ORONO, Maine — When the 1964 season began, there were modest expectations for the University of Maine baseball team.
Coach Jack Butterfield’s squad was laden with sophomores, in an era where freshmen weren’t allowed on the varsity squad, so experience was lacking. The Black Bears played on a home field that had no outfield fence, no dugouts and no scoreboard.
By the time the season ended on June 17 — at the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska — the 1964 baseball team had secured itself a special place in UMaine sports history.
Brunswick native Carl “Stump” Merrill, UMaine’s fiery catcher, summed up its ability to go where no Black Bears team had gone before.
“I think it was just guys going out and having a hell of a good time playing baseball and trying to get better on a daily basis,” Merrill said, “and playing for a coach that was very well organized and demanded that we do things the way they’re supposed to be done.”
This weekend, 17 members of the 1964 UMaine team are back in Orono to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their memorable season.
The group was to meet for a cocktail party on Friday, then play golf Saturday morning before attending the UMaine-Maryland Baltimore County baseball game at 1 p.m. A banquet for the team and invited guests will be Saturday evening at UMaine’s Buchanan Alumni House, before the weekend wraps up with a breakfast gathering on Sunday.
“I think it’s nice that we’re close,” offered lawyer Joe Ferris of Brewer, the Black Bears’ ace pitcher, who spearheaded the reunion.
“We did something that I think was pretty significant, and I’m proud to have been on this team and have played a role in it,” he added.
The 1964 UMaine team, the District 1 (New England) champion, came within one game of playing for a national championship. Minnesota, Missouri and Maine were tied at 3-1 in the College World Series.
As luck would have it, eventual champion Minnesota received the bye.
“All Jack had to do was get the short straw, or the long straw, and we’re in the championship game,” Ferris said of the rudimentary tie-breaking procedure.
Missouri edged UMaine 2-1, and the Black Bears finished third, setting the standard for future teams.
UMaine posted a 21-8 record, which at the time was a school record for victories. Ferris, a bespectacled right-hander who earned two wins and a save, was selected as the College World Series Most Outstanding Player.
Third baseman David “Zippy” Thompson, UMaine’s senior captain, earned a spot on the College World Series all-tournament team after hitting safely in all five contests.
“They told us not to even unpack our bags, [that] we’d be there two-and-out,” Merrill said of the team’s reception in Omaha. “Then we ended up being the darlings of the tournament.”
UMaine fans reportedly sat along the highway in their vehicles to listen to the College World Series games on the radio. Upon the team’s return, the Black Bears were celebrated.
In downtown Bangor, Norbert Dowd emceed a reception during which Butterfield introduced the players. From there, the team was paraded in convertibles to Brewer, where another ceremony was held at the foot of Bridge Hill on North Main St.
“The town square was full of people,” Ferris recalled. “It was great.”
The day ended with a dinner on the UMaine campus.
“It was bigger than we we thought, to be honest with you,” Merrill said of the reaction to the team’s accomplishments.
Ferris headlined a group of front-line players in 1964. He finished the season with a 9-0 record and still holds UMaine’s season (1.000) and career (16-3, .842) marks for winning percentage.
“He probably accomplished something that will never be done again. He went through a season without a loss, and he was the MVP of the tournament,” said Merrill, who later became manager of the New York Yankees.
Ferris was followed in the rotation by another stopper in Tom Murphy, and the Bears featured a hard-hitting, slick-fielding shortstop from New Hampshire named Dick DeVarney.
“Dick DeVarney could play with any shortstop we’ve had, was as good a player as [future major leaguer] Mike Bordick,” offered Ferris, who also mentioned outfielders Larry Coughlin and Ron Lanza, along with Merrill.
“Stump was very solid, could really throw,” Ferris said. “He was a pain in the ass. Guys hated to play against him. He was no-holds-barred, fearless.”
The other team members included (in alphabetical order): Ray Bisbee, Bruce Cary, Ron Corbin, Larry Coughlin, Mike DeSisto, Richard Dolloff, Dick Flaherty, John Gillette (deceased), Art Heathcote, John Hutchins (deceased), Brent Keene, Dick Kelliher, Vic Nelson, Charlie Newell, Dick Perkins, Roger Richards, Steve Sones and Doug Swain (deceased).
The coaching staff included the late Butterfield and assistant Woody Carville.
UMaine earned a spot in the District 1 regional by virtue of its 8-2 Yankee Conference record. The Bears advanced to the College World Series by beating Northeastern twice at Fenway Park in Boston.
Among the key confidence-building moments in the season was a 5-1 win at Colby during which the Bears hit around future Red Sox draft pick Eddie Phillips.
“All of a sudden I’m thinking, boy, we’re pretty good,” Ferris said.
UMaine ended up winning three games at the College World Series, a feat not equalled by any of the school’s subsequent participants.
The success kicked off a period of prosperity under Butterfield during which UMaine finished above .500 in 10 of the next 11 seasons and was 12-12 in the other. That opened the door for the John Winkin era at UMaine, when the Bears made six College World Series appearances.
Merrill said the 1964 team, above all, exhibited a passion for the game.
“We were all young, green kids,” Merrill said. “We were as excited as hell to play baseball. It didn’t matter who it was, we were going to go out and see if we could compete. And fortunately we did.”