The Fresno Rockets played arguably at the highest level of women’s softball ever in this area and helped change the notion that only men were allowed to excel in sports. Th squad attracted sold-out crowds at Holmes Playground near downtown Fresno, numerous sponsors, and three national titles.
Women’s softball has been popular since its inception in 1887, but the heyday for amateur leagues dawned in the 1940s with the development of travel teams across the country. For twenty years, starting in 1946, the Fresno Rockets and the rest of the Western States Softball League teams were among the best in the nation. At least one team-and often more-usually ended up at the Amateur Softball Association Championships.
The Rockets were born when Dutch Chandler, team manager of the 1943 and 1944 Men’s National Champion Fresno Hammer Field Raiders, and star pitcher, Kermit Lynch decided to put together a women’s team. They were called the San Joaquin Maids during that first year, named for their sponsor, Sun-Maid Raisins. Vera Miller pitched a perfect game in the national tournament in Cleveland, Ohio, which is believed to be the first no-hit, no-run game in that event’s history. A Fresno Bee sports editor called the team “the Fresno Rockets” during the squad’s second season and the name stuck.
In the 1950s, the Rockets collected four future Amateur Softball Association Hall of Famers: Jeanne Contel, Gloria May, Kay Rich, and Ginny Busick. With a strong supporting cast to fill out the team, the Rockets won the ASA National Championships in 1953, 1954, and 1957. While Chandler was the organizer, Bernie Amaral was the manager, the first woman to lead the a team at that level. The team won the first two titles without dynamic pitcher Ginny Busick, who had turned professional and had to sit out two years before returning to the amateur ranks. She made the most of the opportunity in 1957, going 5-0 in the nationals and allowing just one run and ten hits. Busick blanked the Phoenix Ramblers 1-0 at Buena Park in the Championship game. Joan Fuchs, Vera Miller and Carol Nelson were pitchers for the first two titles, beating the Orange Lionettes 2-0 in Toronto and repeating 2-0 over the Lionettes in Southern California.
Cowds jammed Holmes Playground to watch the Rockets at a time when pitchers dominated the game. It was an adventure whenever the Rockets traveled with players normally jamming into two or three station wagons with no air conditioning, driving cross-country for tournaments. They practiced and played five times a week, all while holding down full-time jobs. To a player, they said the team chemistry was great as players were united in their love for the game. Teams like the Fresno Rockets developed a fan base and skill level that advanced the sport into mainstream athletics and gave women a venue to perform at the highest level of their sport.
When Terry Cooney was growing up in Salem, Oregon, his main passion was playing sports. He participated in all types, but his favorites were football, baseball, and track. At Sacred Heart High School, Terry earned fourteen letters and made many all-star teams during his prep years. "I mainly just felt like I was born to be a football player," says Terry now, "I loved it so much and playing it was my dream." After graduating in 1951, the Marion-Polk League All-Star fullback and linebacker had received many scholarship offers from colleges to continue playing his favorite game at the next level, but Terry was happy right in his hometown, accepting an offer to play at Willamette University. He showed great promise four games into the 1952 season, giving Beareat fans a great deal to be excited about; he was a big time blocker and delivered big hit tackles until he injured his knee. It was a devastating setback and Terry was out for the season. "In those days, they weren't so well-versed in patching you up anywhere near compared to what they can do today," says Terry, looking back, "They would put a cast on you and you just crossed your fingers in recovery."
In 1953, Terry tried to come back and the results were the same: more surgery and another cast, only this time, his football career was definitely over. "It was the saddest time of my life. I didn't know what to do. I Just drifted," says Terry. Holding various jobs over the years, including a stint in the U.S. Marines, Terry eventually made his way back to sports by working with recreational programs. He found enjoyment in helping run various leagues and serving as an official. At one point, a friend commented that he thought Terry would make an excellent umpire in professional baseball and Terry began to think about it. In the early spring of 1968, Terry went to an Oakland A's baseball game early enough to speak with a couple of umpires as they were arriving at the Oakland Coliseum. As fate would have it, Larry Knapp and Jimmy Rice, two veteran major league umpires, took the time to talk with Terry and told him of the Daughtry Umpire Training Camp in Florida. Knapp even gave him the phone number and encouraged him to call. Terry did, and a month later, he was on his way to the famous umpire school.
After graduation, Terry got offered a job right away in the California League (Class A level) where he spent two seasons. In 1970, he worked his way up to the Texas League (Double A), then the Pacific Coast League (Triple A) from 1971 to the end of 1974. The call to the major leagues came on September 28, 1974. He reported to Anaheim Stadium to call the game between the California Angels and the Minnesota Twins. As if that wasn't enough of a treat for Terry Cooney it was also a game in which Nolan Ryan threw a no-hitter and struck out fifteen Twins. Terry Cooney's major league career spanned eighteen years in the American League which included calling AII-Star games, ALCS playoff games, and the World Series. He even had an altercation with Billy Martin in which Martin charged Cooney once, then bumped him and knocked him over. Martin was fined heavily for this incident.
Terry later stated, "Off the field, Billy was a great guy. He even came to Fresno one time to do a Hot Stove League Dinner as a favor to me and helped make the dinner a great success. Billy always said his on-field arguments were nothing personal against us."Terry Cooney officiated games with many famous players and personnel including Roger Clemens, Earl Weaver, Dick Williams, Frank Robinson, and Tommy Lasorda. On how his profession has changed over the years, Cooney stated, "Every pitch is analyzed these days and the umpires are under constant pressure. Doesn't seem like much fun. I'm glad I did it when I did. I was so happy and grateful to be part of such a great game and I felt blessed to be there and work with the people I did. Always during the National Anthem, I thanked God I was able to be there."
Sue Lemaire, a 1970 graduate of Fresno State, rose through the ranks to become one of the premier volleyball officials in the world in both the indoor and beach versions of the sport. Lemaire was a physical education major at Fresno State University with a minor in biology. She competed in volleyball, basketball, track and field and badminton. In 1983, she became the first woman certified by the U.S. Volleyball Association as an international referee. Using that as a springboard, she has had indoor assignments at the Pan American Games in 1987, the World University Games (1983,1985, 1993 and 1995), the Hong Kong Cup (1993), and the Goodwill Games in 1994. Lemaire received a certification in beach volleyball and was selected to officiate the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and the World Beach Championships in 1997. The following year, she refereed the women's gold medal beach match at the Goodwill Games in New York. Lemaire also made her mark in collegiate volleyball by refereeing nine National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I National Championships and five national tournaments by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, a pioneer body for women's sports. Lemaire also served on several national and regional rules and policy committees for volleyball and women's sports. She has taught and coached volleyball including at the college level.
Mike McFerson shot from behind the arc before there was an arc. In his junior and senior years at Fresno State, a majority of his two-point shots would have been three-pointers today. Bulldog teammate and point guard, George Sarantos, recalled that McFerson's shot was the quickest he's ever seen. McFerson, 6'3" with long arms, could receive a pass and go straight up, arms fully extended, and release the ball. "In the three years we played, I can't remember anyone blocking that shot on him,"Sarantos said. "Today, with the three-point rule, he would have had a ton more points."McFerson was born and raised in Los Angeles and attended the three-prong Culver School campus for elementary, junior high, and high school. He was only 5'9" and 150 pounds in high school until his senior year, when he shot up four inches and gained about fifteen pounds. Culver won the league and McFerson made the Al-CIF Southern First Team. McFerson said he had more of a set shot in high school, but after he graduated and enrolled at San Bernardino Valley College, he worked on extending his arms without bending his elbows. By that time, he was 6'2" and still growing. He was named to the All-Southern California JC First Team. McFerson was living with an uncle in San Bernardino, whose son Pete Oliverias had played baseball for Pete Beiden at Fresno State University. Oliverias told then-Bulldog coach Bill Vandenburgh about McFerson. Vandenburgh was in the stands when San Bernardino came to play Fresno City College and offered McFerson a scholarship. McFerson led the team in scoring in 1961 with a 20.4 average and in 1962 with a 20.8. His highest scoring game was thirty-six against CalPoly of San Luis Obispo.
Simmons’ name is synonymous with Bay Area baseball, the San Francisco 49ers and the “tell-it-good” home run call. Emblematic of his talent and longevity in the broadcast booth, he was on the air for the San Francisco Giants’ Opening Days at Seals Stadium (1958), Candlestick (1960), and Pacific Bell Park (2000).
Before joining the 49ers (‘57) and Giants (‘58) broadcast teams, he was sports director at KMJ in Fresno and announced Fresno State football, basketball, and baseball games.
For his first 13 seasons with the Giants, he was paired with Russ Hodges on what arguably was the greatest broadcasting team in Major League history. The broadcast facilities at Pacific Bell Park were named in their honor.
With his distinctive voice, Simmons provided stirring accounts of the Giants’ most memorable games and descriptions of their greatest players, including Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, and Orlando Cepeda, and home-run champion Barry Bonds.
He also was the play-by-play announcer for the Oakland A’s for 15 seasons, teaming with Bill King, another Bay Area broadcasting legend.
Simmons was equally adept at conveying the drama and excitement of professional football, as evidenced by his 15 seasons of outstanding play-by-play accounts for the 49ers (1957-80, 1987-88).
Simmons originally hoped to make it to the big leagues as a player. But an injury ended his career after two minor-league seasons in the Philadelphia Phillies organization.
During the Kevin Sweeney era of Fresno State football, the Bulldogs won thirty-two games, lost thirteen and tied one, highlighted by an 11-0-1 season in 1985 in which they captured the PCAA Championship and California Bowl V. Many Division I programs recruited Sweeney as he posted record-breaking performances at Bullard High School, making it onto numerous All-League, All-Valley, and All-State teams. In 1981, Sweeney was named the Northern California Player of the Year after throwing a state record forty-two touchdown passes with twenty-six of them going to Peter Sartini, his old friend from Fresno's Gibson Elementary School. Even though Division I schools pursued, one coach had an edge, Sweeney's dad, Jim, of Fresno State University. Kevin said he chose to play for his father knowing it wouldn't be easy as the coach's son.
"I heard it when people would say Daddy's Boy' and I really heard it when we lost, but for the most part, it helped me get tougher," Sweeney said. "You have to be tough to play quarterback or be a coach or just be a football player, and, for the most part, it was great, especially when we won."And the Sweeneys did a lot of winning together. Sweeney graduated from Fresno State as the all-time leading passer in National Collegiate Athletic Association history, throwing for more than 10,800 yards. He broke Doug Flutie's record that was set at Boston College by more than 200 yards. During his time with the Bulldogs, Sweeney set or tied thirty school, conference, and NCAA records. His thirty 200-yard passing games tied an NCAA record. He won All-American honors in 1985 and 1986 and was the runner-up winner to Vinny Testaverde for the Davy O'Brien National Quarterback Award in 1986. In the same year, Sweeney finished 9th in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
The Dallas Cowboys drafted Sweeney and he was thrilled to play for legendary coach Tom Landry in 1987 and 1988. "It was a great experience, the team was awesome, and it was just great to be there. I couldn't believe I was getting paid to do it," Sweeney said. "Throwing over guys like "Too Tall Jones every day in practice was quite a chore, but it was a reality in the NFL. I even tried throwing under his armpit."
His less than six-foot frame didn't stop him from having some great games, though, including passing for three touchdowns against the New York Giants to fuel a Cowboy comeback win, and, in 1987, he had the 7th longest touchdown pass in the NFL with a seventy-seven yard bomb. Landry had high regard for the young quarterback and Sweeney became the third rookie QB ever to start for the Cowboys (Don Meredith and Roger Staubach were the others). Landry once told reporters in camp that he thought Sweeney could be the Cowboys' best passer. He said, "Kevin throws better. I just wish he was bigger." In 1989, Bill Walsh signed Sweeney to play for the San Francisco 49ers. At that time, the Niners had two quarterbacks by the names of Montana and Young. Though he appreciated that experience as well, he could see the writing on the wall. Sweeney returned to Fresno where his roots were deep. Although he moved around some as his father's coaching career required, Sweeney had childhood friends from Bullard High. The Sweeney Division I quarterback tradition continued when his son, Beau, landed a scholarship to play quarterback for the University of California, Berkeley.
When Bill Thompson became general manager of the Fresno Giants in 1979, he would sit in the stands and listen to the patrons to come up with ideas for attracting more fans. He was a salesman for his team and the league in general. "When it comes to baseball, Thompson is like an old-fashioned pitch man, a fast-talking hustler. There is one major exception in this picture-Thompson is not a con artist," Terry Betterton wrote in a Fresno Bee story about Thompson the year that he was hired as general manager. It perfectly described Thompson. Donald William Thompson was the Fresno Giants' general manager for nine years. During his tenure, the Giants set league attendance records, despite playing in a park that was built in 1941 and finally torn down after the 1987 season.
Thompson was twice-named Executive of the Year in the California League. Thompson is also an original Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame board member and ran the popular Fresno Hot Stove League dinner for three years. He and his boyhood friend Lon Simmons, longtime San Francisco Giants broadcaster, used their influence to make sure Fresno had more than its quota of superstars, including Willie Mays once and illie MeCovey several times.Thompson had been to the big leagues as a color man for Simmons for a few seasons and as sports director for radio KSFO, and he also did some Giants TV. He returned to Fresno in 1975, where the Burbank native had started his career in 1957 as a salesman for radio station KMJ. He signed on with Bob Eurich Enterprises and had a sports program on radio station KMAK. Three years later, he was interim general manager of the Fresno Giants, landing the job permanently the following year. Promoting baseball was a natural fit, and Thompson was a workaholic. The games often ran late, but the next morning Thompson was in the office, focused on how to put more fans in the stands, along with his other duties.
Thompson knew the easiest way to fill seats was to have a superior team and over the years, he had sent a steady stream of players to the big leagues. Thompson used his promotional skills to draw crowds. Under Thompson's watch, his squad made it to the league playoff championships in 1985 and 1987. He had stated that the 1985 line-up was the best with players like second baseman Greg Liton, shortstop Mike Benjamin, third baseman Charley Hayes, pitchers Jeff Brantley, John Burkett, and Dennis Cook, who all made it to Candlestick Park. That was also the year that Will Clark joined the team in June and homered on his first trip to the Plate.
When the Giants moved the Fresno franchise to San Jose in 1988, professional baseball in Fresno waned despite Thompson's best efforts. After one season of the floundering Fresno Sun Sox, professional ball was gone until 1998, when the Fresno Grizzlies of the Pacific Coast League began playing at Beiden Field. The Grizzlies' eventual home, a beautiful downtown stadium, would undoubtedly have been the perfect venue for Thompson to excel at attracting and promoting local professional baseball.
J.D. Williams arrived at Fresno State on a track scholarship, but after a walk-on tryout for the football team, starred in both sports and was the first Bulldog ever selected in round one of the NFL draft. Buffalo picked James D. Williams in the 1990 draft as the 16h pick overall. Williams played in four Super Bowls with the Bills and also suited up for the Arizona Cardinals, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Carolina Panthers in his seven-year NFL career.
At Fresno State, the Coalinga High School graduate was a two-time All-Big West first team selection and a second team All-American cornerback as a senior. Williams helped the Dogs to two bowl games, beating Western Michigan in the 1988 California Bowl and Ball State in the 1989 California Raisin Bowl. He was the most valuable defensive player of the East-West Shrine Game after an outstanding senior year. Williams also helped FSU track coach Red Estes' teams win Big West Conference titles in 1988 and 1989. He was a sprinter, competed in the triple jump, and was on the 400-meter relay team that broke the school record of 40.18 seconds. In the triple jump, Williams was ranked 15h in the National Collegiate Athletic Association championships.
After his professional football career, Williams returned to Fresno State in 1997 as a graduate assistant under the Bulldogs' new coach, Pat Hill, beginning a long career as a secondary coach at such stops as Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo in 1998, San Jose State in 1999, and then back to Fresno State for two seasons from 2000 to 2001. During that time, Fresno State posted an 18-7 record and made two bowl appearances. From 2002 to 2005, Williams coached at University of California, Berkeley and helped lead the Bears to a 33-17 overall record and three bowl game appearances. Cal topped the Pac-10 in pass efficiency and scoring defense and the Bears were second in total defense. In 2006, Williams was named assistant coach for the University of Washington Huskies.
Williams was one of four brothers who played football at NCAA Division I schools. His older brother, Dave, was a wide receiver at Fresno State in 1983-1984. His younger brother, Curtis, played at the University of Washington. Tragedy struck the family when Curtis, playing on a slippery field at Stanford, collided with a Cardinal fullback. He was paralyzed with a spinal chord injury and died nineteen months later in 2002. Largely because of Curtis, Williams left Cal when he was offered the post at Washington. "You never forget your brother," Williams said. "Just being in Seattle on campus, it's Hey, my brother was here.' You think about it. He's with me all the time." Another younger brother, Paul, was a star wide receiver at Fresno State and is now catching passes for the Tennessee Titans. Williams is married to Jami and lives in Washington with their children, Nicole, Kyra, a Zoe.
Vestee Jackson Jr., a quick and promising tailback from McLane High School, made the switch to cornerback at the University of Washington and parlayed his extraordinary talents into a successful, eight-year National Football League career. Blessed with skills that evoked memories of his father, Vestee Jackson, Sr., who starred at Edison High and Fresno City College in the 1950s, the younger Jackson entered the football scene at McLane. A two-time All-Metro selection, he rushed for 1,288 yards as a senior in 1980. He also was one of the nation's top high school triple-jumpers.
Vestee accepted a scholarship to University of Washington and blossomed into a starter as a sophomore for program recognized as having one of the nation's top defenses under Coach Don James. During Jackson's years as a starter for the Huskies, the team played in the Aloha and Orange Bowls, finishing with a #7 national ranking in 1983 and #2 in 1984. The #2 ranking was earned by virtue of the Huskies' 28-17 victory over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
In 1985, the 6' and 186-pounder with a sprinter's speed, had fifty-four tackles and intercepted four passes to earn First Team All Pac-10 honors. The following spring, he was selected in the second round as the 55th overall draft choice by the Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears. Jackson played five seasons under Coach Mike Ditka, intercepting a total of fifteen passes. In 1988, he picked off eight passes and played a major role in leading the Bears to the NFC title game. A trade after the 1990 season sent him to Miami, where he was a valuable defensive back for three seasons for Dolphins Coach Don Shula.