Seattle University's Johnny O'Brien sent a line drive screaming to the deepest part of the old wooden ballpark in Fresno, Calif.
Just out of reach of Fresno State centerfielder Fibber Hirayama, the ball caromed off a 400-foot-plus distance sign attached to the wall. Hirayama crashed into the fence and the sign came loose, striking the opposing player in the head and knocking him to the ground. Hirayama luckily came away unhurt. Taking advantage of the outfield calamity, O'Brien came around the bases unopposed for an inside-the-park home run.
All of this helter-skelter activity came on May 30, 1952, during an important milestone for SU: It was the school's first NCAA postseason appearance in any sport.
With Seattle U returning to full Division I status for the first time in 33 years -- when the Redhawks host Washington in a women's soccer match at Championship Field on Aug. 17 -- this is the first in a series of 33 stories replaying memorable SU events previously held at the NCAA's top level (1952-80).
Sixty years ago, SU shook up Fresno State's centerfielder, but it failed to make the Bulldogs totally uncomfortable, losing 2-1 in a night game and the opener of a best-in-three NCAA District 8 playoff series. The Chieftains were eliminated the following day, 20-4, in an afternoon outing that got away from them.
O'Brien's second-inning home run in the opener gave SU a momentary adrenaline rush and a 1-0 lead on a big stage.
"The ball was a foot over his glove," O'Brien said of the liner. "He tripped and hit the wall, and the sign collapsed. I don't know if it was from the ball hitting it or the force of him hitting the wall. I just circled the bases."
John Kelly, the Chieftains' ace freshman pitcher (9-0) and unable to play in Fresno because of a late-season elbow injury, was a witness. "John was a good runner," Kelly said. "Maybe he would have scored on an inside-the-park homer the regular way. It was a freak-type thing."
Fresno State would tie this game in the third inning with an RBI single and win it with another in the sixth.
"I grounded out for the last out of the game," said O'Brien, who along with his twin brother Ed would make it to the Major Leagues. "I thought I would have liked to have that pitch back.
For this landmark sporting event, the Chiefs went with the following lineup and batting order: Eddie O'Brien, left field; Les Whittles, first base; Ed Garay, catcher; Johnny O'Brien, shortstop; Bob Carlson, second base; Jim Gallwas, third base; Frank McBarron, right field; Bill Collier, left field, and Ernie Pastornicky (9-2) on the mound.
Fresno State (33-11) would not survive the next round, losing to Pacific Coast Conference champion Oregon State (27-12), which advanced to the eight-team College World Series. The Chieftains (23-6) at least came away knowing they belonged in the playoffs: At midseason, they had beaten the Beavers 8-6 in Corvallis in the teams' only meeting that year.