Outstanding in Omaha: The 1950 Tufts baseball team

Tufts pitcher Seymour 'Bud' Niles shows off his form. Courtesy Tufts Digital Archives

After 68 years, the 1950 Tufts baseball team — participants in the College World Series (CWS) in Omaha, Neb. that June — will be immortalized. The team will be part of the inaugural class inducted into the new Tufts Athletics Hall of Fame on Saturday evening. Third baseman Ed Schluntz (A ’50), pitcher Dave Lincoln (A ’52), infielder Ken Fettig (A ’52) and Al Thomann (A ’52) will all be in attendance for the festivities, as will family of some of the other members.

This motley crew from a little New England liberal arts and engineering school made its way across the country to Omaha to face titans of the collegiate baseball world such as Texas and Washington State.

Naturally, the makeup of the sport was a little different back then. Tufts found its home in a conference consisting not only of current NESCAC stalwarts such as Williams and Bates, but also of now-Div. I programs such as Holy Cross and Boston University. As an example of the quality of competition in New England, future Red Sox first baseman Harry Agganis played for Boston University in the early 1950s. Agganis once hit a home run against Tufts hurler Seymour “Bud” Niles (A ’50) that, according to Lincoln, “hasn’t stopped rolling.”

Unlike the 64 who participate today, the CWS featured a grand total of eight teams in 1950, who were selected by a committee headed by four-time World Series champion and longtime Vermont baseball coach Larry Gardner. Controversially — in the eyes of the Tufts faithful, at least — the committee did not vote in the 11–1 Jumbos’ favor in 1948. Two years later, though, the Medford ballplayers forced the committee’s hand, compiling a regular-season record of 16–4 and claiming a spot ahead of such rivals as Holy Cross and Trinity.

A healthy conversation about the 1950 Jumbos should start with the introduction of manager John Ricker, cheerfully known as “Jit” by his players. Ricker was a retired naval commander, allowing him to connect with many of the players who also were in the service in the build up to the Korean War. He was a specialist in the outlandish, not only in terms of tactics, but even in regards to superstition.

“He would not change his socks if we were on a winning streak,” Lincoln said. “And his socks were so, what’s the word … redolent. Quite smelly.”

Fettig recalled another one of Ricker’s characteristic quirks.

“He had a play where if you got a walk, and if there was a man on third base, he would look over to you,” Fettig said. “You would then sort of trot on down to first base and then take off for second. If time wasn’t called, the pitcher [would] start yelling at him and then … turns around and gets confused [because of the man on third]. I was about the slowest guy on the team, and there was no throw. They told me the pitcher spun around three times and didn’t know what to do. I haven’t heard of this play before or after.”

In fact, Ricker’s strategy proved to be extremely forward-thinking, as this has become one of the most popular tricks in Little League games and sandlots around.

Along with the military connection, Ricker’s antics likely helped to unlock bonds among the team. The presence of top-end talent certainly helped, too. As there were no first-years due to college restrictions, the team was built around a senior core that had been denied a spot at the 1948 College World Series. Niles righted the staff, with Lincoln serving as a relief ace. Captain George Minot (A ’50) manned first base and was joined by fellow senior Schluntz across the diamond, as well as the sophomore duo of Al Bennett and Bill Burns at shortstop and second base, respectively. Burns and senior left fielder Rudy Fobert took turns hitting third in the lineup in the World Series.

Fetigg emphasized that much of the team’s on-field success was due to its bond off the field, where the players participated in intramural basketball games, among other activities.

How would this familial bunch fare over a few rainy days in Omaha? According to Lincoln, it was the first time that many of the players had set foot on an airplane, including himself. Once they arrived, the Jumbos faced a rude awakening in the form of the Washington State Cougars, who were the eventual runners-up. Niles twirled a dazzling five-hitter against one of the nation’s best teams, but the Jumbos were three-hit themselves and fell 3–1.

Next up were the Bradley Braves in an elimination affair, since the CWS was and still is a double-elimination competition. Lincoln entered the game in relief when Tufts found itself with its back against the wall, down 4–1 early. He held the Braves scoreless through the rest of the contest, and the Jumbos stumbled upon the winning run in the ninth inning when Schluntz was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded.

The Jumbos’ final game came against the defending champion Texas Longhorns, who would go on to win the 1950 iteration, as well. Tufts had the bad fortune of being the first team to be no-hit in CWS history, as a sterling performance by Texas pitcher Jim Ehler ended in a 7–0 defeat for the Jumbos.

“The lights bothered the team for the first few games,” Ricker said in an interview following the game. “Just when they got used to them, along comes this Jim Ehler from Texas, and he was the hottest thing I’ve ever seen. He just had it, let me tell you. We naturally didn’t like to drop out, but it was a wonderful trip.”

The magnitude of even competing in the CWS, let alone winning a game, was a tremendous achievement considering the disparities between Tufts and the other teams. As Lincoln explained, schools like Texas and Washington State would play upwards of 50 games a season under lights similar to ones at the series. Tufts did not play under any lights, nor had it even played even 20 games going into the tournament. Yet the Jumbos still hung around with the big boys.

“I was introduced to the 1950 team several years after I got the job here,” current Tufts coach John Casey told the Daily in an email. “As I have learned more about them and gotten to know them, I believe they are true heroes. Many of the team members fought in the war and were completing their academic careers. The fact that they made it to Omaha doesn’t surprise me once you know the quality of the men that were on that team.”

The Jumbos were hardened by a brotherhood, fortified from war with a shared pursuit of academic achievement and shared an on-field passion to represent Tufts at the highest level. This little-known school from Boston felt disappointed to not progress further at a tournament against the most talented schools in the country.

“They truly set the standard for Tufts baseball that we attempt to live up to every season on and off the field,” Casey said in reflection.

Not only did the 1950 group provide a gold standard for Tufts’ baseball program, it did so for the entire school. Now, nearly seven decades later, the 1950 Jumbos can add Hall of Fame inductees to their long list of accolades.