Ask any coach. When it comes to recruiting future Major League Baseball players, the process of battling other schools and convincing players to sign with you can be vicious. That wasn’t the case for Grambling’s Hall of Fame Head Coach Wilbert Ellis in the 1980s when Lenny Webster, a young catcher and designated hitter from Louisiana, caught his eye. Lenny Webster had committed to Grambling long before.
“Coach Ellis didn’t know at the time, but I had decided I wanted to go to Grambling when I was nine years old,” Mr. Webster said. “I was in Chicago and the Bayou Classic was on TV. I’ll never forget the band and all the hoopla. That was a sight to see, and I was like, ‘Wow, I want to go Grambling.’”
He arrived at a remarkable time in the Tigers’ long, illustrious history. During his three seasons (1983, 1984, 1985), Grambling won the SWAC Championship every season, competing against conference foes whose lineups featured their own future major league players. The Tigers were 95-45-1 overall during Mr. Webster’s time on campus and 44-10 against the SWAC.
Mr. Webster later enjoyed a 12-year MLB career, mainly as a catcher. In his junior season with Grambling, he split time behind the plate with senior Ira Tieuel, who also happened to hit a team-high .404 with 8 home runs (matching Mr. Webster) and 52 RBI. That’s how loaded the Grambling program was. Younger guys destined for the major leagues had to be content as role players until their time came.
Mr. Webster recently visited with Black College Nines writer Douglas Malan to reminisce about his journey to Grambling and those championship years with the baseball team, all of which led to him being inducted into the Grambling Hall of Fame in 2016.
I’d love to start by hearing about where you grew up.
I’m from Louisiana, all my family is from Louisiana. I was born in New Orleans and about the age of five, my parents (Washington Webster, Jr. and Barbara Webster) decided to move us to Chicago. I grew up and learned how to play baseball in Chicago, a South Side area called Stony Island. That’s where it started for me and my brothers. We grew up across the street from Jackson Park and there was a field there and they offered the kids after-school activities. I had three other brothers and we took advantage of those activities – football, baseball, basketball. Whatever season it was, that’s what we participated in. That’s where I learned to play baseball and got really interested in it. I remember my first coach. I’ll never forget Mr. Horton. He was instrumental in helping me understand the game and learn the game. You never forget people like that.
We lived there until I was 13. It was probably the late ‘70s and at that time on the South Side, gangs were running rampant. My mom and dad figured we might need to get out of there. So they decided to move back South and we moved to Mississippi. We spent about three years on the Gulf Coast. It was nice, a beautiful area.
I loved football back then, as well, and I wanted to go to Lutcher (La.) High School because they always had a good football team. And, of course, that’s my mom and dad’s hometown, so I convinced my mom and dad to let me go to Lutcher. I remember leaving and staying with my aunt and then much later, the family moved to Lutcher. We ended up back in Lutcher after spending three years on the Gulf Coast. By my ninth grade year, I was in Lutcher High School.
How did things go at Lutcher?
I didn’t get a chance to play ninth grade baseball because I transferred late and missed the baseball season. The next year rolls around, I try out for the football team and make the varsity football team, as a tenth grader. Mind you, I never went to sixth grade. I went from fifth to seventh grade, so I’m about 15 years old playing varsity football. I had a pretty decent year and ended up making the all-district team. The coaches had no idea how well I played the game of baseball. They were trying to convince me not to go out for the baseball team, just work out and get stronger for football.
I said, “Nah, I’m gonna play baseball.” They were a little upset. I go out for the baseball team. I make the baseball team. And at the end of the year, I’m the all-state designated hitter. I played DH my sophomore year because there was a senior catcher. The next two years I caught and made all-state again. At the end of my high school career, I was invited to play in a Louisiana high school all-star game. That’s where I first met the Grambling head coach, Wilbert Ellis.
I got recruited from all over the area, but I told my high school coach I wanted to go to Grambling. So he started reaching out, and that’s how it happened.
More than just colleges were interested in you, too, right?
After my senior season, I ended up getting drafted in the 16th round by the Twins; of course, being 17 years old, I just felt I wasn’t mature enough to go out on my own yet. So I felt I’d go to school. I had the grades. I was able to be admitted. I chose to go to Grambling, and that was probably the best decision I ever made, man. I made lifelong friends, gained tremendous experience and knowledge and it’s help me to this day. I’m very thankful I made that decision.
Was it a shock to your system when you got on campus?
I was 17. I was young. I didn’t turn 18 until February. It was different. It was an experience. It was refreshing. I had opportunities to go to school right up the road (from Lutcher). Southern University offered me a full scholarship, but Southern was 20 minutes from my home. I felt like that would’ve been like high school again. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to get away, experience some things and meet new people from all over. And Grambling offered that. But initially when I got on campus, it was a shock. I was always a pretty good student and I always enjoyed history. Whatever kind of history, be it baseball history or American culture or anything. That was one of my better subjects.
Speaking of history, tell us about that historic stretch of Grambling three-peating as SWAC champions.
I was there three years and didn’t know how to lose a SWAC Championship. The three years I was there – ’83, ’84, ’85 – we had a good group of guys. We had tremendous chemistry, man. Like I said, some of those guys I met back then, we’re friends to this day. It’s truly unbelievable when you look back. We didn’t think much about it back then, being three-time champions. We enjoyed each other’s company and we just loved playing, loved winning. We look back at it and we were ballin’. We had guys put up some pretty good numbers. To do that in any conference I say is doing something.
What games from back then still stand out?
There are several that stand out for me. Let’s go back to my sophomore year. I remember playing in the SWAC Tournament in Jackson, Mississippi. Something happened and I just went off and was named SWAC Tournament MVP. That’s one of my great memories.
But also playing against the #1 team in the country as a junior (at the Austin Regional against the Texas Longhorns) and they beat us in 12 innings by one run. And having a guy on the mound, Gary Eave, pitch the whole game. That was probably my best college memory. We had Texas on the ropes. And we lost the game on a bulls— call. It was such a good game, after the game the Texas crowd gave us a standing ovation. And we got beat on a call at the plate saying our catcher (senior Ira Tieuel in that game) didn’t tag the guy coming in. But the next day, Dennis Cook (the Texas baserunner) has stitches across his eye. But (the umps said) he didn’t get tagged. That’s how it went.
Did you guys feel the deck was stacked against you sometimes on the road?
Absolutely. Absolutely. We knew that. And you know what? That made us compete. We don’t give a s— if we gotta beat a team and the umps, too. Sometimes you did feel like the deck was stacked against you, but we got through it. One thing about it, there was some good competition in our conference that prepared us for Florida State and Texas.
That roster your junior year was loaded, wasn’t it? And Gerald Williams was just a freshman.
Gerald Williams, God rest his soul, he was my homeboy. Gerald was a couple years younger than I was. He grew up 10 minutes from me. He went to East Saint John and I went to Lutcher. We were all in the same area. Gerald ends up coming to Grambling. And Gerald couldn’t play for us. He had to pitch for us in order to play. That’s how good we were. Anyway, I like to say they got in where they fit in, they did what they had to do and they helped the team. Later on, they got their opportunities to play after we left, and of course, they did their thing. And Gerald goes on to have a 14-year major league career. The brother had a good life and great career. May he rest in peace.
Just great memories, man. Great memories of guys you go through the trenches with, got in trouble with, you ate with, you didn’t eat with, you know. Just some wonderful experiences. I love Grambling’s motto: Grambling is a place where everybody is somebody. I truly feel like every Gramblingite lives that and believes that.
Douglas Malan is a journalist and visual artist living in Connecticut. His works include short stories, poetry and books. Among the books Malan has authored is a history of Muzzy Field in Bristol, Conn., which has hosted icons of the Negro Leagues, Major Leagues and NFL since 1913.