Only a few days after watching the HBO documentary about former State Athlete of the Year C.C. Sabathia, it was time to pick up a recently published book about Vallejo’s legendary 1954 football team.
Sabathia’s documentary, titled: “Under the Grapefruit Tree: The C.C. Sabathia Story” has been shown on HBO several times since it was completed late in 2020. It’s a very personal journey that the longtime MLB pitcher takes the viewer on since it’s told in his voice in the first person. Co-produced by Major League Baseball, much of the story is on C.C.’s battle with alcohol and how he was finally able to come to grips with the personal loss that he revealed was at the heart of his affliction.
The title of the doc about the future Hall of Famer refers to a grapefruit tree in the backyard of his grandmother’s house in Vallejo. That’s where the youngster would set up a chair 60 feet away from him and he would throw grapefruits at it.
I wish I could say I saw Sabathia pitch for Vallejo, but decided one day when the Apaches (now called Red Hawks) were playing in a CIF Sac-Joaquin Section playoff game down the street from our Stockton office at Billy Hebert Field that I would chance it that they would win and I could watch the next game. Unfortunately, Vallejo lost and that was it for Sabathia’s prep career.
There was the time, however, I saw C.C. play effectively as a power forward for Vallejo’s basketball team that reached the 1998 CIF NorCal finals and I did see him work out as a defensive end at a football combine. There’s just never been anyone like him as an elite California prep athlete before or since: A big-time power pitcher in baseball who also excelled as a power forward in basketball and two-way DE/TE in football. That’s why he was a fairly easy choice as our 1997-98 State Athlete of the Year.
It also was thrilling for myself and family when we were able to see Sabathia pitch in our only visit ever to Yankee Stadium for a July 2011 matchup vs. Tampa Bay. Going against another former all-state pitcher, James Shields (Newhall Hart), both pitchers were spectacular. C.C. struck out nine and had a complete game four-hitter (a clip of the last out is actually in the doc). Shields also went the distance with a four-hitter and the only run of the game in a 1-0 win by New York came on a throwing error.
There’s not a lot about Sabathia’s high school days in the HBO doc, but that’s okay since the important messages are from what he overcame off the field.
The Apache Gift: An Incredible Experience
As many know who’ve followed Cal-Hi Sports over the years, we’ve always thought of the 1954 Vallejo Apaches (9-0) as one of the greatest high school football teams of California history. They were still No. 2 in our most recent top 65 all-time greatest rankings and will be hard to drop any time soon.
Two players from that team, Dale Flowers and Ed Sowash, contacted me late last summer to talk with them about a book they had written recounting the formation and domination of that team plus a recounting of all of the accomplishments of the players from after high school.
As a recap, Vallejo 1954 played in an era of no playoffs and just nine-game regular seasons in Northern California. The district in those days also was set up so that kids went to a junior high for ninth and 10th grade, then to the high school for 11th and 12th and then to Vallejo JC for two more years.
The book does a great job documenting those 9th and 10th grade years for running back Dick Bass and all of the rest of the players. Dick went to Hogan Junior High where the team there also didn’t lose for two years and he had games in which he scored five and six touchdowns. As it was, Bass averaged more than 14 yards per carry and scored 68 TDs in just 18 games in high school. It’s fun to just think about what he would have done in a different system and with even 10-game regular seasons — easily more than 100 TDs and perhaps an even higher yards per carry average.
There were some other fun facts that I learned about that 1954 Vallejo team, including that it was the first one in the history of the North Bay League to have male cheerleaders.
I also liked some of the very short, very effective speeches from head coach Bob Patterson that were recalled. He stuck his head in the locker room at halftime of one game in 1955 in which the boys weren’t doing as well as expected and simply said: “Sorry ladies I must be in the wrong locker room.” Then at the start of the 1954 season, when there were more than 100 kids who showed up for tryouts, Patterson gathered the group together. He asked if any of them were there who were not on the team in 1953. Approximately 30 raised their hand. Patterson then just said: “Thank you for coming, but we will not be needing your services this season.”
For more information on the book or to order it, contact McCaa Books in Santa Rosa (mccaabooks.com).