Where Are They Now?: 1976 Forest Park baseball teamAugust 1, 2014
By BRENDAN PERKINS
Herald Sports Editor
Somehow, some way, it all worked.
It worked in the sectional, when Forest Park was three outs away from being erased by Northeast Dubois in the championship. It worked in the regional semifinals, when Washington bombed a game-tying homer in the seventh inning before the Rangers’ high-wire act continued with a walk-off win. It worked in the semistate, against an Evansville Mater Dei team that Forest Park had lost to earlier in the season, and against a Bloomington South squad the Rangers feared they’d be blown out by.
Thirty-eight years later, it still works.
Leadoff hitter Ken Lamkin, catcher Scott Uebelhor and Jim Mehling are all gathered at Forest Park High School in the office of Mehling, the ace pitcher who’s now the school’s principal. When someone asks aloud how the Rangers beat Washington, the team’s trivia extraordinaire produces an instant answer. “Ruhe hit a little flare to left field,” Uebelhor, practically without having to think, says of Paul Ruhe’s winning RBI single. Mehling, with his warm, perpetual smile, tosses out all sorts of analytics, going down the roster of that year’s Ranger baseball team and recalling who offered this and who supplied that in helping Forest Park bust through on a big stage for the first time athletically. Lamkin, in his deep, rich voice, recalls tale after tale of Jim Peacock, his former coach with a no-nonsense edge but a universally beloved aura.
And when those guys need help filling in the blanks about their odyssey to the 1976 state baseball finals, Mehling picks up the phone and starts dialing.
Coach Peacock; Jim Mehling, he says, pausing for the greeting from his former coach.
I couldn’t be any better. How are you doing? Do you have a few minutes to contribute?
So Peacock is speaker-phoned in and joins the lunch-hour interview. It becomes the lunch-hour-and-half interview. But no one’s in a hurry to go anywhere. It’s a laid-back scene, and with each person offering a little something different, the stories keep flowing.
The blueprint was much the same in the summer of ’76, when a laid-back bunch of 15 Rangers merged their unique skill sets for something their community had been pining for. Forest Park announced itself as a statewide basketball power in the 2000s and the Ranger football program didn’t enter the picture until a few years after. Way before all that, though, the Ranger baseball team of ’76 took the Southeast Dubois community by storm, becoming the school’s first big thing.
“We were only four years after consolidation in ’76. So we were kind of looking for something,” Uebelhor says.
“In a school that was proud of their athletics but had never won anything, that was the first really big one,” Mehling adds.
Before they won, frustration had been the familiar refrain.
The prior two basketball seasons had ended with the Rangers positioning themselves for a sectional title run but no trophy in hand. The consensus is that the ’75 Ranger baseball team was better, but that season ended with a 7-6 setback to Bedford North Lawrence in the regional final.
Then came that Tecumseh game in the late spring of ’76 — a mess so colossal, that Uebelhor, Lamkin and Mehling merely laugh about it now. Flummoxed by a soft-throwing lefty, the Rangers trudged home from Tecumseh with a loss that dropped their record to .500. It caused Peacock to famously sniff at his team, “You guys are so bad you don’t even know how to wear your baseball hats.”
Peacock actually instructed players how to properly wear their caps — applying them from the front and pulling them to the back, while also ensuring that those sweeping ’70s locks weren’t jutting down onto the forehead.
An old-school soul, Peacock was.
He tossed Lamkin and Tom Olinger from practice one day after they had skipped a school function. (The two played golf instead — and Lamkin’s batting average actually skyrocketed from that point on.) When Mehling once showed up for practice 15 minutes late, Peacock hit fungos to everyone else for the next two hours while Mehling stood ignored in left field. But Peacock never cursed. “Daggummit” and “nuts” were as saucy as it got for Peacock, who also coached the Ranger basketball team for six seasons. Mehling honestly can’t remember a time when Peacock raised his voice.
“He didn’t demand respect, it just came, because of how he conducted himself,” Lamkin says. “He just had this aura about him. I would have run through a brick wall for him. And here’s the funny thing: I’d still do it today.”
Peacock’s tendencies projected onto his players, as “we had his personality, and there wasn’t anything rah-rah about anything,” Mehling recalls, though he did remember one critical moment where Peacock inspired some confidence.
In the semistate finale at Jasper, the Rangers were up against heavy-hitting Bloomington South, which wielded a team batting average of around .400 and unsettled Forest Park before the first pitch based on how the Panthers were pinging shots all over the yard in batting practice. Through six innings, the Rangers hadn’t yielded a run. Before Mehling left the dugout to pitch the seventh, he told his coach, “If I get in trouble, make sure you come out.”
“I’ll see you when it’s all over. I’m not going to be out,” Peacock assured him.
South brought up the tying run. Mehling finished the job with a strikeout — on a fastball, most certainly, because Uebelhor was the team’s catcher and when Mehling pitched, “you probably could have called the game with one finger,” Peacock kids Uebelhor.
But it worked, considering the way the Ranger jigsaw was assembled.
During the tourney run, Forest Park relied on Mehling’s power to get through one game, then came back the next game with Jim Kippenbrock, who “threw nothing but junk,” Lamkin says, smiling. Kippenbrock would provide a couple good innings. Then, with Mehling having a little time remaining in his 10-inning limit, he’d re-enter.
Opposing batters who’d just gotten used to Kippenbrock’s twists and dips were left frozen by Mehling’s heat.
“It was the perfect combination,” Lamkin says.
It wasn’t the only one, either.
Lamkin and Ruhe, who batted first and second, respectively, ended up partnering together in the furniture business after high school. Lamkin was a reliable contact hitter with speed. Ruhe possessed deft touch with bunting. Good things followed with Bill Niehaus, who always made contact and seldom struck out.
“You went on down the line, and everybody had a role that they were good at,” Lamkin says.
Ditto for the defense, which Peacock called “a turnkey operation.” The ’76 infield featured three guys who returned to their same positions from the year before, and Greg Uebelhor stepped into the mix and “scooped up anything at first base that was anywhere close to him,” Mehling remembers.
In the six tournament games leading up to the state finals, the Rangers didn’t commit an error. Not when it mattered, anyway.
“I think you guys had — it certainly wasn’t an arrogance by any means — but it was just a very quiet confidence that we’re going to find a way to get this done. When we needed to play well, we were able to do it,” says Peacock, 65, who now runs an insurance agency in Indianapolis. After leaving Forest Park, Peacock spent 15 years as an assistant basketball coach at Ben Davis and was part of the Giants’ back-to-back state titles in 1995 and ’96.
“Everybody had a special talent, but the thing that made it so fun was everybody kind of came together.”
Every stop along the four-week tourney trail seemed to be accompanied by some sort of twist.
The 9-0 domination of Jasper in the sectional opener. The 4-0 Mater Dei win where Greg Uebelhor spanked a homer “that may still be going,” Peacock says. A pair of last-at-bat escapes, including in the sectional final against another cagey left-hander who nearly short-circuited the run before it even started.
Northeast Dubois had the Rangers beat. And irritated. Scott Uebelhor remembers an angry Mehling pitching “harder than (he) ever threw,” as the missiles began to hurt Uebelhor’s catching hand. Through six innings, Forest Park mustered a single run off Jeep pitcher Steve Hautsch.
Maybe it was all part of the Rangers’ charm that year, though. Niehaus, who scored the tying run in the seventh inning, admits that “sometimes we weren’t the most graceful team around, but we got the job done.”
Did someone mention grace? The game-winning sequence against the Jeeps unfolded in one awesomely awkward moment. Lamkin reached base in the eighth and proceeded to run himself ragged when he kept trying to steal second and Ruhe repeatedly fouled off pitches. Weary and wiped out, Lamkin finally went first to third on a single — and he had just enough juice to ramble home after an overthrow skittered down the third-base line.
“I get up, I start running and I literally collapsed on home plate,” Lamkin recalls. “I had no idea at the time it was the winning run, because at the time, it was all a blur.”
The hysteria gained followers.
After escaping Washington in the morning game of the regional, Mehling barely made it back to Ferdinand in time for the 1 o’clock wedding of his sister Elaine. Jim hustled back up to Jasper’s Recreation Field for the championship six hours later — and nearly everyone left the reception and followed him there. The handful of people who remained at the dead party found a radio and tuned in to the game.
“We had people going to baseball games that had never went to baseball games,” Lamkin says.
“That month in May and June, if you were (from) southeast Dubois County, that’s what you were doing,” Mehling says. “And after the game, everybody was on Main Street. It was really special beyond special.”
Their venture to Indianapolis and Bush Stadium for the finals read like something straight from under a “Farm Boys Hit The Big City” headline. The skyline and the scene were all new to them — complete with the sight of a young couple making out in a car at a movie, which a 16-year-old Uebelhor’s virgin eyes had never seen back home in Dubois County.
“We went to the Midway, and that was big for me, to go to a movie with a bunch of guys in a foreign city,” Uebelhor says.
“And stay in a hotel, which you never did (back then),” Lamkin adds.
For everyone, there’s still a twinge of regret that festers from falling 3-0 in the state semifinals against Sullivan and its star hurler, Charlie Noble. Forest Park’s players returned to watch LaPorte’s 6-5 win in the championship, and Uebelhor remembers thinking it was a game the Rangers could have won.
Kippenbrock, who now lives in Carmel, occasionally drives by the old Bush Stadium site, where an apartment complex now stands. Passing by sometimes stokes those old memories, says Kippenbrock, one of three ’76 team members living in the Indy area along with Olinger and Steve Dall.
One guy got away — way away — as 9-hole hitter Joe Weyer spent time working on a crab boat in the Bering Sea near Russia; he now lives in Montana and runs Montana Joe’s Truffles, a small candy company. Nine of the 16 guys from that squad are still in the Southeast Dubois area. Their folk following remains, however slightly. To this day, older people still approach Mehling and Uebelhor to mention how they remember them as the shaggy-haired heroes from that memorable monthlong ride.
“You’d come back after these parades, and kids are asking for your autographs, and you’re like, why do these kids want my autograph? We played well, but that’s how we were supposed to play. We were just doing what we were supposed to do,” Scott Uebelhor says. “You don’t realize until much, much later, how special that was.”
Contact Brendan Perkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where are they now? Catching up with the 1976 Ranger baseball team. (positions reflect state championship game)
1. Ken Lamkin, ss (lives in Ferdinand; worked as president of Mobel Inc.)
2. Paul Ruhe, cf (lives in Ferdinand; worked as CEO of Mobel Inc.)
3. Jim Mehling, p (lives in Ferdinand; principal at Forest Park High School)
4. Bill Niehaus, 2b (lives in Ferdinand; production worker at MasterBrand)
5. Scott Uebelhor, c (lives in St. Anthony; co-owns Uebelhor TV)
6. Tom Olinger, 3b (lives in Carmel; chief accounting officer at Kite Realty Group in Indianapolis)
7. Jim Kippenbrock, rf (lives in Carmel; information technology director at IUPUI’s school of engineering and technology)
8. Greg Uebelhor, 1b (lives in Ferdinand; works in construction)
9. Joe Weyer, lf (lives in Bozeman, Mont.; owns candy business Montana Joe’s Truffles)
Steve Dall (lives in Indianapolis; design engineer for mechanical engineering company)
Rock Emmert (lives in Ferdinand; English teacher at Forest Park HS)
Jon Gerber (last known address in Texas)
Larry Nord (lives in Jasper; works as a buyer for Ripco)
Mike Roos (lives in Ferdinand; works in sales for Lensing Wholesale)
Joe Snyder (lives in Ferdinand; works in farming)
Jim Peacock (lives in Indianapolis area; operates an American Family Insurance branch)
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