Obituary: Bob Stephenson (1928-2020)

RIP to Bob Stephenson, a former middle infielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, a former oilman and a great benefactor to his alma mater, the University of Oklahoma. It was announced on Facebook by a family friend that he died on March 20 at the age of 91. Stephenson played for the 1955 St. Louis Cardinals.

Robert Lloyd Stephenson was born on August 11, 1928 in Blair, Okla. He’d maintain pretty significant ties to the state for the rest of his life. First as Blair High School and American Legion baseball, and then as an infielder for the University of Oklahoma, Stephenson established himself as a talented ballplayer. He started at Oklahoma in 1948 as a geology major, and by 1949, he’d become a sought-after college player. “It is said that a dozen big-league scouts are camping on his doorstep with flattering bonus offers,” reported the Alva (Okla.) Review Courier. Fortunately, he took his education seriously, because geology would end up becoming a much more significant part of his life than baseball!

Source: Elmira Advertiser, July 23, 1955.

Stephenson hit an even .300 in his senior year and was the first-team shortstop on the NCAA District Five All-Stars. Also on the team was outfielder and future big-leaguer Bob Cerv from Nebraska. After graduation, Stephenson signed with the St. Louis Cardinals organization and reported to the Houston Buffaloes of the AA Texas League. He said that he picked St. Louis because it was a Cardinals scout, Fred Hawn, who told him to stay in school and not sign until he was ready. Stephenson hit just .178 in 59 games with the Buffs, but it must have been a tough place to hit. Houston, as a team, hit .235.

The Cardinals assigned Stephenson to Class-A Omaha in the Western League in 1951, and Stephenson showed some improvement. He hit .226 and hit his first 5 professional home runs with the team. Stephenson joined the Cardinals in spring training in 1953. He was assigned to AAA Columbus, but before he could play, the U.S. Army drafted him. He ended up spending the next two years in military service, playing baseball and basketball mostly. By his own estimation, he played about 150 games in his two years in the Army, half of them in Japan.

Now in his age 25 year, Stephenson returned to baseball and the Columbus Red Birds in 1954. He slashed .232/.299/.331, but he was regarded as an outstanding defensive shortstop and was added to the Cardinals’ spring training roster by the end of the season. His numbers in the minors look a little weak, but it was late-season slumps that dropped his averages from the .280s. The Cardinals liked him so much that he made the big-league team in 1955.

He was hardly used at first. Through the middle of June, Stephenson had appeared in a total of 24 games but had just 10 at-bats and 1 hit — a single off the Reds’ Bob Hooper on April 19. He got his chance to play regularly when starting shortstop Alex Grammas broke his thumb and rookie infielder Ken Boyer hurt his back. In his first start on June 21, Stephenson hit three singles and stole a base. He hit .341 in 12 games between June 21 and July 3, when a groin injury knocked him out of the lineup. When he recovered, he ended up splitting time with Grammas at shortstop.

Stephenson credited Cardinals manager Harry Walker for his offensive turnaround. “Harry changed me from a pull hitter to a punch hitter,” the shortstop explained. “Now I’m just swatting the ball where it’s pitched, whether inside or outside.”

Stephenson’s batting average did drop late in the season, but he ended the year with a .243/.274/.270 slash line, with 27 hits in 67 games. He hit 3 doubles and drove in 6 runs, and he also scored 19 times. That ended up being the only big-league season of his career.

Stephenson spent the 1955 offseason playing in Cuba, and he contemplated retiring after that time. He decided to stick it out for one more season, though. He started the 1956 season with the Omaha Cardinals, which by then was the team’s AAA affiliate. On June 18, he was sold to the Minneapolis Millers, the AAA team of the New York Giants. The deal was connected to a large trade between the two teams a few days prior, which included Red Schoendienst going to the Giants and Al Dark and Whitey Lockman going to the Cardinals. All total, he hit a combined .238 with both teams.

By then, Stephenson and his wife, Norma, had an 11-month-old son, and he decided to hang up his baseball spikes in favor of a job as a geologist for Pure Oil Co. in its Ardmore, Okla. office.

Bob Stephenson, right, is pictured along with Jack Shirley, left. The two were Oklahoma Sooners teammates and ended up in the Cardinals organization. Source: Lincoln Journal-Star, July 8, 1951.

“There isn’t any room in the big leagues for a .240 sticker, and I knew I would never be a good hitter,” he told the Ardmore Democrat in January 1957. “It’s not that I thought I was washed up. I’m only 28, and I could play seven or eight more years in triple-A, or could conceivably reach the majors again. But I feel it is the best move for my family to take a job that will offer us security for the future.

“I know I’ll miss baseball,” he added. “I’m sure when spring training comes, I’ll yearn for the warm Florida sunshine. But when summer comes, I think I’ll be content with my job here. I’ve had too many bad nights at the plate to miss it a lot during the summer.”

After 10 years of working with Pure Oil, he co-founded the Potts-Stephenson Exploration Co., based in Oklahoma City, with partner Ray Potts in 1967. They operated and expanded the business until 1997, when PSEC and an affiliated company were acquired by a subsidiary of ONEOK Inc., the parent company of Oklahoma Natural Gas Co. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but the acquisition included 180 wells with proven reserves of 21 billion cubic feet of natural gas and 168,000 barrels of oil. PSEC operated 120 of the 180 wells.

Over the years, Stephenson entered into other successful ventures. In 1981, he bought KNOR, a radio station in Norman, with his son Tim. The station broadcast OU sporting events, St. Louis Cardinals games and all the minor-league Oklahoma City 89ers games. He eventually found a partner who bought Stephenson out and implemented his vision of an all-sports radio network — rare in the United States at the time and thought to be impossible in Oklahoma.

Beyond his work at the company he founded, Stephenson left his mark in the oil and gas industry when he filed a lawsuit against ONEOK Resources, the company that had bought out his business. “A few years ago some global energy giants began some creative, Enron style accounting practices to the detriment of independent oil and gas producers and consumers. Bob sued them,” explained Bruce Prescott, a friend of Stephenson’s who broke the news of his death.

I’m not a lawyer or an oil expert, but from what I can determine, ONEOK audited the overhead rates for the wells it operated, found that PSEC had forgone raising the rates during some years. ONEOK then calculated the rate that it should have been charging and retroactively billed two years’ worth of readjusted rates to the well owners. Stephenson took ONEOK to court, spent several days on the witness stand explaining the case to the jury, and he won. “It was truly a David against Goliath kind of case,” Prescott said.

Philanthropy became Stephenson’s primary profession later in his life, and he was a leading benefactor to the University of Oklahoma. He and his wife, Norma, were season-ticket holders to many of the college’s sports teams and were members of the Sooner Club. According to the school’s sports website, the Stephensons contributed to baseball and wrestling facility projects, provided scholarship support for the OU women’s basketball team and the College of Arts and Sciences’ religious studies program. He also provided financial support and leadership to OU’s School of Geology and Geophysics.

Stephenson made a large donation in 2018 for the renovation of L. Dale Mitchell Park, a $10 million project. “Bob Stephenson is a great Sooner and has always been a tremendous leader for us, especially when it comes to supporting our student-athletes and the resources they need to be successful,” said Athletic Director Joe Castiglione. “He has served as a fund raising catalyst on many occasions, and once again has made a significant donation that gets us moving toward our goal of securing the necessary funds to complete our baseball stadium master plan. We are genuinely grateful to Bob and his wonderful family.”

Stephenson was also active in the Baptist Church and was awarded the Founders Award by the Associated Baptist Press in 2011. He was an ABP board member from 1993 until 2010 and occasionally used his personal resources to help the organization through financial rough spots.

“ABP needed to come on stream because that was the only arm of publication that would tell the truth,” Stephenson said about the organization. “ABP was one of the things that spun off from problems with the SBC [Southern Baptist Convention] that had to exist. If we didn’t have them the news wouldn’t get out.”

Stephenson was a founder and board member of the Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists in 1997. The group splintered off from the SBC and Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma because of the “overly conservative control of the state’s largest religious denomination,” according to The Daily Oklahoman.

Stephenson donated frequently to churches, including one infamous event where he replaced a plate glass window after throwing a football through it. He wasn’t a reckless child at the time; he was a deacon in the church. He jokingly blamed the incident on his friend and would-be receiver, whom he accused of running his route too low.

“The minute I threw it I knew it was gone,” he said later. When it happened, one of the children who were playing outside ran into the church to announce, “It wasn’t us, it was a deacon!”

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2 thoughts on “Obituary: Bob Stephenson (1928-2020)

  1. Sam, Thank you for the thorough and refreshing research you did in preparing this story on my Dad, more a “story” than an obituary. I learned several new facts about him, especially about his playing days. I will enjoy sharing this with my Mom and sister and my wife, and the other members of the extended family — all of whom were so important to Dad and whose lives he impacted so positively. We already miss him terribly, but have many of his words of wisdom and humor to guide and steady our paths the rest of our lives. Tim Stephenson


    1. Tim, my condolences to you and your family at this time. Thank you for your kind words; I hate that ballplayers are often reduced to their statistics, when their lives are so much more than that. Your father had a heck of an interesting life, and it was a pleasure to go back and uncover some of those details. I wish all the best to the Stephenson family. Regards, Sam


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