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South Jersey Baseball History:
The Hitting Machines

Friday, August 14, 2000

By Charlie Schick
South Jersey Baseball Historical Society

When one talks about the great major league hitters and their single season fantastic batting averages, names like Rogers Hornsby (.424), George Sisler (.420), Ty Cobb (.420) and Ted Williams (.406) always come to the forefront. Rightly so however, because these great hitters of the past are among only eight big leaguers to hit over .400 in this century.

Hornsby, St. Louis Cardinal Hall of Fame infielder, recorded the highest modern day season average in 1924 when he hit an amazing .424. Williams, Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame outfielder, on the other hand was the last major leaguer to achieve the magic .400 level. The splendid splinter hit .406 in the 1941 campaign.

Over the years, hundreds of record books and countless stories have been written about these great big league hitters and their record breaking accomplishments of the past. But, what about the top bats men of South Jersey scholastic baseball? Who are they? Where and when did they play? And how do their numbers compare with the Hall of Famers listed above?

In our search for the answers to these questions, we were surprised to discover that there have been hundreds of South Jersey high school players who have reached or surpassed the .400 mark plateau. In fact, as far as setting an elite benchmark for area batting averages went, a .600 average is the watermark for our players to reach all-time recognition.

Way back in 1909, just about the time that Ty Cobb, Detroit Tigers outfielder, and Shoeless Joe Jackson, Cleveland Indians outfielder, were terrorizing American League pitchers, South Jersey's first legionary hitter made his appearance. A tall lanky infielder for Atlantic City High, Emory "Ty" Helfrich, astounded local fans and sportswriters when he posted a fabulous .658 average for the season. Helfrich went on to star at Lafayette College, played in the majors for the Brooklyn Feds and eventually enter the South Jersey Baseball Hall of Fame.

It was not until 1931 that the next scholastic .600 hitter came to pass. This time it was a flashy pitcher/shortstop by the name of Oscar Baker who assured himself a place in local history with his outstanding season results. Oscar was a one man show for Hammonton High that year, as he was not only their star pitcher but also clobbered the horsehide to the tune of a .610 clip.

Eight years later, another Atlantic City High player joined the elite .600 club roster when a burly hard-nosed catcher by the name of Ray Donney. He later starred on Penn's baseball and football teams, pounded out a .634 average for the 1939 campaign. After Dooney's accomplishments, however, it took another 23 years to produce a .600 hitter in South Jersey. This time it was Lou Priest, St. James High star third baseman, who turned the trick when he finished the 1962 season with a .640 mark. He helped his team establish winning records that stood for many years to come.

Through the years, other area outstanding hitters to join the elite .600 list included the following. Darryl Isler (Camden High outfielder) who hit .611 in 1974, John Johnson (Highland High outfielder) at .600 for 1981, South Jersey Baseball Hall of Fame member Lou Berge (Pennsville High star catcher) in 1981 produced a .617 mark, Tookie Johnson (Schalick High's crafty shortstop) joined the club at .618 in 1987, infielder great John Kupsey (Gloucester Catholic) finished in 1988 with a .610 total, Kevin Kelly (Gloucester Catholic's junior third baseman) posted a .608 average in 1997, outfielder Casey Fry (Gloucester Catholic) produced a .632 mark in 1988 and most recently Bishop Eustace Prep's Nick Italiano breaking every hitting record for South Jersey second baseman with his .621 average in 1999.

Still, it was in 1980 when the highest all-time South Jersey scholastic season batting average was recorded as John Yowler, Gloucester Catholic High pitcher/outfielder, topped "Ty" Helfrich's record .658 mark by 18 points. Yowler's record setting season included 40 hits, 8 doubles and an unbelievable .676 average. Oh, by the way, he also pitched to a 7-0 record with a 0.63 ERA and gained All South Jersey plus New Jersey All-State team selections. I guess you could easily say that in 1980, John Yowler produced one of South Jersey's greatest individual baseball seasons ever.

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