For an 18-year period fans across the United States listened daily to the thrilling radio adventures of “Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy.” When the fictitious series ended in 1951 the Claremore, Oklahoma fans didn’t mind a bit.
Okay, maybe a little bit but the wait was worth it. By the time a young teenager named Larry Ballard came along the high school Zebra
Sports community had their own “Jack Armstrong”.
Claremore has annually produced many prominent student-athletes, no can match the credentials of this 1960 high school graduate.
While I don’t want to use statistics to bog down this article, it would be impossible to not mention this young man’s feats and accomplishments in the field of sports.
Coming into his senior year (1959-60) coach Lester “Bear” Jensen and the Zebra fans knew they were in for something special from Ballard. He didn’t let them down.
And it didn’t take him but one game to do it.
The Zebras were coming off a 6-3-1 record. Fairfax had surprised Claremore with an 8-0 defeat the year before. The ’59 season’s tone was set when the Zebras opened with a 54-31 Fairfax destroying. In that contest Ballard, having moved into the fullback position, scored five touchdowns with carries of 20, 21, 70, and a pair of two yarders.
In following Friday nights Claremore would post its first undefeated 10-game season. The Zebras finished 11-1, not losing until against Ada, 32-16, in the Class A semi-finals.
During that string of games Ballard would lead all large school scorers with 196 points while rushing for 1,745 yards. He scored touchdowns in 11 of the 12 games. In the one when he didn’t, a 28-20 victory at Miami, he scored on two conversion attempt. Oh yeah…he also threw a 30-yard pass to teammate Kendell Rice for a 70-yard touchdown.
Coach Jensen had a theory concerning passing the ball. He said three things could result and two of them were bad. When the Zebras did pass most throws were by quarterback Regan Huckleby. Ballard was able to catch opponents asleep on nine of 15 passes thrown for an additional 257 yards.
A triple threat, Ballard was the Zebra punter with 24 and an average of 36 yards.
When the Zebra season came to an end Ballard’s gridiron honors continued. In order he was named as Verdigris Valley All-Conference, Oklahoma All-State, and then capping it all by being selected to the National Junior All-American Team.
This was just his one season gridiron achievements.
STANDOUT IN OTHER SPORTS
During the basketball season Ballard started off by scoring 11 points in a 45-40 win against Berryhill. This came after one week of round ball practice. Next came 17 points against Vinita.
The ‘59-60 season saw the Zebras post only five wins compared to 13 loses. Still this didn’t keep Ballard from being selected for the VV All-Conference team. He had led the Zebras with 208 points.
With spring time comes baseball and Ballard settled in at third base for the Zebras. Jumping out with a 3-hit shutout over Oklahoma Military Academy by pitcher Dick Hendricks, the Zebras won their first seven games.
Ballard posted an unbelievable .535 batting average as a senior. Among the base hits he recorded was a 395-foot home run at Bartlesville. While the numerous times he bounced pitches off the surrounding houses at Legion Field were never measured, the one at the former professional minor field at Bartlesville was.
According to ones seeing Ballard play sports, all agree he was a great athlete.
“He was competitive in everything he did,” recalled fellow graduate Hendricks, “but at the same time he was one of the nicest guys you would want to know. He was never arrogant of his talents. Kind of quiet away from sports, I guess, he was just one of the group. Fun loving, he would join in with a joke that usually fit the occasion.
“Larry excelled in everything…golf, bowling…it didn’t matter.”
The former Cherl Hough was a 10-year-old fifth grader when her family lived near the Ballard family on South Normal Street.
She remembers only going to one or two football games, but more so she remembers “…how good looking” her neighbor was.
“All the girls thought so,” the girl who would later become my wife adds.
As a two-sport All-State choice Ballard caught the attention of both college and professional teams. His football talents would allow him to play for the Oklahoma State University Cowboys. He also signed a pro contract to play baseball when he was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals.
A shoulder injury suffered in the minor leagues brought an end to his professional hopes. It didn’t stop him, however.
He joined the U.S. Army and proudly served his country.
Ballard, as a Zebra, never had a love for arch rival Pryor. Still that didn’t keep him from the love of his life. In 1967 he married Pryor’s Dianne Neel.
Sports enjoyed by Ballard later included learning to box and being a competitive fisherman.
For the rest of his life he would serve as an educator and coach. He coached football at Tulsa’s East Central for 18 years and then at Bishop Kelley for six. He later served as director of the Catoosa Alternative School.
A proud member of the Cherokee Nation and the son of Tom and Nettie (Eagleton) Ballard, Larry Ballard was 69 when he died at his Tulsa home on January 7, 2012.
When the new Claremore High School sports “Hall of Fame” is dedicated in the near future, 10 former athletes-coaches-fan will be honored.
For anyone who remembers the name Larry Ballard, the top all- time all-around Zebra’s name will be missing. It has been 58 years since he donned the Red & White…a long time. For the ones who remember him, we can only wish the selecting panel had done a little more research.
Larry Larkin is a columnist for the Claremore Progress.