East Carolina has the most appearances in the NCAA Tournament of teams that have not played in the College World Series, but in a sense, the Pirates have been there and done that.
As ECU seeks to position itself as a Super Regional host and enhance its chances of playing in the CWS for the first time, it’s interesting to note that a Pirates baseball team already has flown into Omaha and won a national championship.
It was in 1961 and Earl Boykin was a junior from Rock Ridge in Wilson County on that East Carolina College team that won the NAIA title. Boykin has season tickets at Clark-LeClair Stadium and follows his alma mater’s endeavors closely as his 80th birthday approaches next month.
The Pirates were few in number 58 years ago.
“The biggest thing is we only carried 13 players to the national championship,” Boykin said. “We had eight position players, an extra catcher and four pitchers.”
Those limited numbers soon diminished.
“Our shortstop was Glen Bass and he got hurt the second game we played,” Boykin recalled. “The third baseman moved to shortstop and the right fielder moved to third base. The left fielder moved to right field and we put a pitcher in left field. … Either Larry Crayton or Lacy West played left field.
“I pitched the semifinal game against Omaha. We won it 11-3. I struck out 15. Of course, I pitched the whole game. Back then, you were the pitcher for the nine innings.
“You didn’t have a reliever or set-up men and all that stuff. You were the pitcher. … A guy can make a mistake a couple of pitches and give a couple of base hits up. That doesn’t mean he got tired. He just made a mistake.”
Boykin threw right-handed and batted left-handed.
“I threw more curve balls,” Boykin said. “I could throw it 90 miles an hour.
“The first two innings, they got two runs off of me and got about four hits. I was throwing as hard as I could. Then I decided, ‘Well, I’m going to mess with them a little bit and see how they do with that.’ I’d throw one 90 and one 75 and one 65 and then a curve ball and then I’d throw one sidearm. I kept them off-balance the rest of the day. It was something to behold.”
The Pirates were coached by the late Jim Mallory in those days. Boykin said some of the players had doubts about Mallory’s confidence in the team, which finished 21-4. That’s fewer than half of the games the 2019 Pirates have already played. There are other differences from that bygone era.
“The depth for one thing,” Boykin said. ” … We had 13. We had more than that on our team but Mallory said that’s all the school can afford to fly out there. We flew to the games. He said that’s all we could afford to fly. In reality, I don’t think Mallory thought we had much of a chance of winning. We’d just make a token appearance and that would be it, play some games and come home.
“But we beat some good teams. Grambling was the third game we played. They had Tommy Agee (World Series champion with the New York Mets in 1969) playing center field. Crayton struck out 19 against them. That was the night before I pitched. Back-to-back, he struck out 19 and I struck out 15.”
The NAIA tournament was a long way from Rock Ridge.
“In Sioux City,” Boykin said. “We flew into Omaha and took a bus over to Sioux City, Iowa. We stayed at Morningside College, which is located in Sioux City, Iowa. It rained the first day we were there. We didn’t think we would get to play any hardly, because it was a rainy spell during that time in Iowa. There was an Air Force base near there and they brought a helicopter over there and dried our fields out. We were able to play.”
Boykin is in some special company as a graduate of Rock Ridge.
“Me and Jimmy Hunt (former North Carolina governor) and Ava Gardner (movie actress),” said Boykin, who also answers to the nickname “Country.”
Mallory recruited Boykin.
“Mallory had been in touch with me in high school,” Boykin said. “He asked me to come down there and try out and I did. He said, ‘If you’ll come here, I’ll help you with some scholarship money.'”
Mallory also wanted Boykin to play football. Boykin wasn’t too keen on that idea.
“I played quarterback on the football team (at Rock Ridge),” Boykin said. “When we registered after I got in school, I went by to see Coach Mallory and he said, ‘You know football practice starts this afternoon.’
“I didn’t want to play football. I said, ‘Coach, I can’t play football. I didn’t bring my shoes with me.’ He said, ‘Boy, you ain’t in Rock Ridge now. You’re at East Carolina. We furnish shoes.’ So I played football during fall practice. I had played six-man football. There was just too many people on the field for a quarterback.”
Boykin’s focus shifted to baseball and he helped the 1961 team reach its pinnacle.
The former Pirate pitcher has seen a lot of baseball, but he saw something new on Tuesday night when ECU loaded the bases against visiting Campbell with one out in the bottom of the ninth and the score tied at 3.
Brady Lloyd’s bunt single scored pinch runner Christian Jayne for a 4-3 victory.
“I had never seen a defensive outfit like that,” Boykin said. “Four infielders on one side of the field. They put the right fielder in between third base and shortstop. They had four guys in between second base and third base. They evidently hadn’t practiced it because they didn’t rotate. When you bunt the ball down the first-base line, the first baseman fields it, the second baseman is supposed to cover the bag. Well, he didn’t rotate over. But they did not have a play.”
Boykin did some coaching before he got into the sporting goods business. His company, Earl Boykin Sports, is a retail outlet and services team accounts in the region.
He began his business four years after that triumphant trip to the Midwest.
“1965, it was always retail and team,” Boykin said. “Me and Gene Summerlin started it in 1965. Gene was working with Music and Sports. He called on me at Fremont, where I was coaching at Fremont.
“We didn’t have a very good football team my last year there in 1964 and I said, ‘Gene, have you ever thought about going in your own business?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I sure have.’ I said, ‘Well, how would you like, let’s do that?’ He said, ‘I would love to,’ so we started planning back in October or November of ’64 and went into business in ’65. We started out downtown on Tarboro Street, downtown Wilson. We moved to Nash Street about five years later.”
Boykin and Summerlin went their separate ways in 1988.
“I moved out to Brentwood when they built the new buildings at Brentwood Shopping Center,” Boykin said. “I bought the building I’m in. We moved into that building (2801 North Ward Boulevard in Wilson).”
Boykin was a member of Lamda Chi Alpha with some notable Pirates.
Former ECU football coach Ed Emory and columnist Caulton Tudor (Raleigh Times, News & Observer, WRAL.com) were among his fraternity brothers.
Boykin and his baseball brothers blazed a trail in 1961 that the 2019 team looks capable of following.
Good ol’ “Country” plans to be watching his Pirate descendants on the diamond as they try to repeat history.