Through the years, baseball has probably been the most popular of all sports in Fresno. At the collegiate level, Pete Beiden had a major role in shaping baseball interest while coaching throughout the Valley, settling in to a twenty-one year career as Fresno State's head baseball coach. When Beiden passed the torch to Bob Bennett, who compiled an enviable 1,302-759 record, spanning thirty-four years from 1970 to 2002, it is vital to note that Bennett had played ball for Beiden throughout his college years. Beiden and Bennett are in the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Bennett was named the National Collegiate Athletic Association Coach of the Year in 1988 by The Sporting Newsstand and also won the coveted Lefty Gomez Award in 2000. Oklahoma-born, but Fresno raised, Bennett fits the image of "hometown boy makes good." It was inevitable that Bennett would make a natural transition from being an outstanding catcher for Roosevelt High School (Class of 1951) to four-year letterman and two-time team captain for the Bulldogs during the Beiden regime. Bennett played the catcher position like he owned it. He set a school record in 1953, going errorless during 224 total chances. He anchored teams to California Collegiate Athletic Association titles in 1954 and 1955 and was named All-CCAA twice. He graduated with a degree in physical education in 1956, then added a master's in the same subject in 1958. He was ready to conquer the world or at least a small piece of it.
Upon graduating from Fresno State in 1956, he was hired as head coach at Kingsburg High School for two seasons before moving to Bullard High School as head coach. He became notably successful as prep strategist as his Knights teams tallied 138-16-3 in ten seasons. Bennett's coaching string at Bullard was interrupted in 1967 when Fresno State, acting on Beiden's obviously high recommendation, hired Bob to fill in for his esteemed tutor during that year. Bennett sprang into action as the Bulldogs finished the season at 38-10, won the CCAA championship, and a berth in the NCAA regional playoffs. Bennett went back to Bullard when Beiden returned from his one-year sabbatical and then was hired as Beiden's permanent replacement when Beiden retired in 1970. It was the start of another truly great run for Fresno State baseball. The only thing missing from Bennett's jaw-dropping resume is the NCAA title; his career is the stuff of Legend.
Bennett became the seventh coach in NCAA history to reach the 1,300-win plateau after becoming the 10th coach to hit the 1,200-win mark. He succeeded in producing twenty- six consecutive teams with more wins than losses; in fact, only two of his teams during thirty-four years had losing records. He was Conference Coach of the Year fourteen times as his teams won seventeen conference titles and earned berths in twenty-one regional NCAA playotis., The Dogs were in regional tourneys during twelve of Bennett’s last fifteen years of coaching. His teams averaged forty wins a season from 1979 to 2002. He coached thirty-two players to All-American recognition, fourteen of which were pitchers with only two catchers. Dick Ruthven (1972), John Hoover (1964), Bobby Jones (1991). Steve Soderstrom (1993), and Jeff Weaver (1997) were all first round draft pick pitchers. Notably, thirty-five Bennett-coached players nineteen of them pitchers -were signed to major league contracts. Bennett's prowess as a recruiter does not need any embellishment; it is simply a matter of record. His stature as parent, teacher, and coach extends far beyond the boundaries of Fresno, evidenced by his selection as head coach of the U.S. National Teams in 1983 and 1986 plus assistant posts in 1977 and 1979, his former presidency of the American Coaches Baseball Association, and his service on ABCA Hall of Fame and NCAA AlI-American election committees. All of this-honor after honor-for a coach who, when his home games were threatened by rain, always would be out before dawn with his players covering the infield with tarps. Bob Bennett was a great inspiration to his players. Bobby Jones, a former major league pitching star, pays an often heard tribute to his college coach, "He helped us out in so many ways. not just about how to throw a pitch, but about how to work and to accept responsibility and set goals look for the good things in our lives. We owe him a lot." On July 3, 2010, Bob Bennett was inducted into the National College Baseball Hall of Fame, a fitting honor for this legendary coach.
The Sonny Bishop story is interesting as he played a few minutes of football in his senior year at El Cajon Valley High School and never was a full-time starter in two years at Riverside Junior College. Fresno State was where he blossomed. Bishop was a two-year All-Conference tackle for Fresno State coach Cecil Coleman and was a force for the 1961 unbeaten Mercy Bowl champions. He played nine seasons in the American Football League, seven as a starter at Houston. Born in South Dakota, his parents were farmers. The family moved to San Diego during World War II. Bishop's first athletic success came as a ten-year-old third baseman and catcher on the San Diego Little League championship team that qualified for the annual Little League World Series, where they finished third. His high school athletic career was interrupted by austonritis (chronic water on the knee), so he was inactive until his senior year. He made the football team.
His early goal was to be a veterinarian-athletics weren't on the radar screen. "I had a job in San Diego, but several of my friends were going to try out for the Riverside Junior College team," Bishop said in a telephone interview. "I decided to tag along. Coach Howard White needed to fill out his thirty-three-man roster. He got me a job, so I moved to RiversIde. I was mostly cannon fodder that first season. Several of the players were All-CIF and our team was ranked #2 JC in the nation behind Bakersfield. The second year, three of us alternated as starters at tackle." He was 6'2" and 220 pounds by that time and he only gained another twenty pounds at Fresno State. Los Angeles State had offered him a scholarship, but when Coleman came by, he convinced him to become a Bulldog. "I knew Fresno was an agricultural school and I was brought up on a farm and they had a winning program, so I went to Fresno State and played three years. It was the best move I ever made,"Bishop said. "I loved my time in Fresno and I'll never forget the Mercy Bowl. It was a wonderful game and helped put Fresno State on the map."
He was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the AFL, but was traded to the Dallas Texas Cowboys and played in the 1962 championship game. Al Davis, the coach for Oakland, signed him. Bishop was a starter before being involved in a three-for-one trade with Houston for running back Billy Cannon. He was All-Pro at Houston in 1968. Sonny was switched from tackle to guard, playing at 250 pounds. Bishop said he competed with some great players. After he retired, Sonny talked to quarterback George Blanda, who asked him how he would feel about playing today. Bishop replied, "It is a totally different game and I would be pretty small by today's standards. There was some talk one time in Houston of moving me to fullback. I wish that would have happened." Bishop had to work in the off-season to make ends meet, primarily in real estate and construction. After graduating from Fresno state, he moved to Florida and began a construction business. Sonny and his wife have two daughters and a son.
If you've never heard of the "Racing Farmers" of Caruthers, well, pull up a hay bale, sit a spell, and learn somethin'. Ray Elder sat behind the steering wheel, wore a crash helmet, and put the pedal to the metal. His brother, Richard was inconspicuously in the background, carrying around a crescent wrench, a pair of pliers, and a screwdriver. But they were a team, early members of California's racing royalty when it came to the kingdom of spark plugs, carburetors, and gear boxes. They were known as the "Racing Farmers" because that's what they were before becoming involved with the risk, stress, and expense of stock car racing. It started when the Elders bought a used 1966 Dodge from professional driver Jack McCoy of Modesto. The following week, Ray entered and won a NASCAR Pacific Coast Late Model circuit race at Ascot Speedway in Southern California, his first in a career of forty-even wins. These victories placed Ray second on the All-Time Grand National West Series list by the time he retired in 1975.
Thirteen years after his first triumph at Ascot, Ray had driven to six NASCAR Grand National West Series Championships and had won the Most Popular Driver Award eight times. Richard had won the Mechanic of the Year crown six times. In eleven years of West Series events, Richard and his team of mechanics ranked in the top three in the National Championship Series standings. The crew was made up of friends and relatives from Caruthers. The coveted West Series titles were won by Elder from 1969 to 1972, 1974, and 1975. His four consecutive Auto Zone West Series wins were interrupted by old friend McCoy in 1973. Elder is #1 in most championships (six), most starts (121), and most Top 10 finishes (twenty-seven).
Another outstanding characteristic of Ray's racing career was the exemplary efficiency of his crew during pit stops. They were so fast that it made little difference what surface they were running on; they were going to get their contender back into the race in the shortest time Possible. Elder made “modern era” history when he became the first Winston Cup West driver to win a Grand National Race which included the Motor Trend Riverside 500 in 1971 and the Golden State 400 in 1972. Elder is #3 on the West Coast Stock Car Series All-Time Top 10 list which includes Hershel McGriff, Parnelli Jones, Jack McCoy, and Bill Schmitt. Ray Elder, the "Racing Farmer," was inducted into the West Coast Stock Hall of Fame in 2002.
The popularity of swimming surged in the San Joaquin Valley like a tsunami during the 1960s. It presented an option for youngsters who were not interested in Little League baseball, Pop Warner football, tennis, or gymnastics to participate in something less strenuous or so they thought. Jill Spaulding of Fresno attracted national attention as the "World's Fastest Ten-Year-Old Girl Swimmer" in 1960. The floodgates were opened as parents from Bakersfield to Merced were signing up their youngsters for age group programs which became high school aquatic team "feeders." By 1963, there were 112 AAU Age Group listings for Central San Joaquin Valley swimmers and divers plus an additional thirteen AAU Junior Olympic listings.
Gene Stephens, the coach for Fresno City College and a pioneer of Central Valley age group swimming programs, made enormous contributions to the development of young aquatic stars of the future. For example, he was mentoring the Greenwoods; Mark when he was twelve and Heather when she was ten. Mark was shattering age group records as a ten-year-old and serving as an example to his sister, Heather, showing her what discipline, dedication, and determination could accomplish. Heather benefited so much from observing Mark and being mentored by Stephens that she emerged as a champion herself. She perfected a two-beat kick which was unusual for women to attempt and, by the time she graduated Hoover High School, she had dominated her specialty, winning the Central Section CIF 100-yard freestyle for a consecutive three years, clocking 53.2 in 1973, 52.9 in 1974, and 53.8 in 1975. Heather also won the U.S. Nationals 1,650-yard free in 16:47.11 in 1975.
Although she wasn't as strong or as powerful a stroker as some, Stephens said that Greenwood was the “best all-round female swimmer ever developed in the Valley." Heather continued to improve as she gained essential experience against some of the world's fastest freestylers. In 1973, she won the 400-meter freestyle at the FINA World Championships in Belgrade, finishing ahead of U.S. teammate Keena Rothhammer and Novella Caliganis of Italy. She also swam the third leg on the silver medal 400-meter free relay team which included Kimberley Peyton, Katherine Heddy, and Shirley Babashoff. Swimming for George Haines' Santa Clara Swim Club one year later, Heather broke the world record for the 400-meter free, clocking 4:17.13 on June 28, 1974.
While Heather was splashing to triumphs and records, Mark was collecting a couple of U.S. National titles of his own as a member of the gold medal 880-yard free relay teams with Steve Furniss, John Naber, and Bruce Furniss (7:33.53 in 1976) and Steven Picknell, Steve Furniss, and John Naber (6;29.07 in 1977). One thing that must be emphasized is the impact that age group Swimming programs had on high school swim teams. As the interest accelerated with the successes to Heather and others, high school coaches began tracking results or the age group meets, even going out of their way to attend many of them during the non-school summer months. Athletes developed by age group programs entered high school competition already experienced and disciplined.
Jim Molich was one of the main targets of quarterback Jackie Fellows on the powerful 1942 Fresno State football team that lost only one of ten games. Molich was born and reared in San Francisco and was part of the great legacy for San Francisco Junior College players that included Ollie Matson and O.J. Simpson. He joined that NFL Hall of Fame duo by being a charter member of that school's Hall of Fame. Molich has one Fresno State school record that still stands. He caught four touchdown passes from Fellows in a 1942 game against Occidental College. Twice, he was named to the Little Al1-Coast team and, in 1942, was on the Little All-American team. Molich was also a forward on the Bulldog basketball team for two seasons and was selected to play in the 1943 College AIl-Star game, but missed out because he was piloting a land craft in the South Pacific. It was during World War II that he contracted malaria which ended his playing career, even though he was drafted by the Detroit Lions.
Molich returned to Fresno State in 1944 and helped coach freshmen teams in football, baseball, and basketball through 1947. Molich resumed his military career in the Korean War.
Maxie Parks has always loved the outdoors. Born in 1951, the first ten years of his life were spent in a very small town of Aubrey, Arkansas. "Growing up in the country, we didn't have a lot of sports programs, so we would do things like race each other all the time down the dirt roads or run around in the fields," stated Maxie. The man who would later go on to excel in sports, winning a gold medal in the 1976 Olympic Games, feels blessed with his upbringing and the good life growing up in rural Arkansas.
When Maxie was nine, his mother, Ruby, decided to sell the land that they were living on and move to Fresno where two of her sisters lived. The Parks family loved their new hometown. It was in Fresno that organized sports attracted Maxie. "My personal start in competitive athletics was when I was watching Olympic coverage on TV, way back in the l1960s and they were talking about Rafer Johnson, and the thing that really caught me was the commentator was saying how Rafer was from Kingsburg, California and attending UCLA. He was sure a hero to me." In grade school, Maxie played baseball, basketball, and football. At Washington Union High School, he was a multi-sport athlete, gaining attention for football and track. "One day, just as football season was ending, one of my coaches, Bill Griffen (who was also the wrestling coach) told me, "Maxie, I really think you should come out for wrestling as I think it would help you in your conditioning for football and track. It would help with endurance and strength training for your future in those sports...' I went ahead and went out for wrestling instead of basketball that year, and that decision really worked out well for me." Maxie wrestled in the 154-pound weight class in his junior year.
The workouts were incredible, Maxie got into great shape, and won the North Sequoia League Championship. In his senior year, Maxie played football and ran track, as both sports were considered his best chance to get a college scholarship. WU track coach, John Pearson, was concerned that Maxie would get injured if he wrestled. "He was worried that I might miss a track scholarship opportunity," says Maxie, "Coach knew about my goal from way back to be an Olympian. I always kept that dream. That was my goal. There were only two people that I told my dream to: my mom and Coach Pearson." When Maxie graduated, he didn't get scholarship offers from the Division I schools, but that did not deter him. He enrolled at Fresno City College with football and track. He was an All-League performer for Claire Slaughter's Rams as a wide receiver. "I knew I could do better if I worked under Coach Slaughter and his assistants, Fred Bartells, Billy Wayte, and Bill Musick. Keith Siemens was an outstanding quarterback for the Rams and we had a good rapport on where the ball and the receiver would meet on the routes."
FCC coach Bob Fries also helped Maxie a great deal in his track pursuits. Maxie was the California State Champion in the 400 meters (47.2 seconds) when UCLA offered him a full scholarship. UCLA Coach Dick Vermeil also wanted Maxie to play football for the Bruins, but Maxie decided that his priority would be to keep after his goal. By then, he had three people in on his dream; his mom, coach Pearson, and his new Wife, Lovern. Lovern, a former track athlete, was a great encouragement for Maxie as his future started to unfold.
At UCLA, Maxie was a world class quarter-miler and ranked in the top five in the world in 1976, 1977, and 1978. In 1976, he had the best 400-meter time in the world at 44.82 seconds. Maxie was the USATF 400-meter champion in 1976 and 1978. He won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials championship in 1976. In the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Maxie was edged out of a medal in the 400-meter race. It was a major disappointment for the young star, but as the anchor of the 4 x 400-meter relay race, Maxie joined Herman Frazier, Benjamin Brown, and Fred Newhouse, and took the gold medal in 2:58.65 seconds. "I was thinking, "You did it! You finally did it, you got there, you got what you set up sixteen years ago.. Lovern cried, coach Pearson cried, so many of us cried tears of joy.
"The playing of the national anthem was just amazing. It was a beautiful moment, even better than in my dreams. You feel so proud and you have such a profound love of your country." Maxie qualified for the 1980 Olympics as well, but President Carter canceled U.S. participation due to a dispute with Russia. "It was a very sad time as the athletes were only a pawn in the game of politics. It was a sad time for everybody. However, life goes on and you have to appreciate every day." Maxie Parks is a satisfied man and he feels blessed for what he has accomplished. "I am so grateful that the athletic experiences gave me a platform to help young people to make better choices and to understand that it's good to have goals. Not so much short term-which is okay too-but to have long term goals and to let them know that they can achieve any goal they want to set for themselves, no matter how big or whatever it is. And they can reach those goals." Maxie lives in Fresno and is the operations manager at the Fresno Recycling Center. He makes speaking appearances and often visits with young people to discuss their opportunities. Maxie and Lovern raised daughters, Shanel, Ambrosia, and Nia, and son Andre in Fresno.