• Dennis McCaslin

From the backroads of Arkansas to the bright lights of the Major Leagues: Glen Eugene Stephens

For a number of small communities in America it can be said that the biggest thing that ever came out of the town was the first paved road.

While that may be the case for a lot of villages, the same cannot be said for the dot-on-the map known as Hiwasse near the Missouri border in extreme northern Benton County.

Just after the turn of the century, Hiwasse (located seven miles from present day Gravette) was home to a bank, at least one general store and a sawmill.

The sawmill was owned by Orville Stephens whose direct lineage could be traced back just a few generations, but his spouses' side could be configured all the way back to 1700 Germany. The McNelly family had come to Maryland in the early 1700's, migrated to North Carolina at one point and wound up in southern Missouri before making the move to northwest Arkansas.

The families were part of the history of the region in more ways than one. Adeamae Ruth McNelly's grandfather was Harrison "Hardy" Comstock who was killed by bushwackers in the Civil War (a story we had written about in a previous "Stone Garden " feature.)

When sawmill owner Orville William Stephens married Adeamae Ruth McNelly (fifteen years his junior), that relationship resulted in the birth of a single child who would be called by sportswriters in the 50's and 60's "the best Major League player who got stuck behind Ted Williams."

Glen Eugene Stephens was born in Hiwassee, Arkansas, on January 20, 1933. Most baseball publications and almanacs list Stephens as being born in Gravette but in interviews before his death he said Hiwassse and Gravette schools consolidated his senior year, which he felt led to the confusion.

Stephens loved baseball and he played on the weekends on Hiwasee’s town team, with players were much older. The ragtag townball squad would play teams from all over Northwest Arkansas, mainly Fayettevile, Bentonville, Siloam Springs and Rogers.

“They would just get games together and play for the fun of it. It wasn’t organized in a true sense, but there was such a following with everyone’s families involved, it made for an exciting weekend and atmosphere," Stephens said in one interview. I also played on an American Legion team in Rogers and another town team in Bentonville called the Merchants. I would play just about anywhere they would let me play when I was young in those days.”

Whenever Gene had a game to play, the sawmill closed down early so Gene’s family could watch him play. The diamond prodigy had a fan base that extended beyond his familial ties.

Eventually, Gene briefly attended the University of Arkansas on a baseball and basketball scholarship, but professional baseball was calling. In 1950, Stephens turned down a $3000 offer from the New York Yankee legendary scout Tom Greenwade.

Greenwade made the offer saying Stephens "threw hard, had a pretty good arm , good speed and could hit". But he said the youngster "never had played against any good competition in Arkansas" which offended his Arkansas pride.

Jut a little while later, Gene Stephens inked a contract with the Boston Red Sox that would start a professional career that spanned the next seventeen years.

Between 1952 and 1964 for the Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Athletics and Chicago White Sox. He also played one season in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) for the Chunichi Dragons (1966).

Stephens signed with the Red Sox in 1951. After batting .337 with 22 home runs and being selected to the Class D North Carolina State League's All-Star team in his first pro season, Stephens jumped all the way to the majors in 1952, making the Red Sox' roster out of spring training and getting into 21 games for Boston in April, May and September

In between, he returned to the higher minor leagues for more playing time. His first full year in MLB would come in 1955, and he batted a career-best .293 in 109 games played.

But Stephens found himself playing behind Boston's entrenched outfield of Baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams, Gold Glove-winner Jim Piersall and future American League Most Valuable Player Jackie Jensen. Even though he filled in at all three outfield positions, from 1955 until he was traded to the Orioles on June 9, 1960, he was Williams' primary replacement as Boston's left fielder, and was nicknamed "Williams' caddy."

On June 18, 1953, Stephens became the first major leaguer in the modern era (since 1900) to have three hits in a single inning. The record was matched by Johnny Damon on June 27, 2003, who coincidentally accomplished this feat as a Red Sox as well.

In his 12 big-league seasons, he played in 964 games and had 1,913 at bats, 283 runs, 460 hits, 78 doubles, 15 triples, 37 home runs, 207 RBI, 27 stolen bases, 233 walks, .240 batting average, .325 on-base percentage, .355 slugging percentage, 679 total bases and 17 sacrifice hits.

After Baseball, Gene continued a life based in Oklahoma City where went to work for the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Company Kerr McGee until his retirement.

After retirement Gene and his wife moved to the De Cordova Golf Community in Granbury, Texas to pursue his "love of golf and the good life".

Stephens concluded his professional career in 1967 after 17 seasons; he died April 27, 2019, in Granbury, Texas, at the age of 86.

From a wide spot in the road in northern Benton County to the bright lights of the big leagues...that was the path of Glen Eugene Stephens.

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