who they thought to be the toughest team in the bracket - Sam Houston State from Huntsville, Texas. SHSU had a very successful baseball program and had advanced to the NAIA World Series a year before it squared off against the make-shift group from the tiny town of Greenville. Coming off a dominant 10-0 win over Defiance (Ohio) in the first-round, Sam Houston ran into a hot West. He handled the powerful Sam Houston lineup effectively and was the beneficiary of a Cotton Clayton sixth-inning grand slam as ECC went on to defeat the Bearkats 7-4.
After day two, the Bucs and Grambling were the only two teams left without a loss.
The third-round contest pitted the two undefeated squads against one another and what followed arguably ranks as the greatest pitching performance in East Carolina post-season history. Larry "Pumpsie" Crayton, a sharp lefty who was the winner of the Winona State game, came back to the mound and delivered once again - striking out 19 Grambling batters to set a NAIA record still intact today. According to the NAIA website, one other 19 strikeout performance has been recorded since then, but it was in a 12-inning contest, so two separate records have been distinguished. With "Pumpsie" mowing through the Grambling hitters and some timely hitting from the Pirates, ECC advanced with a 9-4 victory.
East Carolina was two games away from winning the championship, but as impressive as they had been in the opening rounds, it still seemed an outside shot for them to win it all.
The task became even more daunting in the next game.
The Bucs were matched up against Omaha (Neb.) University and its ace, Barry Miller. Miller entered the contest with a perfect 9-0 record and Omaha had reached the title game just two years prior in 1959. In all post-season tournaments, coaches are forced to make decisions that can make-or-break their team's season and Mallory was faced one regarding who he would start on the mound for ECC.
The Pirate skipper wanted to save West and Nathan Greene, a tough right-handed hurler, for the championship round on Saturday. He chose to start Boykin, who, again, had only recorded six outs during the entire spring.
"Country," as Boykin was called by his teammates, responded with another pitching performance seldom been matched throughout the years of Pirate baseball. He out-dueled Miller with a 15-strikeout performance in which he used a devastating curveball to keep the Omaha hitters off-balance for nine innings. After giving up three runs in the second frame, Boykin retired the next 19 batters he faced until finally giving up a single in the eighth. In all, he pitched nine innings, scattered five hits, three runs (one earned) and walked one in his first start of the season.
In an article that ran in the Sioux City newspaper following Boykin's masterpiece, there was a story that after the junior from Wilson gave up the early runs partly due to ECC errors, Mallory stormed in the dugout and reassured his ballclub.
"Now don't you boys get tight out there," said Mallory trying to calm his team down. "Just be loose and `Country' will do all the rest."
Infielder Floyd Wicker led the Pirate charge in roughing up Omaha's ace with a solo home run and two-run triple. The 11-3 rout sent the Pirates into the title round.
Sacramento State had defeated Grambling earlier in the day in an elimination game, which meant ECC would take on the California school to decide the champion. Because the Pirate Nine was undefeated and the Hornets had one loss, Sacramento would have to beat ECC twice to claim the trophy.
On a lighter note, Boykin shared that one of the perks of the winning streak to start the tournament was getting to drive into town in a courtesy car. Members of the teams which had substantially better finances than ECC had the chance to cruise around Sioux City, but as they were eliminated, gave the Pirate players the cars to enjoy for the last few days.
Mallory's decision to throw Boykin proved genius, as he now had West and Green rested, and also had the option to use Crayton in a relief role. However, the post-game celebration was put on hold by Sacramento State, who pounded the Pirates 14-5 in the first game.
One would very rarely see a pitcher stay in the game today after giving up eight runs in the second inning and four more in the fourth and Boykin vividly recalled Mallory coming out for a conference at the mound with his starter West.
"He went out there and told Lacy he didn't care if they (Sacramento) scored 100 runs, you're not coming out of this game," Boykin chuckled while re-telling Mallory's quip.
Facing certain defeat, there was no reason for Mallory to waste any more arms before the deciding game later that night. The Pirates actually requested the game be called because the outcome had all but been decided, but Sacramento wanted to continue in hopes that ECC would go deep into an already paper-thin bullpen and become tired for the second tilt. Eventually, the game was completed and nine innings were standing between the Pirates and Hornets before one would be awarded the hardware.
As it had done all year, East Carolina was not fazed by the nine-run defeat in its first chance against Sacramento. In the second contest, the Pirates jumped out to an early lead they would never relinquish in a 13-7 victory. Behind Greene's brilliant two-hit, eight-inning performance and a barrage of Pirate hits, the triumph gave them their first and only national championship in the history of the program. Six unearned runs by the Hornets in the final frame made the score more respectable, but the result was never in doubt.
The Pirates had won it all.
Yes, the same squad that had only 12 players by the end of the tournament and the same team that played pitchers in the outfield because it had no other options.
East Carolina may have been the last team picked to win the 1961 NAIA Baseball Championship, but as it is often said in explaining unexpected results, "that's why they play the games."
Six Pirates were included on the all-tournament team: Crayton (pitcher), Clayton (outfield) and Wicker (third base) earned first-team designation, while Johnson (catcher), Bass (shortstop) and Jim Martin (infielder) all received honorable mention awards.
Additional 1961 Team Notes:
Head coach Jim Mallory and assistant Earl Smith are also members of the ECU Hall of Fame. Mallory served as the baseball coach from 1954-62 and owns the school's all-time highest winning percentage with a 161-60 (.729) overall record. Smith enjoyed an illustrious career as a player and coach at East Carolina for over 40 years, playing football, basketball and baseball for the Pirates and serving as head basketball coach in addition to his baseball duties. He eventually took over the top diamond position and led ECU to four consecutive Southern Conference Championships from 1966 to 1970.
Floyd Wicker was the only member of the '61 squad to make it to the Major Leagues. He made his debut on June 23, 1968 as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals before spending time with the expansion Montreal Expos in 1969 and finishing his career with the Milwaukee Brewers and San Francisco Giants.
East Carolina advanced to the NAIA National Championships again in 1963, where it earned a third-place finish. In the tournament, the Pirates own an all-time record of 5-3.
ECUPirates.com would like to extend a debt of gratitude to Early Boykin, Dennis Barbour and all others that contributed to this article.