South San brings out its legends in an emotional tribute to coach Cliff Gustafson

By Jerry Briggs
Special for The JB Replay

South San and Central Catholic high school athletes stood dutifully on the base paths at Burrows-Gustafson Stadium as the junior ROTC color guard marched out, the American flag went up and the national anthem played.

Only a few fans were in the stands, but this was no ordinary Tuesday night, non-district baseball game.

More than 20 former ball players who thrilled South San fans in the 1950s and 1960s, men now in their 70s and 80s, were introduced on the stadium’s public address to distinguished visitors — the family of the late Cliff Gustafson.

Later, the school’s mariachi band serenaded everyone with beautiful music, featuring brass, guitar and vocals.

All of it served as a simple but elegant show of respect to Gustafson, the Texas baseball icon who passed away on Jan. 2 at the age of 91.

Several of the coach’s family members attended, and one of them expressed heart-felt gratitude for the gesture extended by the school district.

“This is special because (coaching here) meant so much to him,” said Scott Shepperd, Gustafson’s grandson. “When he wanted to talk about baseball, he wanted to talk about these guys.”

Shepperd made his remarks as he surveyed a field filled with his grandfather’s former high school players.

“For everyone to come out and show up like they did, it was just really special to our family,” he said. “We miss him so much. But this is a really neat thing, to honor him (here).”

Former South San players on hand were a roll call of the greats led by Gustafson, who won seven state championships with the Bobcats:

# Tony Zamora, who played on the coach’s first South San team in 1955. Pitchers Bobby Lara and Robert Zamora, who starred for state title teams in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

# Plus, standouts on the 1967 state champions who went undefeated: among them, Nati Salazar, John Langerhans, Mike Markl, Casey Sanchez, Frank Tondre, Raul Zamora and Lucio Leal.

Under Gustafson, the Bobcats posted a 344-85-5 record in 13 seasons, according to an article penned by veteran sportswriter David Flores for

They also won district 12 titles, advanced to the Class 3A state tournament nine times and brought home state championships in ’58, ’59, ’61, ’63, ’64, ’66 and ’67. Gustafson’s last team, in ’67, finished 39-0.

Former Baylor University standouut Raul Zamora, the youngest of four Zamora brothers who attended South San, worked to organize the search for former players so they would know about the event. Some were easy to find because they had attended past reunions.

Others, not so much.

“The hard part I had was, I had to start from 1955,” said Raul Zamora, a 1968 South San grad. “I’m glad my brother Tony was on that team, and then (brother) Robert was right in the middle, so I was able to work both ways to see how many of the players we could find.”

Some of the greats of the game in San Antonio were not on social media, so it was a challenge to locate them

“One of the problems with the (1950s-era players) was, they’re in their 80s,” Zamora said. “They don’t do Facebook.They still play checkers. So in their mind they had to go back in their little black books and find who was on the team, and not only a phone number, but where they lived.

“Because, one thing I personally did, I went out looking for some of these guys. The (phone) numbers didn’t work. ‘But he lives over here, off this street.’ So I’d go knocking … and one led to another, to another and another.”

For the most part, Gustafson has been remembered since his passing for his career at the University of Texas, one of the most high-profile jobs in college baseball.

He worked 29 seasons for the Longhorns, and he won 22 Southwest Conference titles, two national titles and coached headline players such as Roger Clemens and Greg Swindell.

Not quite as much emphasis has been placed on the job that kick-started Gustafson’s career. At South San, the Harlandale High School grad was known as a program-builder.

Building on foundations of youth development established by coaches Mel Barborak and Jim Heiser, Gustafson and South San basketball coach Jimmy Littleton worked in tandem to perfect the system, one former player said.

“When I was coaching (basketball) at Lee (High School), I used the phrase — and I’m sure I heard it here — ‘If ya’ll don’t do it right, we’ll be here ’til dark-thirty,’ ” 1962 South San grad Newton Grimes said. “Well, that came from my upbringing right here.

“We worked. I mean, we out-worked people.

“Yes, the coaching had a lot to do (with the success on the field), but it takes a lot of good things going on (at the same time). You had a program started, (and) they came in and took over. And they took it to the limit.”

At the high school level, many elements enter into the picture of championship programs. A disciplined approach is one. But compassion also plays a part in it. For instance, during the 1966 playoffs, the father of the team’s star pitcher passed away.

Nati Salazar was crushed.

The personal loss to his family was devastating. Add in the financial issues, and it didn’t bode well for the Bobcats. Salazar decided he wanted to pitch anyway, to honor his father, who worked as a bricklayer.

With Salazar on the mound for key games down the stretch, the Bobcats won the sixth of their seven championships,

“Gus gave me a ball (signed by all the players), and they dedicated the game to my dad,” the 1967 South San grad said, his voice cracking with emotion. “He signed, in memory of my dad. I still have it.”

Lucio Leal, a 1968 graduate, said the keys to Gustafson’s title teams in 1966 and 1967 were outstanding talent and “a really tight” group of players who played together from an early age.

He said he thinks he was about 10-years-old when he first got to know the coach.

“My parents had a house across the street from the ballpark,” Leal explained. “So as little kids, we were chasing balls, keeping score, being bat boy. What was really neat was, after we got through chasing balls, or whatever, coach would give us a broken bat or a baseball, something like that.”

From a young age, players were versed in the fundamentals because of offseason games in the neighborhood that were organized through the high school coaching staff.

As the athletes reached high school, the best of them went into American Legion ball. In that regard, Lucio said he and a group of friends went to a tournament in Nashville in the summer of 1965, before their 10th-grade season in high school.

By the time they were upperclassmen, the shared experience of playing together in the modest, blue-collar neighborhood, eating at one another’s homes, taking long bus rides together — paid off.

The ’66 team won its last six games before the ’67 club added 39 more, sending Gustafson off to coach the Longhorns, having won 45 in a row.

“We just had this close-knit team and had been playing for years together,” Leal said. “That’s why we were so dang good. No one could beat us. I didn’t care — (Class) 4A, 3A — we were just unstoppable.”