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June 28, 2010
In 1971 a team from a tiny high school in the Midwest with an unorthodox coach, whose job was saved by his players' parents, went all the way to the state final. Hoosiers, anyone?
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June 28, 2010

The Magical Season Of The Macon Ironmen

In 1971 a team from a tiny high school in the Midwest with an unorthodox coach, whose job was saved by his players' parents, went all the way to the state final. Hoosiers, anyone?

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If it seems peculiar to fire a coach who'd just gone 18--2, well, it wasn't hard to read between the lines. Sweet was vocally against the Vietnam war. He lived in a 55-foot trailer out at Arrowhead Park, and when he was single he was known to bring attractive female friends in from Champaign. He made no secret of his affinity for a good time. On his first day at school the superintendent, Roger Britton, had told him, "We have three taverns in the town, and as teachers we don't drink at them." Sweet immediately checked out all three and within two years was a part-time bartender at one. Worse, he had a habit of tweaking school administrators if he felt they were being reactionary. Now Sweet couldn't help but wonder if his job as an English teacher was in jeopardy as well.

Sweet claimed to be O.K. with not coaching, but when the players and parents heard about his firing, they were incensed. Sweet was like a folk hero to the boys. What's more, the '71 team had a chance to be really good. So the parents took their case to the school board. That winter a board member showed up at Sweet's trailer one night to ask him what he thought about coming back as baseball coach. Sweet smiled and said, "O.K., don't see why not."

He had nearly all his core players back, along with a talented sophomore named Brian Snitker, who wore thick black glasses and a batting helmet even when playing rightfield. The Ironmen started the season strong, winning five of six, though their appearance still didn't impress anyone. Macon had no first base coach, so a spindly freshman named Jimmy Durbin did the honors. The scorekeeper was another freshman, though this one had pigtails. (Barb Jesse, the only girl scorekeeper anyone in the area had ever seen.) When Illinois baseball officials outlawed Macon's Caterpillar hats, claiming they amounted to an endorsement, the players covered up the logos with peace signs.

It was a tight group: Sweet's roster ran to 13, but he used only nine players, including the two pitchers. The first was Shartzer, of course. The second was his opposite, a quiet righthander with a thin face and thinner legs who seemed incapable of keeping his shirttail tucked in. His name was John Heneberry.

Whereas Shartzer threw heat followed by more heat, Heneberry's arsenal consisted of about five kinds of curveball, few of which broke 65 mph. He'd grown up throwing dirt clods and walnuts on his grandfather's farm in Decatur. Then his father, Jack, built a backstop in their backyard out of a couple of steel posts and chicken wire. It was all Jack could do to keep a bead on his son's drooping, darting hooks. As Jack recalls, John threw a no-hitter in his first Little League game. After the family moved to Macon when John was 10, he so frustrated opponents that he earned the unofficial nickname Ain't Got S---, which is what frustrated batters would mutter as they repeatedly swung at and missed slow pitches in the dirt.

While Heneberry and Shartzer got by on deception and pure effort, respectively, centerfielder Stu Arnold was the team's natural. With dark hair, high cheekbones and delicate eyes, he was Macon's teen idol: the lead in the school play, star of the choir, halfback on the football team and school-record holder in the 400 and the pole vault. The boys called him Chip Hilton, after the hero in the popular series of books, and Heneberry used to joke that he should have to buy a ticket just to see Arnold play. Arnold was the key to Macon's defense, so fast that Shartzer's strategy was often to "get some air under the ball" knowing that Arnold could run down most anything in that fenceless centerfield. Arnold was also a key to the offense, the team's best power hitter and base stealer.

By midseason the Ironmen were cruising through their conference schedule, destroying Moweaqua 23--2, crushing Maroa-Forsyth 15--5. Increasingly the team was taking on the personality of Sweet, who had grown out his hair and added the mustache that made him look, as one reporter put it, like a combination of "bad Mexican hombre, a fun-loving Joe Pepitone and a collegiate peacenik." Sweet's hair was tame by today's standards, but in Macon in 1971 it bordered on scandalous, and the boys loved it. They grew out their own mop tops, aped his nonchalance, worked hard at mellowing out. Shartzer began toting a tape player to games so the team's music could travel from the bus to the bench. And thus small-town Illinois parents arrived at games to see a bunch of kids warming up to Jefferson Airplane and the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Sweet also fostered a sense of community. Whatever the boys did, they did together. They parked at the Country Manor restaurant on Friday nights, sitting on the hoods of their dads' Ford Fairlanes and watching the girls go by. They played penny poker in their parents' basements, held informal drag races on quiet country roads and egged on Miller, their second baseman, when he climbed the 200-foot grain elevator in the center of town and, on the way down, fell the last 30 feet but managed to land without hurting himself. But mostly they played baseball. An hour after practice a half dozen players would be down at Macon's grade school or in the street or, if there was no one else around, taking BP next to the high school, where the only sounds were the crack of the bat and the thud of the ball detonating against the brick buildings.

Macon finished the regular season 12--3 and headed into the district tournament in early May bursting with confidence—until, that is, the players learned who their first opponent would be. Mount Zion had beaten Macon twice during the season, both times so convincingly that at the tournament Mount Zion's coach trotted out his No. 2 starter against the Ironmen. It proved a fateful decision: Macon scored two early runs, providing a cushion for Shartzer, and went on to win 8--2.

Two days later the Ironmen played for the district championship against Blue Mound, and again they dominated, winning 10--0 behind Heneberry's one-hitter. Afterward the umpire walked over and asked permission to talk to the team. He gazed at the scraggly boys and shook his head. "I'd never heard of you guys, but I've umpired all year and you all are the best team I've seen by far," he said. "I'll be following you guys." He wasn't the only one. With each win, Macon's fan support grew as parents, students and townspeople began talking about the upstart Ironmen team and its quirky coach.

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