By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
Missouri Southern’s baseball program has recorded more than 1,100 victories during the last 42 seasons.
And it all started with a sign-up sheet on the gymnasium wall.
“Dr. (Leon) Billingsly (Missouri Southern president) told me when I came here in 1969 he was going to start a baseball program and tennis and wrestling,” said Ed Wuch, the Lions’ first baseball coach. “He wanted to expand the athletic program, and he chose baseball to start it.
“In the summer of 1971, Glenn Dolence, then the acting athletics director, called and asked me if I would start the baseball program. I had coached baseball at Central Methodist before I came here, and I said yes. Then it was announced that the first season for baseball would be in the spring of 1972.
“I put up a sign-up sheet in the gym, and anyone wanting to sign up for baseball could do so. I had about 35 kids sign up. They were all baseball players who came from the area, from Joplin, Carl Junction, Carthage, Neosho, Webb City. They were all from the immediate area and were enrolled at Missouri Southern State College at the time.
“Joe Ketchum, Bob Tignor, Mike Whelan, Bob VonPaige, Tim Doss, I had a really nice group of young men. They were all freebies — no scholarships.”
The program started from absolutely nothing.
“We had to buy uniforms and buy equipment,” Wuch said. “We had no place to practice. I remember practicing on a parking lot on campus, and we practiced behind the old dormitories where there was a grassy area.
“We didn’t have a backstop, we didn’t have an infield, we didn’t have an elevated pitching mound. We were throwing off flat ground. We practiced at Joe Becker Stadium when we could, which was not very often because Memorial (High School) was using the field for games and practice. It was really hodge-podge.
“The first season was good, considering we had no scholarships, just a bunch of kids who wanted to play baseball.”
The Lions debuted on March 28, 1972, by sweeping Central Methodist 1-0 and 5-2 at Joe Becker Stadium. The Lions went 11-13 that first season, 13-13 the next year, and then 33-19, 33-15 and 30-20-1 during the next three seasons.
After a couple of seasons, some scholarship money became available.
“Art Kungle of Thomas Fruit Co., a wonderful supporter and wonderful to me, donated $1,200 a semester for scholarships for baseball,” Wuch said. “I was able to give 12 kids $100 a semester.”
Wuch solved the practice issue by building a field on campus down the hill from Robert Ellis Young Gymnasium. The Lions also played their home games there for two seasons.
“It was in the flood plain,” Wuch said. “When it would rain and get flooded, everyone called it ‘Lake Wuch.’ I positioned home plate in the southwest corner, and we were hitting toward the tennis courts, where now there are soccer fields.
“I was able to get a great deal of support from all the civic clubs,” Wuch said. “I don’t know how many different clubs donated money. We needed money to buy fence, to build dugouts, build batting cages.
“There was Bermuda (grass) growing on the hill, and I had each kid bring a hat full of Bermuda to the field so we would have grass on the field. It was really interesting. I used my car to drag the infield until Dr. Billingsly told me to stop doing that. So somebody donated a riding lawn mower we used to drag the field.”
The field was washed away in a flood in 1976, and Wuch stepped down as baseball coach — and assistant football coach — that same year.
“I had a young family. I was coaching two sports and was hardly ever at home,” Wuch said. “Dr. Billingsly told me I would be the next wrestling coach, so that would be coaching three sports. The opportunity to go to grad school and move into the education department, and after coaching 12 years of football and nine years of baseball, I decided to get out.
“Some of the things we did were crazy and bizarre. People don’t understand the adventures we went through to get the program where it is today.”