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By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
| Johnny Podres|
(photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame)
Led by two stellar performances, one from a former major leaguer and one from a future big league star, a team from the hill country of Kentucky ran roughshod over its opponents in 1951. In addition, one of the two served as the teamís manager.
The town of Hazard, located in eastern Kentucky, was a latecomer to professional baseball, getting its first professional baseball team in 1948. Here, a team called the Bombers joined the first-year Class D Mountain States League on June 12 as a replacement for the defunct Oak Ridge franchise. Inheriting a decent 24-11 record, the Bombers went 41-32 over the remainder of the season to finish second, four games behind Morristown. In the ensuing playoffs, the team made it to the finals before bowing to Morristown, three games to two.
The next year, as a full-fledged member of the league, the Bombers plummeted to the bottom of the standings, finishing with a dismal 35-89 record. In 1950, the team became a member of the Brooklyn farm system. This led to an immediate jump to the first division, as the club finished in second, five games behind Harlan. In post-season play, the Bombers were whitewashed in the first round of the playoffs by Middlesboro, which defeated them, three games to none.
In 1951, Hazard completed its rise to the top. The team finished with an incredible 93-33, .738 record, but finished only 6.5 games ahead of Morristown and 10.5 ahead of Harlan, both of which had records better than .650. This imbalance in the standings was countered by last place Jenkins, which finished with an abysmal 24-101, .192 record, a whopping 68.5 games in arrears. In the playoffs, Hazard enjoyed a clean slate, sweeping both Harlan and Morristown, three games to none. The team was a run-scoring machine, tallying 1,032 runs in only 126 games, averaging more than eight per contest.
| Max Macon|
(photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame)
The manager of the í51 Bombers was also their best day-to-day player. Max Macon, who was named skipper before the 1950 season, had played several years in the majors as a relief pitcher for the Cardinals and Dodgers during the 1930s. He held down first base for the 1944 Boston Braves, a role which he would reprise in 1951. Macon had begun his managerial career on May 12, 1949 at Modesto in the California League. Bill Jackson, who started 1949 as the teamís pilot, was fined and suspended by the league for actions leading to the forfeit of a game by the umpire. Modesto fired him and hired Macon, who had been out of baseball since playing for Milwaukee (American Association) in 1947. Although Modesto, with a bad ball club, finished seventh, Max led the league in batting (.383) and set a league record by hitting safely in 34 consecutive games, a mark which stood for 34 years. In 1951, the 36-year-old Macon batted a robust .409, third in the league, and led in runs (139), RBI (148) and doubles (54). In addition, he poled 17 home runs and stole 15 bases. Macon also contributed from the mound, going a perfect 4-0 in seven relief appearances with a 1.20 ERA. After managing Hazard to the title, Macon moved on to the Class B Florida International League in 1952, where he led Miami to a place on the top 100 teams list.
Despite his high average, Macon didnít even lead his own team in hitting. That honor fell to 23-year-old outfielder Ken Cox from West Point, KY, who batted .415 in 72 games.
As if the Bombers didnít have enough offensive power, for the last month of the season they had 32-year-old Battle Malone (Bones) Sanders, who had been the player-manager at Harlan until August 7. Harlan had been third at that point with a 64-39, .621 record. Sanders had played for San Francisco (PCL) in 1945-46-47, batting .310 in 1945. He had managed in the Yankees organization from 1948-50. In 1951, Sanders hit .360-25-132 and led the Mountain States in walks (151).
On the mound, the Bombers were led by a pair of first-year pros who combined for 45 of Hazardís 93 victories. 18-year-old future Dodgers star lefthander Johnny Podres, the only Bomber to make the majors, won 21 and lost only 3, leading the league in ERA (1.67) and percentage (.875). In addition, he struck out a league high 228 in 200 innings and tied with teammate Danny Hayling for the lead in shutouts with four. Podres reached Brooklyn in 1953, winning 136 games in 12 seasons, before finishing his career with three years at Detroit and San Diego. Highlights of his career include his dramatic 2-0 win in game seven of the 1955 World Series against the Yankees and his 18-5 season in 1961.
Hayling, a 23-year-old righthander, was one of the very few players to come out of Costa Rica, born in the city of Limon. He had a 24-4, 3.47 record, leading the league in wins and innings pitched (236) and tying for the lead in complete games with 24 in 26 starts. He won his first 17 starts before suffering his first professional loss. Although he pitched until 1967, Hayling did not advance past Class A in the United States. He spent eight seasons in the Mexican League.
In 1952, the Bombers nearly repeated their 1951 success, finishing just a shade worse with a 87-32, .731 record. Following the season, the team left the league. Two years later, the Mountain States League followed suit, going belly up after the 1954 season. To this day, professional baseball has not returned to Hazard.
Professional baseball lasted only a short five years in Hazard. Yet during that time, the town hosted one of the great teams of minor league baseball--a club led by past and future major leaguers, while just missing with another entry. Not many other minor league locales could make a similar boast.