PLYMOUTH – The sport of baseball didn’t become an IHSAA sanctioned sport until 1967 with the first state championship tournament.
In the first two state tournaments, a young Ball State grad took tiny Knightstown High School to the semi-state round each of those first two years. In 1969 he made his way home to Plymouth, and in 1970 he took over the baseball program, and the Bill Nixon era of Plymouth baseball began.
“I knew what we had (talent-wise) and I really felt that we could play with anybody our own school size,” said Nixon of that first team. “I wasn’t sure though if we could run with the big dogs or not. They proved we could.”
That year the Pilgrims went 20-10 won the first of 23 sectionals since, and two years later, with many of the same players, Plymouth won their first regional title and made the first semi-state appearance of any Plymouth athletics program making the elite eight.
“All they did was win,” said Nixon. “It was unbelievable the way they accepted what I taught them. They were overachievers in many ways, but they always seemed to make a play or get the big hit when we needed it. That first bunch was a special bunch.”
Among that special bunch were a lot of special players. Pitcher Kevin Weidner still holds the top spot in the state record book with 50 wins in his career and the most innings pitched in a career. Teammate Skip Fehrer is still in the top five in state history for innings pitched in a career.
Players like Gary Myers, Dennis Wade, Gary Hillman, and many others still hold school records or are still in the top ten in numerous categories.
“We played small ball,” said Nixon. “We didn’t have a lot of power. It sort of set the standard of what we were going to do as a program. Pitch and play defense. That was the way I coached.”
“I was the hitting coach too then and I hit .333 in my career at Ball State,” said Nixon. “I had three hits in three years. So you know how that went.”
Nixon was also blessed with a community that in many ways was baseball savvy. Many outstanding players came through Plymouth over the years, names like Pete Wickey, Bill Myers as well as Nixon’s high school teammates Steve Yoder, Dave Sissell, and Chuck Johnson were all outstanding players and college players in one sport or another.
“A lot of those older guys were playing softball by the time I was playing,” said Nixon. “They were unbelievable. They played for the old Franklin Scrappers and hardly anybody could beat them. The old Plymouth team in the independent league was always one of the better ones.”
Nixon was also blessed with a wealth of great players over the years. Tom Jung started a group of Indiana All-Star team members that has continued to today.
Players perhaps more known for other sports also left their mark. Before the NBA had Scott Skiles he set and still shares the state record for most home runs in a game. While becoming a Parade first-team All-American in football on his way to starting fullback at the University of Notre Dame, Pete Buchanan joined Weidner in the state record book with 40 wins on the mound in his career good enough for eighth in state history.
“Everyone of those teams had something special and special players,” said Nixon. “If somebody asked me who my best shortstop was it would be impossible. There were so many, Ed Kelso, Mike Hite, Mark Fruits, Gary Hillman that’s only a few of them. There’s no way I could tell you who the best players were at a position or the best team.”
Nixon also credits other coaches in the “feeder system” that made success happen at the upper levels.
“They were taught the same things from the time they were 10 on the travel team,” said Nixon. “We had a lot of great coaches at that level, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Ed Hess and Paul Hurford and as the years went on a lot of younger guys who were former players stepped up to take that on. As they went up the ladder we were all playing Plymouth style baseball.”
“Kids saw what we were and the success we had and they wanted to be a part of that,” said Nixon. “Ken Fox told me once that when he was a kid when he’d play travel ball he’d look over at the big field next door and say he wanted to play there someday. Kids saw that and wanted to be a part of it.”
That desire to be a part of the program led to something else.
“We were at the first Old Timers game and Pete (Buchanan) and I were talking,” said Nixon. “It was really neat to see all those guys together from that first team in 1970 up to 1993 and he said ‘All these guys are from different times but we all have something in common. You are the common denominator We are all part of the same family, we’ve all been through the same experience whether it was 1970 or now.’ The year didn’t matter.”
Nixon’s career spanned 33 years, a long time for any coach in any sport. How did he last so long?
“Because they didn’t fire me I guess,” he said. “A lot of it was that I never really feel like I achieved what I could have as a player. I didn’t make some good decisions, I didn’t have the right attitude, and I wasn’t going to let that happen to any of my players. They learned from my mistakes I guess.”
“Once you’ve established your program it really doesn’t have anything to do with wins and losses anymore,” he said. “My greatest satisfaction in that category is that we averaged 24 wins a season for 33 years. If you wanted to play here success was something that you just expected.”
“I think the greatest satisfaction though is seeing what kind of people our kids have become, men you can be proud of, and most of them successful at what they do,” he said. “Hopefully baseball had a little bit to do with that.”