Some things have taken a little more time to start feeling the same, post-pandemic, than we might have liked. One of them is sports — national and local, professional and amateur.
Thankfully, games are no longer played in echoey, starkly empty arenas, and Friday night high school football is back at full force — although these days some games are on Thursdays and the outrageous temperatures of this prolonged, climate-change-fueled summer have pushed back some kickoff times.
The pandemic has also affected some of the accouterments and sideshows of sports, including the activities of booster organizations. Perhaps the most noteworthy of those groups is the Bakersfield Jockey Club, a gathering of high school and college coaches, athletic directors, sports journalists, team supporters and, most important, young student-athletes. The club, one of old-school Bakersfield’s great traditions, is approaching the 60th anniversary of its creation.
A year ago, 60 seemed like an improbable milestone. The last of its founding and sustaining members had died or moved, and then COVID-19 came along. Fourth and long, clock ticking, out of timeouts.
Then Karen Odle trotted onto the field.
The longtime Jockey Club participant drafted a handful of prospective board members and set about the task of righting the ship.
One of her draftees was Ron Valenti, the longtime former baseball coach at Highland High School (where he was head coach for 13 years), Frontier, Garces and Bakersfield College (where, in each case, he served alongside head coach Jon Moncier).
“This organization needs to continue,” Valenti said, “because it plays such an important role in the community. It’s not set up just to honor the guy who’s batting .750 or who’s scored 28,000 touchdowns. It’s designed to honor the people who are the good teammates, the good citizens, the good students, the positive voices at their schools.”
One such athlete: Valenti’s daughter Gianna, who played soccer at Centennial and was honored in 2020.
Three generations of athletes have stepped up to the Jockey Club podium. Among them, in this century: Olympic champion wrestler Jake Varner and Super Bowl-winning wrestler-turned-lineman Steven Neal, as well as Steve Wofford, Asauni Rufus, Brett Clark and Samantha Georgino Allen. And, from the previous millennium: Pat Skrable, Dallas Grider, Dennis Ralston, Ken Barnes, Pete Cross, Freddie Boyd and Brent McClanahan. The complete list, if one existed (it does not), would be far too long to share here.
The Jockey Club bills itself as having been around since 1964, but it was actually founded on June 12, 1963, by a group of local sports writers and broadcasters led by The Californian’s Larry Press.
Press, in his inimitable, pun-heavy style, announced the group’s formation in his almost-daily newspaper column by first revealing the names rejected by the then-weekly sports luncheon club’s first executive board.
“A runoff was held to choose a name between the two finalists, TRAP (television, radio and print) and SWABs (sports writers and broadcasters). When the ballots were counted it came out ... ‘Bakersfield Jockey Club.’
“... You may wonder, WHY? Well, there are several reasons, none of them good, but it shall suffice to say that the Jockey Club designation represents probably the only sport Bakersfield is without. (And, please, no mail about curling, Greco-Roman wrestling, squash racquets, etc.)
“... Not to imply that the organization is a front for bookies, but for keen analysis and advice, the roster includes self-styled experts in all fields happy to dispense the lowdown on all subjects, without truth or accuracy interfering in the slightest.”
The first guest, who Press promised would be asked to debate “the merits of a left-handed shortstop” and other “heretical baseball theories” at its inaugural meeting June 17, 1963, was Bob Wellman, manager of the Bakersfield Bears, then the California League affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Those first few years, the Jockey Club brought in professionals at least as often as it hosted prep athletes. The Californian of Nov. 20, 1965, promoted an upcoming Jockey Club meeting like this:
“Billy Cowan, who played for the New York Mets and Milwaukee Braves during the 1965 baseball season, will be the guest speaker at the weekly Jockey Club meeting in the Caravan Inn. All male adults are invited to attend the luncheon at noon Monday, with $2 charged for the meal and tips.”
Yes, the Jockey Club was originally an all-boys affair. Women weren’t welcome (and, who knows, perhaps didn’t care) for a decade or more, and, Odle said, female athletes weren’t honored until at least the late 1970s.
The Jockey Club’s emphasis on high school and college athletics began after it took over the annual all-city football awards banquet at the end of the 1964 season. The dinner had been previously organized and sponsored by the East Bakersfield Lions Club; some 300 people (men and women, in this case) attended that first Jockey Club banquet.
Larry Press died in 2020 at the age of 93. Longtime board members Merv Alexander, Hal Eggleston and Rich Kalleberger are also recently deceased, Odle said. Board members Charlie Craig, Jerry Scott and Lloyd Fries have retired or moved, as have Jared Gianquinto and Mark Thompson.
A new board is set, led by Odle, Valenti, Julio Mercado, Jim Tyack, Briana James and Paul Olejnik, but the club still needs volunteers for assorted light tasks. It also seeks supporters willing to pay for the awards the club will hand out to athletes.
The club, originally a Monday luncheon group, is switching to Tuesday breakfast meetings ($15, athletes free) at Hodel’s, 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. The club will meet 16 times during the 2022-23 school year, starting on Sept. 27.
Contact Karen Odle at 661-747-6340 to volunteer, offer sponsorships or nominate student-athletes. Or, better yet, email the club at email@example.com.