James Allen Lester
5`10`, 185 lbs.
Batted Right, Threw Right
Reedley Jr. College
Fresno State University
For a guy who had the skills to organize a reunion of teams which played 45-50 years before, it's hard to believe James Allen Lester began his Southern Alberta career suiting up with the wrong team !
The Illinois kid, who first came to Canada in 1956, signed on with Granum for that season but began his Canadian career in the colours of the Vulcan Elks (see below).
He wouldn't get much else wrong over a five year career on the prairies with George Wesley's teams in Granum and Lethbridge. He learned a little about ranching too, bunking down on the Wesley ranch and, ostensibly, earning his "salary" (remember the NCAA didn't permit college kids to earn salaries from baseball) from chores on the Wesley spread.
Lester's role as reunion organizer shouldn't have come as a surprise given he was usually in the middle of things at crunch time.
His "serious" baseball career began with enrollment at Reedley College in California in the fall of 1953.
Coming from Galesburg, Illinois, Lester was a three-sport star for the Tigers as an end on the football team, guard on the basketball squad and third baseman on the diamond nine. (see below for his 1999 induction into the Reedley Hall of Fame)
Right - the late Ken Burns (left) and Lester at Reeley in 1955.
In 1954, he had three hits to lead Reedley College to an 8-2 win over Sequoias to capture the California Junior College championship. (He also got tossed in the 7th inning after an argument with the home plate umpire.)
Two grand slams in one game (against the Fresno JVs no less) was one of his Reedley highlights of 1955.
In his first season with Granum, Lester singled in the bottom of the 9th to drive in the winning run as the White Sox won the Southern Alberta crown downing Picture Butte 4-3. He had given Granum an early lead with a two-run homer in the 1st inning.
To display his versatility, Lester, a fixture at third base, made two starts on the hill and made an emergency appearance behind the plate
At Fresno State in 1957, Lester was the hero in what noted Fresno journalist Bruce Farris called, "One of the most fantastic finishes in local collegiate diamond history" (see the full story below).
That summer in Granum he hit .355 to finish 4th in the batting race and be an easy choice for the All-Star team.
Third base is possibly the easiest of the lot at which to pick a winner. It's Jim Lester of Granum leading the field by a country mile over the lot. (Lethbridge Herald)
Through 1958 and 1959 Lester was a key member of Pete Beiden's Fresno State Bulldogs. Until FSU`s surprise victory at the College World Series in 2008, the '59 club was recognized as Fresno's best having finished 3rd at the College World Series. The team had four All-Conference selections -- Lester at third base, Jerry White at second, Mike Mathiesen at shortstop and pitcher Leroy Gregory.
Lester stayed at home in the summer of '58 to play in Illinois (years later he still had with no real explanation for doing so), but was back in the Granum lineup in '59. His fielding prowess was well known and he began piling up the stolen bases as well.
Jim Lester of the Sox was involved in the fielding gem of the day and an unusual stolen base. Lester got credit for a steal when the throw to second by Jets' catcher Ken Eilmes hit umpire Ira Bourne in the back of the head as he raced to cover the play. (Lethbridge Herald)
Lethbridge moved into the Western Canada Baseball League in 1960 (along with Saskatoon, Lloydminster and Calgary) and, again, Lester would be an All-Star and a key performer as the White Sox captured the championship.
"Lester drew the applause of the fans on more than one occasion as he ranged both to his right and left to gobble up hard smashes and topped balls and rifle his throw over to the sharp fielding Lee Murphy." (Lethbridge Herald)
The 1961 season, Lester's final summer on the prairies, must have been one of his most eventful and satisfying. Among other things, he had a five hit day, 5 RBI afternoon, was fined $10 for having "threatened an umpire with a bat", somehow got away with wrestling the team's owner/manager to the ground (in trying to prevent George Wesley from attacking an umpire) and finished the season as the team's catcher.
But it was the 1961 playoffs which provided a grand stage for Jim's final innings in Canadian baseball. Lethbridge had finished 3rd in the regular season, 21 1/2 games back of the incredible Saskatoon Commodores (John Boccabella, Tim Cullen, Ernie Fazio, Lyle Olsen, Dan Schneider, Darrell Sutherland et al).
In the opening game of the best-of-nine final, Len Tucker (recruited for the playoffs) singled, stole second and scored the game's only run on an infield out in the 15th inning to give the Sox a 1-0 win.
John Boccabella's run-scoring single in the bottom of the 12th inning gave Saskatoon a 4-3 win and knotted the final and 1-1.
Lester's bases-loaded bunt single in the top of the 9th scored Len Tucker with the winning run as Lethbridge scored a 2-1 victory at Saskatoon.
After three, one-run decisions in the WCBL final series, Lethbridge took advantage of eight hits and four Saskatoon errors to plate ten runs and score a 10-2 victory.
Lester knocked in the winning run in the bottom of the 10th inning to give Lethbridge a 4-3 win and a 4-1 game lead in the best-of-nine final.
Lethbridge White Sox claimed the Western Canada Baseball League title for the second straight season with a 4-2 win over Saskatoon before 14-hundred fans at Henderson Stadium. Lefty Dave Dowling pitched a brilliant five-hitter, striking out 18. Len Tucker led the Sox with a triple, double and single while Jim Lester, the hero of Monday's game, had two hits.
Then, back home to Peoria, Illinois where, for the past 40+ years he's been a financial planner.
Now semi-retired, he has time to spend with Marilyn (left) and the couple's three children and three grandsons (born in 1999, three months apart. Time on the golf course has been restricted following Jim`s back surgery.
Bruce Farris, the noted Fresno sports journalist called the 1957 Fresno - Stanford contest, "One of the most fantastic finishes in local collegiate diamond history."
It was Fresno at home against Stanford at FSC Park. Stanford with a 5-2 lead going into the bottom of the 9th.
Then the fun started.
Indians' starter George Avery walked pinch hitter Roy Zivanich. Don Lohr struck out and Tony Levaggi flied out to centre. Two outs. Gene Larrieu the pinch runner at first.
Joe Pedrazzini bounced a single. Pat Castro walked on a full count to load the bases.
Jim Lester at the plate. Stanford coach Dutch Fehring sent Avery to the showers in favour of right-hander Dick Jones who worked the count on Lester to three and two.
With the runners all getting big jumps, Lester rifled the next pitch to right centre field scoring both Larrieu and Pedrazzini. When the centre fielder bobbled the ball, Pat Castro kept steaming for home. The catcher, Art Von Wronski tried to block the plate before he had the relay throw. Castro tumbled over the catcher scoring the tying run.
Von Wronski then tried to nail Lester, then chugging for second, only to have his throw sail into the outfield past the centre fielder. Before Bob Fletcher could get a relay home, Lester had safely crossed the plate.
Fresno 6 Stanford 5.
Are you sure you spell Granum, V-u-l-c-a-n? Jim Lester's introduction to Western Canada Baseball.
Sunday, June 3rd, 1956. Jim Lester, Greg Seastrom, Augie Scornaienchi and Billy Joe Davidson are still on the road in Billy Joe's two-door sedan. It's the opening day of the Foothills-Wheatbelt season.
Vulcan (where Seastrom, Scornaienchi and Davidson are to play) and Granum (Lester's club) both are at home for opening day double-headers. In an effort to go non-stop from Visalia, California to Southern Alberta, the players rotate driving with the previous driver stretched out in the back with the other three in the front. They're already behind schedule when two breakdowns in Montana and a dispute at the border about the import of Louisville Sluggers ensures they won't see the first pitch of the season.
Tired, hungry and a bit disoriented, the four finally arrive in Vulcan. Obviously, the game is underway. Dozens of cars circled the field.
"When they saw us there was hooting and hollering and honking and cheering. We thought we must be pretty important. It was like we were the President or something", said Lester.
What they didn't know immediately was that Vulcan had already dropped the first game of the twin-bill 19-2 and was getting battered in the second contest and the fans wanted some new players, any players.
Lester recalled, "Greg, Augie and Billy Joe went to suit up and when I was asked to play I told them I had signed to play with Granum and I didn't want to get into trouble. But, the man said he was the league commissioner and if he said it was okay, it was okay. So I ended up playing my first game in the league with Vulcan." The new blood helped to make the score in the second game more respectable, but Vulcan still lost, 14-7.
Little was known about the kid from Illinois and James Lester knew even less about Reedley College.
"Being 18 years old and given a chance to go to California was pretty intriguing," said Lester, who came with a friend and then RC baseball player Jake McBride.
"I knew Reedley wasn't close to the ocean, but I got to see a few palm trees (the ones that run along the west side of the campus on Reed Avenue) and the weather was better than in Illinois. The sky was so clear you could see the mountains with snow on top. Being from the Midwest, I'd never seen that before."
But by the time Lester's playing days were through, it worked for both sides as he starred for successful Tigers' football, basketball and baseball teams from 1953-55.
Lester was an end on Reedley's third-place football team, played point-guard on a second-place basketball squad, and was the best player on the Tigers' championship baseball team.
Arguably the best three-sport standout in school history, Lester will be inducted into the Tiger Athletic Hall of Fame Saturday, Aug. 7, but he won't make the trip to Reedley since he is still recovering from colon cancer surgery in February.
"Players today don't do it (play three sports in college), but that's just the way we did it, Lester said. "Coaches nowadays have players specialize in one sport. There was never that pressure when I played."
Lester did have a demanding coach, though, as he played for Pete Beiden at Fresno State for three years after leaving Reedley.
"Pete was tough and sometimes he was hard to read,: Lester said. "I saw him about three years ago and he gave me a big hug. I saw a soft side to that tough guy."
Lester was an all-conference players for the Tigers who Coach Verne Horton called, "The best third baseman I ever coached." Lester once hit TWO grand slams in ONE game for the Tigers.
"Hey Sammy Sosa didn't hit his first grand slam until last year," said Lester, a big Cubs fan who now lives in Peoria, Ill. "I used to think hitting two grand slams in one game was a big deal until that kid from Florida State hit six homers in one game last year."
Lester led Fresno State in hitting and RBI in 1959. He was an all-conference third baseman for a team that finished third in the nation. But Lester didn't get to make the trip of the College World Series since he was a fifth-year senior, which was allowed by the college and the conference but not by the NCAA.
He finished his career playing professionally in the Western Canadian League where he made $600 per month, which was good pay in those days, but amounts to the charge per minute of today's pros.
"I played pretty good defense, but I didn't have the power," Lester said. "I had a lot of coaches tell me I was just as good as the guys in the big leagues." (Michael Remy, Reedley Exponent, 1999)