In Catawba County
Tim Peeler & Frank Mofford
Interviews and essays
ISBN 13: 978-1-59948-128-9
186 pages, $14.95
Authors / Preface / Introduction / Sample
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My first recollections of baseball are the Pee Wee League ball games at the Hickory Community Center. In the early evening summer heat, we played on a grassy field adjacent to the city cemetery, separated by Town Creek. Games on the four diamonds were directed by backstops, each with a rack of wood slatted bleachers. Our coaches and umpires were teenage boys, often Hickory High School athletes looking to make a buck for the summer. Unlike today's tee-ball and coach pitch, the game of the early 60's allowed the players to pitch which meant mostly games of endless walks and strikeouts. The parents had to practice tremendous patience during those five inning marathons and they quickly came to cherish any contact with the ball, any fielding "play" that a six or seven year-old might make. Yet the competitive element was already present. The good hitters were greeted with choruses of "Swing" while the weak ones were warned to "Wait for a good pitch." I recall a beautiful Italian woman, rolling the r's in her son's name each time he came to the plate.
Our games were always played with a certain amount of tension. With six and seven year-olds working their herky-jerky windups thirty feet from the plate, the hit batsman loomed as an ever present possibility. A youngster named David Bost had a sensational arm for a child his age. He invoked both fear and awe in the Pee Wee League players. I have very few clear and certain memories from this early in my life. I do, however, distinctly remember tentatively carrying a bat to the plate with the mop-haired little David on the mound. I wore a black, hard-plastic half-shell helmet. A cacophony of sounds from five community center games (the Eight Ball League used the big the softball field) swirled through the ear holes: umpires annunciating calls, parents urging their progeny to "Hit," a rattlesome lawnmower running somewhere, bees whining in endless clover. Yet the voice that rings clearest, that somehow separates itself from all the others is that of my dad, a young Lutheran minister, coaxing me to the Pee Wee killing field with his simple imperative statement: "Don't be afraid."
My dad gets much of the credit for first making me a ball player and then making me a lifelong fan of the game. He was raised on a remote Rowan County farm in the Piedmont area of western North Carolina. Despite his yearning to play the game and to be a pitcher, he was never able to fulfill his dreams. The population in his community was too sparse and the young men far too consumed by their day-to-day labor. He lived too far from school and town to play there as well. Needless to say, the game that he had listened to on a radio in a milk barn became the one that my brothers and I would adopt as our own. Dad spent countless hours as a Little League, Pony League, and Senior League coach. One of my brothers became a solid hitter as a young player and I showed promise as a pitcher. Perched on the same stool that he picked beans from, Dad worked imaginary games with me on the side yard mound, signaling pitches, calling balls and strikes, and helping me perfect a variety of breaking pitches. On a little mound that bucked up between Mom's snow ball bushes and the neighbor's cow pasture fence, I leaned important life lessons. I learned to throw hard as I could, to be steady in the heat, and that with the help of someone who cared, to work the corners of whatever problem presented itself.
December 24, 2007
"If you are young,
gather old bricks."
--Jeff Rollins-from "Brick Hunting"
Near the end of 2003, an acquisitions editor from a Charleston, SC, based publishing house contacted me about authoring a book on the history of minor league baseball in Hickory, NC. I had been recommended by David Haas, the general manager of the Hickory Crawdads minor league team. In November of that year, Tim Coffey, a childhood friend and a favorite of my dad who had often coached him, lost a long battle with cancer. After considering the proposal for a month, I decided that I would pursue the project and dedicate the work to Tim's memory.
Up to that time, I had written two books of baseball-related verse and co-authored a book of essays and short stories. Although I admired the work of local and regional historians like Gary Freeze and Hank Utley, I had never ventured into that field and at first felt overwhelmed by what lay ahead. I had, however, soon secured the assistance of fellow writer and sports enthusiast, Brain McLawhorn, and we embarked on what would prove to be a gratifying at times obsessive journey of inquiry and discovery.
It soon became apparent that the history of baseball in Catawba County was a far more complex animal than we had suspected. Sure, professional minor league ball had been played in Hickory since before World War II, but the same was true in the city of Newton. Furthermore, a strong tradition of industrial league and mill town ball stretched all the way back to the 19th Century. There was as well at Lenoir-Rhyne College a program of play that had been in place for over a hundred years. The two other big stories in the county involved a county high school and the local American Legion Post.
As Brian and I progressed down each of these trails, we were privileged to interview many great story tellers: Dick Stoll, Charlie Bost, Don Stafford, and Bill Barkley just to name a few. Moreover, each person we spoke with provided more leads. As a result, we met Junior Young and shared in his phenomenal collection of pictures and scorebooks from the hay day of the Hickory Spinners semi-pro clubs. We also met Harold Lail, a Longview resident who turned out to be not just a fine player in his adult days, but also the batboy for the Hickory Rebel outlaw league teams of the 30's. Mr. Lail, we discovered, carried equipment for some of the most legendary players in the history of the county including ex-felon and Sing-Sing Prison inmate, Edwin "Alabama" Pitts.
Lail was also the last batboy for Norman "Pinkie" James, who had by that time already begun a successful wholesale food business. I visited his son Dicky and daughter-in-law Elizabeth several times at the beautiful James farmhouse south of Hickory. I poured over scrapbooks and pictures that detailed the sports life of Catawba County's Jim Thorpe. Not only did James have a high level minor league baseball career, but he also excelled in many other sports. After breaking the football scoring record at Hickory High, he played football for the legendary Wallace Wade at Duke. While at Hickory in 1928, he scored over 60 points in both a basketball and a football game. He was a champion sprinter in track, where having built his own pole vault pit, he managed to set a NC state high school record. James was a mixed doubles champion in high school tennis, and he had many swimming trophies and was a champion diver at Duke. Later in life he was a champion lefty golfer and a marksman ranked nationally by the NRA. James' most important contributions to the area, however, were off the field where he was instrumental in starting the most successful run of minor league ball in Hickory in 1933. After James convinced the Lenoir-Rhyne College administrators to relocate the football lights, the first night baseball games were played in Hickory that summer. James also helped to grow the youth recreation programs in the Hickory area and was instrumental in the fund raising drive that helped build the Hickory Community Center.
Another highlight of this project was getting to meet Betty Miller, the widow of the celebrated slugger and former Hickory Rebels manager, DC "Pud" Miller. Betty called me one day and asked me to stop by the sandwich shop where she worked during the lunch hour. When I arrived, she opened the trunk to her car and let me hold the H & B silver bat that Pud won in 1951 for having the highest batting average in all of the minor leagues.
Baseball in Catawba County was published in September of 2004, followed by a number of presentations and book signings in the Hickory area. The project culminated with a presentation and celebration of local baseball history at the Patrick Beaver Memorial Library (home of the Beaver baseball collection of books). In attendance that night were some of the greatest athletes and coaches to ever grace the ball diamonds of Catawba County. It was a richly rewarding experience for Brian and me.
I came away from that night knowing that more needed to be done to preserve the history and the stories of the local game. After working with Hank Utley during 2005-06 on an oral history of the depression era outlaw Carolina League, I was ready to reacquaint myself with Catawba County heroes. Late that year I contacted my Mountain View neighbor, Frank Mofford, an excellent local journalist and fiction writer, and we began to conduct interviews for this first volume of Voices from Catawba County Baseball.
Included here are eye witness accounts of many of the important area baseball events including the national tournament run of the 48 Hickory American Legion team and the three-peat state high school champion St. Stephens team of the early 70's. The reader will hear from managers, coaches, minor league and college players, a well-known outlaw pitcher, broadcasters, an umpire, and even a former mayor, often referred to as Hickory's Mr. Baseball.
The individual stories in this volume represent a time when baseball was an important social activity in our community. History matters. That is the lesson that we learned again and again as the tape recorder ran and the memories rose to these pages, memories that are both powerful and inviting.
The Batboy Remembers Rebel Days
He is seventy-seven,
holds five bats across his shoulder,
thirty-six inches, thirty-six ounces;
he stands on the solid balance
of his memory, and when he speaks
about the game, his watery
gray eyes spark to flame, names
called to scratch images to light.
He shows me his stance, his swing,
torso turning on a fifty-year old pitch;
in his front yard, end of a dead end street;
if he remembers them, they will come.
About the Authors
Frank Mofford is a Catawba County native. He graduated from Lenoir-Rhyne College and has completed additional graduate work at Appalachian State University. He has published work in both Our State and Blue Ridge magazines. Frank is a winner of the Southern Novello Award for Fiction and his work has been presented on National Public Radio. His greatest claim to baseball fame is being escorted out of Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta during the 1972 All-Star Game for masquerading as an Associated Press photographer but not before he was able to shake hands with his idol Brooks Robinson.
A winner of the Jim Harrison Award for contributions to baseball literature, Tim Peeler has published four books of poetry, two regional baseball histories, and along with Carter Monroe and Robert Canipe, a book of short fiction and essays. His poems have been anthologized by Time/Life Books and have been used in an HBO documentary. This is his second book about Catawba County baseball.
From CHAPTER ONE
In November of 2004, I spent three hours in line waiting to vote in the presidential election. The line wound all the way around a local rural church and its adjacent buildings. What made that wait tolerable, however, was a conversation with the next man in line. He had worked for over twenty years at Century Furniture with Tracey Hitchner. We shared Hitchner stories. This man knew the outlaw ball player as an older gentleman, a friendly office worker who had built a business career on years of loyalty to the company president. Here was yet another example of how indelible a mark this New Jersey farm boy had left in Catawba County. Almost sixty years after his playing days ended, Hitchner is still the stuff of local legend. Nearly anyone who followed baseball in Hickory, NC, from 1936-46 will produce memories of the fire balling pitcher.
Hitchner had signed to play ball for Albany in the International League in 1935. After a mediocre first year, he was not impressed with the amount offered by the club in 1936. Instead of signing he returned to his family farm in New Jersey. It was there that he received a phone call and an offer to play ball and work in Hickory, North Carolina, in the new independent Carolina League. Hitchner arrived at night and thought he had reached the end of the world. He was not impressed with the facilities but was impressed with the caliber of baseball being played. In what was certainly a hitters' league, Hitchner became the top hurler. Final records are not available for that season, but the local newspaper credits Hitchner with 21 wins.
Hitchner played two more successful seasons for the Rebels, one under a fake name. In 1937 the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues declared the league to be an outlaw organization and produced a list of banned players. Hitchner suffered more than any other player as a result of this action. While most of the participants had their eligibility restored, he remained a banned player for ten years. It was only through the efforts of the ever-affable Sammy Bell in 1947 that Hitchner was allowed to return briefly to the organized game. Since he was not allowed to play during his peak years, we will never know how fine a pitcher he might have become.
Tracey Hitchner married and remained at the end of the world for the rest of his days.
Interview conducted June 1991 by Hank Utley
"I was with Albany in the International League in 1935. I didn't sign a contract in 1936. They wanted to cut my salary, and I wouldn't accept it. It was the depression, you know. So they suspended me, but after the season started, they sent a scout down home-it was a Washington scout. I can't remember his name. Anyway, he said they would pay me the same as in 1935 if I would report back. I told him I would accept it. So they sent me to Harrisburg, PA, for two weeks to get in shape, and then they took me back up to Albany, and when I got to Albany, they had one of the worst looking ball clubs I ever saw in my life. So I just told 'em I had a sore arm, just give me my release, I'm going home. They said, no, we're not going to do that, so they wanted to send me to Danville, VA, in a Class D League. I told 'em I wasn't a Class D ball player, and I wasn't going down there, so I tore the transfer up and threw it in the waste basket and told 'em I'd be on the family farm in New Jersey. So I went home to the farm.
"One day I was planting potatoes, and this fellow called from Hickory, NC. His name was Ab Lutz. I asked him how in the world did you get my name? He said his manager, Stumpy Culbreth got it from a man named Brown that was my roommate in Albany, NY.
"I said, 'Well, what do you pay down there?' He was going to pay me more money than I was making in Albany in the International League. I told him if he would send me transportation from Philadelphia to Hickory and from Hickory back to Philadelphia I'll come down there and see if I like it.
Note: Hitchner, when questioned about how much he was offered, said he wouldn't say, but it was more than Albany's offer.
"They sent me the money. I came down and got off the train at the depot. This taxi driver came down there hollering, 'I'm looking for a ball player. I'm looking for a ball player.'
"I said, 'If you're looking for a ball player, it might be me.' So he got me and took me to a boarding house, and he said he was supposed to take me out to the ball park later.
"When I did get to the ball park and looked around, I was ready to catch the next train out of there. They had lights that didn't even light the outfield very good. And they had a dirt infield and cement bleachers that would hold 2 or 3,000 people. I wasn't used to playing ball parks like that. When the game started, there was a packed house, about 4,000 spectators. About the fourth inning, our pitcher got hit in the elbow and Stumpy Culbreth, our manager, was hollering, 'who can pitch on a short warmup?'
"I said, 'Gimme the ball, and we ended up winning 5 to 4 or 5 to 3. That was the first night I was here. I also found out that there were some pretty good ball players in the league, even if the ball park didn't look so hot.
"It was some time in June when I came down here, but I won 18 ball games the rest of the summer and lost about 5. That year we played about a hundred game schedule, and we won 48 and we lost 49, I won 18 of those after missing over a month of the season. I was named to the league all-star team. I pitched about every second or third day and never had a sore arm. I was in good shape. For a little man, I could throw that ball through a brick wall. I had a good curve ball too. I threw it off the end of my fingers.
"The next season I changed my name. I knew a lot of the ball players down here that had changed their name, and I knew 'em by their right name. I remember one was Palmisano, Joe Palmisano, that caught for the Philadelphia Athletics a few years earlier. He played under the name Palm. And then there was Bill Steinecke that played under Bill Seph and then Steinecke in Concord.
"I played under the name of John Davis in '37. They caught me at the end of the '36 season, and I got a letter from that damn Judge Branham saying I was suspended.
Note: On January 4, 1937, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues announced that they had black listed 27 players from the Carolina League because they had played in the outlaw league in 1936 while under contract to organized professional teams. The Hickory Rebels players included Hitchner, Russ Yeargren, and E.J. Porter.
"The first ball game we played in Concord in '37 I was pitching against Chitwood, and that fellow Cassell that was running the Concord team sat down beside Ram Menzies, who was trying to run this ball club and said, 'Ram, you know that fellow out there pitching looks a lot like that fellow Hitchner that pitched for you last year.'
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