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True Grit!
1955 Panthers were the underdog 'Hoosiers'

Editor’s note: This is the first of a series about the 1955 GBHS state championship baseball team. Terry Knowles, a member of the 1955 Panthers, wrote the feature and, with teammates, recalls, 60 years later, that glorious season in the history of the GBHS baseball program. Look for part two of the feature in next Sunday’s Tribune.

Dating back to the beginning of GBHS in the early 1900s, the Panther trophy case was barren when it came to state championships.  But that would all change in 1955 thanks to a determined coach and his team of gritty underdogs.

Much like the 1986 sports film Hoosiers, the GBHS baseball team entered the 1955 state baseball tournament as the lowest seed and a huge underdog only to beat two of the state’s largest and dominant teams for its first-ever state championship.  GBHS coach Al Burns performed like the movie’s head coach, Gene Hackman, and defied all odds in sweeping the tournament field.

Coach Burns was always eager to see how his teams would fare when pitted against the major schools in the state with powerhouse teams such as Wyandotte, a team that won the 1953 and 1954 championships, and Wichita North which had won three previous state baseball titles.  No team from western Kansas had ever won nor even challenged for the state baseball championship dating back to the first year of state baseball competition in 1945.

Coach Burns was well known in central and western Kansas for his unique ability to develop local talent and to field winning teams on a consistent basis.  However, Coach Burns did not enjoy statewide standing — until 1955.

It was in the spring of that year, that he had the opportunity to take his GBHS baseball team to El Dorado by finishing second in the regional tournament and qualifying as the eighth and lowest seed in the state tournament.  Great Bend was clearly the underdog and was expected to go home early in the single-elimination tournament.  Prior to 1955, the Panthers always fell short in any sport having to compete against teams in the largest high school category (AA) established by the Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA). Wyandotte and Wichita North had enrollments almost three times that of Great Bend.

As remembered by GBHS pitcher Terry Leek, “We definitely looked like country rednecks compared to the big boys from those other schools. Wichita North dressed like the Cincinnati Reds, wearing gray road uniforms with matching red high-stirrup socks, belts, jerseys with ‘North’ across the front and a big ‘N’ on their caps.  And Wyandotte looked like another major league team with slick, double-knit, white uniforms with script ‘Wyandotte’ angled across the front with red and blue trim and matching caps.”

And how about the Panthers?  “We took the field wearing heavy wool, dirty uniforms with thick black pinstripes and no inscription on the front to identify who we were.  And our caps were a mix of plain black and/or American Legion blue caps,” Leek continued.  “Belts were whatever personal belts that would keep our pants up.  We had only one green, rubberized warm-up jacket which was reserved for whoever was pitching at that time.  And to top it off, the big schools showed up in Greyhound-type busses while we arrived in a worn-out, yellow school bus.”  There was certainly a stark contrast between Great Bend and its big-time competition!

Jack Curtis, Panther shortstop and lead-off hitter, recalled, “We looked so pathetic coming off our outdated school bus that the Wyandotte coach opted to ‘save’ his best pitcher for the championship game.”

However, for the record, defending champ Wyandotte never reached the championship game, having been defeated by GBHS in the semi-finals. After losing,
Wyandotte quietly left the stadium to head back to Kansas City in their sleek chartered bus with their well-rested ace pitcher aboard!

Meanwhile, Great Bend advanced to the state championship game.

The Panthers walked into the stadium at El Dorado seeing the sparkling grass infield and thinking this must be what major leaguers play on every day. Back in Great Bend there was only a dirt infield with rocks that always created unexpected bad hops.

Coach Burns had a monumental pitching challenge in the 1955 state tournament.  The tournament was originally scheduled for three days at El Dorado but rain on Thursday meant that the winning team would have to play one game on Friday followed by a doubleheader on Saturday.  This schedule was a prescription for disaster because Coach Burns’ pitching rotation consisted of only two pitchers--sophomore Terry Leek and senior Larry Markel.  GBHS was faced with the impossible task of winning three games in two days with only two pitchers.

Curtis recalled how Coach Burns concluded his pre-game pep talk prior to taking the field in the opening game to face the powerful team from Wichita North.  “Just remember, those guys put their pants on just like you do--one leg at a time.  Now go out there and do your stuff!”

The tournament would feature three teams from Wichita, two from Kansas City, and one each from El Dorado, Dodge City and Great Bend.  Having finished second in the west regional tournament, GBHS was the 8th seed and pitted against the tournament favorite Wichita North.

Results of the opening round on Friday:

Great Bend 5, Wichita North 2; and El Dorado 1, Wichita East 0;
Dodge City 4, Ward (Kansas City) 3; and Wyandotte 3, Wichita West 0.

Results of the two semi-final games on Saturday:

Great Bend eliminated Wyandotte, 4-1; and
Dodge City eliminated El Dorado, 2-1.

Senior Larry Markel pitched his best game of the year, holding Wyandotte to a single run in the semi-final game.  Markel kept the Wyandotte hitters off balance throughout the game with a combination of curve balls and pinpoint accuracy.  Markel was even credited with a single during one of his three at-bats.  “I was able to get a ‘bloop single’ to right field but I got picked off first base on the very next pitch,” he recalled with a touch of humility and embarrassment.

Great Bend and Dodge City met in the championship game later in the afternoon....both playing their second game of the day.  With only a two-man pitching staff, Coach Burns called on Leek to pitch his second game in as many days and Leek would prove equal to the task.

The championship game was deadlocked at 2-2 when the Panthers struck for eight runs in the bottom of the sixth inning.  Catcher Jerry Emerson opened the inning with a single followed by walks to outfielders Terry Knowles and Harry Eckert.  First baseman Gaylen Sullivan then singled sharply to right for the tie-breaking run followed by shortstop Curtis’ single which produced two more runs.  Bob Durheim, Mack Taylor, and Emerson followed with consecutive hits to complete the eight-run rally giving the Panthers a comfortable lead going into the final inning.  Leek staved off a late surge by Dodge City to earn Great Bend its first-ever state championship.

The 1955 state championship at the AA level remains Great Bend’s one-and-only state AA title. In 1979, KSHSAA established six categories for Kansas high school competition based solely on school enrollment.  After the realignment, GBHS became a 5A school and no longer competes with the larger 6A high schools for state championships.
For Great Bend, 1955 was indeed special.  And just like its counterpart in the movie Hoosiers, the Panthers rose from obscurity to defeat highly-favored opponents and earn a state championship trophy.

Not even Hollywood can write better stories than this one!

COACH ALLEN WARWICK “AL” BURNS: b. 21 Jul 1909 - d. 28 Sep 1995, Great Bend

Few people have had a greater impact on students and athletes in Kansas than Al Burns.  He taught youngsters how to win on the field, in the classroom, and how to be successful in the game of life.  He survived the Great Depression in the 1930s and he passed those lessons and life experiences to untold numbers students and athletes who greatly benefitted from his teachings.

Al Burns played varsity basketball for three years at Kansas State University graduating in 1938 with a degree is education and biology.  He began his teaching/coaching career at Fredonia, a small town in southeast Kansas.  It seems that Coach Burns thrived on turning underdogs into winners.  In 1942, his under-sized Fredonia team won the class A state basketball championship for its first and only state title.  Shortly thereafter, Coach Burns came to Great Bend to teach biology and to coach basketball and baseball.  After 34 years as an educator, he retired in 1972.
Coach Burns’ leadership trademark was the high level of trust and confidence that he placed in his players.  There was one specific play in the 1955 state tournament that epitomized this leadership trait.

Early in the opening game, Wichita North had runners on first and second with no outs and a count of two balls and no strikes on their clean-up batter.  Despite the probability of walking the bases full, catcher Jerry Emerson, in a surprise move, called for a pitchout and promptly picked off the runner at first base.  That play caught the opposition completely by surprise and proved to be the catalyst for the Panthers in their drive to the championship.

Giving the discretion to the catcher to call such a daring play illustrates the unflappable trust and confidence that Coach Burns instilled in his players.  He allowed them to take risks and to perform at their very best.

In 2007, the City of Great Bend built a new baseball field at Veteran’s Memorial Park, located at West 17th and McKinley, and dedicated the facility in honor of the legendary coach naming it Al Burns Memorial Field.  The GBHS baseball teams play some of their home games on this field.