GAINESVILLE, Fla. — They gathered on the party deck along the first base line Sunday afternoon at Condron Ballpark. On the court below, Florida and Tennessee played the final game of their three-game series.
Once upon a time, they were the young men under the hot sun in Gators uniforms. Sixty years later, old people return home, grateful for their blessings and the memories of their youth.
“What a field,” said Tom Moore, a speedy third baseman and first-team All-American for the 1962 Gators. “Wouldn’t I have liked to play on that field.”
If so, maybe Moore wouldn’t have needed Earl Montgomery, a Tallahassee dentist and his late teammate, to make Moore a bridge for his upper front teeth. A ground ball at Perry Field bounced off a stray rock and damaged Moore’s helicopters at the time.
The eight men who attended Sunday’s 60th reunion, all in their late ’70s or early ’80s, shared many stories similar to Moore’s. They held their first meeting since their first meeting 10 years ago on the occasion of the 50th anniversary.
The 1962 Florida baseball team has a unique distinction in Gators lore. It’s the first UF team in any sport to climb all the way to No. 1 in the nation. The Gators passed Arizona in the final regular season poll before the NCAA Regional Playoffs.
“It’s been a magical year,” said Ron Birchall, who played shortstop and later signed a pro contract with the New York Mets. “It’s been a phenomenal year. We’ll always remember it. We cherish this reunion and of course comparing this facility to what we’ve played on, there are no words. I’m just very proud of Florida and all of sports culture.”
After a season in which they missed the playoffs, the ’62 Gators started the season slow, losing three of their first seven games. They took off and began their climb to the top of the national ballot. Florida has won 11 straight games to take control of the SEC East, heading to a two-game series at Auburn.
The trip to Auburn is one of the surviving Gators they still talk about like it was yesterday. Florida’s winning formula this season centered on solid throwing and an abundance of speed. The Gators led the nation in stolen bases, with Moore setting a six-game UF record against Georgia that still stands today.
However, the Gators failed to steal a base by losing consecutive games to Auburn. They argue that the Tigers and head coach Erk Russell, who later rose to prominence as Vince Dooley’s defensive coordinator at Georgia, used an old trick to slow down the Gators’ running game: they filled the basic sand paths.
Gators receiver Len Scheinhoft still remembers what he did after Game 1.
“Drag the sand out of the infield the night before the Auburn game,” he said.
The Gators came back at full speed thereafter to win their next seven games, including a win over Mississippi State in Game 1 of the best-of-three SEC Championship Series. After losing Game 2, Florida won Game 3, 8-7, to win the SEC title.
The 5-foot-8, 155-pound Moore was one of the standout players on the team. He led the SEC with 26 stolen bases, batted .319, scored 34 runs and drove in 25 in the regular season. Scheinhoft added 27 RBIs and caught a capable pitching staff anchored by captain CW Price, Jerry Nicholson, Jim Biggart, Jim Elliott and Eddie Clarke.
The Gators may have lacked power, but center fielder Al Lopez Jr. added 21 stolen bases and a dose of star power. Lopez Sr. led the Chicago White Sox in the 1962 season and led the Cleveland Indians (1954) and White Sox (1959) to the World Series when Lopez Jr. was growing up. Lopez’s father, Al Lopez, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977.
Gators head coach Dave Fuller was in his 15th season as a UF baseball coach and served as head coach of the Gators’ freshman football team. Fuller was no stranger to success, but the 1962 Gators won 25 games to surpass the school single-season record of 21 set a decade earlier.
Fuller offered his assessment of what made the Gators special for a Orlando Sentinel journalist at the end of the season.
“We have two things going for us – pitch depth and speed,” Fuller said. “I think if you had to pick one difference between this and our other Championship teams, you’d have to say it was overall team speed.
“You have to understand that any club good enough to win should get the throw. But this has been a particularly quick team.”
The Gators entered NCAA Regional District 3 in Gastonia, North Carolina as the No. 1 ranked team in the nation and favorite to qualify for Omaha. They opened the tournament with a 1-0 victory over Florida State after a four-hit shutout by Price. The team’s fortunes – and the weather – began to turn.
Rain chilled the rest of the double-elimination tournament and in its second game, Florida lost 7-1 to Wake Forest, Fuller’s alma mater. Later in the day, the Gators returned to action and suffered a controversial 3-1 loss to Florida State in a weather-shortened five-inning game.
The Gators threatened to rally and thought they had cut the lead to 3-2 on a fly sacrificed to left field by Jim Duncan, scoring Montgomery from third. But umpires ruled Montgomery had started third before the catch, calling off the run.
Sixty years later, the ’62 Gators have not forgotten.
“As long as the last of us live, I suspect there will be a disgusted complaint about the incredible decision by North Carolina district officials to eliminate us from this tournament and our chance to go to Omaha,” Moore wrote to the other team members. in a handout guidebook for the reunion, “Our team – all of us teammates – and the University of Florida deserved a fairer ending than this.”
The disappointing ending did not linger. Most Gators have gone on to successful careers in business, politics, education, and law.
Together, they made history.
“We had an exceptional team,” Birchall said. “We had great chemistry.”
“We all took being Gator baseball players seriously and wanted to do our best,” Moore added. “We realized we had a very good team in the middle of the season. It was a wonderful experience.”
Fuller and eight of the players died. Of the remaining 14, they keep all 62 Gators alive through the stories they share.