Franz, Lessmann Reflect on ‘74 National Title Team
Though 38 years have passed, John Franz remembers Meramec’s 1974 National Junior College Athletic Association baseball championship as if it happened only weeks ago.
Reverting back to the final moments of clinching the title will always be easy for him.
Franz, who was a freshman first baseman on that squad, stood looking for an opportunity to wrap up the title with Meramec leading and one out in the ninth inning. Pat Putnam, who would go on to the University of South Alabama and an eight-year major league career following the tournament, was at the plate. Putnam lined a laser directly at Franz, who stepped on the nearby first-base bag to secure the win.
Meramec closed out that magical run with 17 consecutive victories. The 1974 Warriors not only won the national title, but they also ran the postseason table to make it happen. Nearly four decades later, it’s a feat that is still nearly unbelievable to the player who saw that season meet its end.
“The teams that we beat were all in sectionals and nationals,” Franz said. “It wasn’t like we did it in the regular season. We swept our regional, we swept our district and we swept our national tournament. We were the first team to ever do that.”
Building the Team
When assembling the 1974 team, head coach Ric Lessmann did not have far to go to look for players. His national title team was made up exclusively of local talent. Lessmann scoured the local legion programs and high schools, particularly in south and west St. Louis County.
“There was nobody from out of town,” Franz said. “When you look at the other rosters of the teams we played, they were from all over the country. If you were not going pro out of high school, or going somewhere with a four-year scholarship, Meramec was the place to go. We had guys that were first-team all-metro players who were sitting on the bench.”
For Lessmann, the local-only recruiting strategy was not as much one by design as it was a school policy. Lessmann was instructed to recruit only within the college’s district.
Not only did the Warriors succeed while using only local talent, they also did so with smaller numbers. Meramec, 36-6 that season, entered the championship week with just 19 players on the roster. That paled in comparison to Miami-Dade College, which boasted a large roster of players from throughout Florida and neighboring states.
“When we walked into Grand Junction, Miami (Dade) was the favorite, and they brought an entourage,” Lessmann said. “I don’t know how many players they brought in. They were picked by everyone to win it. All the parents came. I mean, we just rolled into town, we had a few parents who came, and it was a pretty scrubby group, truthfully. We were pretty good, though, as Miami found out.”
When poring over the 1974 roster, one thing in particular stands out. Despite winning 36 of 42 games, including the last 17 contests, the team was without a first-team All-American. In fact, pitcher/outfielder Mike Murphy was the only second-teamer of that group. In the years following, Meramec featured future major league players such as Neil Fiala, who was the NJCAA Tournament Most Valuable Player in 1975. But as Meramec continued to reel off the victories in 1974, it was done with a solid, team-oriented group, one without a particular star or two to lean on.
With only 19 players, each had his opportunity to share the limelight and contribute. On the mound, the Warriors were led by John Whitaker, who reeled off a 12-0 record for the season. At the plate, Steve Viefhaus showed himself to be a reliable power threat, blasting four home runs in the tourney and captured MVP honors.
The Warriors, who grew to relish their no-name reputation during the postseason, even had to question themselves early on if they had a championship-caliber team.
“I don’t think that anyone thought in the preseason that we had a team that would contend for a national title,” Franz said. “But as the year went on, we had outstanding pitching, good hitting, and good defense.”
Franz pointed to a successful early-season trip to Memphis as a catalyst for Meramec’s run, citing wins over a few of the country’s top teams as a measuring stick for the comparatively obscure Warriors.
For Franz and Lessmann, the fun didn’t stop with 1974. Not content to bask in the afterglow of a national title after his freshman year, Franz went from contributor to catalyst offensively in a year’s time.
Franz broke the Meramec team record with 70 RBI in his sophomore year, leading the Warriors to their second straight title game appearance while earning second-team NJCAA All-America recognition. As was the case from the previous year, Meramec had a tremendously balanced team, which Franz credits for his offensive success.
“The fact that I had a good year was due in large part to the guys hitting in front of me,” Franz said.
“There were guys on base all the time. The focus was always on winning—that and defending our national championship.”
Meramec came up just one win short during that 1975 season, finishing second nationally. Now nearly four decades removed from that title run, Franz and Lessmann are able to place their accomplishments with Meramec from an enhanced perspective. Despite a successful run by Lessmann and the coaches who succeeded him, no other Meramec baseball team has played in the NJCAA title game. Fiala and Viefhaus hold places on the NJCAA World Series 50th Anniversary Team.
“With the 50th anniversary of the college, that’s brought back a lot of memories for me,” Franz said. “It was a lifetime ago. I don’t know that you could really appreciate it (at the time).”
After 27 years with Meramec, Lessmann went on to coach another 17 seasons at Washington University. He just completed his second season as the pitching coach at University of Missouri-St. Louis. As a head coach, Lessmann has won more than 1,300 games at the collegiate level. Still, that 1974 team stands alone for the longtime skipper, both for its resolve and its talent.
“For the number of players we had in 1974, that was really the story,” Lessmann said. “We had 19 players. We really had no reserves of any consequence, and we had three pitchers. We kind of put it together, but they were all tough to beat.”