Baseball, Travel

This Story Needs To Be Told

Forever a coach.  Despite being retired for over 10 years from his high school coaching position, Murl Bowen still finds time to demonstrate technique to a young player before a recent game.  Coach Bowen, incidentally, is the winningest high school baseball coach in history, posting 2,115 career victories before retiring from tiny Asher, Oklahoma high school in 1998.

Never heard of Asher?  This story is worth the read……

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I HAVE been planning the trip for thirty years. Ever since I made a visit to Seminole State (OK) junior college the summer of my senior year in high school, where I briefly encountered Jose Tolentino, another eighteen year old like myself preparing for his next life decision.

It wasn’t just meeting Jose that day that led me back to Oklahoma, although he would later have a cup of coffee in the Major Leagues, as well as coach the Mexican National Team in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.  Rather, it was the reason he was at Seminole in the first place.

Jose had moved to a small town called Asher, Oklahoma to play baseball during his senior year of high school.  A native of Mexico City, I presume he came to Asher to improve his baseball skills and play for a winner.  Little did I know the extent of baseball success enjoyed in this small Oklahoma town – the term “winner” being an understatement.

From my first days as a college baseball player at a different junior college in Miami, Oklahoma (I opted not to play at Seminole), I was always intrigued by Jose and how he got to Asher.  How a high school kid a country and culture away would end up in a town with a population hovering around the 500 mark.  My teammates in Miami would tell me about Asher, the small town baseball factory that would play and defeat schools of all sizes across Oklahoma, and I was naturally intrigued by their success.

Over the years, the curiosity lingered, but it wasn’t in the forefront of my consciousness as I focused on kids and career, and all the life activities that accompany those endeavors.  The tipping point came when a wonderful movie about a small baseball Mecca near my home town in Iowa was announced, and it brought me back to Asher.

The town of Norway, Iowa won twenty state baseball championships before the school was consolidated against many townspeople’s wishes in 1991.  It’s an incredible feat.

Then consider that Asher has won more than twice that many titles.

Forty-five, to be exact.

Asher’s story has yet to be told with any formality.  Sure, there are baseball purists in Oklahoma and perhaps a few outlying areas that have either heard, rumored or theorized about the town’s success.  But the depth of baseball history is untapped, and I hope to reveal it all in time.

The architect of Asher’s baseball dynasty is Coach Bowen, the now retired coach who led Asher to 42 of those championships, and had a hand in a 43rd.  Now 75, he has a ranch (my Iowa roots make me want to call it a farm, but I assume ranch is the appropriate descriptor here) outside of Asher with plenty of pasture to feed a small herd of cows.   I spent a couple days with him talking about baseball, Asher history, and even a bit of what I’ll call “cattle economics.”  Yet I didn’t scratch the surface on all there is to know about the enduring success that at one point led to sixty consecutive Oklahoma state baseball tournament appearances.

Coach Bowen has a house full of awards.  In everyday conversation, he is all too happy to talk about the players.  About the memorable games.  But rarely about his records (he finally confided that he was most proud of those sixty consecutive appearances), the National Coach of the Year honors (he won several), the Oklahoma Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame induction.  I asked him once what attributes he possessed that made him so successful.  His response was entertaining and modest, to say the least.

“I did about what a chimpanzee would do,” he noted.  “I’d stand there by third base, wave my arms and holler some.”

For many of those years, he did it in blue jeans.

Coach Bowen explains, “a lot of us didn’t wear suits through the years, because there wasn’t enough of them to go around.  We barely had enough for the players some years.”

Clearly, a man ranked as the 86th most influential figure in the first 100 years of Oklahoma sports history by the Daily Oklahoman newspaper did more than wave his arms and holler some.  But Coach Bowen isn’t one to lament those accomplishments.

There were those that thought Asher’s baseball success was built on recruiting, a violation in high school sports.  For his part, Coach Bowen doesn’t deny that athletes moved to Asher to play baseball, but he also tells me he never pursued a player on his own.  I believe him.  In fact, there were those that would contact him and he would tell them not to come, citing no housing or jobs in Asher.

Many came anyway.

To me, this isn’t an indictment on a man or a town, but rather a compliment that a parent would sell their house and move their family to a situation they knew was among the best anywhere.

Coach Bowen’s recipe for success isn’t complex.  He told me he believed in hard work, and in talking to some former players, none of them argue that theory.

Shane Coker is the current coach at Asher High School.  A fifth round pick out of Asher in the 1988 professional baseball draft, Shane played in the Cincinnati Reds organization for several years until a shoulder injury ended his career prematurely.

On that same Asher team was Darrin Fowler (currently serving as Asher’s pitching coach), who achieved NAIA All-American and Hall of Fame status at Oklahoma Baptist University, and Will Hunt, a year younger but also an eventual pro after playing at Seminole and later Louisiana State University.

Ironically, all three players are cousins.

I suppose in a town of 500 people the chance of shared bloodlines is higher than the big city, but the potential for three top flight athletes of the same age seems to suggest there’s something magical in the Asher water.

Perhaps even more ironic is that one of Hunt’s pitching coaches in the minor leagues was none other than former Norway (IA) coach Jim Van Scoyoc, who moved to the professional ranks after winning many of the 20 Iowa state championships at Norway.

Getting back to Coach Coker, it’s important to understand exactly what being a baseball coach at a small high school is like.  He also teaches health and physical education classes as well as serving as athletic director.   The day after the double header I witnessed, Shane is happy that Asher’s athletic budget ended up on the plus side from the evening’s three events (varsity and junior high softball also took part in the same complex), bringing in admission and concession dollars in excess of the game expenses.

There are umpires to pay.  Baseballs and softballs to purchase.  Weed killer and fertilizer for the field (a baseball coach gets to spend their share of time patrolling the Bermuda grass as well).  All these expenditures come from the athletic fund.

We talked a little about how the expenses were handled among the other athletic teams (besides baseball and softball, there is boys and girls basketball).  There is one shared pool of dollars, and it was clear there were no jealousy or animosities between the sports.  In fact, the basketball coach (Jason Schroeder) also serves as an assistant on the baseball team.

It was refreshing to hear Shane talk about how supportive his administration was of the athletic teams.  This isn’t always the case in a climate of fiscal challenges that seem to face high schools nationwide.

If you spend just a few minutes with Shane, it’s impossible not to like him.  I left the school on my final day in Asher feeling like we were lifelong friends, even though we’d only known each other for a couple days.

For my part, I hope to live up to that credo of friendship – I only wished I lived closer.

Simply put, I don’t think I could do justice in words to the hospitality I was shown by everyone I encountered during my short visit.  From the fifth grader telling me with huge eyes I had the “biggest freakin’ camera he had ever seen” to the humble patriarch of Asher’s baseball dynasty, it’s hard to imagine better people.

Which brings me back to Coach Bowen.

We started corresponding last summer, first as a letter of introduction on my part, followed by a return phone call from Coach Bowen.  In subsequent phone conversations, I loved his willingness to share his baseball stories, and initially planned a visit for late last summer.  But I wanted to see a game, to experience Asher baseball first hand, so the trip was delayed.  Again.

I’ve thought about writing a book, although not being a trained journalist, I’m not sure I could do the town justice.  I hope to try anyway.

There are just so many stories to be told, and this is just a beginning.

John Grisham wrote about former Asher baseball player Ron Williamson in his book The Innocent Man.  At one point during his research for the book, Grisham contacted Coach Bowen and asked if he kept any stats from Williamson’s playing days.  Coach Bowen was able to provide what Mr. Grisham needed, but to illustrate his reluctance to focus on past records, I currently possess the same tattered spiral notebook he referenced to answer Grisham’s request.  The notebook that has the player statistics for every team Murl Bowen ever coached at Asher.  I wanted the information, and although I reluctantly took it with me, I will copy the pages and return within the week.  To me, these pages are like gold, a historical record of a town’s baseball lore that needs to return to the safekeeping of its rightful owner.

He gave all the old scorebooks to a former player.  I’m hoping I can run those down one day as well.

Before I left, I asked Murl if I could have an autographed baseball as a memento from my trip.  He was happy to sign it, although it was obvious this wasn’t something he did regularly.

Pittsburgh Pirate Hall of Famer Willie Stargell once signed a ball for me during a Black Awareness Week event when he was speaking at my college.  A few years ago, I gave that ball to a good friend so he could add it to a large collection he’d accumulated over the years.

He won’t get this one.  I’m keeping the ball signed “Coach Murl Bowen.”

And I’m going back to Asher the first chance I get.

This story still needs to be told……

 

26 Comments

  • Steve Boggs

    August 27, 2013

    Asher isn’t a program, it’s an aura. Their warm-up routine alone was good for a one-run lead before the game ever started. They beat us (Leflore) in the first round of the 1982 state tournament by scoring two runs with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning. Still not sure how that happened, 31 years later. I later covered the Indians while working as a sports writer for the Ada News (1985-1991) and Coach Bowen was always a total pro. Cantankerous, yes. But always a class act, and a heckuva greens keeper.

    The aura always showed up when most expected. (I can’t count the number of games I saw them win off a double steal with runners on first and third!) Those guys weren’t afraid to play anybody, anywhere at any time. They expected to win. And that came from Bowen.

    (To this day, the longest home run I’ve ever seen was hit by Will Hunt in the American Legion state tournament in Bartlesville.)

    Good to hear that Coker is still alive, much less gainfully employed. lol

  • rick langston

    April 10, 2013

    I’ve been saying for years there was a huge story to be told here. My dad played on the first championship team and one of my favorite memories is when a teammate came to me while we were visiting the area and told me how dad saved a no-hitter for him with a great defensive play. I believe Coach Bowen had just recently started coaching in Asher and lived near Dad. I spent many summers and Christmases there growing up and regret I don’t have too many opportunities to visit lately. I read the Grisham book and told Dad the impression I had of Coach Bowen through Grisham’s story and he just nodded and said that sounded like him. Dad was there this weekend for the 50th anniversary of that championship. I only wish I could have made the trip with him. Looking forward to any following stories.

  • mary

    April 2, 2013

    asher is my home town. i grew up there and i wana say thankz for givin the people and the baseball history a chance to be heard of. i know iys a very small plce but ever time i think of the word home i think of the people of asher personally the kids from asher are the most respectful and will powered people you could ever meet. asher baseball is a history that we all are proud of.

  • Phillip Heath

    January 25, 2013

    No story can ever be told about Asher that does not include Eakly Tournaments, so thanks for mentioning it Gentry, better than most State tournaments. And out of Eakly came a King named David who I thought was the greatest player I ever witnessed in person, he transferred to Asher when he was a sophmore to play for Coach Bowen, and brought me so many memories, particulary a day in Regional Tournament at Moss Ok.when he told Coach Bowen he was goint to “trot them today” and he did he hit 5 home runs in a double header against 2 very good pitchers, who both later played in Minor leagues, so very good pitchers. Coach Bowen told me that David was one of the better players, but not the best, that distinction always went to Jackie McClure, he must have been awful good to be better than David King, Will Hunt, Scott Hamilton, Shane Coker, Jose Tolentino, All Qualls brothers, etc…this year is the 50 year celebration of our 1st State title, you need to call the School Jeff and get the date as all the old players are getting together in April to celebrate it. I have lots of Coach Bowen stories that are not about baseball, but about how to care for a Baseball field, I was not a good player, but he taught me something else, pride about a field, how to take a cow pasture and make it look like the prettiest baseball field you ever saw, I worked on it with him for a lot of years and we raked and mowed the bad hops out of that sucker, and I had a lot of pride when other Schools came and saw this little “Diamond” in the middle of poor Asher. He was not only the Coach he was the Grounds crew, and all you had to do was see him lay the straightest lime foul line you ever saw, and when he messed it up a little, or I did, you never would hear the end of it. So as a Coach I think he was a good one, as a Grounds Superintendant, THE BEST EVER…so he really missed his true calling. Ha. Thanks for telling the Story, as Danny Beaver said, I have told people for years I am going to write a book about Asher, but I think an outside view could tell it the best. Thanks for starting it. By the way my brothers and I have all our State Championship medals together, framed for our mom, together we have 27 Championships and 5 runner ups,send me your e-mail I will send you a picture of it, it is a true one of a kind.

  • Gentry Sutton

    December 4, 2012

    I enjoyed reading this story. I am from a small baseball town in western Oklahoma (Sentinel), and I can tell you for a fact that the Asher baseball teams were incredible. Oklahoma has a pretty amazing baseball tradition, and Bowen and his players are a very important part of that tradition.

    Steven, I remember playing against you. You were a great competitor. I faced you on a beautiful fall night during the Eakly Labor Day tournament (another important part of Oklahoma’s baseball tradition) in the fall of 1990. You were throwing smoke. We had a good pitcher, and we played with until the 6th, when you decided you’d had enough and you proceeded to run-rule us. (We won the class A state title in the spring, so the fact that Asher run-ruled us gives you an idea of how good they were.) I could be remembering falsely, but I have it in my head that your teammate Toby Hathcock went something like 29 for 32 in the Eakly tournament that year! If that’s true, then that story needs to be told as well!

    Great to read about small-town baseball in Oklahoma. Thank you for sharing this story.

  • admin

    August 1, 2012

    My experience with Coach Bowen has been the same – he loves the game, expects hard work, is very Christian, and cares about the kids. I was neither a rival nor a teammate – simply a fan.

    – Jeff

  • Chris Ross

    July 26, 2012

    I was (un)fortunate enough to play against coach Bowens teams in the late 80’S, some 20 years later I was watching my son play a jr. high game and coach Bowen was in the stands. Naturally eveyone wants to pick coaches brain a litlle, and trhough our conversation I ask if he knows any good hitting coaches he would recomend. he responce was classic “you know no one ever asks me to work with their boys” not dreaming that he ever would I ask him if he would work with my son. HE SAID YES!! keep in mind that my son was playing against his grandson (rival schools) so that winter every Tuesday we made the 70 mile round trip to get hitting lessons from teh best highschool baseball coach in Oklahoma history. I’m not sure who enjoyed the lessons more my son or myself. Coach Bowen is first class all the way. Who coaches a kid that goes to a rival school that will be playing against their family? Answer a man who wants success for any boy willing to put in a little hard work!!

  • Brad Johnson

    February 20, 2012

    You still need to go back even further to get the real story. Ask about Jackie Mcclure and Johnny Bench. Ask Murl about playuing mens ball with some of the best hitters he’s ever played with. I have been a part of the tradition of Asher for many years and the love of the game started when baseball was baseball. We all owe Murl a great deal. He has been and always will be a great motivator. Some of my earliest childhood memories are looking over the fence and watching coach trim and edge the field to make it the best place in Oklahoma to play.

  • Danny Beaver

    April 17, 2010

    Thank you for this article. I was an Asher move-in and my parents made the sacrifice by driving over 170 miles roundtrip, 5 days a week just to give me the opportunity to play at Asher under Coach Bowen. I moved in the same summer as Jose Tolentino (younger) I also played at Seminole Jr. College and then on to what was back then Central State University in Edmond, OK. Two stories come to mind about Coach Bowen. My parents moved our belongings to Asher in an old Orange Datsun Truck (several trips to get it done) and even though I only had 1 loss in my entire 3 year pitching career at Asher on one particular outing I remember Coach Bowen calmly strolling out to the mound and he looked like he was talking calmly to me to everyone in the stands but I remember him telling me that if I wasn’t going to pitch any better than what I was then “why don’t you get your parents to pull up the old orange Datsun pickup and move back to Kiowa.” Another story was the first doubleheader we played my senior year, I was supposed to be a leader on the team and I dropped a pop up on the infield. Coach Bowen promptly chewed me out and for the rest of my career that year and throughout 4 years of college ball and more recently “Old Man’s” softball I have never dropped a pop up. I will never forget that. Coach Bowen means a lot to a lot of people and I am glad that my parents gave me the opportunity. You just don’t understand unless you went through the program. I have been telling my wife and kids for years that I need to go see Coach and interview him and do a movie script because Coach Bowen and the Asher program is unmatched and an incredible story.

  • Joe Brown

    April 4, 2010

    I was a parent that made arrangements for my son to play at Asher. As a pastor, I often tell Murl Bowen stories about leadership and helping people make the most of their abilities, no matter how great or small. Murl was a master at getting the most out of every kid. I’m thankful for all the sacrifices we made both to make it possible for my son to attend Asher and the relationships we developed along the way. Thanks Coach for affecting my life, as well as those of my family.

  • Chevy Thomason

    April 3, 2010

    Jeff, thank you for taking the time to put this article together, it is definitely a story that more of the country should know about. I was fortunate enough to play for Coach Bowen from 1995-1997 after transfering from Shawnee HS. Along with the Heath boys having most, if not all, of the scorebooks; I have a lot of video footage from the 1996 & 1997 seasons. If you do continue to research the history of Asher Baseball and would like to see any of those recorded games, please let me know and we can figure out a way to get it done. Again, thank you; Coach Bowen, the program and the town all deserve this type of recognition.

  • Mike Q

    April 3, 2010

    I’ve never been to or heard of Asher before today, but this is an amazing story and I look forward to reading more.

  • Linda (Hodges)Riddle

    April 2, 2010

    I graduated from Asher High School, and Jose Tolentino was in my graduating class. I wish I knew where he was now, he was a blast to be around. I couldn’t tell you how many baseball games I attended at Asher! I played basketball with Coach Bowen’s daughter back in the day. She graduated with one of my sisters. Coach Bowen was my history, and driver’s ed. teacher. There are A LOT of great stories to be told about Asher, and the people who have lived there. Thanks for doing this story.

  • Sherra V.B. Gilbert

    April 2, 2010

    This article definitely hit close to home. My father, Troy Van Brunt, and my uncles both Keith Larman and David Holland played for the Asher Indians as well. Thank you for sharing.

  • admin

    April 2, 2010

    What a great tribute to a great man and a great community! — Jeff

  • jon gregg

    April 2, 2010

    Thank you Jeff for a great article about one of the biggest influences on my life. Im currently a small school baseball coach in southern Oklahoma, and i had the honor of both playing for and coaching with Coach Bowen. I catch myself repeating Coach Bowen’s words on a daily basis in some form or fashion. The school I coach at is full of “troubled” kids. I know I am making a difference with them because of our current successes on, and more importantly, off the field. Last fall we had the honor of playing Asher at Asher. The guys you mention in your story were all great hosts and I am honored to be able to call them my friends. On that day Coach Bowen also went out of his way to help me by speaking to my kids on his own time. Simply put, even ten years after retirement he is still a great influence on young men’s lives today.We are currently scheduled to play there in about a month, and I know all I have to do is ask and Coach will be happy to impart a little more knowledge about baseball and life in general when we come up there. Thanks Jeff, and THANK YOU COACH!

  • Penny Ware

    April 1, 2010

    I think this story is so awesome and I am a classmate of Darrin and Shane and I know Will and when I was in school would go to the games and watch everyone play and even worked the concession stand if needed. Coach Bowen was my drivers education teacher besides being an awesome coach. I also want to say thanks for an awesome story and Asher Baseball is always mentioned when I tell people where I grew up. Thanks again.

  • Jonny Heath

    April 1, 2010

    Thank you for telling a little of the Asher Indians story. Coach Bowen was, and I understand still is, an amazing teacher. My brothers and I learned about life on that ball field across the street from our house. I know that his toughness and grit influenced many boys and helped turn them into fine men. He gave us something to be proud of for our entire lives, we were and are a part of something greater than ourselves.

    Jonny Heath

  • Gerald Biswell

    April 1, 2010

    I was each of these individuals pastor. Not only quality in their athletic endeavors, but quality people.

    Gerald Biswell

  • Joe Hruska

    March 31, 2010

    Jeff, Found the article real interesting. Being an Iowa guy who was very familiar with Norway’s success I always enjoy true life stories regarding high school sports. I look forward for more info. Go Eagles

  • admin

    March 31, 2010

    Mindy, from an outsiders perspective, it is an incredible story. Ironically, spending just three days there, I never felt like an outsider. Not only is the baseball tradition unique in it’s own right, but the people were all kind and inclusive, and made it a great experience. Can’t wait to make another trip, wish I didn’t have a real job I had to attend to!!! — Jeff

  • admin

    March 31, 2010

    I will be in touch soon Steven. It would be great if I could just compile the game scores over the years, and then dig in to the details of the players, memorable games, etc. Coach mentioned all four of you – and I look forward to talking to you. Thanks so much for contacting me. — Jeff

  • Steven Heath

    March 31, 2010

    I think the scorebooks you are talking about are in the hands of me and my brothers. My brothers and I played for Coach Bowen from 1981-1996.
    If you need to contact me about the books you can do so by the email atached.
    Hope to here from you soon.

    Steven Heath

  • Mindy (Holt) Millsap

    March 31, 2010

    Thanks Jeff for a wonderful story. The history of Asher baseball is pretty amazing and when I tell people about it, I can’t give it justice. Coach Bowen coached my dad, uncles, and cousins (Darrin, Shane, & Will) and I worked at every one of those home games while I was in school. It’s definitely a way of life . I now have a 10 yr old son who plays at a high level of baseball in the Dallas area and when I saw Coach Bowen last week, I told him I owe him some credit because I grew up watching him coach all kids to be winners. And Brad is amazing!

  • admin

    March 30, 2010

    Freddy, thank you for the comment. And I knew Brad is a cousin also – just wasn’t sure if I had his permission to share his name, so I was cautious about it. He is a walking encyclopedia on Asher history and has been an incredible resource. And my visit to Asher was an unbelievable experience – it won’t be my last. — Jeff

  • Freddy Wright

    March 30, 2010

    Dont forget Brad is a cousin to Will Hunt, Asher is a small, great place to call home.

    I grew up with all the guys mentioned in the article,, not blood kin, but consider them my brothers.

    I am a 4th generation Asherite and darn proud of it.

    Loved the atricle and welcome you back.

    Freddy Wright
    Asher, OK

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