By Trey Williams
Seventy years after winning the TSSAA’s first state baseball tournament, Science Hill’s surviving three members could be described as the boys of Indian summer.
There’s a timeless twinkle in their eyes when they reminisce about the long shadow they cast in 1947.
Pitcher Billy Joe Bowman, shortstop Bobby Rowe and third baseman Bobby “Hobe” Leonard are the only living members of a Hilltoppers team which went 21-2 en route to the inaugural state title. Science Hill beat Memphis Christian Brothers 3-0 in the championship game. Leonard and Bowman each scored a run to help clinch what was the first of three state championships for John Broyles, who won back-to-back titles during Steve Spurrier’s junior and senior seasons (1962-63).
In the late ‘40s and ‘50s state champions advanced to the Southeastern Regional. It was in Jackson, Mississippi in 1947, and the Hilltoppers finished runner-up to host Jackson after a heartbreaking 1-0 loss in 10 innings.
The game was decided when pitcher Ralph Carrier slipped fielding a squeeze bunt in the 10th. Talk about your hard-luck loser. Carrier allowed two hits and struck out 17 in 10 innings.
Science Hill won the Southeastern Regional two years later when Bowman was a senior. Bowman went on to pitch at Tennessee. He won two games and homered while helping the Vols finish runner-up to Oklahoma in the 1951 College World Series, and went 56-36 in the minors while pitching in locales such as Rochester, Peoria and Houston, where he late spent parts of four decades as a coach with the Astros.
Catcher John Mackley played nine seasons in the minors. Carrier, who got the victory in the state championship game, pitched three years in the minors.
Rowe played shortstop and batted cleanup for Jim Mooney at East Tennessee State and played in the semipro Burley Belt League after opting for dental school.
Leonard had signed and was playing exhibition games with the Appalachian League’s Kingsport Cherokees when he got drafted into the Army, but the base-stealing whiz ended up batting leadoff in the premier league in Germany, where he once stole home to win a game in the 17th inning. The St. Louis Cardinals had sent a letter to Leonard and Rowe about the possibility of starting a minor-league career in Johnson City.
“Broyles was a good coach, a good man,” Leonard said. “But there just happened to be a good group that came through there within a three- or four-year period.”
The nucleus of players on the ’47 team had played together since grade school. Howard McCorkle was the Science Hill principal in ’47 and eventually became superintendent.
“When we were young he had a little ole trailer on the back of his car, not very big, and he would transport us around all over town for all of our games,” said Rowe, who once stole home in a 7-6 win against Tennessee High.
Johnson City advanced to the four-team American Legion State tournament in 1946 – along with Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga. Tennessee Motor Company sponsored Johnson City’s team, which was managed by Broyles and included seven of the starters from 1947 state championship team.
“I guess the main thing was we’d just always played ball together growing up,” Rowe said. “It wasn’t anything new. I don’t guess John Broyles really told us much of anything. We’d just get out there and play.”
Rowe, who also credited Science Hill athletic director Sid Smallwood for being a positive influence in the athletic department, recalled injuring his leg on a wooden base stabilizer during a summer-league game at Optimist Park. McCorkle took him to the hospital and then home with a cast on his leg.
“He put me on his shoulder and carried me in so that my mother wouldn’t get too alarmed,” Rowe said. “And later on, of course, I became a dentist and he was a patient of mine. And he got feeble and I always wished that I could get him on my shoulder and carry him. He was a fine man, a really fine man.”
So was Broyles, though he seemed to do most of his coaching when his players were helping him bail hay or work in tobacco at a farm where Target and Shoney’s are now located.
“Our pay was – when we got through we’d get two ice-cold watermelons and we’d go to Cox’s Lake,” Rowe said.
Carrier and Bowman, whose younger brother Ernie Ferrell Bowman played in the 1962 World Series for the San Francisco Giants, were the ’47 Hilltoppers’ bread and butter. Bowman was a somewhat wild power arm despite being a sophomore and perhaps 5-foot-11 and 140 pounds.
Bowman no-hit Chattanooga Central in a 10-0 win in the regional championship to get the ‘Toppers to the state semifinals and had a one-hitter going through 5 1/3 innings in the semifinals – a 1-0 win against Franklin. Carrier got the victory in relief against Franklin after Bowman had struck out 11 and walked eight before exiting with a blister on his finger.
Carrier was a curveball specialist, the traditional “12-6” curveball.
“We called it a ‘drop ball,’” Rowe said. “Ralph Carrier’s drop was something. If he got two strikes on a guy it was over for him.
“I tell you, when you got behind Billy Joe you didn’t worry too much. You could go to sleep out there, because he was gonna strike ‘em out. I can still see him throwing that fastball and hearing that mitt pop. It really, really was something. When we had him and Ralph Carrier up there I didn’t worry too much.”
Bowman struck out 21 against Knoxville in a 9-3 regional title win that clinched a state tourney berth in Memphis for Science Hill in ‘48.
Of course, Carrier and Bowman both had confidence in the fielders behind them. Rowe and Leonard were dependable on the left side of the infield, Mackley was beyond his years behind the plate and center fielder Willis
Sexton might’ve been the most natural all-around player on the team.
“Willis Sexton was an outstanding ballplayer,” said Bowman, whose family shared a multi-unit home with a community bathroom with the Sextons on Fairview Avenue for part of their childhood.
Sexton’s free-spirited ways might’ve prevented him from a significant career beyond high school.
“Sexton was a natural,” Rowe said. “He could do about anything. And I think he did about anything too, just to tell you the truth.”
Leonard helped keep the team loose but feisty. He was nicknamed Hobe in reference to argumentative
Appalachian League manager Hobe Brummitt. Leonard once angered Tennessee High with a “hot dog” play while leading the Vikings by a wide margin. He fielded a hard-hit ball at third base and flipped it to Rowe – just as he’d told him he was going to do.
“We had ‘em about 9 to 1,” Leonard said. “I said, ‘Let’s have a little fun. If they hit one to me I’m gonna turn around and throw it to you and you throw him out.’ He said, ‘Don’t you do that, Hobe.’ I said, ‘They better not him one to me or I’m gonna turn around and throw it to you.’
“Well, sure enough, they hit one to me. He had to throw it to first. Their coach got mad.”
Rowe smiled: “Hobe knew who had the better arm.”
A grinning Leonard replied: “I’ll give him that.”
Leonard had the better legs, which earned him a rare green light from Broyles on the basepaths.
“Broyles would tell ‘em all, ‘Nobody runs, nobody steals unless they get the signal from me,’” Leonard said. “He said, ‘Hobe’s the only one that’s on his own. He goes when he wants to go.’”
Leonard stole three bases and essentially delivered a walk-off inside-the-park single in a win against West Fulton (Georgia) in the 1947 Southeastern Regional in Jackson, Mississippi, according to the Associated Press: “Leonard drove in two runs with a single to tie the score and kept running as the catcher pegged into the outfield trying to tag him on the bases. He scored the winning marker when the catcher dropped a throw.”
Leonard noted a recent game during which the St. Louis Cardinals middle infielder tried to apply a quick swipe tag but missed because a baserunner pulled his arms back to dodge the tag while making a head-first slide.
“I was the first I ever saw do that,” Leonard said. “In one of the articles my mom (Nell) told the press, ‘I always taught Bobby not to ever steal.’ She said, ‘Look at him now.’”
The 1947 Southeastern Regional runner-up run included a 7-5 win against Fort Lauderdale, which had future college basketball coach C.M. Newton. He walked 11 in 5 1/3 innings in Fort Lauderdale’s 9-6 loss to eventual champion Jackson.
Other Hilltoppers starters on the ’47 team were first baseman Louis Copp, right fielder Pete DeLoach and left fielder Dick Shepard. The lettermen included Jack Chinouth, Olin Clark and Richard Williams.
Copp’s line-drive single to right scored Shepard for a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the fifth in the 1947 state championship game. Shephard had reached on an error.
Sexton’s long single to left scored Leonard and Bowman in the seventh. The championship went the scheduled nine innings. All preceding games were scheduled for seven.
Losing pitcher Mark Freeman had entered with a 12-0 record for Christian Brothers, which bounced back to win the state title in 1948.
“I believe we gave him his first loss,” Bowman said.
The state championship put Science Hill on the map. New uniforms and bigger letters were part of the reward. So was the community’s embrace.
Broyles was known as a players’ coach. He didn’t overanalyze. Mackley called pitches.
And Broyles allowed a relatively loose atmosphere, at least for that era. Broyles’ son, the batboy, was the victim of this relaxed setting after a game night game.
The batboy always wanted to ride up front on the bus and, it seemed, always did. So some players acted like they were racing him to the seat one night and he dashed up through the darkness and jumped in the seat laughing – at least until he figured out they’d covered the seat in mustard.
“I can still see him running and jumping up those steps and grabbing that rail and turning around laughing at us,” Rowe said. “Well, when he turned around that time he was smothered with mustard. We had some fun. …
“Every player from that picture is gone but the three of us. But I can still see a lot of those times like they were yesterday.”