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……
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……