Former baseball players gather to recall clinching 1961 SEC title

Every LSU fan knows about the Tiger baseball dynasty: six national titles, 25 NCAA playoff appearances in the past 29 seasons, a run that began with former coach Skip Bertman’s arrival in the 1980s.

Yet, 30 years before that first national championship, LSU had a chance to compete for one, only to turn down the opportunity for the worst of all possible reasons.

On May 12, 1961, LSU’s Bobby Theriot hit a single in the bottom of the 11th inning to drive in the winning run in a 6-5 victory over Auburn to clinch the Southeastern Conference championship. The trophy included an invitation to the playoffs.

But, even as fans in a sold-out Alex Box Stadium rained down cheers, the celebrating players knew their season had likely ended, which was confirmed the next morning in a statement from LSU Athletic Director Jim Corbett. The school would not go to the playoffs “due to the present position of LSU with regard to participation in mixed athletic events.”

In clearer language: LSU would not let its athletes play if they might compete against black opponents.

“It was a different era,” said third baseman Tommy DeMont.

“We knew the rule … and the craziness that we had to get born and raised in,” said Dr. John Thomas, the team’s shortstop. “Nowadays, people go, ‘What?’ They can’t believe it when you tell them that story.”

Fortunately, the season’s story is about more than how it ended. For the players, it remains a source of joy, even for left fielder Roy “Moonie” Winston, whose greater fame was on the football field.

“He told me of all the years in sports — and he played 13 years for the (Minnesota) Vikings and for four Super Bowl teams — he said his most enjoyable year in athletics was with this team,” said Bud Johnson, who was then LSU’s assistant sports information director.

It was a talented team.

DeMont, who grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, came to LSU confident he would make the team, but that changed quickly.

“After our first practice, I can remember like it was yesterday,” he said. “I called home and said, ‘Dad, I don’t know. These guys are good.’”

The roster included multi-sport athletes like Winston, pitcher Lynn Amedee, Lester Mitts and Robbie Terrell, who played football, and star pitcher Allen Smith and John Bailey, who were on basketball scholarships. Second baseman Larry Edmonson later played pro baseball. Thomas turned down a pro offer to attend college.

Players said Coach Ray Didier’s emphasis on baseball fundamentals had a large part in their success, and so did team chemistry, much of which was created in two memorable test tubes, both involving Winston as a key ingredient.

When most of a baseball tournament in Monroe was rained out, Didier lifted curfew so players could have fun. They had so much that the hotel manager asked Didier to intervene.

“We had a team meeting on Sunday, and it was obvious to him that Moonie had been drinking,” Theriot said. “He wanted us to decide if we were going to vote him off the team. Heck, we’d all been out drinking.”

“Once again, a team effort,” Thomas said.

When the players voted to keep Winston, Didier asked who else had been drinking. Every hand went up, Theriot said.

“He ran us till we died, just died,” Theriot said. “But we all did it as a group. We all took the same punishment that Moonie did, and I think that really tied us together.”

Later that season at Ole Miss, a Rebel player raised his forearm and struck DeMont in the mouth in a play at third base, knocking out several of DeMont’s teeth and knocking him briefly unconscious. As teammates gathered around DeMont, Winston — an All-American football player — turned to the home team dugout.

“He walked up to the whole, entire Ole Miss bench and said, ‘Why don’t you guys pick on somebody your own size,’” DeMont said. “And he stood in front of all of them. Not one sound came from that bench. I’ll never forget that as long as I live. That’s when I really felt I was a part of the team, especially being away from home. That was really special for me.”

Smith, who finished with a 10-2 record, and Amedee (6-1) gave LSU the pitching it needed, the defense was solid, and nine of LSU’s 20 wins were by one run. Two of them were in the championship series against Auburn, with Smith pitching LSU to a 4-3 win in the opener, and Amedee on the mound in the finale.

The Tigers entered the bottom of the 11th trailing 5-4. Demont scored the tying run, and Theriot came to bat with two outs and Bailey on third base.

Auburn pitchers had thrown a first-pitch curveball to Theriot each of his previous five times at the plate.

“I thought, ‘They can’t be dumb enough to throw it again, but they may after five of them,’” Theriot said. “I’d be dad-gummed if they didn’t throw me another curveball, and I hit a line drive right up the middle. I was sitting on it. I was waiting for that pitch.”

Thus began the celebration. In most eras, it would have been the prelude to higher aspirations. This was not most eras.

When the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public education in 1954, Louisiana passed a law forbidding games involving athletes of different races. Courts struck down that law, but the LSU Board of Supervisors kept it as a rule.

The players hoped an exception would be made. It wouldn’t.

“That was the war we had to fight back then,” Thomas said. “We weren’t really surprised, but we were disappointed.”

“I’m not going to deny it took about 10 years of my life to put it away,” DeMont said. “The teams that I played on up north were already integrated. Paul Warfield, who played with the Cleveland Browns, he and I played together four or five years before I got here, one of my best friends. To see that was just staggering.”

Six months later, LSU’s football team received an invitation to the Orange Bowl to play Colorado, which had black players. The Board of Supervisors overturned its racial policy.

That summer, many of the LSU players played semi-pro baseball, and ended up in a national tournament against a team made up mostly of players from that year’s NCAA champions, the University of Southern California. LSU won.

“We always had to wonder in the back of our mind how far maybe could we have gone,” Theriot said. “You never know. We could have gotten knocked out in the first round, but we know we beat the team based on the champions.”

But the memories are mostly happy — of hijinks, of the nicknames they gave each other, of the trophy that couldn’t be taken away. In the 1980s, LSU gave them rings to commemorate the championship. They still have reunions, including one earlier this month.

“To me, winning the SEC championship in ’61 was the greatest athletic moment,” Theriot said. “Obviously, the hit’s important, but more important for me was playing with all these guys.”