They swung wooden bats, wore classy-looking wool uniforms, and played a few military and professional teams. Their coach, Pete Beiden, was the best teacher of baseball fundamentals that Fresno has ever seen and all the starters came from the San Joaquin Valley. The 1951 Bulldog baseball team was arguably the best in school history with a 36-4 record grounded by a pitching staff headed by the school's inaugural First Team All-American right-hander, Don Barnett.
What that team could have done with modern weight training, aluminum bats, and superior equipment is only conjecture, but the results would have been something to behold. Their only loss was to San Diego State, who at that time was a strong California Collegiate Athletic Association rival. Fresno won the CCAA title and was given a chance to play USC in the playoffs for a trip to Omaha, but they did not accept due to a scheduling conflict. Joining Barnett, who was 11-0 with 140 strikeouts, were left-hander Jake Abbot, who was 12-2 with a 2.21 ERA, and right-hander Lawrence Bolger, who was 6-1, along with Jerry Bishop at 2-1, Tom Yost at 2-0, and freshman Truman Clevenger at 3-0.
They were assisted by a superb infield including first baseman Fred Bartels, second baseman Franny Oneto, shortstop Bob Donkersley, and catcher Don Bricker. Opponents often would stay in the dugouts, watching with awe as Fresno took their pre-game infield practice. Beiden, a master with the fungo bat, would keep two balls going at breakneck pace. Speed was the name of the game in the outfield with future Japanese major league star, Fibber Hirayama in center, flanked by Howie Zenimura in left field and Don George in right. Zenimura led all batters with a .465 batting average followed by George with .345. All three could fly around the bases and were led by Hirayama with thirty- six steals. Hirayama s three-year total was seventy-one stolen bases and, along with Donkersley and Zenimura, are still ranked in the Bulldogs top ten base stealers.
Utility players Zip Brown, Marion Stephens, and Chuck King made significant contributions as well. Bill Hansen, a former Fresno State standout first baseman, was Beiden’s assistant. This team received so much publicity for its outstanding program that the following year and in the years since, Fresno was able to play USC, California, Oregon. UCLA, Oregon State, Fullerton, Pepperdine, and Stanford.
Born in Reedley in 1901, Dale Drake was a person who loved adventure and lived life fully on his own terms. His father, J.A. Drake, made a living as a blacksmith, but was also a man who liked to build things and became interested in a turn-of-the-century invention, the automobile. As J.A. showed a keen interest in engines, he and his sons began to tinker with new ideas relating to motors that could make the vehicles go faster. Dale and his brothers, Dutch and Lem, worked with their father on projects and around 1915, the Drakes developed a high-quality forged valve for automobiles. Their first big customer was Harry Miller, the world famous designer of American racing cars, who used the Drake valves in many of his engines. This relationship would lead to Dale becoming famous himself for his Drake engine, a mainstay in American auto racing for over fifty years.
Originally, Dale was more interested in flying as a young man. He was well-known as a glider pilot and was constantly working on new creations. Drake even established a world distance record in the 1920s for piloting towed glider flights. As aviation became more popular in the Roaring Twenties, federal officials began to mandate tighter controls which led to many confrontations between “ground-pounders" who did not fly, but made the rules and the "sky-gods" who lived to tame the skies. The constant bickering drove Dale to give up flying and return to engines. Back at work with the family at the Jadson Company (J.A. Drake & Sons), Dale was soon making a name for himself and the company. After Jadson was sold, Dale and Lem set up their own machine shop where they got to work on ideas for engines and racing. Dale became the crew chief for Lou Meyer, the first Indy 500 three-time winner. Using ideas from Lem and Dale's engines and Lou Meyer's driving skills, the partnership led to Indy victories in 1935 and 1936.
Collaborating with other stars of the racing world, such as Fred Offenhauser, things really took off for the Drakes, Meyer, and the "Offy" engine which captured five Indianapolis races in the eight years that these motors were produced by Offenhauser. Separately and together, these men dominated American automobile racing from the 1920s to the 1980s and beyond. The Meyer Drake Company bought out Fred Offenhauser in 1946 and in 1964, the company became Drake Engineering, whose midget engines continued to impress. The next year, the new Drake Turbo "Ofy" mini-engine cars went out and tore up the tracks in the Pocono, the Michigan, the Phoenix, and the Indianapolis 500 races, sending Ford back to the drawing board in an effort to keep up. According to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, "fuel injection, greatly improved materials, better cooling, and other improvements all came under the Meyer-Drake banner." Cars with Drake-Offenhauser engines won twenty-four Indianapolis 500 races over a thirty-year span beginning in1946.
Dale continued to develop new components for his engines and even dabbled with motorcycles and bicycles. Drake's name rightly belongs alongside other legends of the motor sports world that were instrumental in making auto racing universally popular. He worked with great innovators, Harry Miller, L.
Mark Gardner, formerly of Clovis High and Fresno State, pitched for thirteen years in the major leagues and continued in the sport as the bullpen coach for the San Francisco Giants. Always a fan favorite, Gardner was also respected by his teammates, who voted him the winner of the Willie Mac Award named for Willie McCovey for his inspirational play and leadership.
Gardner got his start at Clovis High School where he excelled as an infielder with a rocket arm to first base. He pitched on occasion when needed for the Cougars. At Fresno City College, he didn't go out for baseball in his freshman year. "I don't think he thought he could play at our caliber at first, but he changed his mind, and we were sure glad he did, especially the way things turned out," said Len Bourdet, the Rams coach at the time. Gardner tried his hand at hurling under the tutelage of Bourdet and pitching coach Dick Selma, who had thrown in the major leagues for ten years with the New York Mets. Philadelphia Phillies, and others. His confidence and prowess grew, and in his sophomore year at Fresno City, Gardner blossomed into one of the best pitchers in the Valley Conference. He led the league in strikeouts while becoming the Rams pitching ace.
Fresno State University Coach Bob Bennett offered Gardner a scholarship. Bennett was famous for helping many a young player on the road to the professional baseball ranks, particularly pitchers. It was a great match for Gardner and the Fresno State Bulldogs. In 1984, Gardner helped lead the team to fifty-four victories and the Northern California Baseball Association Championship. Gardner was one of five All-NCBA players for the Dogs that year. In 1985, Gardner led the team to another championship, this time in the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference. He was the conference MVP and also received All-American honors. He won sixteen games his senior year while striking out 187 batters.
In the 1985 MLB draft, the Montreal Expos chose Gardner in the 8th round. It was the beginning of a long and successful career in professional baseball, with thirteen of those years spent as a pitcher in the big leagues: four with the Expos, one with the Kansas City Royals, two with the Florida Marlins, and six with the Giants. Gardner pitched in 345 major league games, 275 as a starter, while tossing a total of 1,764 innings. He won ninety-three games in his career and had a respectable ERA of 4.56. His best seasons in the bigs were with the Giants, going 12-9 in 1997, 13-6 in 1998, 12-7 in 1999 and 11-7 in 2000. Toward the end of his career, he was used as a long reliever. One of Gardner's biggest thrills on the hill was on July 6, 1991,when he was pitching for the Expos and came within a whisker of pitching a no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He held them hitless at Dodger Stadium until the top of the 10th inning, when he gave up a hit.
Gardner retired from playing after the 2001 season. The following year, he went to work on the San Francisco coaching staff. As the bullpen coach, his pitchers have ranked among National League leaders in wins and saves. Gardner married his college sweetheart Lori Romeiro, a former FSU softball pitching great. Lori passed away in 2003 after a battle with cancer. She is also an inductee into the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame, Class of 2006. Gardner remains active in community work for the Giants and in helping to promote the California OrganDonor Network. In 2005, Gardner's Fresno State #28 jersey was retired and hangs in the outfield at Pete Beiden Field where Gardner pitched on the day it opened.
In 1986, Martha Noffsinger, a Southern California softball sensation from Edison High School in Huntington Beach, was sought after by many colleges around the country. The talented shortstop chose Fresno State because she wanted to play for Margie Wright and liked the Fresno area. As it turned out, Bulldog fans had many reasons to like her as well. A significant number of schools wanted her in their programs because Martha was a player who had great, all-around athletic ability. She was solid in the field as well as at the plate. She competed with the Bulldogs from 1987 through 1990 and led the team to three second place finishes in the NCAA at the Division I level.
In the field, Martha was in total charge of anything hit in her vicinity, making great plays that had the ever-increasing Fresno State crowds buzzing about her rocket arm. "She was the best," remembers first baseman Gena Strang. "She just threw bullets over to first. Sometimes you didn't know where it was going to be or if she would be able to complete the play, but the ball definitely got there on time and the fans loved it." Another treat for the Fresno State coaches was knowing that Martha could play any position on the field if needed. It was hard to guess what Martha was going to do up at the plate as she was an excellent bunter from the left where her speed running to first base made her hard to catch. She could also smash line drives with power which had many a bunt-charging infielder wonder if she might soon be wearing one of those line shots that Martha was very capable of hitting. Following her exceptional career at Fresno State, Martha represented the United States in international play and was a high draft pick in the Women's Professional Fastpitch League.
Noffsinger-O'Kelley's versatility helped her secure a spot on the gold medal-winning teams of the 1994 World Championships and the 1995 Pan American Games. She earned an alternate spot on the triumphant 1996 United States squad at the Atlanta Olympic Games where softball debuted as a full-medal sport. Martha later became a teacher and a softball coach in Las Vegas, Nevada, where she resides with her husband, Dean, and their children, Noah and Christian.
There are few major building projects on the Fresno State University campus, athletic or academic, that don't contain the fingerprints of Bud Richter. One prime example is Bulldog Stadium, where Richter and his wife, Jan, provided an anonymous gift of $500,000 in seed money to help school president Dr. Norman Baxter to convince Chancellor Glenn S. Dumke and the CSU State Board of Trustees that Fresno was capable of raising the $7 million needed to build the stadium. Richter, along with Bob Duncan, also suggested the ten-year reserved seat plan, after which renewals were used for the stadium expansion in 1991. The stadium and a Division I status were just far-off dreams when Richter was introduced to the Bulldog Foundation in 1957 by his father, Elmer. That was the beginning of a long love affair with Fresno State athletics in particular and the university in general. Bud served two terms as president of the Bulldog Foundation from 1964 to 1966.
The Pepsi-Cola Company, founded by Bud's grandfather in 1895, was a family business. Many Fresno State athletes worked for Pepsi when scholarships were tied to work aid jobs. Some stayed on as regular employees. Richter began spending his summer vacations doing odd jobs at Pepsi at the tender age of eight. He was born in Fresno in 1926 and, except for time spent at Stanford University and two years in the U.S. Navy, lived here all his life. Richter attended Jackson Elementary School, Longfellow Junior High, and Roosevelt High School, where he was school president in 1944, his senior year. He joined the Navy in 1945 and left the San Diego Naval Training Station in August of that year headed for Guam. En route, Japan surrendered and Richter was assigned to Iwo Jima to help decommission the naval base there. He was discharged in 1946 Richter had his first date with his wife-to-be Jan during the summer of 1943 in the rumble seat of a friend 's Model A Ford. They began going steady that year and were married April 25, 1947 in Reno.
They lived two years in Palo Alto and Jan worked to help Bud graduate from Stanford in 1949 with a degree in economics and accounting. The education served him well when he began full time service at Pepsi working in the office, supervised by his uncle, Roy Richter. Within two years, he was plant general manager. While Richter was personally involved with the Pepsi Cola distributorship, Fresno State benefited from his generosity, but so did youth groups of every age from elementary through community college. Pepsi sponsored teams, installed scoreboards, and provided scorecards. He was one of the founders of the City-County All Star Football Classic. In 2003, Bud was named to the Fresno State Athletic Corporation Board of Directors which oversees the school's interscholastic sports program and not long after, he and Jan, who have worked behind the scenes in many areas of giving, accepted the request by school president John Welty to co-chair the first capital campaign for the university leading up to its 100h anniversary in 2010.
Sybil Smith was an athlete with a unique record. The San Joaquin Memorial swim star was the first African-American woman to place in the top eight at the NCAA Championships, and in doing so, became the first female All-American swimmer in Boston University History. Smith was just five years old when she learned to swim in a backyard pool and was a natural. The Fresno native quickly advanced as one of the finest age-group swimmers in the country. The hard-working 5'5" dynamo dominated her high school competitors while at Memorial where she became the first Central Section swimmer to win eight individual titles. At Boston University, she compiled a remarkable four-year unbeaten streak in dual meets with eighty total wins. While swimming for the Terriers, she set school records in the 50-yard freestyle (23.12), 100 free (50.30) and 100 butterfly (56.61). She was recognized for her efforts as the outstanding swimmer at the Eastern Championships. During the 1988 NCAA Championships, Smith finished sixth in the 100 backstroke and qualified for the Olympic Trials, but she failed to make the team in the 100 free.
Following her graduation from Boston University, she earned a Master's degree in counseling and consulting psychology from Harvard and served as an assistant coach of the Harvard swim team. She supervised a minority aquatics program for the International Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for two years and was inducted into the Boston University Hall of Fame in 1993.
Gene Stephens certainly was one of the most influential people in the sport of swimming and water polo in San Joaquin Valley history. Not only did he teach hundreds of youngsters how to swim in his First Street pool, but he also founded the Fresno Swim Club. His teams from that facility produced record-setting boys and girls topped by Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame inductee Heather Greenwood Harper, who set a world record in the 400-meter freestyle in 1974 at the age of sixteen. Stephens coached the Fresno City College swimming and water polo teams for twenty-one years.
Stephens came to Fresno in 1946 after serving as a U.S. Navy swim instructor and went to work right away. Stephens founded the Fresno Swim Club because he felt a number of the area's top swimmers were not reaching their potential through a lack of high level competition. The club never did have an Olympic-sized pool, but that didn't prevent Stephens from producing a list of top performers such as Eric Riedel, Kathy Seidel, and Mark Greenwood. In his home pool, he taught his daughter Becky, who became a three-time Central Section Champion for Hoover High School from 1972 to 1974 and grandson John Allen of Clovis High, who won the Central Section 50-yard freestyle in 2002 with an All-American time of 20.07 seconds. Stephens didn't keep his teaching techniques secret. He authored a book titled, Teach Your Child to Swim, in 1957. In 1990, Stephens was named National Swim School Association Coach of the Year. His most famous pupil was Skip Kenney, who went on to coach seven national championship Stanford University teams and the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. After Stephens' funeral in 2003, Kenney stated, "Without his influence, I wouldn't have been coaching swimming at all. The main reason l'm coaching swimming today is because of Gene Stephens."