By T. Scott Boatright
Baseball reunion or tennis match? Either way, the love in the air was electric. Golden and electric. And love was in the air.
The 1972 T.L. James Contractors American Legion State Champion baseball team held their 50th anniversary reunion Saturday night.
And it was gold — as in Golden Anniversary. But maybe more so, golden as in a shining home run for all associated with that magical team.
Many of them were part of the 1972 Ruston High School state championship team. Others came from surrounding communities and towns.
And in 1972 … Contractors manager/head coach Billy Henderson cooked up a winner out of a diverse but talented group of solid young people, even if some preferred shenanigans more than others.
That year, after the RHS Bearcats took a state title. Then doubled the ante by leading the Contractors to an American Legion title.
The Contractors defeated Tasty Bread of New Orleans to earn the historic state title before falling to the home-standing Oklahoma team in the national American Legion World Series.
And as the Contractors gathered together, the loving sarcasm surrounding the hard-nosed, tough coaching provided by Henderson was as thick as the love they directed toward him.
So, as he said several times during the night, with loving tear-brimmed eyes — “Yeah, this is gonna be ‘Burn Coach Henderson’ night.”
Randy Rogers described the mood of the night..
“It’s just those things you take from your life you never see again,” Rogers said. “You only get those in baseball — baseball’s a lot like life. You win, you lose.
The Contractors didn’t lose much in 1972. Everybody at the reunion will admit they were by no means the best Ruston American Legion team team.
But they said they were tighter. And it was that love for playing together that made them a family forever.
And they all contend it begins with Billy Henderson.
“I had Tech coaches. I had Ike Futch coach me,” said Rodney Howard, who during the state championships struck out 19 NOLA batters in their first match-up before fanning 21 to earn the state title. “I had Coach (Pat) Patterson at Tech. And being truthful I’ll say that Coach Henderson is the best coach that I ever had. That’s from Little League all the way up.
“He laid down the rules and he expected you to follow them. And if you couldn’t follow them, he’d expect you to try, anyway. I know everybody here feels the same. The best feeling we ever had as a team was when we walked off in New Orleans with the state championship.”
The Contractors had to beat Tasty Bread out of New Orleans in a 2-1 series that year.
Robert Mitcham didn’t only have to play for Henderson. He also worked under him as a basketball coach at Spearsville High School, where Henderson was then principal.
“We weren’t the best team Coach Henderson had, we just gelled and wanted it more,” Mitcham said. “We were not nearly as good as the year before talent-wise. We were just more of a team. We wanted it more.”
And then he told the story about moving from coach/athlete relationship to principal/coach.
“Coach Henderson gave me the job at Bernice,” Miitcham said. “We had a guy named Benny Anders who was pretty good. He went on to be part of Phi Slamma Jamma at the University of Houston.
“In a huge game Benny got in foul trouble as he always did and came to the bench. The principal was always at the end of the bench. There’s 10 minutes left and Benny’s sitting halfway down the bench with four fouls. I look a few minutes later and Coach Henderson is halfway down the bench, in between the players.”
At the two-minute mark up by two points, Mitcham looked to his right.
“He was sitting right beside me,” Mitcham said. “He said, ‘Coach, you gonna let his behind die over here and lose this ballgame?’ “
Anders and Spearsville then cruised to a state title.
“Thank you for winning that championship for me, Coach Henderson,” Mitcham said. “I’ll never forget it.”
In the end, Howard summed it up all up best. The night was about being a 1972 Contractor.
‘He’s a great man. I can’t say enough about him,” Howard said. “And I’ll tell one more story. When me and Randy just got out of Dixie Boys, we both went there and tried out. When it got time for him to make a decision, he got both of us up there together. He said, ‘Guys, as far as I’m concerned you made the team. I know you’re both pitchers, but you’re not going to pitch much.’
“Well I was like Randy — we were just proud to be Contractors.”