Bobby Cox, the winningest manager in Atlanta Braves history, reminisced in the Braves dugout, "Selma and Fresno were as good a place to grow up as a kid could ever want. It was a sports-orientated farming area. You could play a high school football game on Friday night and take batting practice Saturday morning and that's just what we did in those days. I was lucky to have such a great setting for family life there, and, of course, if you liked sports, it was year roundbecause of the weather. A lot of great athletes came out of that area and, right away, I think of Bob Mathias and Rafer Johnson, the decathlon champions."Bobby Cox believes it was just that everybody thought about sports in the Central Valley in those days. "All the farmers loved sports and we had the major colleges that took a lot of our athletes...Scholarships were a big deal and, if you were lucky enough, you could get a free education, so there was a reason to play sports, but mostly it was just fun."
The former Selma High School athlete continued to play baseball at Reedley College and, in 1959, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Bobby and his professional career was underway. He was in the Dodger system for seven years and was traded to the Braves. Atlanta traded him to the New York Yankees in 1967 where he played third base throughout the late 1960s. After his playing days were over, Bobby became a coach in the Yankees farm system. In 1976, Cox led the Syracuse Chiefs to the Governor's Cup, the award given to the top team in Triple A baseball. In 1977, Bobby was the Yankees first base coach for Billy Martin when the Yanks beat the Dodgers, four games to two in the World Series. In 1978, Bobby got his first major league manager's job with the Atlanta Braves. In 1982, he was hired by the Toronto Blue Jays where he led that franchise to their first American League East championship in 1985 and won the AL Manager of the Year Award. In 1986, Ted Turner coaxed Bobby back to manage the Braves and that's where the fourth most successful manager in the history of major league baseball would stay for the next two decades. Under Bobby Cox, the Atlanta Braves have won fifteen National League division championships, fourteen of them consecutively plus an NLPS championship and a World Series in 1995. Going into the 2009 season, Bobby had won 2,336 major league games, fourth on the all-time list, and became the sixth manager ever to manage over 4,000 games. He was the National League Top Five All-Time
Manager of the Year in 1991, 2004, and 2005. Bobby has also been named The Sporting News Manager of the Year eight times in 1985, 1991, 1993, 1999, and 2002 through 2005. Bobby Cox gives special credit for his career to Allen Cropsey, his coach at Selma High School. "Al was a truly amazing guy, a great coach and mentor, and was very special in my development," says Bobby. He also notes many teammates and opponents he knew from his days playing under the San Joaquin Valley sun such as Jim Maloney, Dick Ellsworth, and Dick Selma. "Jim Maloney was an awesome pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, but I remember him as a good hitting shortstop, who had a rocket arm to first base. You could tell he was going to be a great one," added Bobby. Another outstanding player from Fresno High was Pat Corrales, who also had a successful major league career as a player, manager, and coach with Bobby and the Atlanta Braves. "We talk about it quite a bit here in our old age," Bobby laughed, "We miss it down there in Fresno. I'm sure it's changed a lot since we grew up, but those were really great days. Pat talks about Ollie Bidwell and Pete Bieden all the time, and I'm always talking about my old coach, Alan Cropsey, my baseball coach, and Gordon Johnson, my Selma High football coach, so it's many days there we spent in sports and just sports, period. Looking back, I remember lots of terrific players from our area, but I also remember that we blessed to have so many good coaches as well." Bobby and his wife, Pam, have eight children and live in Marietta, Georgia.
MacDonald spanned the entire gamut during his forty-five year association with high school athletics. His career began as a coach at Fowler High School in 1933. He moved into the Fresno school system in 1934. He was the line coach for Erwin Ginsburg at Fresno High School for several years and then became the athletic director and later became principal of Edison High School from 1946 until 1964. In 1964, he accepted a three-pronged position with Fresno City Unified School District which included being the director of physical education, the commissioner of athletics, and the coordinator of a noon time assistant's program. Four years later, he gave up those tasks and took the post of Central Section CIF Secretary. He died in 1978 just a few weeks from his announced retirement. MacDonald was a graduate of Occidental College and did post-graduate work at the University of Southern California. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
Leonard "Mickey" Masini was the "dean" of the North Yosemite League coaches when he retired in 1966 after eleven years at Edison High School at the age of forty-four. Masini stayed at Edison as the athletic director until 1980. Masini was a fullback in the fabled Fresno State back field nicknamed the "Phantom Four" in 1942 on a Jimmy Bradshaw team that lost only one game and was one of the highest scoring teams in Bulldog history. Triggered by quarterback Jackie Fellows, who was named to Bill Stern's All-American first team, Masini was flanked by halfbacks Jack Kelley and Lou Futrell. Masini also played linebacker on defense for a team that wasn't scored on in seven of its ten Games.
As World War II was heating up, Masini and most of his teammates joined the Armed Forces. Following their discharges, Futrell transferred to USC in 1946, but Masini, Fellows, and Kelley returned to Fresno State. The glow that surrounded the 1942 team was gone; time away from the game and the aftermath of being soldiers and sailors was difficult to overcome. Bradshaw resumed his coaching job and had high hopes. Masini was a constant who had bulked up to about 230-pounds. He was a tough two-way performer and the team finished 8-4.
Masini played one year for the San Francisco backup for the great Norm Standlee and a year with the Los Angeles Dons. His urge to coach won out. He returned to school and got his teaching degree. Caruthers High School was his first coaching stop in 1951 and his team captured the league championship in 1952. Masini moved to Kingsburg in 1953 and won the Valley Championship with a team powered by the future decathlon Olympic champion Rafer Johnson and future USC All-American and All-Pro tackle Monte Clark. Clark remembers Masini as a very tough coach. "Often when he was telling us about blocking or tackling, he would put on a helmet and show us what he meant." In 1954, Masini returned home and was an assistant for former teammate Futrell at Edison High. He took over the Tiger program in 1955. That season, the Tigers tied Madera for the NYL title and the following year, they won the title outright. Vestee Jackson powered those teams as one of the finest runners in the state.
Vera "Granny" Miller is one of the most remarkable athletes to ever be inducted into the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame. Miller began pitching softball at age ten and was still playing at age seventy-four when poor health made her quit the game. Only a few golfers and tennis players can claim a sixty-four year career. Miller also has the distinction of playing with three generations of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. During the 1930s, she pitched for a men's team and her husband, Gene, caught. She had a great compassion for her family and her teammates and was able to balance the two for a satisfying and productive life which impacted those around her.
Miller was born in Raisin City on November 22, 1912 and died in Oakhurst on August 11, 2006 at ninety-three. She was a true pioneer in women's fast-pitch softball. She was an important part of 1953 and 1954 Fresno Rockets World Championship teams. Miller was married to Eugene D. Miller for forty-eight years and he preceded her in death. At thirty-three, she pitched a perfect tournament game in Cleveland, Ohio for the Rockets. Miller told Fresno Bee writer Jan Petersen that one of her regrets was that she had a fiery temper which caused her to quit the Rockets in 1957, when the Rockets won their third world title. In contrast to most of the fast-pitch stars of her day, Miller used a slingshot delivery which was easier on her arm.
She relied on pinpoint control, seldom walked anyone, and was able to make the batters hit ground balls or fly balls, letting her defense do the rest. "We always knew we'd have a lot of action when Granny pitched," said Rockets Hall of Fame third Baseman Jeanne Contel. "She had a lot of different pitches and could put them right where she wanted them."
Her first team was at Webster Elementary School after which she went on to pitch at Fresno Tech High School, leading to its first Fresno County title in 1928, the only softball championship in the history of that school. From 1931 to 1935 she toiled on the circle for three different teams in Bakersfield while still living in Fresno. In 1936 and 1937, she pitched for the Visalia Chicken Hawks. Miller and her daughter, Bette Tietgans, were charter members of the Rockets when they were formed in 1948. Miller took a hiatus from softball from 1958-1960, then returned to the Rockets. Probably no one in the state played for as many different softball teams. After her years with the Rockets, she would play in anywhere from two to four leagues a week and sometimes seven days in a row during tournament time. She played with her daughter and granddaughter, Sandy Garetson, in Dos Palos.
Miller moved to the mountain town of Ahwahnee in 1965 and formed a team, playing in the Oakhurst League and winning consecutive championships. She then moved to the Sierra League where she played first base for the Sierra Sweethearts. Miller continued to play for Dave Masonhalls' Sweethearts through l974. Her final season was in 1976 with both the Calwa and Sierra Leagues. It was then that she contracted shingles and was forced to retire. Miller was given the name of "Granny" early in her career because she was almost always older than the players on her teams or her opponents' teams.
Perhaps the greatest quote by Bill Vukovich Sr. was "There is no secret. You just press the accelerator to the floor and steer left." To many of his multitude of fans around the world in the 1950s, it was an understatement; however, it seemed logical to his nine year-old son, Billy, Jr. As he was growing up, young Billy looked at his dad as a person whose job it was to drive a race car. He would go off and race cars and win money and then come home just like other people who had jobs. That was his job," Billy told an interviewer years later.
In 1955, when he was eleven years old, Billy lI would have to learn the more serious side of racing when he lost his father in a terrible accident at the Indianapolis 50. Billy II would grow to look at the tragedy at Indy as something that was. Part of racing, part of life, but life must go on and I learned to accept that." Ten years later, Billy Il began a successful career of his own that led to USAC and CART Championship Car series races, and twelve Indianapolis 500 starts. In his eighteen-year career, he had a combined 158 starts and finished in the top ten eighty-five times. In 1973, Billy II won the Michigan 500. He captured twenty-three national midget victories in his career, driving in part for J.C. Agajanian, the famous promoter and race car owner. Billy Jr. was inducted into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1998, joining his father. It's also interesting to note that the logo of the NMAR features depictions of both Vukovichs, senior and junior, and the midget cars that they raced.
At Indianapolis in his first start in the legendary annual race, Billy worked his way through the pack, starting in the 23rd position to finish seventh which earned him the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Award in 1968. He would go on to compete at Indy twelve times from 1968 to 1977, 1979, and 1980. Billy II finished in the top eight at the Indy 500 six times. He finished second to Gordon Johncock in the rain-shortened 500 in 1973, third in 1974, fifth in 1971, sixth in 1975, and eighth in 1979. "He represented the family well," said Indy veteran racer, Roger McClusky, "Billy, Jr. was damn good. He raced them all-midgets, sprint cars, on dirt tracks, pavement, and he obviously was great on the speedways. He was a real pro. The Vukovich family's contributions to auto racing came at a high price for Bill, Jr. Losing his father in the 1955 Indy 500 was surely a tragedy, but then in 1990, he and his wife, Joyce, lost their son Billy, III, the 1988 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, as the promising young driver was killed in an accident a a track in Bakersfield while driving a sprint car. Billy III was twenty-seven years old. All three of the racing Vukovichs are enshrined in the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame and their names are revered among racing fans in their hometown as well as around the world.