The Hilltop hasn’t been home to a Division I baseball program for over three decades, and odds are the majority of Mustangs fans couldn’t even tell you the reasons why.
(Editor’s note: Story originally written in the fall of 2014.)
As the calendar turns to June every summer, college baseball’s best teams make their way to Omaha, Nebraska. From the 60 years that national champions were decided in iconic Rosenblatt Stadium, to the last few years where South Carolina, UCLA, and Vanderbilt have all won titles at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, the best and brightest of the game descend on the Midwest to play for college baseball’s biggest prize.
Southern Methodist University never had a team cross over the basepaths and onto the field at Rosenblatt Stadium, and they will not be having any games at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha any time soon. The varsity baseball program at the university was cut after the 1980 season. Money issues flowed throughout the university, forcing budget cuts everywhere. Baseball was one of the many sports that lost funding because they did not share the same money-making potential as football and basketball.
Dr. James Zumberge, then president of the university, said that during this time of financial instability, they had determined that the university’s athletic department had become too big to support. He also decided that women’s sports, which produced even less revenue than the lower male sports, would not be affected. With the onset of Title IX, Zumberge wanted to show that the university had made a very real and very sincere effort to accommodate women’s athletics.
How an NCAA Division I athletic program in the state of Texas willingly exists without a baseball program is a mystery, but that does not take away from the history of a once successful team, nor does it take away from the possibilities of an SMU team competing at the Division I level again in the future.
Varsity Rise, Varsity Fall
SMU saw their first baseball team before they saw their first graduating class. The first team played during the 1915-1916 academic school year. The team that came to be known as the “Mustang-Nine” was led by team captain Tom Kincannon and head coach Ray Morrison. Morrison, known in the football world as the “father of the forward pass”, was also the head coach of the SMU football team. The rest of the world, however, was not quite ready for SMU to have a baseball team. As World War I began, the season was cut short as college students around the country joined the war effort and served their country. Baseball would return as an official varsity sport after the war in 1919.
Baseball continued for the Mustangs through the 1920s. James St. Clair replaced E.Y. Freeland as head coach in 1927. During this time in baseball history when games could still be called due to darkness, the Mustangs played teams across the Southwest Conference, as well as many surrounding semi-pro teams.
As the years went by and baseball had become a legitimate sport on campus, the outside world dealt the program another devastating blow. As the Great Depression began, SMU’s schedule dwindled down to just conference teams. The Depression affected baseball programs, businesses, and families all over the country. Universities everywhere became unable to put teams together let alone pay for travel expenses. SMU was once again without a team in 1934 and 1935.
Stability remained a non-factor for the baseball program. They were able to play again for a few years after the Depression, but baseball activities would soon be halted again, this time by World War II. Students and players across the country dropped everything to go support their country, but after the team reformed after the Second World War, things finally started to come together.
In 1949, SMU hired a head coach that would remain in that position for the next 16 seasons. Alex Hooks graduated from SMU and served in the Army during World War II. He would go on to become the winningest manager in SMU baseball history. He led the Mustangs through the 1950s, the most successful decade of the program. SMU won the SWC Championship in 1953, the team’s lone conference title. They were led by pitcher Tommy Bowers, the only player in the history of the program to be named an All-American. They continued to finish near the top of the conference standings all the way through the 50s.
SMU’s success declined with Coach Hooks’ health in the 1960s, who retired in the middle of the 1965 season. He was replaced by Bob Finley, who played both football and baseball at SMU in the 1930s. Over the next 12 season, he led the Mustangs to only 3 SWC Conference tournaments.
Steve Adair became the last coach for the varsity team. He was hired in 1977 and coached through the team’s final season in 1980. As the financial situation of the university began to crumble, budgets began to get cut across campus. During Adair’s tenure, the baseball team at SMU was allotted less than half the number of the scholarships the other schools in the SWC received for their baseball programs. Even with his team potentially set up to fail, in 1978, Adair managed his way to a team record 25 victories.
His baseball knowledge and creativity kept the team very competitive as the end drew near. While he was short scholarships for baseball, Adair plucked scholarship athletes off of other SMU teams to come add depth to the baseball roster. Most notably, Adair was able to pull in Craig James, one half of the Pony Express backfield alongside Eric Dickerson, to play on the baseball team. Regretfully, funding just was not available to keep baseball going at a varsity level following the 1980 season. In their final year, SMU finished 21-22, tied for fifth in the SWC.*
SMU Baseball’s New Breed
Club baseball teams have come and gone at the university since the departure of the varsity team after the 1980 season. The current team, created in 2007, plays under the National Club Baseball Association (NCBA). Today, club baseball could be considered the level directly underneath schools with varsity teams. For example, schools like Texas, Texas Tech, and Alabama all have club teams to accompany their Division I teams.
The SMU club baseball team plays in the Gulf Coast – North Conference. Their conference includes Baylor, North Texas, and perennial national power Texas Tech.
The team has struggled in recent years due to the talent pool SMU has to draw from. Schools like Texas Tech and Texas have thousands and thousands of incoming students to recruit to their teams each year. They also have the advantage of having an actual D-I team to draw even more ball players to campus. This is a huge setback for the Mustangs every year when they try to put a roster together.
Over the past two seasons, the Mustangs have built a solid foundation of pitching and have added a few power bats. A larger class of freshman players this year will also bring much more depth to the roster, and the club team is looking forward to what will probably be their most competitive season in years.
Looking to the Future
There are no current plans to bring baseball back to the SMU campus on a varsity level. Current athletic director Rick Hart has stated that their focus for the time being will be to maintain and improve all of the current sports the university competes in now. Even if there were a plan in place, there are a lot of steps required to bring America’s pastime back to the Hilltop.
In the 1970s, SMU was still a land-locked campus. If a new stadium were to be built anywhere on campus it could mean foul balls or home runs landing on roads or even highways surrounding the campus. The SMU teams of the last century all played their games at Reverchon Park, a baseball field about two miles north of Downtown Dallas.
If SMU brought back baseball on a Division I level, that would require a new field, new facilities, time to build all of it, and most importantly, money. Another aspect of bringing on another male sport would be adding a female counterpart to even out the scholarships to satisfy Title IX. The obvious choice to fulfill that would be softball.
Regretfully, varsity baseball back on the SMU campus is just a dream for many alumni and former players. SMU baseball has a great story. There is a rich history of a struggling program that finally grew into a winner. That winner then had the rug pulled out from under them. Now they sit and they wait for the chance to cross over the basepaths and onto the field once again.
*Most of the timeline history of SMU baseball came from a letter written by the SMU Letterman’s Association.