Oct. 3, 2011
Frank Knafelc was a second baseman for the Rams in 1959 during his sophomore year. He came to CSU in 1957 on a football scholarship out of St. Joseph High School in Denver and in the spring of 1958 was named the third string quarterback behind Fred Glick and Joe Crider. After playing his freshman season of baseball, Knafelc decided that a heavy class load for engineering and two sports was too much, so he decided that baseball would be his one and only sport for the Rams.
At Ag Day 2011, Frank Knafelc arrived at the Ram Club tent in Ram Town with his wife, Jan, son Frank Jr., daughter-in-law Stacy and two grandsons for a reunion of Alumni CSU baseball players. After graduating from CSU in 1962 and working for Colgate and Clorox as the Director of Engineering, he retired in 2007 to his home in Lafayette, California. He continued to stay close to his college becoming a season ticket holder for football in 1998 and regularly making the trek to Colorado via plane, train or automobile to watch the Rams in action.
This day, however, was also about America's pastime and the men that tossed the horsehide at CSU from the late 1940s to the last varsity team of 1992.
Baseball is one of the three original sports established by the athletic council in May of 1899 when intercollegiate athletics were brought back to the campus following a four-year ban. Although the game had been played on the campus as a form of recreation long before football, it was in the 1899-1900 school year the first intercollegiate teams were formed.
The first season took place in the spring of 1900 with an Aggie team that went 0-5. In the spring of 1905, the baseball fortunes of Colorado Agricultural College blossomed when the team went 5-1 under Coach Mal Ramey to win the school's first athletic championship by a men's team.
In 1908, Coach Claude Rothgeb, a former right fielder for the Washington Senators, guided the Aggies to their second baseball championship with a 6-1 record. In those early days the team played on the all-dirt surface of Durkee Field where the track team and football team also played. Although conditions were not ideal, baseball enjoyed the first success in the early athletic history of Colorado State.
After Rothgeb's departure, the Aggies did not have success in baseball again until the early 1920s. In 1921, Major Bill Harrison coached the Aggies to their third championship in the sport and two years later Coach Joe Hamilton guided them to another championship in a story-book 1923 season.
The 1920s proved to be the school's best decade for baseball in its history. The team won 68% of their games with a 58-27-1 record between 1921 and 1929. Twice they were edged out for championships, including the 1925 season when they went 10-2. However, during this period the Aggies went through six different coaches, most of whom were instructors at the college or coaches of other sports that filled in because of budget restrictions.
The 1930s brought one more conference championship, a 6-2 record in 1938 under Coach Andy Clark. Clark spent nine years as baseball coach and many more as a professor at the school. The Clark Building on the CSU campus is named after him, but not for his ability to win baseball games despite a 51% winning record.
Following WWII, baseball once again saw success thanks to Coach Mark Duncan. Duncan guided the Aggies to a 1950 conference championship and the school's only College World Series appearance. He also coached Colorado A&M to Skyline Conference Eastern Division championships in 1952 and 1954.
Always a budget buster, baseball continued to be played on the campus, but without the necessary funding to keep it competitive. From 1955 to 1992, CSU baseball only had three seasons with a .500 record or better. The teams won Skyline Conference Eastern Division championships in 1957 and 1959 with losing records and a WAC Northern Division championship in 1972 with a .500 record.
The most notable person in CSU baseball's history was long-time Coach Irv Ferguson. Ferguson, a native of Denver and 1946 graduate of Colorado A&M, spent 20 years as the head baseball coach while also taking the reigns as the head coach of freshman basketball. He resigned after the 1975 season and is credited for finding the greatest Ram to play at the Major League level in Felix "Tippy" Martinez.
Martinez, a native of La Junta, Colorado, holds the school record for most wins in a season (10 in 1972) and the distinction of being the only CSU baseball alum to play on a World Series Championship team. Martinez, a charter member of the CSU Sports Hall of fame, was selected for the 1983 All-Star game and saved two games in the 1983 World Series as a relief pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles.
Although Rams baseball existed for many seasons, it still provided a lot to the school for athletics. However, the continued budget problems that plagued baseball made it impossible to continue the sport. In 1992, Athletic Director Corey Johnson decided to drop baseball and the last game was played in Hawaii on May 10, 1992. The final record of Aggies and Rams baseball ended at 703-1101-7 (.390).
Back at Ag Day 2011, Frank Knafelc arrived at a tent with many fellow alumni CSU baseball players just starting to find old friends. A wide variety of former Ram baseball players were there. Jim Randall, who was on the 1950 College World Series team, Jerry Callahan (1953, 1956 and 1957), Ed Frease (1955-58), Jack Capp (1961-65), Doug Peden (1970-71), Kirk Hulbert (1971-74), Mark Knudson (1980-82) and Joel Cantalamessa from the last team of 1992, just to name a few.
Memories of playing Rams baseball poured from the men as they reminisced with friends. The majority of them played for Irv Ferguson, who as Ed Frease said, "Irv was not only the baseball coach, he was the grounds keeper, record keeper, bus driver, trainer and may even have kept the score book during the games."
"Fergy", as many called him, was one of the main topics of conversation. From his two-footed driving, to his ability to bring Doug Peden onto the team after his basketball career at CSU ended, the old coach provided many wonderful memories. Peden said, "Fergy was such a great guy I don't know if he could say no to anyone."
There were a lot of memories, not just of Ferguson, but of the long driving trips the players took traveling to games. Unlike the football team, baseball players either traveled by car or bus (15 hours to Arizona, Kirk Hulbert easily remembered.) to help with the constantly struggling budget. Whether the bus was stuck in a snowstorm on Wolf Creek Pass, or Coach Ferguson received a rare speeding ticket, the travel memories echoed across the generations.
Then there were the memories of playing in Arizona while the weather in Colorado was still less than perfect. Of course everybody had their memories of playing at Laramie ("Being completely frozen" as Hulbert said), but traveling to Arizona where the weather was perfect and ASU and U of A had plenty of experience when the Rams had barely come out of the College Field House were common.
However, they played the great game of baseball and many shared memories of games and opponents. Kirk Hulbert's greatest memory was when the Rams played CU in a game where the Ram's ace, Tippy Martinez, faced the Buff's John "Bad Dude" Stearns. Despite the fact Stearns, who went on to play for the New York Mets, led the NCAA in batting, Martinez held him hitless and won the game. Doug Peden remembered some of his teammates like Tippy, Jim Sullivan, Dave Kitamura, Corky Andrews and Bob Dunn.
Frank Knafelc could only find one of his former teammates. He was glad to see Sal Villano, a former pitcher he faced in the old Denver Parochial League who played for the Rams with him in the late 1950s. Knafelc and Villano joked about whether or not Villano's curve ball was a modest slider or a hard breaking curve. Knafelc told of how he is certain they have moved the fences at the field in Tempe, where he swears he hit a 400ft fly ball in 1959. (The fences today show 390ft)
Although the CSU Club Baseball team has enjoyed some national championships in the last few years, there is no timetable of when, if ever, the sport will return to the campus. Many of the former athletes would enjoy seeing their sport come back, but for now it will remain as a memory. Frank Knafelc tells his grandchildren, "To be a great American you need to know the game of baseball and understand the Civil War."
Knafelc and his family said good bye to the baseball reunion and headed into Hughes Stadium to watch the Rams beat the University of Northern Colorado in football. A good Ag Day for all former athletes to remember.
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