1961 Tigers Celebrate 60th Anniversary of SEC Title

Published 9:00 am Sunday, May 16, 2021

LSU boarded a DC-3 on the morning of  Game One of the SEC playoff series to arrive fresh for their game at Auburn that afternoon. The Tigers even ate lunch at the same cafeteria that served the noon meal to Auburn.

Flying to an away game was a first for LSU baseball. But it wasn’t the only first for the Tigers that season. The LSU-Ole Miss doubleheader and the Auburn playoff game in Alex Box Stadium were played before sellout crowds. LSU baseball had never had a capacity crowd in the stadium prior to the 1961 season.

Sixty years ago sportswriters in the Deep South didn’t hesitate in selecting a preseason favorite in the SEC baseball race. Mississippi had been champions in 1959 and 1960 and hadn’t lost a home game in two years. It was a no-brainer to pick the Rebels to win a third straight title in 1961, Jake Gibbs’ senior year in Oxford. If power hitters Gibbs and Doug Elmore (both were Ole Miss quarterbacks), and all-conference pitcher Bobby Seidell had their way, the home game winning streak would also be extended another year.

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The Rebels’ baseball dynasty was disrupted by a surprise team — LSU. An infusion of sophomore talent would strengthen the Tigers, but no one expected LSU to win the conference title. Coach Raymond Didier was quietly confident about his young team’s chances. Four sophomores were the new starters in his infield, two more were taking over in the outfield, and sophomore right-hander Lynn Amedee, an LSU quarterback, improved Didier’s pitching options, which included two left-handers, juniors Allen Smith and Fred Southerland.

LSU made a statement in late March of ’61. The Tigers won a doubleheader from Ole Miss before a capacity crowd in Alex Box Stadium. That got everyone’s attention. No one could remember ever seeing the stadium filled. Or the last time Ole Miss lost a doubleheader. Smith spun a three hitter at the Rebels, a team noted for its hitting, and he held Gibbs hitless.

Until that day, these Tigers were best known as the team that took their books on road trips. There were at least a half dozen honor students on the team bus, but they could play pretty good baseball, too.

In April, Smith won in Oxford, ending a 27-game, two-year home winning streak for Ole Miss. He shut out the Rebs 4-0 and blanked Gibbs again. The Mississippi fans were shocked to see the legendary Gibbs shut down by this skinny 145-pounder from Kentucky, who resembled a fraternity softball player more than an SEC baseball warrior. Ole Miss won the second game. But the defending SEC champs were just 1-3 against Didier’s surprising Tigers.

LSU’s impressive outing against an established SEC power injected confidence into the young team. The Tigers also surprised Mississippi State, beating flame-throwing Sammy Ellis for the second time, 3-2 in Starkville. Four years later, Ellis was a 22-game winner and a Major League All-Star in Cincinnati.

The most highly decorated of Didier’s Wunderkinds were a future All-America in Smith, a lefty curve-baller from Maysville, Ky., and All-SEC center fielder John Bailey, the pride of Jonesboro-Hodge High. Incredibly, this vital twosome had signed basketball grant-in-aids at LSU, and Bailey had a hand in the Tigers’ first ever win over the Kentucky Wildcats in January of 1961.

Smith played a major role in the Tigers’ baseball turnaround. In 88 innings that spring, Smitty was 10-2, struck out 75 and finished with a 1.23 ERA. Bailey was the team leader in total bases with 51. His .317 batting average ranked second on the team.

Didier started the year with a sophomore-dominated roster, which turned out to be a positive. The six sophomore position players who won starting jobs in 1961 had scrimmaged the varsity regularly as freshmen and won. They expected to win again as sophomores. They were stimulated rather than intimidated by the competition the SEC’s established teams provided.They were confident of their own ability and that of their teammates. They were eager to challenge the defending champion Ole Miss Rebels. Didier encouraged the youthful enthusiasm, and it became a team asset.

Two talented pitchers, and a sound defense, got the Tigers off to a good start. As they won, their confidence grew. It mushroomed into a 20-5 final record that included 10 wins by one run and five wins by two runs. Didier’s 80 percent winning mark in that championship season was one of LSU’s all-time percentage highs.
The conference championship was the Tigers’ first league title since 1946 when the team’s power hitter was future major league star Joe Bill Adcock.

Didier’s 20-man roster in 1961 included three first basemen and three catchers. The coach made adjustments that benefited the team. Bobby Theriot, a sophomore first baseman from Lafayette, made a seamless transition to right field. And Didier made good use of his three catchers, Morris Summers, Frank Polozola and Robbie Terrell, who extracted the best efforts from their two top pitchers.

Football scholarship players strengthened the roster by adding Amedee, left fielder Roy Winston, catcher Terrell and pitcher Lester Mitts. Amedee, the team’s No. 2 pitcher, was vital to the Tigers’ two wins against Auburn in the SEC championship series. He saved the game at Auburn with a hitless ninth inning, and pitched all 11 innings two days later for the win in Baton Rouge.

Winston, a junior, was a major addition to the lineup, playing baseball for the first time since his senior year in high school.  For a big guy, he could run. He had fun, and he obviously enjoyed being away from the drudgery of spring football.

The team has several vivid memories of the big left fielder. LSU installed a snow fence on the outfield perimeter to provide a realistic home run target for the players. One day “Moonie” gave chase for a well hit ball in left-center, and with Bailey yelling “plenty of room,” Winston ran through the snow fence, unable to catch up to a home run ball. The crowd at Alex Box roared with laughter and gave him a standing ovation for his effort.

In Oxford, an Ole Miss player, stretching a double into a triple, fore-armed third baseman Tommy DeMont in a stand-up collision at third. According to Theriot, Winston sprinted in from left field and stood between third base and the Rebel dugout.

“Pick on someone your own size,” he yelled. “I’ll take you on, all at once or one at a time.”

Nobody in the Ole Miss dugout moved.

The LSU baseball team loved Winston. The Tigers knew that this All-America football lineman was someone they could count on in the heat of battle. Winston, who later played 13 seasons for the Minnesota Vikings, including three Super Bowls, told friends that his favorite experience in sports was with LSU’s 1961 SEC baseball champions.

DeMont came from Niles, Ohio, and teamed with three Baton Rouge boys — shortstop John Thomas from University High, second baseman Larry Edmonson of Istrouma and first baseman Jim Poche of Catholic High — to form an air-tight infield.

Didier got solid pitching performances from Smith and Amedee, and his virtually error-proof infield gave the Tigers a defense that showed up for work every game. Bailey had the speed and the arm to provide big plays in center on a regular basis. And Theriot, in right, rarely saw a ground ball get past Edmonson, who had great range at second. Poche, a virtual vacuum cleaner at first base, was adept at snaring low throws.

Thomas was so smooth at short, the players called him “Silky.” DeMont, a .316 hitter, became a fixture at third for three seasons.

Bailey was the best baseball athlete of the bunch. He could run, throw and hit, and later played two years in the Milwaukee Braves’ organization. Theriot settled in as a regular in right, hitting .284. Winston hit .236 and took over in left, ahead of sophomore Hadley Smith, who had the team’s best batting average at .333.

Edmonson and Theriot had excelled in high school track. Their speed, combined with that of Bailey, Thomas and DeMont produced another positive  — a team willing to use their athleticism to take an extra base. For these young players, challenging opposing teams for an extra base seemed easier than getting extra base hits. Returning lettermen Francis Genusa of Monroe Neville, and Bruce Turner from Istrouma were not playing as much as they had the previous season. But the team was winning and they were enjoying it. Central’s Summers, another junior letterman, played an important role and furnished timely plays as the Tigers unseated the favored Ole Miss Rebels for the SEC West Division title.

Two of the SEC’s best pro prospects — Gibbs, the Ole Miss slugger who would later spend 10 years as a New York Yankees catcher, and Mississippi State’s Ellis, who became a pitching ace in Cincinnati — would be upended by this Tiger team of Destiny.

Smith’s changing speeds and corner-painting curves would shackle Gibbs. LSU ruined Ellis’ 18-strikeout effort at Starkville, one of 10 one-run success stories in the 20-win season.

Didier’s boys didn’t do it with the long ball. Bailey was LSU’s home run leader with three. Don Porter of Ole Miss led the league in home runs with a robust total of five.

The Tigers called upon the entire lineup for clutch hits. As a team, LSU had 117 RBIs for the season. Ten hitters produced 91 percent — 107 RBIs — of the team total. Timely hits were the answer. Edmonson, the team’s fifth-ranked run producer, belted a two-run triple at Auburn, making a huge contribution to LSU’s season. That screaming line-drive tied the score in the ninth inning of that comeback win. Terrell, tied for eighth in RBIs, punched home the winning run with a suicide squeeze in the first SEC playoff game. Amedee held the Plainsmen hitless in the bottom of the ninth on Wednesday and then hurled all 11 innings of Friday’s 6-5 marathon as if Didier had written the script. Theriot finished the season with a walk-off single to lift the Tigers to a conference championship victory over Auburn.

Excellent pitching, a flawless infield, and the league’s best center fielder, gave LSU a defense that was unmatched by established SEC powers Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn. When the Tigers needed a clutch hit in close games, someone always seemed to meet that challenge.

Smith won 10 of LSU’s 20 wins. Amedee was 6-1 with a 2.54 ERA in 63.2 innings. Southerland was 3-2 with a 3.32 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 43.1 innings. Wiley Dial was 1-0 with a 0.79 ERA in 11 innings.

In the sixty years since their championship, these Tigers have had ample time for reflection. When evaluating the competition of their youth, most have come to the conclusion that three teams — Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Loyola — had a deeper, more talented roster than LSU in 1961. How did the Tigers compile a 6-4 record in 10 games against better teams? Well pitched games, a sound defense and timely hits throughout the lineup were the responses served up by the ex-Tigers.

And Theriot tipped his cap to the coach.

“We didn’t make many mental errors,” Theriot said. “Coach Didier had continually reviewed and practiced every possible game situation. That made a big difference in all the close games we played. Of our 20 wins, 15 games were close.”

As the Auburn game went into extra innings, Didier asked the team to “huddle up” so he could talk with them, Theriot recalled.

“He had a fundamental point he wanted to make,” Theriot said. “I will never forget what he said: ‘Make sure you run out everything and touch every base.'”

In the 11th inning, Theriot’s line-drive single drove in the winning run. Theriot ran out the hit and touched first.

As LSU celebrated, the Auburn catcher tagged Theriot and appealed to base umpire C.J. Beysselance, who ruled that the runner had touched the bag.

“That line  ‘Make sure you run out everything and touch every base. ‘summed up what Coach meant to our team, “Theriot said.  “He prepared us to be fundamentally sound … from the first day of practice to the final game of the season.”