Hall of Fame Feature: Dale Holman
Sept. 24, 2017
Dale Holman will be inducted into the Louisiana Tech Athletics Hall of Fame on Friday, Sept. 29. He joins Denny Duron, Tommy Joe Eagles, Pam Gant, Luke McCown, Keith Prince and Pat Tilley in the 2017 Hall of Fame Class. This is the fifth of a series of seven feature stories on this year’s inductees. The HOF event is sold out. However, the inductees will be recognized at halftime of the Sept. 30 home game against South Alabama.
By Teddy Allen
It was the mid-1960s when someone asked Dale Holman what position he wanted to play in baseball when he grew up. It was the easiest question the little first-grader at Shady Grove Elementary in Monroe would be asked all day. Or ever.
“I want to be the batter.”
Even then, he already was. “I must have been born with a bat in my hand” is how Holman remembers it, “because I just can’t remember doing or wanting to do anything else; I really can’t.”
That is good news for Louisiana Tech baseball fans who watched Holman, a member of the LA Tech Athletics Hall of Fame Class of 2017, hit the Bulldogs to a Southland Conference title in 1978. He won the George Kell Award for being the SLC’s Hitter of the Year that season, and repeated in ’79. (Jay Adcock, Holman’s roomie his final two years at Tech, won the same award in 1980. That one room sure could hit.) Holman then averaged .298 in nine seasons in the minors with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Toronto, and Atlanta.
“A smooth, sweet swing,” said Mike Jeffcoat, a pitcher for 10 big-league seasons and a Tech teammate.
“One of the most pure hitters I’ve ever seen,” said Mike Kane, former Holman teammate and later a Bulldog assistant and head coach.
A couple of Holman’s more eye-popping numbers: he had 81 hits in 65 games in 1978, and he hit .407 in 1979 and .373 for his college career.
So if you’re a pitcher or catcher, your chore is obvious: How do we get him out?
Jeffcoat: “I’d be very cautious in the strike zone. Try to throw him breaking balls away and hope he’d fish. If he didn’t, back then, I’d have walked him and taken a chance on getting the next guy or two out.”
Kane: “Like you do all the best hitters: try to jam him. But you better hope you get it in there, or …”
Chuck Bailey, catcher, a Tech and Dodger teammate: “Try to get ahead of him, and if that’s possible, stay hard up in the strike zone.”
“Intentionally walk him,” said big brother Eddie, the Southland Conference strikeout leader in 1974 and, like Dale, a member of the SLC’s 1970s All-Decade team.
“I know how to get Dale out; it was dang hard to do though,” said Dale’s little sister Faith, the All-Louisiana and All-South Region shortstop for the Lady Techsters softball team that went 45-11 in 1986. “In wiffleball, a submarine rise ball resulted in a few Ks at Holman Stadium, our front yard field under the mimosa trees. Any actual pitcher who tried to get him out with a fastball down and in usually regretted it.”
Ricky Wright, a Texas Longhorn star and Dodger teammate of Holman’s who spent parts of five seasons in the big leagues: “How to get Dale out? Hope they throw him out when he’s sliding into third.”
It was all about that swing, effortless and efficient, balanced, and if this makes sense, even poetic in its rhythm and grace.
“He just didn’t have weaknesses,” Kane said. “Not a pure pull hitter. Not an inside-out guy. Wherever you threw him, that’s where he’s going.”
“Dale told me one time that all he was ever trying to do,” Eddie said, “was hit it as hard as he could over the pitcher’s head.”
Smooth, sweet, and pure. What he could do with that swing, well, that’s the story.
He got an infection in the wet and cold weather the week before the first game of his freshman season in 1977. He got a shot from a doctor -- and went 5-for-5 in the intra-squad game with a grand slam on his final at-bat. The next day, head coach Pat “Gravy” Patterson put him in left field for the opener against East Texas -- and his first two at-bats were home runs. After that, he never missed a game.
After three straight All-SLC seasons, every Tech hitting record of substance either belonged to Holman, or he was in the conversation.
Tech beat Lamar in Beaumont, Texas, in two late-season games to win the SLC in 1978. “In the first game, Dale hits a home run and we win, 1-0,” Kane said. “But get this: it was opposite field, and into a 30 miles-per-hour wind.”
“We’re juniors playing Texas and Ricky (Wright) had this wicked slider, lefthander,” said Randy Jamar, who led the Bulldogs in pitching appearances (23) in 1980 and was Holman’s best friend on those late-70s teams. “Trust me: Wright could bring it. Dale was 2-for-3 against him, in Austin, and I’m not sure if anyone else even touched the ball. You should have seen that: lefty on lefty, extremely impressive.”
“I wasn’t a good defensive player or a great athlete,” said Holman. “I could just hit. I’m embarrassed to even say that. It was weird, but hitting just wasn’t hard for me. The hard part was coming out of the dugout through those dang bat girls, and all that perfume, and me sneezing walking to the plate.
“So Gravy’s got signs,” Holman said, “but he hardly ever gave them. (John) Albritton would be on first and I look down to Gravy from the box and he’s whistling and looking over the third base dugout and kind of pointing toward second behind him, I guess for Albritton to steal.” (Holman is laughing now.) “Crazy. And there was this guy -- Claddy Harris, who was there every game -- and as soon as you stepped in the box he’d holler ‘Feed the trees!,’ wanting a homer into those pines just outside the fence. The hard part wasn’t hitting; it was getting all that out of the way.”
Drafted by the Dodgers in the sixth round of the 1979 Amateur Draft, he ended up teammates with several guys who now are household names among baseball fans, including Hershiser, Fernando, Howe, Henke, Glavine, and Smoltz. As a rookie he hit .287 with Lodi and .344 with Class AA San Antonio -- second in the Texas League -- with 78 RBI and 74 walks.
Despite his high batting average and on-base percentage, he wouldn’t make it to the majors, which is part of the story -- but only part. The Baseball Gods are going to do what the Baseball Gods are going to do. It was baseball itself, just the baseball fate of things, that finally got him out.
For one thing, he was in a Dodger system with Dusty Baker, Rick Monday, Reggie Smith and Ken Landreaux in its big-league outfield. Later when he was with Toronto, he was behind George Bell, Jesse Barfield, and Lloyd Moseby.
“He ended up in the wrong organizations at the wrong time,” Jeffcoat said. “It frustrated me as much as it did anybody. Someone could have used him as a fifth outfielder or as a pinch hitter.”
True. And he could have played every day with the right club. But really, baseball got him out in his third minor league season, with San Antonio on a road trip to west Texas.
In El Paso, the coach got to the ballpark late and didn’t rub up the balls before outfield practice. Holman was in left field and, as he released a throw hard toward the infield, felt the ball slip and his elbow extend, his right elbow on his throwing arm. Something was wrong. A couple of days later in Amarillo, with Holman on a hot streak at the plate, a purpose pitch shattered the same elbow, the lead elbow for a hitter from the left side.
Even after an operation from Tommy John-surgery pioneer Frank Jobe, “it never was the same,” Holman said. “It never felt any better. I couldn’t straighten out my arm.”
Basically, he’d lost his power. He hit .284 for Class AAA Albuquerque in 1982 and .296 for San Antonio. He could still hit -- after six seasons with the Toronto and Atlanta organizations, including a .308 season with the Syracuse Chiefs, his best Class AAA year -- but he was done. Sore throwing arm. Not enough power to be an everyday major league outfielder. And, in his first three seasons before the injury, too valuable for the talent-rich Dodgers to trade.
His baseball resume says he was the best hitter in his league in college, a guy who finished with a .298 average in pro ball, a guy who played six of nine seasons with a bum arm. He was never the guy a pitcher wanted to see in the batter’s box.
He also left an interesting mark on the game: in 1986 he became the first pro player to play for two teams in the same game. In June, he was playing for the Syracuse Chiefs against the Richmond Braves when the game was suspended by rain. When the game resumed in August, he was playing for Richmond. Naturally, he doubled for both teams.
“I saw the last game he played in SPAR, in 1980 with the Dodgers,” said Randy Jamar, who led the Bulldogs in pitching appearances (23) in 1980 and was Holman's best friend on those late-70s clubs. “He was 4-for-5 with two homers, and the other two were doubles high off the center field wall. He came that close to hitting four in a game.”
The road to all those hits started in the country, 10 miles east of Monroe, and daddy was gone to work and momma didn’t drive so there and they were -- big brother Eddie and little sis Faith, and Dale -- in a house at the end of a long rock driveway, rocks that were constantly tossed into the air and knocked into the woods with ax handles and broomsticks and now and then a wooden bat, probably broken but held together by a nail or a tack, and that’s what you’d hear, back there in the woods: the whack! of a rock off wood, then the rock cutting through leaves or smacking a limb, and then another whack!, and the wind whistling again as the rock cut through it, the same country music over and over, each swing accompanied by the sounds of Merle Haggard and the Strangers whining out of the 8-track on the porch, Merle singing about trains and hobos and a momma who tried while little Dale Holman just kept grooving that left-handed swing until it was smooth as mountain stream water.
Oldest brother Jim was trying to bat a thousand in the fishing and hunting game, and older sister Donna was good at hitting the books hard. That left Eddie, Dale and Faith to handle rock disposal.
They never ran out, but just for a change, Eddie said, “sometimes we’d get a pair of daddy’s nylon socks, five or six pair, tie ’em tight as we could in a knot, throw and hit those. I struck Dale out 184,672 times with either socks or wiffle balls.”
Oh, the wiffle games. “Epic,” Dale said. There was a TV set for entertainment, but most of the time, it didn’t work. No problem. They never ran out of rocks or socks or wiffle balls. You can’t stay inside and be “the batter.”
“I was always swinging a bat and hitting something,” Holman said. “I made a little homemade tee and hit balls off that. I rigged up a ball on a string and hit into a blanket I’d hung up. I got to where I could hit the bumble bees, too. Even in pro ball, I’d get up every morning and put a donut on my bat and swing in the hotel room.”
“There was a little common area in Hutcheson (dorm at Tech),” Jeffcoat said. “I’d go down to the water fountain there and Dale would either be swinging or doing wrist rolls to strengthen his arms and hands. He motivated me and pushed me to work harder.”
“I’d go to the library -- I did this a lot -- not to study, but to find books and look at pictures of people hitting,” Holman said. “Ted Williams. Mickey Mantle. Just go through there and see if I could learn something from them.”
As aggravating as hitting can be -- the best fail seven times out of 10 -- Holman handled the hurts of the game with contemplation instead of anger. Just like in the library. Always trying to learn something.
“The ultimate professional,” said Jamar. “It’s 35 years ago, and I’ll never forget it. If Dale ever struck out, he’d jog back to the dugout, put his helmet up, put his bat up, get his glove, sit and not say a word. If he’s at the plate and he thinks a called strike was a ball, he might glance at the umpire, like really quick, but he’d stay in the box and go back at it. He never complained; he just went out and did his job every day.”
“They put you into the Hall of Fame because of credentials,” Kane said, “but there’s more to Dale. We’re talking ideal teammate. Not one bit of arrogance in him. Hitting-wise, he was unbelievable, but he was the ultimate teammate, too.”
And then it ended. Arm. Elbow.
It was hard. He was a roving instructor with the Braves for a year, but dealing with rich, uncoachable players who wouldn’t run out ground balls made him sick, as did the down time on the road.
He actually was “kind of a lost soul” without baseball, he said, “sort of depressed” with no more rocks and wiffles to hit. He worked with Eddie in the car business in Shreveport-Bossier for a while, then moved to Dallas-Fort Worth after Jeffcoat’s career was over to be near him, another friend who, Holman says, is “like a brother.” Something told him there was some sort of opportunity for him in Texas.
Home run. He met CoCo not long after; they’ve been married 19 years. He’s out of the insurance adjusting and inspections business now, sidelined by a serious struggle with cancer that started as back pain about four years ago. His lifestyle changed in that he can’t play golf or work now, but he’s good. He’ll always be on medication, but he can deal with that.
“Most of my worries,” he said, “are behind me now.”
One reason is CoCo. “She told me one day that, instead of getting hit in the elbow, that ball could have hit me in the head,” Holman said. “She’s right.”
Three other reasons are Rudie, Heidi and Gabbie. “We never had children,” Holman said, “but CoCo had always had these little wiener dogs. Well, we’ve got three now and -- this is so crazy -- we just love these little things. We’ve got a house out in the country about 20 miles west of Fort Worth, in Willow Park. The high school’s sort of like Evangel in Shreveport; they’ve won several state titles the past few years. We love it.
“We’re real low key,” he said. “We’re not keeping up with the Joneses. Honestly, people who’ve known me for 15 years around here don’t even know I ever played baseball.”
His teammates do, friends he’s so anxious to see on Hall of Fame Weekend that he said the induction, “such a big honor and I’m so grateful for that,” is almost secondary.
“Gravy told us real early, ‘Everybody here is family.’ We were close knit; it didn’t matter who you were,” Holman said. “We didn’t have problems. He told us ‘your college teammates are going to be your best friends for the rest of your life.’ Most of them are just like brothers to me today.
“Gravy was right.”
As many brothers as can will be there for the Sept. 29 induction ceremony, anxious to pick on and support the little guy who only wanted to play “the batter,” and did.
“Dale could flat out rake,” Wright said. “He’d hit a triple in a Doublemint commercial.”
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