Archive for June, 2016

For the embodiment of what has happened to the newspaper industry and to erstwhile good, hard-hitting investigative reporting, one need look no further than the Alexandria Town Talk.

It’s not that The Town Talk, one of five Gannett-owned newspapers in Louisiana and one of 123 Gannett publications in the U.S., Guam, and the United Kingdom, is necessarily the poster child for the fast-food media genre. But when a newspaper ignores a major news story all but gift-wrapped and dropped in its lap, it unavoidably becomes a microcosm for all that’s ailing the once robust medium.

So, what’s this big story that The Town Talk and other area media were repeatedly called about but chose not to pursue?

That would be the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Alexandria.

It’s not that the problems of veterans obtaining medical treatment from the VA has been hiding under a rock. It’s a national disgrace and it’s well documented that while the rest of the country is politely offering an empty, robotic “Thank you for your service” to our military, it begins to take on a hollow ring as our nation’s leaders continue to send our young men and women into harm’s way only to discard them when they return with missing limbs, closed head injuries, psychological disorders and PTSD. They’re quietly shunted aside and forgotten. The Pentagon, it seems, has little use for damaged merchandise—unless it’s a billion-dollar aircraft that won’t fly built by a defense contractor (read: campaign contributor) favored by some powerful member of Congress.

When a friend, a career soldier, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few years ago, he was promptly discharged before he could qualify for his pension. Thank you for your service.

The horror stories of long waits for treatment and refusals of benefits and medication are by now well-known and it is no different at the Alexandria VA Medical Center.

But it is at that medical center that the stories become almost macabre in nature. And they all seem to revolve around a single doctor, Dr. Shivani Negi.

Here’s what we know about Dr. Negi:

  • The families of several patients have signed affidavits attesting to her callous treatment of patients and her insistence that family members allow patients to die without attempts at resuscitation;
  • Those same grief-laden affidavits describe in detail how abusive and non-communicative Dr. Negi becomes when families refused to sign “Do Not Resuscitate” (DNR) forms;
  • Some family members said in their affidavits that they believed Dr. Negi allowed their loved ones to die deliberately and that she purposely removed them from the intensive care unit (ICU) to a remote room on another floor without benefit of one-on-one care normally given critical patients;
  • Other doctors and nurses have provided written statements or testified in depositions as to her inappropriate remarks in the presence of family members and patients;
  • The same doctors and nurses describe her violent temper and her threats to “kick butts” of subordinates;

The Commonwealth of Virginia granted her license to practice medicine after she testified she had never been refused a license elsewhere and that she had withdrawn her application in Florida. The only problem was Florida had actually refused her application a full two months prior to Virginia’s awarding her a license. Her Florida application, however, was not withdrawn until 2006.

The minutes of the Florida Board of Medicine’s Credential Committee of Sept. 13, 2003, provide little insight as to the reasons for the  denial of her license application but do hint at some problem in Dr. Negi’s professional past.

“The applicant (Negi) was present and sworn in by the court reporters,” the minutes begin. “The applicant gave a brief history of events. The Committee discussed in length the seriousness of the issue. Dr. Tucker made a motion to deny the (application). The motion was seconded by Dr. Avila. The motion failed with Dr. Miguel, Dr. Davies and Mr. Dyches opposing. Dr. Davies made a new motion to deny the application…and allow 14 days to withdraw. The motion was seconded by Dr. Miguel. The motion passed unanimously.” REFUSED HER APPLICATION

The Florida statutes on which the application rejection was based were identical in both motions with only the provision to allow 14 days for Dr. Negi to withdraw added to the second motion.

There was no explanation of the “history of events” given by Negi, nor the circumstances of those “events.” Nor was there any explanation of the “issue” described deemed by the committee to be a serious sticking point in the consideration of her application.

The problem, however, could have been with the medical school she attended, Ross University School of Medicine (RUSM) in the Caribbean island nation of Dominica which was not accredited by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the body that approves medical programs in the U.S. as of September 2013, according to a story by Bloomberg Markets. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-09-10/devry-lures-medical-school-rejects-as-taxpayers-fund-debt

RUSM has since been taken over by Illinois-based DeVry University which Bloomberg says accepts students rejected by U.S. medical colleges. And even though it is a for-profit school, U.S. taxpayers pick up the tab for about 34 to 48 percent of students who default on their student loans which average about $250,000 compared to $170,000 for graduates of U.S. medical schools.

On her Florida application, a copy of which was obtained by LouisianaVoice, there were a series of questions and blocks to check for the appropriate “yes” or “no” answers.

For the question “Have you ever been dropped, suspended, placed on probation, expelled or requested to resign from any school, college or university,” she first checked “Yes” but scratched that answer out and checked “No.”

On another page further into her Florida application, she also checked “No” to the question: “Have you had any application for professional license or any application to practice medicine denied by any state board or other governmental agency of any state, territory, or country?”

Virginia apparently asks a similar question on its application forms because Dr. Negi submitted an “Addendum to questions 14 and 15” which said, “I had applied for a Florida license but changed my mind and did withdraw my application.” APPLIED FOR A FLORIDA LICENSE

There is a problem with the timeline on that answer, however. LouisianaVoice has copies of a document from Florida Regulatory Specialist Cherise Davis which indicates Dr. Negi did not withdraw her application until June 8, 2006, nearly three years after her license was issued by Virginia.

In the case of Floyd Hamilton, Jr., a Bronze Star recipient who died in 2009, there are many questions but few answers.

Hamilton, 85 died at the hospital in 2009, nearly three years after Dr. Negi removed him from ICU to a room on another floor and far from the nurses’ station and without the ventilator support necessary, in the view of one physician who was involved in a verbal exchange with Dr. Negi when he attempted to treat Hamilton. Hamilton’s son claims his father suffered irreparable brain damage from the removal of the ventilator.

At least two other doctors at the VA hospital, as well as other staff members, have taken issue with both Dr. Negi’s medical decisions and her attitude toward patients and co-workers.

Dr. John Sams said he responded to a code for another patient on July 19, 2011, and found him “minimally breathing.” He initiated treatment and the patient’s pulse became stronger and he began to stabilize. SIGNED REPORT

“More than five minutes after I arrived, Dr. Negi made her appearance,” he wrote in his signed report. “With no assessment of the situation, she immediately ordered me to return to the (Express Treatment Unit) and rudely told me I was not to leave the ETU for CLC (Community Living Center, or VA nursing homes) codes. She was temporary Chief of Medicine at the time, my boss,” he wrote.

“I returned to ETU…and upon entering found that the patient was being rolled into a bay. He was unaccompanied by Dr. Negi, who was soon pounding on the ETU door for admission. He (Hamilton) had lost his pulse. Chest compressions were begun.

“No attempt at intubation was allowed by Dr. Negi. Finally, I reordered and received a laryngoscope tube and easily intubated the patient. During the mayhem by Dr. Negi, she verbally terrorized the ETU. While I was doing the chest compressions, Dr. Negi vulgarly stated to me, ‘Sams, you’re doing them too slow. Do them like a young married man—hard, deep and fast.’”

Dr. Sams wrote that Hamilton did not respond to resuscitative efforts and Dr. Negi “asked if anyone had any suggestions prior to ending the code.” Sams said he said he would like to obtain an arterial blood gas (ABG)—a procedure to determine how well the lungs are moving oxygen into the bloodstream. “She left the code to sit down, mocking the suggestion with a derogatory comment. She continued to shower us with her inappropriate comments until the ABG returned. The date was (sic) not helpful and resuscitative efforts were stopped. At that time, I informed Dr. Negi that never in the future would I tolerate her unacceptable behavior.”

Dr. Sams said he reported the incident in writing to his director supervisor who, instead of taking action against Dr. Negi, reprimanded Sams for responding to the CLC code.

Dr. Mark St. Cyr, an emergency room contract physician, testified in a deposition that he had a conflict with Dr. Negi from the first moment they met. He said Dr. Negi threatened to “kick my butt” after he sought permission to admit an ER patient into the hospital. His deposition was given in a lawsuit by Floyd Hamilton, III, the deceased patient’s son.

He said the younger Hamilton gave specific instructions that he wanted his father kept in ICU and that the family “wanted everything possible done” to keep his father alive—and that he did not wish to sign a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order.

Attorney Robert Evans, III, indicated in the deposition of Dr. St. Cyr that he had been in communication with the families of several patients of Dr. Negi “who believe that their family members have died from her treatment.” COMMUNICATION WITH FAMILIES

Floyd Hamilton, III, as did family members of other patients, said Dr. Negi became incensed and abusive when her requests for DNR orders were not signed by family members. Hamilton said she even stopped communicating with him and would not return his calls.

Documents showed that Dr. Negi even sent a $50 money order to one woman in Leesville so that she could travel to Alexandria to sign a DNR order.

Dr. St. Cyr said Dr. Negi’s decision to remove a tube protecting his airway was not consistent with the family’s wishes. Asked in his deposition of removing the tube was not consistent with the family’s request to do everything possible, Dr. St. Cyr responded, “That’s a fair statement.” THAT'S A FAIR STATEMENT

St. Cyr described Dr. Negi as “aggressive” in terms of “getting patients in and getting them out” of the hospital. “(If) she doesn’t feel like something is worth it, she may not be quite as aggressive medically in terms of performing certain actions,” he said.

When asked by attorney Evans if “she might put him somewhere and take out the tube to expedite his demise,” Dr. St. Cyr again replied, “It’s a fair statement.” EXPEDITE HIS DEMISE

That line of questioning developed over St. Cyr’s description of how Dr. Negi removed the elder Hamilton from ICU to another floor at the end of a hall furthest from the nurses’ station. “Why would he (Hamilton) go to the floor, the last room at the end of the hallway (when he) can’t press a button, can’t call a nurse, or anything, and he’s not even responsive?” he asked. “You’re literally putting the person out there to die.”

Asked if any other hospital personnel were involved in the removal of the intubation of Hamilton, Dr. St. Cyr said, “No, sir. That’s solely Dr. Negi. When a person’s in the intensive care unit, Dr. Negi was in charge and you don’t go against Dr. Negi.”

Two nurses also filed written reports of the confrontation involving Dr. Negi and Dr. Sams, both claiming that Dr. Negi was yelling, belligerent, unprofessional, and throwing her gloves. “…She stated, ‘You never stop CPR,’” one of the nurses quoted her as saying. “CPR was never stopped on the vet other than when Dr. Negi was doing CPR.” The same nurse said Dr. Negi “continued to berate Dr. Sams” because Dr. Sams wanted a blood gas. Dr. Negi made the comment to respiratory, ‘Well I guess you will get to practice your collection of blood gases.’”

The Calcasieu Parish District Attorney, in a letter to his counterpart in Rapides, intimated that had the events involving Hamilton occurred in Calcasieu, “I would certainly immediately provoke an investigation by law enforcement, or possibly a grand jury, to investigate allegations against this doctor.”

D.A. John Derosier, in his Dec. 23, 2014, letter to Rapides D.A. Phillip Terrell, Jr., wrote, “Please have someone…determine whether or not there is sufficient basis to move forward with a formal investigation.”




Terrell, claiming his office was not equipped for such an extensive investigation, asked for assistant from then-Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office and Assistant Attorney General Arthur Ogea of Lake Charles was given the assignment.

Jeff Landry, upon taking office as Caldwell’s successor, however, fired Ogea and seized all his records on the Hamilton case. Contacted by LouisianaVoice, Ogea agreed to talk in more detail about his thoughts in the coming days but did say he felt there was sufficient evidence for a grand jury investigation and possible charges of negligent homicide against Negi.

It will be interesting to see how Louisiana’s new attorney general proceeds with this investigation.

Floyd Hamilton, III, meanwhile, kept applying pressure by picketing the hospital and by notifying members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation and VA officials.

Because he took photographs of his father that showed the stark contrast between the elder Hamilton’s condition before and after being removed from ICU, there is now a sign posted at the VA Hospital in Alexandria proclaiming an absurd—and unenforceable—rule that photographs are no longer allowed at the facility.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General, conducted an investigation of “suspicious deaths” at the Alexandria VA hospital. In its executive summary dated Feb. 14, 2008, the OIG repeatedly—and predictably—said that investigators “did not substantiate” any of the allegations involving Hamilton or any of several other patients who died while in the care of Dr. Negi.

Five days later, Christina Lavine, director of the VA’s Hotline Division, wrote Hamilton’s son, Floyd Hamilton, III to say that the VA OIG had closed his father’s case. “As we advised you when we opened this case, our decision to close a Hotline case is final, and there are no appeal rights,” she wrote.

Instead of definitive, meaningful action, all we’re received so far are insincere apologies and empty promises that conditions will improve. But they never do.

A congressional subcommittee held hearings on the Alexandria VA Hospital only last week. Even though subcommittee members were well aware of irregularities pointed out by Floyd Hamilton, III, and even though he was in attendance at the hearing, he was never allowed to testify. Perhaps, to borrow a phrase from Al Gore, Hamilton’s claims constituted “an inconvenient truth” to officials who should be infuriated at the manner in which our veterans are treated upon their return from duty.




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“I refuse to ruin the lives of two young men who have spent their adolescence and teenage years working and sweating while we were all in the air conditioning.”

—Fourth Judicial District Attorney Jerry L. Jones, on why he declined to prosecute two University of Alabama football players from Ouachita Parish on drug and weapons charges.

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An important legal breakthrough for anyone in Ouachita and Morehouse parishes facing prosecution for drugs and/or weapons charges: your charges will be dismissed if you sweat.

So says no less an authority than 4th Judicial District Attorney Jerry L. Jones.

According to Jones, if you are a grave digger, a landscaper, bricklayer, carpenter, roofer, highway construction worker, or anyone involved in a myriad of occupations and endeavors that result in your exposure to sun and sweat, you are good to go with illegal weapons or the drug of your choice.

Hell, even if you’re a jogger, a tennis player, or an Alabama Crimson Tide football player, you get a free pass on drugs and weapons charges. Like fishing in the hot sun? Grilling out on July 4 is certain to get those sweat pores working overtime. But don’t worry. By the newly defined legal standards of the 4th JDC District Attorney’s office, sweat is like a Get Out of Jail Free card in the real-live game of Monopoly.

Did you break a sweat trying to chase the garbage collector down the street in your robe because you were a little late taking out the trash? Don’t worry about it. Both you and the garbage collector are good to go; you’re both outside, working up a sweat while Jones is in his air-conditioned office. Light up, wave that gun around, do a line. Together. Jones won’t prosecute. He said so himself.

This is the logic Jones himself expressed in dismissing charges against two Alabama football players who happen to call the Monroe area home.

All-Southeastern Conference offensive tackle Cam Robinson of West Monroe and reserve defensive back Laurence “Hootie” Jones of Monroe were arrested after a Monroe police officer smelled marijuana coming from their parked car in a closed public park. The officer spotted a handgun in Jones’ lap. A search of the car produced marijuana and a handgun that had been reported stolen in Baldwin County, Alabama.

Baldwin County is immediately east of Mobile County and includes the cities of Gulf Shores, Foley, Loxley and Orange Beach.

Prosecutor Neal Johnson of the DA’s office first said there was insufficient evidence in court documents to proceed with charges. Hence, there would be no grand jury and no bill of information from the DA’s office. http://sports.yahoo.com/news/somehow–bizarre-and-clumsy-handling-of-alabama-players-could-be-justice-001548496-ncaaf.html

Had Jones let it go at that, the decision not to prosecute probably would have received little attention. After all, who better to determine if there is enough evidence to proceed with a trial than prosecutors themselves?

But Jones, inflicted with a bad case of diarrhea of the mouth, just couldn’t shut up when shutting up would have been the prudent path to follow.

“I want to emphasize once again,” he told KNOE-TV in Monroe, “that the main reason I’m doing this is that I refuse to ruin the lives of two young men who have spent their adolescence and teenage years working and sweating while we were all in the air conditioning.” (Emphasis added). http://theadvocate.com/news/16165207-65/report-da-drops-drug-weapons-charges-against-alabama-football-players-louisiana-natives-cam-robinson

So there you have it. You work and sweat and Jones will look the other way. Hell, you might even be allowed to rob a bank except that’s a federal offense over which Jones has no authority. So, instead, go knock over a convenience store. Just make sure you’re sweating when you do so.

Unanswered (unasked, actually) was the obvious question: How many persons has Jones prosecuted on similar drugs and weapons charges who did not happen to be members of a big-time collegiate football program?

How many non-football-playing black kids from Monroe’s low-income, unemployed population are housed in the Ouachita Correctional Center for the sin of being caught with a single marijuana cigarette?

Well, an Internet post on the Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s Web page in August 2012 lists the results of the Ouachita Parish Task Force seizures:

  • 4 ounces of marijuana;
  • 13 marijuana cigarettes;
  • 60 one-eighth-ounce bags of marijuana;
  • Three quarter-ounce bags of marijuana;

Just last week, A West Monroe man (gasp) drove through a private parking lot to avoid a stop sign. He gave officers his consent to search his backpack and a vitamin bottle was found to contain “one to two grams” of marijuana and a marijuana smoking pipe. He was booked into the correctional center.


In 2014, Bernard Noble, 48, was sentenced to 13 years of hard labor for possession of the equivalent of two marijuana cigarettes. Neither Noble nor the West Monroe man played football and probably did not sweat until they were arrested. http://www.drugpolicy.org/news/2014/04/louisianan-given-13-year-prison-sentence-possession-two-marijuana-cigarettes

We stumbled across an online report that admittedly, is rather dated but interesting nonetheless. In 2007, there were 18,535 arrests for marijuana offenses in Louisiana. That represents an arrest rate of 432 per 100,000, which ranks Louisiana at number 5 in the nation.


(We have to keep those private prisons occupied for their owners somehow.)

While we’re in no position to challenge Johnson’s contention of insufficient evidence, Jones’s justification for not prosecuting the two is certainly sufficient reason for demanding his resignation and disbarment. No one, not even an idiot like Jones, should be able to use sweat as a barometer for deciding whether or not to enforce the law with a blind eye to social status or celebrity.

In the case of Jones and the 4th JDC District Attorney’s office, justice isn’t blind; it’s stoned—stoned on the deranged notion that certain among us are above the law.


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When it comes to financial shell games and political flim-flam, it seems that the two have a lot in common, oftentimes including the same personality mixes whose names keep cropping up. Sometimes those names can materialize like a deadly vapor in proceedings separated by a couple of decades. And somehow, those years and events mysteriously converge to affect the lives of thousands—or millions—of people.

It was in late 1990 that the late John Hays, the cantankerous publisher of the weekly Morning Paper in Ruston began writing stories that raised questions about Towers Financial Corp. and its chairman, one Steven Hoffenberg.

At first, his stories attracted little interest. On paper, as the sportswriters would say, it was a mismatch. Hays, described by NEW YORK TIMES in an April 1993 story as “a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, cowboy-booted newspaper publisher” was pitted against Hoffenberg, who briefly ran The New York Post, eventually taken over by Rupert Murdoch. Hoffenberg owned two jets, a yacht, limousines, mansions, and a Fifth Avenue office. Hays drove an old van well past its prime. It quickly shaped up as an epic battle between a small-town publisher operating on a shoestring and a sophisticated New Yorker who had, it seemed, more money than God.

But investors were getting nervous in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some of them called Hays who had a penchant for taking on phony investment schemes. Hays, as was his wont, began making calls that piqued the interest of Securities and Exchange Commission investigators as well as state regulators. He had worked with these same regulators in other scams, so he had the credentials necessary to make them sit up and pay attention whenever he called.

Hays even managed to attract the attention of major newspapers like the WASHINGTON POST

Hoffenberg had all the right political connections. He was a business ally of former Texas Gov. John Connally and with a former co-chairman of the Republican National Committee. Other friends in high places included Victoria Reggie, daughter of powerful Crowley Judge Edmund Reggie and the future wife of Sen. Edward Kennedy, New York City Mayor Mario Cuomo, and Mickey Kantor, President Bill Clinton’s trade representative. Heavy hitters, one and all.

Some of his connections, however, tended to hang back in the murky shadows of a darker side of society. https://porkinspolicyreview.com/tag/steven-hoffenberg/



When a Shreveport brokerage firm started peddling high-yielding notes for Towers in 1990, Hays said he immediately wondered “if some fellow up in New York has such a good deal, what would inspire him to come down here to northern Louisiana and make the local people rich?”

He started making calls and writing stories—stories that obviously did not sit well with Hoffenberg.

If Hays was suspicious of Hoffenberg, the feeling was more than mutual. “He’s not a credible person,” Hoffenberg said of Hays. “He runs a newspaper that is full of lies. I have never heard from anybody that John Hays was somebody we should take seriously. I mean, he gives his newspaper away; he throws it on people’s driveways.” Twenty-five years later, one could close his eyes and almost hear Donald Trump talking about another candidate or some reporter covering his campaign.

(Oh, just as a heads-up, keep that Trump comparison in mind. He’ll come up later in this story.)

Hoffenberg was correct in that last statement. Hays did indeed toss about 25,000 free copies a week in the driveways of Lincoln, Union, Bienville, and Jackson parishes.

But Hays also became a national clearinghouse for information between state regulatory agencies. He was credited by Arkansas authorities as providing information to them that allowed them to keep Hoffenberg and Towers Financial Corp. out of that state.

But not all states. Hays began making calls to regulators and learned that Towers was selling notes in states where it had failed to meet registration requirements. Enter the feds. More stories followed.

So, who won the war of words?

Well, Hoffenberg eventually entered a guilty plea to running a $475 million Ponzi scheme, the largest on record until Bernie Madoff dwarfed Hoffenberg’s financial chicanery. In 1997, Hoffenberg was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for defrauding thousands of investors. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/03/08/business/hoffenberg-gets-20-year-sentence-in-fraud-case.html

His nemesis who he said “runs a newspaper that is full of lies” and a man he said he never heard “from anybody that John Hays was somebody we should take seriously,” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Someone once said never start a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel and newsprint by the boxcar. Apparently Hoffenberg wasn’t listening.

The Hoffenberg/Towers Investment saga was the subject of a lengthy abstract by Gene Murray, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Grambling State University. http://list.msu.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A3=ind9710a&L=AEJMC&E=7BIT&P=1328897&B=–&T=TEXT%2FPLAIN;%20charset=US-ASCII

But let’s fast forward to 2016. John Hays has been dead for a year now, the Morning Paper stopped publication several months before his death when his cancer weakened him to the point he could no longer peddle his ads or chase down a good story.

Hoffenberg couldn’t get out of jail in 1996 because, he said, he was so broke he couldn’t post the $100,000 bail. http://www.nydailynews.com/archives/money/sec-hoffenberg-pay-stay-jail-article-1.730715

Twenty years later, however, he is back in the money—and he wanted everyone to know it. It’s almost enough to make you wonder if he may have had a few dollars stashed safely offshore all that time.

The man who couldn’t make $100,000 bail a couple of decades ago has recently pledged $50 million to his super PAC set up to coordinate a marketing campaign in support of Donald Trump. http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/ponzi-schemer-steven-hoffenberg-pledges-50-million-to-help-trump/article/2593931

Hoffenberg, who professes to be a born-again Christian (funny how prison can do that; just ask Chuck Colson), is also in the business of marketing something called the Christ Credit Card to more than 700,000 registered Christian churches through Towers Financial.


In addition to pledging $50 million of his own money to his super PAC, he also says he intends for his PAC to raise more than $1 billion in support of Trump. http://www.politico.com/story/2016/06/convicted-ponzi-schemer-ill-conduct-50-million-marketing-campaign-for-trump-224350


So much for Trump’s claim that he is financing his own campaign—or for Hoffenberg’s earlier claims of poverty.

The announcement by Hoffenberg was the first time he has explained why he founded the Get Our Jobs Back, Inc. PAC back in April. He is listed as treasurer and custodian of records by the Federal Election Commission. http://docquery.fec.gov/cgi-bin/forms/C00616078/1070515/

Could this be déjà vu all over again? Can you imagine someone like Hoffenberg having the ear of a President Trump?

We have only a few random observations to make about this latest development, this unholy alliance between two high-rolling carnival hucksters of dubious trustworthiness:

  • Watch closely how he raises that much campaign cash.
  • Does his credit card scheme figure in the mix?
  • Old habits sometimes can be hard to break.
  • Where is John Hays when we really need him?

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Those of us who are sufficiently long in tooth can remember when a pickup game of baseball played on a vacant lot was the common denominator for neighborhood kids. Talent was of little consequence and the games were played sans adult supervision long before formal teams were sponsored in some league by the local drug store or hardware. We did our own umpiring, thank you very much, and the tie did go to the runner and 99 foul balls and you were out (though no one ever came close to 99 foul balls).

Those games, played before television, video games and all the other distractions that now demand kids’ attention, ranked right up there with skinny dipping in a nearby creek as our pastime of choice during those lazy north Louisiana summers when we really were out of school for a full three months. The new school year never started until after Labor Day.

I was reminded of all this during a recent visit with an old friend I hadn’t seen since I attended Cook Baptist Church as a teenager back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Our visit, far too brief, gave me pause to reminisce about those wonderful days so long ago and to long for those endless, carefree days once more.

As I type this, a Cinderella team from Coastal Carolina has just defeated Florida, the number-one team in the nation, in the College World Series in Omaha by a razor-thin 2-1 score. LSU might have been the one playing Florida had the Tigers not had the misfortune of running smack into that same very fine, well-coached, and classy Coastal Carolina Chanticleer team (a chanticleer is a bad-ass rooster, we’re told).

I love baseball and I was thrilled to see my Louisiana Tech Bulldogs have a banner year after all the years of frustration and losing records. I was equally dismayed to see Alabama steal our coach but in reality, Tech has been a stepping stone in recent years for coaches on the way up, so it was probably a foregone conclusion that it was going happen. But it came so soon—after only the second year of Greg Goff’s tenure.

I can never watch baseball without thinking of my opportunity to make friends and win a few games with a sandlot team in Ruston. For a full decade, I owned and “managed” the Ruston Ramblers in the old North Central League. My “managing” basically consisted of filling out a lineup card, keeping the scorebook and convincing myself I was adequate at coaching third base. In reality, my players were veterans of high school American Legion or college baseball and knew a lot more about the game’s nuances than I but they tolerated my general ignorance of the game’s finer points and allowed me to continue under the delusion that I was actually contributing.

We won far more games than we lost but again, that point is attributable to the players, not me. Players like Rennie Howard, Curt, Cecil and Steve Barham, Jack Thigpen, Rodney Schaffer, Glenn Trammell, Stevie Blackstock, Wayne Baxter, Reg Cassibry, Gene Smith, Gene Colvin, Woody Cooper, Gary Crawford, Dean Dick, Bill Duncan, and Randall Fallin among others too numerous to name.

For my part, I own a league record that will never be broken because the league has long since disbanded. I recorded 28 consecutive strikeouts—as a hitter—before finally getting a hit that, believe it or not, drove in the winning run in a game against the first-place Arcadia Aces and Emmett Woodard, a constant thorn in our side in that the Aces beat us every year for the league championship. We won only one championship and that was against Bob Price’s Simsboro team in 1968—and I wasn’t even there for the event; I was on my honeymoon and Jack Thigpen coached the team to the win.

We had a lot of ups and down. Gene Smith once pitched a no-hitter into the 10th inning only to have me lose the game on two consecutive errors at Magnolia, Arkansas. On both occasions, I mishandled ground ball singles in centerfield that allowed the winning run to move up two bases and ultimately, to score for Magnolia’s 3-2 win.

Our first year of existence, we were a rag-tag bunch that, if memory serves, didn’t win a single game but we had fun. We had a catcher, Jug Martin, who caught while barefoot. We had another catcher a few years later, Butch Bryant, who batted with his shin guards on. He wasn’t very fast down the line anyway, so it probably didn’t matter.

We had a couple of pitchers that are worth remembering—not for their ability, God knows. One, we knew only as Early Wynn. It was not the Early Wynn who pitched for the Washington Senators, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox over a 23-year major league career but one who, after walking the third consecutive batter on just 12 pitches (that’s right, he didn’t throw a single strike) got the ball back from the catcher and tried to slam the ball into his glove in frustration—and missed, the ball bouncing on the infield grass.

Another pitcher, we knew only as Rusty Staub. Again, not the red-headed Houston Astros, New York Mets, Montreal Expos—known there as “Le Grand Orange”— player who hailed from New Orleans. Our Rusty Staub gained his name by virtue of his showing up one day wearing a Houston Astros cap. I knew he didn’t have much by way of talent but I put him in one game that we obviously weren’t going to win and he nearly killed outstanding catcher Wayne Baxter with one wild pitch after another. At one point, as he chased down yet another wile pitch, Baxter was heard to mutter, “I’m gonna kill Aswell.”

The best play ever was when Jack Thigpen pulled an unassisted triple play. I don’t remember the opponent, but they had runners on first and second with no outs when they put on the hit and run. With a left-handed hitter, shortstop Thigpen moved over to cover second on the steal and as luck would have it, the batter hit a line drive right over second. Jack went airborne, speared the ball for the first out, landed on second, doubling off the runner going from second to third and reached down and tagged the runner from first as he slid into second, apparently unaware of where the ball was.

Jack, a light-hitting player, hit two triples and drove in all three runs in another 3-2 win in an exhibition game against a far superior team comprised mostly of stellar Grambling College players the same year that Grambling went to the NAIA playoffs behind Ralph Garr who hit something like .582 his senior year. Thankfully, he had already signed with the Atlanta Braves before that game and didn’t participate.

Back to my game-winning hit. I came up in the top of the ninth at Arcadia and with a runner on third, lined an improbable single. The runner at third was so stunned he nearly forgot to run. In the bottom of the ninth, I promptly allowed a leadoff triple over my head in left field. Now the Aces had the tying run on third with no outs. Pitcher Bill Duncan, who could play any position and who once while catching, picked a runner off second without ever coming out of his crouch, called out the catcher and said, “Nothing but fast balls.”

Nine fast balls latter, the last of three consecutive batters struck out swinging and we had a rare win over Arcadia.

We also played a classic game against Arcadia in Ruston. With no score in the bottom of the seventh, Thigpen scored what was apparently the game’s first run but an appeal resulted in his being called out for missing third. So we went to the 11th and Arcadia scored two runs. We answered by scratching out two of our own in the bottom of the 11th and the game went to the 17th inning before Rennie Howard stole home for another of those 3-2 wins.

The Downsville team had a badly overweight left-handed first baseman but he could really hit. No, he could really crush the ball. Once, at Downsville, first baseman Howard and our right fielder conspired to take advantage of the player’s obvious lack of speed. Sure enough, he scorched an apparent single to right field that reached the right fielder on one hop. He fielded the ball and threw a perfect strike first to get the runner by a good 20 feet.

That same player, who had a volatile temper, by the way, came to bat in a key situation in a game at Ruston. The tying run was at second and the lead run at first late in the game when he came to bat with two out. He took a mighty swing and hit a puny pop-up to the infield. He uttered a loud profanity and heaved his bat over the first base dugout—right through the windshield of his own VW Beetle. No one in our dugout dared laugh.

Why am I writing all this? Because on Saturday (June 18), I had that aforementioned visit at the home of Billy Jack Price in Ruston. Price is 83 now and in the course of our visit, he said he had something he wanted me to read. It was his personal notes about his love for and memories of “cow pasture” baseball in the late 1930s and early 1940s in Antioch, a community just north of the Lincoln Parish town of Simsboro.

Told through the eyes of a child of seven or eight years old (his estimated age at the time), I found it fascinating and extremely accurate—and it reminded me of the reason baseball was invented in the first place.

Back then, there was no pressure to win, no endorsements, no high salaries, and no batting gloves to be adjusted by the batter after each pitch. At times, umpires were recruited from the stands. A “ringer” was a player who showed up in an actual uniform from a big city like Ruston. The objective was to win, of course, but to have fun in the process.

Billy Jack Price names actual participants and the name Price pops up on the list. The most prominent is that of Bruce Price, father of the aforementioned Bob Price who later coached that Simsboro team against whom we competed. (By the time I came along, Bob was in his 50s but when he batted, we could never seem to get him out. He choked up on the bat and just drove us crazy hitting his dinky line drive singles just over the second baseman’s head.)

Bob’s father was Bruce Price who, in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees in Shreveport, once struck out Babe Ruth—not once, not twice, but three times, according to local legend. Ruth is said to have refused to bat against a fourth time, so Price was pulled and Ruth promptly hit a home run.

Billy Jack Price said his father and Bruce Price were not related but did marry sisters, which makes him a first cousin to the late Bob Price. Here then, is Billy Jack Price’s personal story of growing up with “cow pasture” baseball scheduled around milking and harvesting crops:


            In compiling thoughts on the Dring family, it invariably turns to recreation. Memories of a person who was young and impressionable tend to remember those things that he loved best from our youth. Set hook fishing, trips to chinquapin trees (a blight came through a few decades ago and wiped out the tree, which bore a nut that resembled a hazelnut but which tasted far better), watermelon in the early morning all come to mind.

            Nothing for the Dring family, however, was more embedded as the game of baseball. Beginning with the Drings from the early days at Antioch, came nearly 20 years of active participation in the game we came to know in the “cow pasture” field.

            Kate Trussell’s pasture on the north side of the road between her store and the Dring home was more than adequate. Cows were run off, only to often return to view the sport and to add irregular “bases” around the outfield, but no one minded. We were, after all, farm boys.

The Field

            Bordered by woods in the outfield, the road on the south and the Old Skinner Road on the east, the field roughly resembled the city slicker fields in Ruston, Simsboro and Dubach. The outfield was wide open and if an outfield caught the ball among the trees, you were out just as if it was caught in the clear area. Charlie Dring was well known for his ability to hit the ball over the trees and many other players could reach the trees with their blasts.

            There was no artificial turf on the infield but if time permitted the cow droppings were removed and the infield smooth down as much as possible with yard rakes.

The Backstop

            Four sweetgum saplings embedded into the ground had chicken wire stretched over them to form the backstop. Sometimes the wire held together as long as two years but usually it was replaced if the “collection” from passing the hat among the spectators yielded enough after the ball and bat were purchased.

The Bases

            Crocker sacks (horse feed sacks) half-filled with dirt created a usable base that would stay put. In fact, when a hard slide occurred, the bases didn’t yield so strong ankles were essential.

The Ball

            Practice balls were usually heavily-taped remains from a demolished baseball and only on game day did a new ball materialize. That was ball, as in singular—not the several dozen that are used in games today. Whoever went to Ruston during game week was charged with the responsibility of buying a game ball for the Saturday game. (To this day, I love the feel of a new baseball.) This ball was inserted into the big game—and all games were big. If fouled off, the game simply ground to a halt until the ball was found. By the end of the game, it was pretty well used. For one July 4th tournament, funds were found for three new balls. This unprecedented show of prosperity was unheard of.

            I don’t think we had a “store-bought” bat that was not broken, nailed, taped and used until is literally broke completely into two pieces and sometimes, even the stub was used. The standby was the home-made bats that Grandpa carved from an ash log. I don’t know who he thought he was making them for, but they were very long (the best guess is 42 inches, much longer than the traditional bat of 33-34 inches in length) and very heavy. After a certain time, these bats had a tendency to warp rather badly. Bruce Price explained to me that the crooked bat was for hitting a curve ball—and I, of course, believed him. Those bats did not break and the theory was that not one play in a thousand playing today could even swing them.

The Uniform

            There were none.

            The typical team would be dressed in work overalls, khakis that were badly worn, shirts that were threadbare, perhaps a cap that was handed down through the years, and shoes of choice—brogans (work shoes), Sunday shoes that were badly worn or, in most cases, no shoes. Dick Dring always caught and he wore his work shoes behind the plate and removed them while batting and running the bases.

            On occasion, a “hot shot” player would show up with a pair of baseball shoes with steel spikes. These spikes, usually filed to a knife’s edge, were the biggest origin of discord in a game. Sliding and spiking an opponent usually brought on strong words and, on rare occasions, blows until calmer heads prevailed. Few of these “hot shot” players returned to the Antioch field a second time.

Home Plate

            Take three pieces of 2 X 8 about 20 inches in length and overlay with three more pieces of same size and nail thoroughly. Embed about two inches into the ground and you had home plate. Will it skin you when you slide? Yes. Will it give you stone bruises if you jump on it? Yes. Will the ball bounce sky-high when fouled onto it? Yes. After countless at-bats, a hole sometimes six inches in depth was created on either side of the plate. This forced the umpire to make allowances for short batters whose strike stones were drastically affected when they stood in the holes.

Pitcher’s Mound and Pitcher’s Rubber

            Wheelbarrows loaded with dirt were utilized to raise the pitcher’s mound about nine inches above the playing field. This height, of course, could be adjusted to meet the requirements of the home team pitcher. The visiting pitcher never liked it.

            The rubber, consisting of a section of 600 X 16 tire 24 inches long was held down by spikes driven into the ground. One of the saddest sights I can remember of the Trussell field was the rotting home plate and the pitcher’s rubber still in place with grass, weeds and bushes around both.

Foul Lines

            The foul lines were not chalked off but were determined solely by the umpire and half the players. This, of course, resulted in many arguments. An honest catcher was in the best position to make the determination and Dick Dring was considered honest and always called them fairly for both sides—unless the game was close.

Home Runs

If the ball was hit fairly and the runner rounded all the bases safely without stopping, it was considered a home run whether it was a long fly ball hit over the outfielders’ heads or a sharp grounder through the infield that no one could flag down. Even missed pop-ups could turn into a home run. Doc Skinner and Charlie Dring were long ball hitters but Snooks Dring and Bruce Price were likely to just keep running on a routine ball just to “make something happen.” A couple of errors, an unlikely encounter between the ball and a fresh cow chip or a little assistance from an umpire could produce a home run.


            It takes money to run a club. The hat was usually passed around at games and on one occasion a spectator actually dropped a dollar bill in without asking for change. This would purchase a ball for the next game and if anything was left, perhaps a store-bought bat.


            For the big games, there was always a concession stand consisting of several number-two wash tubs filled with iced-down Coca-Colas, big oranges and 7-Ups. Occasionally there would be a few Grapettes. Grapettes were the drink of choice for most who tried them but the bottle was so small that most would not spend their nickels for them when the larger drinks would last longer. Funds from the concessions went into the fund for purchasing equipment for the team.

Team Structure

            Three or four Drings, a couple of Prices, some Skinners, and a fill-in or two usually made up the Antioch team. Strictly from memory, as I was quite young, here is the lineup for a big game:

Zane Skinner (shortstop)

Freddy Price (second base)

Snooks Dring (third base)

Charlie Dring (centerfield)

Towdy Dring (first base)

Doe Skinner (left field)

Dick Dring (catcher)

Whoever was available or some young ‘un like Bob Price (right field)

Bruce Price (pitcher)

            The lineup changed often because it was never a certainty as to who would be finished plowing by game time and it was never really very clear who the coach/manager was. Milton Methvin, Bunk Price, Bud Smith, Alva Dring, Earl Turner and several others were always ready to offer lineup advice.

Catching Equipment

            Some way, somehow, the team had managed to secure a mask and a chest protector for the catcher and a mitt also existed. How any catcher avoided being hurt with that antiquated equipment remains a mystery but my awe for Dick Dring led me to a 15-year career as a catcher in Little League, high school, American Legion, some college, the military and semi-pro.

The Umpires

            Generally, the umpire was Dude Smith or Earl Turner and if both were present, both called the game. The balls and strikes umpire stood behind the pitcher and if necessary called both balls and strikes and the bases. The umpire was often the center of attention and Dude Smith could be very colorful with his duties. (Dude Smith was the father of Gene Smith, who played for Simsboro High School, American Legion, Louisiana Tech and the Ruston Ramblers.) While there were arguments a-plenty, most of it was in good, clean fun. Occasionally, some hothead would go too far but cooler heads quickly prevailed.

The Dugout

            Homemade 2 X 12 benches or a log hauled from the woods served as the dugouts for the teams. It was a thrill for me, at seven or eight years old, to be allowed to sit on the bench with the players. Being allowed to take a dipper of water from the water bucket was a bonus

Ringers, Hot Dog Players and City Slickers

            Anyone living in town was a city slicker and immediately branded as such when he appeared to play at Antioch Field. Ragging from players and fans alike was the price one paid for driving over from Ruston. If that player happened to show up in a uniform, the baiting was ramped up considerably. Bruce, Snooks and the others ragged a player from Ruston unmercifully and when the game was over, they thanked him for coming and invited him back.

Bruce Price Curveball

            Yes, Bruce struck Babe Ruth out! Probably once but with each passing decade as the story was repeated, it became twice, then three times and sometimes even more. I can’t vouch for even one but I do know I’ve seen a lot of curve balls and was struck out by some of the best but I have never caught a pitcher who had a Bruce Price curve ball nor have I ever faced a pitcher who had such a devastating pitch as his curve.

July 4th Tournament

            Three or four teams would gather at the Trussell Field on July 4th and several games would be played. Brush arbors were built for the fans to sit under. Food and drinks were available and it was a community holiday the likes of which we don’t see any more. Goose Creek, Ansley, Simsboro, Hico, and other local communities had teams and each had a certain following of fans, family, kids, so the tournament usually brought a pretty good crowd.

            In the Dring family, the farming duties always—without exception—came ahead of ball playing. If the cotton needed plowing, it was plowed before there was any baseball. If a fence was down, it was mended.

            But that was how it was played when I was a kid. The competition and the good fellowship the game provided dictated that the game was recreation, not win at all costs.

            After plowing five days, a good baseball game was relaxing and served as a diversion from the toil and boredom of back-breaking work as we emerged from the Great Depression. Some aspects may seem rural and funny to the sophisticated baseball aficionado.

            But this was a coming together of friends, communities and players for the sole purpose of visiting and sport.

            It was fun.


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