Everyone has a story.
That fact was pounded into my head in journalism classes at Arkansas State, and it's remained with me for over 30 years in the newspaper business. So, I was curious recently after flipping through the pages of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and glancing at an obituary with a picture of a man wearing a Boston Red Sox baseball cap and resting a baseball bat over his shoulder.
I was even more curious when I read the man was born in Hiwasse and had graduated from Gravette High School. I'm familiar with plenty of men from Arkansas who played in the major leagues, guys like Lou Brock, George Kell, Tori Hunter, Paul and Dizzy Dean, and even Otis Davis, who played in one major-league game.
So, who was Gene Stephens, and what was his story?
Stephens was not a star player, but he was good enough to play 12 years in the major leagues, mostly as a backup and mostly with the Red Sox. Stephens would've played more except for the fact there was another tall, lanky player who held the left field position in front of him.
His name was Ted Williams.
But Stephens has a claim to fame, and it happened when he was 20 years old against the Detroit Tigers on June 18, 1953. Stephens had three hits in one inning, two singles and a double, when the Red Sox scored 17 runs in the seventh inning against the Tigers. Stephens shares the record for most hits in one inning with 20 others, including former Red Sox outfielder Johnny Damon, who collected three hits against the Florida Marlins in 2003.
Stephens, who briefly attended the University of Arkansas on a baseball and basketball scholarship, played in over 900 games in the major leagues and he carried a career batting average of .240. His best year came in 1955 when Stephens batted .293 while playing in 109 games with the Red Sox.
Stephens was not well-know in baseball circles, but he was an inspiration to young ball players in Arkansas who also dreamed of one day playing in the major leagues.
"We all had baseball cards in those days, and when you flipped Gene's card over, it said he was from Gravette, Arkansas," said Bob Kelly, a retired Shelter Insurance agent who grew up in Gravette. "I was a big fan. We had baseball cards of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Ted Williams, all of the popular players. I would trade other cards, but I would hang onto Gene's card. The thought was that if he can make it to the majors, maybe I could, too."
Stephens didn't come around much during his playing days when he also played winter ball in foreign countries, but Kelly got to meet Stephens and posed for a picture with him when he returned years later to Gravette to take care of some business. After baseball, Stephens worked in the oil and gas business in Oklahoma and retired in Granbury, Texas, where he enjoyed playing golf.
A good life, for sure.
Everyone has a story, like the elderly man I met in a parking lot weeks ago who was wearing a hat that proclaimed he is a Korean War veteran. North Korea has been in the news for quite some time, and I asked him his opinion on the issues. The discussion morphed into his own experience in North Korea, and he became emotional as he recalled helping retrieve dead Americans frozen in the ice and snow.
He remembered details from 66 years ago, and I know he could've talked for hours about it. I'm glad I listened, at least for awhile.
Everyone has a story, and there are young journalists graduating from college right now who will tell those stories in the future. But you don't have to be a journalist to learn about people. You only have to be curious.
I didn't know Mr. Stephens. But I'm glad now I stopped and read about the man wearing a Boston Red Sox baseball cap and resting a baseball bat over his shoulder.
I did it by simply flipping through the pages of the newspaper, where stories about people are told every day.Sports on 05/12/2019