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The Trailblazing 1970-71 Mississippi State Bulldogs: Everything Great Still Has To Start Somewhere

Updated: May 4


Now and Then: not just the last Beatles song, the start-of-an-era 1970-71 Mississippi State Baseball Teams (MSU Athletics/College Baseball Central photos)


By Doug Kyle


The Mississippi State baseball squads from 1970 and 1971, which captured back-to-back Southeastern Conference Championships and in the latter season did what none of their maroon-and-white-uniformed predecessors had—win an NCAA district playoff and advance to the College World Series in Omaha, NE—were honored recently at Dudy Noble Field, a reunion coordinated by retired baseball media relations director Joe Dier and presented on the occasion of Super Bulldog Weekend.


Included in the group were former pitchers Gene “Whoopstick” Henderson, who on May 4, 1970 threw the first no-hitter at the relatively new ballpark now known as the “Carnegie Hall” of college baseball stadiums; and Jerry Thompson, who threw the second DNF no-hitter less than a year later, won the deciding NCAA tournament game that sent the Bulldogs to the College World Series for the first time, and started the CWS opener for MSU there.


Ted Milton, still second for career triples in the MSU record books; Dave Phares, whose sacrifice fly drove in the lone run that beat Tennessee for the first of the two SEC crowns and walk-off home run won the momentous District 3 Final over Georgia Tech 5-2; and All-American shortstop Bobby Croswell, who finished up his professional career with the New York Mets organization in his hometown of Jackson, MS, were also among those there.


Back Where It All Began-The skyline of Dudy Noble Field has changed over the years, but the members of the 1970-71 Mississippi State Bulldogs baseball teams, recognized prior to the Super Bulldog Weekend SEC series with Auburn, walked out onto the pristine infield grass to the same cheers and applause they heard in that same spot more than a half century before. (MSU Athletics Photo)


As we reach the 54th anniversary of Henderson’s milestone no-no tomorrow, we take a look back at both the record and the teams that not just continued the baseball championship tradition at Mississippi State (that now stretches 9 consecutive and 12 of 13 decades), they took it to another level that enabled names like Clark, Palmeiro, Masters, Bednar, Sims, Allen, and Jordan to attain the ultimate success and household familiarity they’ve enjoyed.


Above, as a packed house looks on, Ted Milton (25) is congratulated by teammates at Dudy Noble Field during the 1970 Southeastern Conference baseball playoffs. Below, as the throw home gets away, Jocko Potts (29), after tripling, scores on a Dave Phares sacrifice fly, the only run of the deciding 1-0 third game of the playoffs, which gave Mississippi State the first of two consecutive SEC crowns for the 1970-71 seasons. Capacity record-breaking crowds became the norm, especially after the installation of lights during the 1972 season and the arrival of Ron Polk in 1976, who was introduced to MSU and Starkville, and made his first Dudy Noble appearance, in 1973 as the head coach of Omaha-bound Georgia Southern. (MSU Athletics photos)


Consider this: the excitement, enthusiasm, and community pride generated by the consecutive SEC crowns, and breaking through to Omaha, prompted Mississippi State and the city of Starkville, MS, to seek and attain hosting the NCAA District 3 playoffs at Dudy Noble Field 1973-74, which led to the school and the community getting their first look at a dynamic young coach who brought his Georgia Southern team to town both years, and left with a ticket punched to Omaha the first time, the one and only Ron Polk.


Above, as a sign marks the spot where Humphrey Coliseum was later built, Mississippi State baseball players practice on an early Dudy Noble Field, literally carved out of a hillside over two years by a group led by Assistant Coach Tom D'Armi. Below, facilities were still relatively modest compared to present-day Dudy Noble Field even after the installation of lights in 1972, a donation by E.B. "Dutch" McCool to reward the 1971 team for their back-to-back SEC championships. (MSU Athletics photos)


When the 1971 team was congratulated in the locker room after a win by long-time MSU benefactor E.B. “Dutch” McCool, who offered to reward the program for its success, the immediate response and request was asking for the lights that made their Dudy Noble Field debut during the following season.


The team that had been unable to practice or play at home under lights prior to being swept at LSU in three night games to start the conference season returned the favor just a week later, by sweeping the Tigers right back in three daylight games at Dudy Noble, a runs-scored difference in the two three-game series of 2 to 20 for the Bulldogs and 14 to 7 for the Tigers. The ability to prepare and compete under lights was both a necessity and a competitive advantage, as well as permitting so many more fans to see the Bulldogs play at home, a tradition that has steadily grown and now dominates NCAA campus attendance records (24 of the top 25 crowds all-time, both regular- and post-season games).


“I stayed in touch with Coach (Ron) Polk through the years, and he would always tell me ‘Jerry, you guys started all this,’ “ Thompson recalls. On the occasion of his no-hitter, thrown against Illinois Wesleyan, a frequent opponent of the Bulldogs during the days of Head Coach Paul Gregory, the game was played about the same time as the spring football game at nearby Scott Field. Thompson remembers his future father-in-law, a football die hard, was at that game and did not witness his feat, apologizing later to Thompson for the absence.


The game was not broadcast, so many fans back then, whether they were also at the football game or just didn’t get to campus that day, got the word about the baseball results from famed MSU voice-behind-the-microphone Jack Cristil, as part of his radio broadcast during halftime of the football game. "And this coming in from Dudy Noble Field, Jerry Thompson has just thrown a no-hitter..." one can almost imagine Jack's distinctive voice reporting to his audience.


And coincidentally, Thompson threw the first game of a weekday doubleheader against Arkansas, a 6-0 win, that preceded Henderson’s no-hitter (1-0) against the Razorbacks, more than two decades before they would move from midweek opponent to weekend conference foe.


Thompson emerged as a reliable force on the mound for the 1971 team, winning not only the District 3 Final 5-2 over Georgia Tech (the day after Tech beat State 20-8 to force the deciding game) but also starting the first game in Omaha, against Tulsa and future Major League All-Star pitcher Steve Rogers, a 5-2 Golden Hurricane win.


Thompson doesn’t recall a lot about his no-hitter but does remember his curve ball garnering a bunch of strikeouts, four in an inning one time when his catcher dropped a third strike that would have been Out 3. He’d come close to a no-hitter in high school, once throwing three consecutive one-hitters, and finally got his day. He speaks about the trip to Rosenblatt Stadium, the lack of opponent information, and what awaited them on arrival.



Henderson remembers a few more details from his no-hitter, a 1-0 win that had a huge threatening moment right at the end, and speaks about that and the overall chemistry of the teams that went 64-20 overall, 24-9 in SEC regular season games, 4-1 in playoffs:



*****

Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Gene Henderson, Jerry Thompson, the 1970-71 Mississippi State baseball teams, Mississippi State Athletics, Joe Dier, and Travis Rae of Mississippi State Baseball.

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