JACKSONVILLE When Bob Hickingbotham started coaching baseball in the ’50s, he didn’t think his career would span another six decades.
But Hickingbotham, 78, has done just that, and still spends his summers volunteering as a coach for American Legion Baseball teams in Jacksonville.
“I didn’t think I’d be coaching this long, but I hoped I would be,” Hickingbotham said. “I’ll just continue on as long as my health will allow me.”
Born and raised in McGehee, Hickingbotham played baseball throughout his youth. When he graduated from high school in ’52, he went on to play college baseball at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. But before long, he “decided to play a little pro ball,” signing with what was then the Kansas City Athletics, now the Oakland Athletics. He played third base and second base until an arm injury sidelined him.
“I played with their organization a year and a half before I decided to come back home and finish my degree,” Hickingbotham said.
With a 90-hour teaching certificate in hand, Hickingbotham was able to teach and coach while finishing up his degree. He started coaching in 1957 in Arkansas City, followed by coaching stints in Perryville and England, Ark., before moving to Jacksonville to help coach in 1965. Hickingbotham started out coaching basketball and football at Jacksonville High School, adding baseball during his first spring at the school.
Despite his busy coaching schedule, Hickingbotham also found time to volunteer with the American Legion Baseball program beginning in the early ’70s. The Legion teams are for players 19 and younger.
“It’s very tough when we first get the team together in the summer since everybody is new to playing with each other,” Hickingbotham said. “I have to say, ‘Hey, you tell me what you like to play.’ I don’t want to have to put a piece of tape on their hat to get to know them.”
Hickingbotham continued coaching the Jacksonville Legion teams — known as the Gwatney Chevrolet teams — after he retired from Jacksonville High School in ’71 to work at the Arkansas Department of Education.
Each year, Hickingbotham volunteers with both the Jacksonville Youth Baseball Program and American Legion ball, which leads to a busy summer.
“We start with Jacksonville Youth Baseball every January, developing our committees, and then start play in April, finishing in June,” Hickingbotham said. “As soon as school is out, Legion picks up, and we go from there.”
Hickingbotham eventually retired from the Department of Education in ’88, and he and his wife opened up two day care centers in Jacksonville. When they sold those in 2000, Hickingbotham was finally fully retired — still with no intention of slowing down his volunteering schedule.
“I just try to say to myself that I don’t want to sit down and retire, so I keep doing this,” Hickingbotham said.
Over the course of his American Legion coaching career, Hickingbotham has seen 80 of his players go on to play college baseball. This year, players from the ’88 American Legion team Hickingbotham coached will reunite for the 25th
reunion of their state championship win.
“Kids like to play American Legion so they can keep their skills up for college ball,” Hickingbotham said.
While he said the way he coaches baseball hasn’t changed over the years, he admits that his way of handling kids has changed a bit.
“I’ve mellowed a little bit,” Hickingbotham said. “I
believe in discipline, but I’ve relaxed.”
Though he’s had many assistant coaches over the years, Hickingbotham has outlasted them all. Although the players and assistants have changed, the game remains the same for him.
“Really, it’s all just about making sure everyone is having fun,” he said.
Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or email@example.com.