After the 1961 baseball season professional baseball departed Kokomo, Indiana, after seven seasons. The team was always on the lowest rung of pro ball–the Class D Mississippi-Ohio Valley League in 1955 and the Class D Midwest League the other six seasons.
During those years the club was known as the Kokomo Giants in 1955, although not a full affiliate of the New York Giants, but with an agreement to take some of their players.
Lucky for Kokomo that season because the greatest player ever to pass through the gates of Highland Park Stadium, Orlando “Zippo” Cepeda was on that team. After the 17 year old played his season and compiled a .393 batting average with 21 home runs and 93 runs batted in his future was secure. He would star for the San Francisco Giants on the way to compiling a Hall of Fame major league career. When he got to the majors he would lose the nickname, “Zippo” and move from third base to first base. But he never forgot his season in Kokomo, the nickname or the people who took a young Puerto Rican who way away from home for the first time with minimal English language skills under their wings.
Cepeda’s manager was a veteran pro named Walt Dixon who urged Orlando not to give up. He had real talent. Another influence was a woman named Ludy Brown. She was the woman in whose home Cepeda had taken residence. Years later in an interview with Orlando I conducted after an Old Timers game in Arlington Cepeda told me how important “Mama Ludy” was in helping his get through his first season. When Cepeda’s father died during the season and he could not go back to Puerto Rico for the funeral she consoled the heart-broken youngster
Mama Ludy was important to a number of Kokomo pros. The second most successful Kokomo player was Tommy Davis. He joined the team two years after Cepeda had been in Kokomo with the franchise now known as the Kokomo Dodgers and a full affiliate of the big team still in Brooklyn.
Davis even after achieving major league success including winning two National League batting titles never forgot her. When she died in 1962 Davis was sure to sent a card and flowers for all she did for him when he was only 18.
While Kokomo’s years in professional baseball were relatively short the team developed some fan favorites who played more than one year for the club. Paul Abraham and Napoleon Savinon made up the middle infield for more than one year. Don Miles was a personable young slugger in the franchise’s 1956 season. He was one of eleven Kokomo players to spend at least some time on a big league roster. Cepeda and Davis were the most successful, but names like Tim Harkness and Mike Brumley also played a number of games.
Kokomo’s 1957 team was the most successful. Although they lost in the post season playoffs they were the first and only Kokomo champion–winning the regular season title. Managed by former Brooklyn Dodger phenom, Pete Reiser, they were 77-50 with Davis, Bruce Cranshaw and Buddy Wilson making up the outfield. Harkness was at first base with Abraham and Savinon covering the middle. Lee Ferrera played third with Brumley doing much of the catching. When he didn’t catch Bob Ford did. The pitching staff was headed by lefty Emmy Unzicker who won 20 games including 15 complete games and a 3.03 ERA…Eddie Picker who was 16-3 with a 1.84 earned run average , veteran Jack Cohen was 12-15 with a high 5.10 ERA, but ate innings. And Bourbon “Teacup” Wheeler added a 9-5 record with a 3.84ERA.
Even so, the offense was the star of the club. Davis hit .357 with 17HR, 104 RBIs and a whopping 68 stolen bases! Harkness hit .349 with 14HR and 74RBIs while Ferrera added 14 homers with 79 RBIs while batting .270. He also stole 17 bases. Cranshaw hit 13 HR and drove in 75 runs while batting .266. Five players had double figure stolen bases and four players had double figures in home runs.
During part of the season local hero Clyde Cox–one of the famed Cox family–was with the club.
After 1957 the team never really challenged to be a power in the league and only four more players from the last four years of the franchise would reach the majors…none for very much action.
Now, however, with all the high school action, the college summer league team and the new Indiana University-Kokomo baseball program getting to play in Kokomo’s pride and joy downtown ballpark the sport in the city is in great hands. We must not forget the past, but can always look forward to a great future.