I called a couple of 1960s-era San Antonio high school baseball players a few weeks ago to talk about their careers and how both of them, as minor leaguers, found their way into the same clubhouse one summer at V.J. Keefe Field.
John Langerhans and Richard Guerra, who both played for the San Antonio Brewers in 1975, were more than generous with their time. At the outset of each interview, I told both of them that, for me, their respective legacies in South Texas were worthy of re-examination at this moment in time, in particular.
Why? Well, first of all, the start of the baseball season has been delayed indefinitely because of a horrific national health crisis. Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Missions’ schedule for the first month has been obliterated, and nobody can predict when opening day might be.
It is the longest pause in minor-league operations in San Antonio since 1965-67, when the city went without pro ball for three seasons.
At the time, the parent-club Houston Colt .45s had pulled the team out of San Antonio and sent it to Amarillo. With old Mission Stadium on the south side shuttered, it seemed in some ways as if the game had turned its back on the Alamo City. But that’s also about the same time that some magic started to happen locally on high school diamonds, with Langerhans and Guerra central to all the excitement.
The Cliff Gustafson-coached South San Bobcats, featuring Langerhans as one of the team’s top pitchers and hitters, won consecutive state titles at the Class 3A level in 1966 and 1967. Langerhans, now 70 and retired from high school coaching, punctuated the second championship by throwing a no-hitter in the title game. The Bobcats finished 39-0 after their victory over Beaumont Forest Park.
Trying for a three-peat, South San marched into the 1968 state tournament, but the Bobcats were denied and later settled for a third-place finish.
Guerra, meanwhile, played a major role that same week for a Tom Henslee-coached Highlands team trying to win its first title in Class 4A. Guerra, now a 68-year-old, truck driver, fired a 16-strikeout no-hitter for the Owls in the state semifinals against Arlington. An ensuing championship victory over Pasadena was historic in that it was the first, and it remains as the only, state baseball title by a San Antonio school in the UIL’s largest classification.
Langerhans watched as a spectator at Austin’s Nelson Field when Guerra, a sophomore playing in his first year on the Highlands varsity, pitched the masterpiece.
“He had a 90-mph fast ball and a great curve ball,” Langerhans recalled. “I mean, he had a fall-off-the-table curve ball. It was just, it was nasty. He was special. There was no doubt about that. Nati Salazar was our ace at South San (in 1966 and ’67). Nati was just as nasty (as Guerra). But he didn’t throw as hard as Richie.
“Nati had what I always called an optical-illusion curve ball. Now you see it. Now you don’t. It was just feared. Richie’s curve ball was similar to that. But Richie threw harder.”
Guerra said he also admired Langerhans’ presence on a ball field, as well.
“He took control out there,” said Guerra, who played against the South San star in the amateur Spanish-American League but never in a varsity high school game. “He was awesome. Had control of all his pitches.”
Langerhans and Guerra took different routes to become Double-A minor league teammates in the Alamo City. Langerhans, a 1968 South San graduate, attended the University of Texas and became an All-American. He was picked up in the second phase of the 1972 draft, selected on the second round, by the Cleveland Indians.
After three seasons of A-ball at Reno in the California League, Langerhans moved up to the Indians’ Texas League team in San Antonio.
Guerra, a 1970 Highlands grad, also entered pro ball in 1972. He was signed by the San Francisco Giants and spent three seasons with the organization, before signing with the Indians and heading to V.J. Keefe in the spring of 1975.
He would join Langerhans on a squad known locally as the San Antonio Brewers. Langerhans remembered the surprise he felt when he first walked into the home team clubhouse at V.J. Keefe, on the campus of St. Mary’s University.
“It was interesting,” Langerhans said. “Richie wasn’t on the Cleveland roster when we broke camp (at spring training). We went in there, and Cleveland had picked up Richie as a free agent … We get into San Antonio and (go) in the clubhouse and there’s Richie Guerra. I’m going, ‘What in the heck are you doing here?’ “
Guerra was trying to find redemption following his offseason release from the Giants.
In August of 1974, he was in San Antonio as a visiting ball player for the Double-A Amarillo Giants. With a game rained out and players from both the Amarillo and San Antonio teams visiting a club on the south east side, a shooting incident ensued. It killed Guerra’s older brother. Guerra and Amarillo pitcher Dave Heaverlo also were hit with gunfire.
“A fight broke out and somebody started shooting into the club from the outside,” Guerra said. “(The shooter) ran in and started (firing). He got me and my brother. I was hit in the neck. I had to have surgery to repair a few things. But I was all right. I was really blessed. I was very lucky.”
Once Guerra had recovered after spending a few weeks in the hospital, he was still grieving the loss of his brother, former Highlands athlete Johnny Guerra, when he got more bad news. Giants farm director Carl Hubbell paid a visit to his home to tell him that he had been released.
“I felt like they would take some disciplinary action, but I didn’t know how harsh it was going to be,” he said.
By the next spring, Guerra would get a new start with the Indians. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound dynamo, once a dominant high school pitcher, enjoyed perhaps his best season in the U.S. minor leagues. Playing mostly in the outfield, he hit .307 with 18 home runs and 69 RBI.
Guerra never reached the major leagues but did play nine seasons in the Mexican League.
For Langerhans, the 1975 season was his last as a professional ball player. He had to give up the game when chronic pain in his left shoulder forced him to retire.
However, he was far from finished with baseball. He went on to become a head coach in Texas high schools for 27 seasons, including four at San Antonio Madison in the North East Independent School District. Langerhans won 613 games, reached the state championship game twice and claimed one state title, in 1997, with the Round Rock Dragons.
He now lives in Round Rock with his wife, Sharon. Langerhans cherishes memories of playing at South San for Gustafson, who won seven state titles with the Bobcats and later went on to win two NCAA championships at Texas.
“We felt like, there wasn’t anybody that could beat us,” Langerhans said. “Our attitude was, if we didn’t make it to the state tournament … or at least the (way the) community looked at it, if we didn’t go to the state tournament, we had a losing season. It was just the attitude that Gus built. You don’t get beat. You win. You go all the way.
“And, of course, Gus made the difference. We were talented. But back in those days, there weren’t too many great baseball coaches around. In those days, a lot of these schools had football coaches coaching their baseball team. So, Gus basically out-coached everybody, to go along with the talent we had.”
Guerra, a San Antonio resident who still lives in the Highlands neighborhood, said he was coaxed into trying out for varsity baseball by team captains Jesse Causey and Bubba Hermes.
“When I got to Highlands and baseball season came around, I saw the postings for the tryouts,” he said. “I was very hesitant on trying out for the team, because I knew they were really outstanding ball players. So, I wasn’t mentally sure I was going to make the team. I was really hesitant in trying out.
“As a matter of fact, I didn’t think I was going. One day I was sitting in class at Highlands. Jesse Causey, Bubba Hermes and the coach, at that time, Tom Henslee, they all came by. Jesse and Bubba introduced me to the coach. They asked if I was interested. That’s how it started. I went out and made the team, and everything just followed in suit after that. We had a really good season.”
Today, Guerra is a hard-working man. A truck driver ever since he retired from baseball in 1985, he delivers for Borden Dairy. Guerra leaves his home every week day before dawn, checks out a big-rig on the city’s south east side and then drives to Austin, where his trailer is loaded with crates of milk that he delivers to locations around South Texas.
At one time years ago, Guerra would spend nights out on the road. No more. He said he’s home by 7 or 8 each night. Guerra takes pride in his occupation, particularly now, with so many people out of work and experiencing food insecurity.
“I just feel very bad for everyone,” he said. “The virus has made such a tremendous change. But I think we’re going to get through it. Everything’s going to be OK. We just have to be really cautious right now.”
Langerhans encouraged ball players at every level who are facing uncertainty.
“You can’t do anything about it,” he said. “So, keep working out. Try to keep that good attitude. And when the time comes and that door opens, go out and make the best of it. That’s all you can do. You know, everybody is in the same boat. And, so, it’s just a shame that this is happening and that it’s happening in all sports.”
Baseball, in the big picture, seems almost insignificant. But I will admit, as a fan of the game, I do miss it terribly. I miss the major leagues. I miss the minors. I miss the colleges, and I really miss the drama of the high school playoffs.
In talking to the two former San Antonio baseball icons, I found myself dreaming a little bit. Boy, what I’d give if I could see a game today between the ‘67 South San Bobcats and the ‘68 Highlands Owls. A pitching matchup of Langerhans vs. Guerra, perhaps.
When I told Guerra during our telephone interview that school administrators could have sold a few bags of popcorn for that game back in the day, he laughed.
“Yeah, that would have really been something to see,” Guerra said.