Magical tournament began with Mesa
Bus Bergman knew that if he was given a chance to host a national college baseball tournament, people would come.
Bergman, who in 1959 was the baseball coach at Mesa College — now Colorado Mesa University — figured Grand Junction was already established as a baseball town.
The baseball stadium, known then as Lincoln Park, could accommodate plenty of fans.
And that fan base had a local team to root for.
Mesa College was the host school for the eight-team tournament, which spanned four days one year after making the move from its original site in Miami, Oklahoma, on the campus of Northeastern Oklahoma A&M.
“Dad knew that all of the pieces were in place for him to make this thing happen,” said Walt Bergman, the son of the man who helped bring what is now the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series to Grand Junction. “He had the initial idea that he was going to get it here and he knew it would last.”
This year marks the 60th anniversary and the 59th consecutive season in Grand Junction for JUCO.
Hundreds of thousands of fans come through the gates every year and have seen players such as Kirby Puckett, Bryce Harper, Curt Schilling and John Lackey play at Suplizio Field.
But that first year, Jim Hanks, Bob Hirons, Bob Gear, Eldon Miller and Johnny Walters were the tournament’s recognizable names for a Mesa team that felt fortunate to play with the nation’s best.
“We had some very gifted baseball players,” said Hirons, the owner of an accounting firm in Grand Junction who played on that first Mesa JUCO baseball team. “Being able to participate in the 1959 JUCO World Series was very special.”
BUILDING A TOURNAMENT
Bergman did just about everything at Mesa. A Denver native and World War II veteran of the Marines who died in 2010, he was the school’s football and baseball coach and was at Mesa either as a coach or administrator until 1980.
He amassed a 378-201 career record with 20 conference championships as the school’s baseball coach and often recruited players who could also play football for him.
One such player was Gear, who earned All-America honors as a linebacker during the 1958 season. He was the Mavericks’ No. 1 pitcher who had a fastball in the mid-80s and “a curveball I could control,” he said.
Gear passed away in April in Jacksonville, Florida, where he and his wife, Connie, lived after he retired from teaching in Grand Junction.
In order to play for Bus, Gear said in a phone conversation a few weeks before his death, “you had to have a good personality. (Bergman) had a great personality, and everything about him helped bring the tournament there.”
Walt said his dad knew the demographics of the area were the strengths that would make bringing the national tournament to Grand Junction feasible. The Grand Junction Eagles, the town’s semi-pro baseball team, had a loyal fan following. Mesa had an upper hand with Jay Tolman, an administrator at the college who was also a member of the NJCAA national baseball committee.
And since television hadn’t made it to Grand Junction yet, Walt Bergman said, people had to come to Lincoln Park and watch the Eagles play “to get their baseball fix.”
But Bus’ interest, Walt added, went beyond getting the best junior college baseball teams in the nation to Grand Junction. It would also give Mesa an automatic berth as the host team. So when the national committee agreed to move JUCO from Oklahoma, Bus wanted to make sure he had a team that could compete with the nation’s best.
“Dad was also the coach of the Grand Junction Eagles,” Walt said. In 1957, Bus ed the Eagles to a fifth-place finish in the American Amateur Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita, Kansas. “He knew the local baseball talent was good enough.”
BUILDING A TEAM
Much of the talent was either inside Grand Junction’s city limits, or not far from it. Many players on the 18-man roster had graduated from either Grand Junction, Central or Fruita high schools.
Hirons was familiar with the baseball scene at Lincoln Park. The house where he grew up was four blocks away from the ballfield, and he was a bat boy in the visitors’ dugout during Eagles home games. In high school, he played American Legion baseball for Maxie Carroll and high school baseball at Grand Junction for Bill Fanning, for whom the annual early season high school tournament in Grand Junction is named.
Every player had his own story about how he got to play on that first JUCO team for Bus. Hirons was no different.
He originally enrolled at the University of Colorado and played freshman baseball for the Buffaloes but was asked by his mother to come home to help the family. When he transferred to Mesa College, he approached Bergman and asked him if he could try out for the baseball team.
“And Bus said, ‘Yes, you can play for the Mesa baseball team, and we can help you a bit with books and tuition.’ What a break,” Hirons said. “So the kid that lived four blocks from Lincoln Park an Mesa College would be able to play for Bus Bergman and get to play in the 1959 JUCO World Series. Wow. That was fun.”
Gear, a native of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, originally went to the University of Denver to play football, but came to Mesa for his sophomore year because his “grades were bad.” Walters, who had played for Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, played shortstop for the Eagles the previous summer and was recruited to pitch and play shortstop for Mesa.
Hanks, a returning infielder, became the team’s regular first baseman when the previous starter, Larry Fredrico, separated his shoulder running into Western State’s first baseman trying to beat out a ground ball during the second game of Mesa’s doubleheader in Gunnison. Hanks came in to replace him and sparked a 12-run fourth inning with two home runs and five RBI during Mesa’s 18-15 victory. He finished 3 for 3 with those two home runs and six RBI and was the regular first baseman from then on.
Pitcher Dan Hansen was a Central graduate, and Eldon Miller, a Fruita graduate who caught for Mesa, went to a Pittsburgh Pirates tryout camp in California right before the season started. J.D. Reinert played high school baseball for Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs, but he got a chance to see Lincoln Park when he pitched against Fruita’s Jim Brenneman in the Class A state championship game.
MESA AT JUCO
Although the Mavericks received an automatic tournament berth as the host school, they earned their way into the tournament by winning the Empire Conference championship when Walters followed Mesa’s 1-0 loss to Trinidad at Lincoln Park with a 1-0 shutout the next day.
Mesa, which came into the tournament with a 13-5 record, originally was going to open JUCO against Montgomery Junior College out of Takoma Park, Maryland, but travel plans for that team fell through and it withdrew from the tournament. Instead, Tolman invited Trinidad to make the trip, and a reshuffling of the eight-team tournament field pitted Mesa against Paducah Junior College (Kentucky).
After the first day of the tournament was washed out by rain, Tournament Director Sam Suplizio had to readjust the schedule to fit the four-day tournament into three days, and coaches agreed to play seven, seven-inning games on the first day.
Mesa’s opener was plagued by six errors during a 6-5 loss to Paducah. And with the condensed schedule, Mesa played a losers’ bracket game against Trinidad that didn’t begin until 11 p.m. that night. The Mavericks were eliminated with a 5-1 loss and watched as shorthanded Paris, Texas, went on to be the first JUCO champion crowned in Grand Junction.
“They had like, 11 players on their team, and one of them had a cast on his arm,” said Gear, who struck out six and walked three in the complete-game loss to Paducah to open the tournament. “How was that possible?”
The demographics of JUCO have changed substantially since Mesa hosted Grand Junction’s first national championship tournament.
Articles from The Daily Sentinel and the now-defunct Grand Junction Morning Sun published not long after JUCO said an estimated 4,700 fans attended the tournament which, after the final books were tallied, made a $137 profit.
“The fans, all of the community, continued to support the tournament even after we were no longer in the tourney,” Hirons said. “That was a big plus with the (junior college) national committee when they were considering the renewal of the selection of Grand Junction to host JUCO.”
That national committee allowed Grand Junction to host again the next year, and Mesa went on to make three appearances in the national championship game before becoming a four-year school in 1974.
After the tournament, Gear went on to coach at Grand Junction High School for 32 years before retiring to Florida. Miller, who along with second baseman Dick Kelley was selected to the NJCAA’s Western District all-star team, was also selected as the tournament’s “Most Likely to Succeed in the Major Leagues.” Kelley, a Grand Junction graduate, was an All-American and finished with six triples and a .378 batting average.
That first Mesa College team, even though it didn’t make a long run, hosted a tournament that has grown into one of the nation’s top national-championship events.
“It was such an honor to be part of that,” Gear said. “But it wasn’t anything like it is today. I think that’s what made it that much more special.”
1959 MESA COLLEGE MAVERICKS
The roster for the 1959 Mesa College baseball team, which was the host school for the first NJCAA World Series played at Lincoln Park in Grand Junction. Players are listed in numerical order.
No. Name Position
2 Dan Hansen P
3 Ron Faulkner 3B
4 Jim Schneider INF
6 Johnny Walters SS/P
7 Jim Hanks 1B
8 Elia Karras RF
9 Eldon Miller C
10 Bob Hirons SS
11 Bob Heid CF
12 Dick Kelley 2B
13 Bob Ingram C
14 Mel Hanna OF
15 Lyle Chadwick P
16 J.D. Reinert P
18 Ev Johnson LF
20 Rich Holsan 1B
21 Bob Gear P
22 Darold Green P