Resurrecting Program From The Scrap Heap

Editor/Collegiate Baseball

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — A remarkable story is unfolding at Harris-Stowe State University.

Founded in 1887, this NAIA institution has an undergraduate enrollment of about 1,400 located in St. Louis and has a baseball program that is unique.

Head Coach CJ Bilbrey only has 2.5 scholarships to work with and a total budget of $20,000.

  • His yearly salary as the skipper is $4,000 while his lead assistant earns $4,000 and a third coach $1,000. He also has several volunteer coaches. The rest of the money goes toward running the program.
  • Every year, his players bring in an extra $50,000 through fundraising efforts by working St. Louis Cardinals’ games, a PGA tournament, Six Flags and other events with the money being used for travel, food and other necessary areas within the program.
  • To save money, many meals on road trips are peanut butter and jelly sandwiches which are affectionately called “Stowe Steaks” by members of the team.
  • On all but one road trip, coaches drive two vans to away games which also saves money to destinations as far away as six hours. The one bus trip with a hired driver typically includes all of the team as a thank you for fundraising efforts.
  • Because of money constraints, each player is required to purchase three jerseys — home pinstripe white, away brown plus a special jersey designed every year by the seniors in addition to practice gear. The entire cost is about $300.

Bilbrey and his wife Crystal own a shirt company and make all of the players’ practice apparel in their kitchen to reduce the total cost for players.

The cost of jerseys and practice gear is typically picked up by different family members as a Christmas gift to players. Once a player graduates or leaves the program, he takes his jerseys and practice apparel with him as a special memento.

Hats, belts, socks and pants are all supplied by Harris-Stowe.

The payoff for all of this sacrifice by players is being able to practice six days a week when cold weather hits at the All-Star Performance facility in St. Louis six days a week. It is 50,000 square feet, including 12 batting cages, eight bullpen mounds and indoor infield with three practice turf areas.

In 2013, Harris-Stowe suffered through the torture of 5-38 season.

After the last game, it was discovered that one of the players had dropped out of school before the season ended and never told any of the coaches.

So all five of those wins were vacated as the season record nosedived to 0-43.

“I arrived at Harris-Stowe in the fall of 2013, and it was rough,” said Bilbrey.

“My buddy David Estes was the head coach at the time, and he worked tirelessly.

“It just got to be too much. He got out of coaching and is selling insurance now and doing well for himself.

“I left Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, an NCAA Division I program, to be a part of an 0-43 NAIA program as a volunteer. The reason I was interested in this position was because I played for Harris-Stowe four years (2004-07) before starting my coaching career.

“I immediately jumped into recruiting when I got there. When I called up kids to recruit them, many weren’t that good. But we needed eligible bodies at that point to field a team. I was going after pitchers who threw 81-82 mph. They would routinely tell me that they would rather retire than go to Harris-Stowe.

“I told them good luck. We are going to continue working hard and will be much better in the coming years.

“In that first recruiting class I helped with, only one guy ultimately was with us for four years. In his last two years, he helped the team win 60 games over the 2017 and 2018 seasons.”

In 2014, the Eagles won 11 games which was followed by 14 in 2015.

Bilbrey was named head coach, and Harris-Stowe won 18 games in his first season as skipper in 2016.

Then the team broke through with 30 wins in both 2017 and 2018 — only the third and four time a baseball team at Harris-Stowe has won 30 or more games in the 75-year-history of the program.

To read more of this article, purchase the Feb. 8, 2019 edition of Collegiate Baseball or subscribe by CLICKING HERE.