By Trey Williams
Jackie Cook carried a big stick and a bigger smile while powering baseball teams to within a win of the Little League World Series and a state championship at Science Hill.
Cook was the man in the middle of the lineup when the Johnson City National Little League All-Stars won the state tournament and advanced to the Southeast Regional championship game in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1976. The Nationals lost to Tuckahoe (Virginia) with a berth in the Little League World Series on the line.
Five years later, Cook and many of those Nationals teammates, including hard-throwing Mark Elrod, Billy Patton, Jeff Forney and Scott Edwards, were playing for Charlie Bailey’s Science Hill Hilltoppers in Memphis in the state championship game against Germantown Houston. Cook’s quest for a title again came up short, but he hit many long home runs along the way.
“We didn’t win those championships but we won a lot of big games and had a lot of fun,” Cook said. “We played in front of 5,000 people in Memphis. That was the most people we’d ever played in front of.”
Rain lengthened Science Hill’s stay in Memphis for a three-game championship series two extra days.
“We went to Graceland,” Cook said. “And I remember when we lost, Herb Greenlee drove home from Memphis in about four hours. I don’t believe the bus hit anything but the high spots. We was flying back. We’d been down there a good while and ole Herb took her to the house.”
Science Hill teammate Scott Edwards, the uncle of former Pittsburgh Pirate Will Craig, played with Cook on the Little League state champion, too.
“Jackie Cook hit so much better than everybody else that it was phenomenal,” Edwards said.
Billy Patton was Cook’s teammate on the Little League All-Star team, at Science Hill and while playing for Charley Lodes at East Tennessee State in ’83.
“I’d say the only power hitter we had (at Science Hill) was Jackie,” Patton said. “He could hit it a long way.”
Cook said arguably the longest home run he hit was to center field against Tennessee at Cardinal Park.
“I’d struck out four times,” Cook said. “Lodes gave me a swing-away sign and the pitcher hung me a slider. I swung at that ball and my brother found it in the end zone of the football field. It was 430 feet (center field). That slider looked like a beach ball coming in there and I jumped all over it. A lot of people have asked me about that one.”
Cook homered in his college home opener, a 19-8 win against Milligan. He hit a grand slam and a solo home run against Tennessee Tech.
Hitting a baseball wasn’t a problem at ETSU. Hitting the books was another matter.
“I didn’t do the school thing real good,” Cook said. “I wasn’t big on school.”
And he was soon working for a living and hitting tape-measure home runs in softball.
Cook described swinging a baseball bat as a way out of the Keystone projects. He said his brothers Tony and Steve often talked about hating to chase the balls he’d hit in a field in Keystone.
Cook played Little League for the Hammond Organ Dolphins and Wiener King. Bill Cole was his coach. If the lights were out at Keystone’s Steve Spurrier Little League Field, Cole, Cook and Cole’s Golden Retriever, Brandy, would ride a motorcycle to Stratton where the lights were sometimes still on after softball games.
Cook said Little League coaches such as Cole, Henry Joy, Henry Joy Jr. and Doc Whitmore were invaluable influences.
Whitmore coached the Little League team that advanced to Florida. He fondly recalled many players decades later, but none made more of an impression than Elrod and Cook.
“Jack got away with a lot,” Whitmore said. “Jack Cook leaves his mark on you. Mark and Jackie were so likeable. I don’t know if free spirits are the right words, but they had their own set of rules.”
During the Southeastern Regional in St. Petersburg, Whitmore heard two kids from the “mess hall” say “Keystone rules” before starting a game of ping-pong.
“And it was two kids from the Alabama team,” Whitmore said with a loving laugh. “That tells you the kind of charisma Jackie had. I have no idea what the Keystone rules are, but Jackie Cook was such a dynamic force that the boys from Alabama wanted to play ping-pong using the Keystone Rules, too.”
Cook said Whitmore was a humble, caring man.
“You know, I never knew he was a professor at ETSU until I was playing ball out there,” Cook said. “The Joys and Doc were great influences. Doc was something. I loved that man. Doc loved the game and he loved the kids.
“They were good influences on a lot of kids. I didn’t have a lot of good influences in my life. All I knew was to hit a baseball. It got me through a lot.”
Losing that Little League game to Tuckahoe in Florida, Cook said, hurt more than the state championship loss or a 14-13 loss to Tennessee.
“It sure did,” Cook said. “We were that close – a bunch of kids from the projects were that close to the Little League World Series. But boy, we had an awful lot of fun playing baseball.”