Every now and then while I’m sitting and watching a baseball game, I think to myself, “I’ve been sitting in one of these seats for over thirty years” and I think about how much things have changed in baseball and how much things have changed in the world. It seems to me that the more we think we are progressing, things really aren’t, we’re going backwards. Technology has made a change in some things for the better, but it’s also taken away the joy of just sitting and being. Baseball really is a reflection of life. It’s a simple, beautiful game, but just like the world sometimes when you remove that simplicity, it ruins the beauty of what once was. There are just some things you don’t mess with. Leave it alone, sit back and enjoy.
My first Professional Baseball experience of sitting in the stands was with my dad. He took me to Atlanta for Braves games and I was privileged to see Hank Aaron hit a couple of home runs. Little did I know that fifteen years later “Hammerin’ Hank” would be my future husband’s Farm Director. Little did I know that one day I would sit and have a conversation with Hank while watching batting practice before a ballgame, discussing how the guys on the Durham Bulls (Braves high A-ball team) were hitting. No, I don’t have a “selfie” of that moment at Durham Athletic Park, but yeah it happened. My dad also would take me, my sister, and brothers to many a Nashville Sounds game where we would watch future Big Leaguers like Willie McGee, Otis Nixon, and Don Mattingly. We were kids and didn’t realize who we were watching. We were just happy to be spending time with our dad, watching baseball, and learning about the game. Just sit and be.
When I met my husband, I got my first taste of Professional Baseball life up close and personal. It was 1985, the Braves’ A-ball team was in my hometown of Sumter, SC. and they played at beautiful Riley Ballpark, built in 1934. Yes, that was a beautiful ballpark and still is. Beautiful because of it’s simplicity. There were very few of those “fancy” seats with the backs on them, so we really sat in the bleachers and The Marlboro Man was standing rugged and tall above the right field wall. The Atlanta Braves’ Mascot, Chief Knockahoma made an appearance before one game. Some of y’all may remember him. He would stand on the pitcher’s mound before games and blow fire from his mouth. Well, he came to Riley Ballpark one evening, did his thing, then came up into the stands for some conversation. He smelled like kerosene, so that was a short conversation for me. When I first met Phillip and he invited me to games, I found my granddaddy’s old friends, and sat with them in the bleachers along the first base line. One of them would bring a few bags of boiled peanuts to share and they would rag the poor umpire. I remember one umpire in particular. He was a short fella, so he got this yelled at him, “Boy, you look like a doll baby. Let me take you home to my granddaughtah to play with.” Most of all though, I just loved sitting with those old Southern gentlemen and listening to them talk about the game and old times growing up together and playing ball on that field. That Sumter Braves team was loaded with future Big League players. About half of that bunch would go on to play in the Big Leagues, and one was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame a couple of years ago. We still keep in touch with a few of them. Oh, and I can’t forget to mention the Sumter Braves’ bus that the team rode in when they went on roadtrips. These days the players ride on charter buses to get to their destination, but not the 1985 Sumter Braves. They rode in a Bluebird school bus. It was painted white with Sumter Braves written along the sides. There was no WiFi, no movies, no bathroom, and no AC. In the Deep South with no AC and a few of the windows would not stay up to get a little air, so a couple of broken bats kept windows propped open. If you ask me that bus toughened some guys up and made them even more determined to make it to the Big Leagues…well, that bus and the pay. When I look back on those days, we were all just babies. For some of those ballplayers it was their first time far away from home, and for me, the end of that Summer meant the beginning of a whole different kind of life.
I’m not sure that I can count how many of the old ballparks I’ve sat in across this country, wonderful memories of simpler times. Durham Athletic Park was probably my all time favorite. Surrounded by the tobacco warehouses in downtown Durham, North Carolina, it just smelled like baseball with that scent of tobacco in the air. Then the ballpark in Pulaski, Virginia located in the Appalachian Mountains, in the midst of beautiful old trees and hills that cooled us down on those Summer evenings. Pulaski gave us some of the most interesting times we’ve ever had. The ballpark in Burlington, Iowa where just beyond the outfield wall was a large cornfield, “Build it and they will come.” Engel Stadium in Chattanooga where they would parade a couple of camels around the field before the game, yes camels. One of the greatest owners I’ve known in Minor League Baseball owned the Chattanooga Lookouts and he understood the Barnum and Bailey Circus atmosphere that was once a big a part of baseball. Back not so long ago, there were no inflatables, playgrounds, man made lazy rivers and swimming pools at the ballpark to entertain and distract. There were no time clocks counting down how long a pitcher has to throw the ball in order to hurry the game up. There were no computers calculating how good a player could be, old baseball guys just knew by sense and sight, and there wasn’t millions of dollars being invested in a player that made ball teams more cautious about how hard ballplayers could play the game. There was just the game and the joy of just sitting and being……. surrounded not with modern day distractions, but with trees, mountains, cornfields, tobacco, and old Southern gentlemen. Kind of how life used to be.
I’m pretty much a private person, especially about my baseball life. I’m not used to this tell all, show all, kind of thing going on these days, but after some thought on the subject, I’ll be sharing a few more stories about my life’s journey in baseball. However, the names may have to be changed to protect the innocent.
Sumter High School SC State Champs 1922. My granddaddy is seated in front.