Eckstein excelled on ’67 Jasper baseball teamMay 15, 2020
BY COREY STOLZENBACH
Don Eckstein can say he has been part of the rich, longstanding tradition that is Jasper baseball. The Wildcats have won more sectional, regional and semistate championships than any team in state history, and they’ve brought five state championships back to Jasper.
Eckstein, a 1967 graduate, cannot claim credit for all the successes the Wildcats have had in the decades following his graduation, but he does think those 1967 and 1968 teams that went to the first two Final Fours helped shape what the program is today.
“We certainly would like a little credit for setting the standard,” Eckstein said.
He can remember the excitement the team had upon hearing that the Indiana High School Athletic Association established a state tournament for baseball. There had only been one for basketball, Eckstein also played football, but the IHSAA did not have a gridiron championship until 1973.
The team didn’t know what the baseball state tournament would be like, and just treated it as more games they had to go out and win. It’d be different than going 4-4-1 the year before in 1966.
“Since we had Gabe Mehringer as our ace and knew of his potential to really carry us, we thought we had a pretty good chance — at least to get through the sectional and possibly the regional,” Eckstein said.
The Wildcats almost went undefeated in the regular season. Their only loss was a 5-2 game against New Albany, as they couldn’t maintain a 2-1 lead. Eckstein, the team’s catcher that year, is adamant that game shouldn’t have gone the way it did.
“I’ve always said — and I don’t know if anybody has really agreed with me over the years — but there was a play at home, and I had the guy by about three feet,” he said. “I guess the umpire didn’t see the tag. That was the run that cost us the game.”
Jasper now knew what losing felt like, and didn’t like it very much. The Wildcats felt a sense of irritation, but that loss gave them motivation. They disliked losing so much that they went about two months without doing so.
Mehringer proved tough to beat that year, and the same went for fellow pitcher Gary Corbin. Eckstein called every one of their pitches. Both had different sets of pitches, and Coach Don Noblitt trusted his catcher to call the games. Eckstein could look at a batter and figure out where they were vulnerable based on their stance. He wanted to be involved in every pitch, and it was even more fun when the pitchers became more advanced with their pitches. He valued that trust with his pitchers, and they delivered.
“The pitchers we had, they were so accurate,” Eckstein said. “Basically, when I would give them a target, they pretty much hit the target. It was a real pleasure to catch the guys that were pitching during that senior season.”
The Wildcats had the ability to explode for runs, too. They demonstrated this in that year’s sectional championship game when they ran away with a 20-0 win against Winslow. Jasper didn’t need 20 runs to best Vincennes in that year’s regional championship, but it did need the bats to come alive. The Alices got off to a 3-0 lead in that game.
The team didn’t talk much. There wasn’t a dugout, just a bench, at Recreation Field in those days, but Eckstein noted that the Wildcats all trusted one another. It always seemed somebody was going to pull through at the right time, and sure enough they did. The Wildcats rallied for a 5-3 win in the regional championship.
They got one more piece of hardware that season — a semistate championship after eliminating Terre Haute Gerstmeyer, 3-1, to advance to the Final Four. The June 14, 1967, edition of The Herald ran a photo of the Wildcats jumping up and down and celebrating with one another, while Eckstein, still wearing his catcher’s gear, was away and off to the side from everybody else.
“I hate that picture,” he said with a laugh. “Just because it just sort of looks like I wasn’t wanting to take part in something, which wasn’t the case.”
What was the case was that Eckstein was being guarded with his equipment. He couldn’t recall to The Herald on Wednesday if he was missing his mask or his glove, but he went to retrieve his equipment before somebody could have stolen it.
He did, however, join his teammates in the celebration eventually. The Wildcats won all three championships on their home field as members of the community came out in droves to support them during their run.
For Eckstein, he had the joy in going to the state tournament with his younger brother Mike, who was an outfielder.
“I’m sure my dad (John) was in Seventh Heaven,” Don said. “He went to every game. Heck, he went to every game even when were in Little League, way back from Pee Wee League on up.”
Don batted nearly .400 as a senior in 1967, which he attributed to having good vision and good hand-eye coordination that season, but neither he, nor the rest of his teammates, could string much together in the state tournament. A 1-0 lead against Indianapolis Arlington went haywire quickly as the Golden Knights displayed their offensive prowess, handing the Wildcats a 10-1 loss that snapped their 16-game win streak and ended their season at 19-2.
Don further elaborated on that trip to state in a text message he sent The Herald on Thursday.
“We were basically out of our element,” he wrote. “We had just gone through the tournament playing on our small hometown field, with a dirt infield, and the Jasper crowd close in and all around us. We knew we had to perform for them. Comebacks were easier with that crowd support. Then we went to Indianapolis, and it was totally different.”
Don later went on to write in his message that the Wildcats had to practice at a small high school field and couldn’t practice at Victory Field. He noted they stayed in a motel, while the players from Arlington were already from Indianapolis. Don thought the Wildcats lost some confidence in themselves and just didn’t play a very good game.
He didn’t think the Wildcats would make it back to the Final Four in 1968 given the turnover they had after 1967, but he still thought there was a chance because Mehringer returned in 1968, and he had high praise for Noblitt’s ability to manage those teams.
Don graduated from Purdue University after studying aeronautical and astronautical engineering. He enlisted in the Air Force, citing a love of jet aircraft. His wife, Stephanie, was also in the Air Force, and she pursued a masters degree in nursing. One of the schools was the University of Texas at Austin, and so the Ecksteins went to the Lone Star State, where they have spent much of their lives.
He hasn’t forgotten at all about Jasper. Don still regularly visits during Strassenfest, and some members of the community had a blast from the past when he got into a game for the Jasper Reds after he got permission to play. He was going to get into a game at 60 going on 61.
Don worked with some coworkers of his at the time with Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, getting some throws in with them. He bought catching equipment and went to a batting cage, asking to catch pitches out of the pitching machine. His request was obliged. Don said he caught some heat between 92 and 100 mph during that experience. He also threw pitches into a golf net in his garage every night for a month.
The community received him warmly when they found out he would be coming to town to suit up. Don had a routine of having breakfast at Denny’s with former teammate and good friend Bob Ruxer, who influenced him to play in the game.
“Oh my gosh, everybody came up to the table,” he said. “Some people I knew, some people I didn’t even know.”
It was all part of providing advertising for the Reds, who squared off against the Terre Haute Rays July 31, 2010, in a home doubleheader. Don remembers how nervous he was. He caught the first, second, fifth and sixth innings in the midst of blazing heat.
“[Reds starting pitcher Dean Stuckey], oh my gosh, he just had stage fright,” Don said. “He could not get that ball across the plate. The first inning — 42 pitches, and by the time he was throwing those last few pitches, I was about ready to go face down in that heat. I was putting the target and my mitt hand was actually shaking. I had gotten so fatigued during that first inning, but luckily we got them out after 42 pitches, and went back to the dugout and recovered.”
He remembers receiving electrolyte packets to mix with water, which he credited for saving his life. Don couldn’t get a base knock, but did make contact on pitches and also walked twice.
The Reds won both games, though Don only participated in the first one, and they finished the 2010 season with a 16-2 record.
Don retired from Lockheed Martin in 2011, not long after he suited up for the Reds. He enjoys the retired life, engaging in golf and also running on a treadmill to keep in shape.
Needless to say, Don is still going strong down in Fort Worth. For now.
“Right now, we’re making plans to move back to Jasper in about two, two and a half years,” he said. “We have two grandsons down here, and when our older grandson (Jack, 14) graduates from high school — and he’s thinking about going to Purdue — we’re going to move back up there and maybe help him out a little bit up there.”
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