Sunday, December 28, 2014


"The Unsolved Mystery of a Hero at Sea"

Shelton Sutton was a hero. To his two hometowns of Brewton and Vidalia, he was a hero. To his parents, aunts, uncles and cousins, he was also a hero. To many Georgia Tech fans of his day, Shelton was a hero. The United States Navy considered him a hero. But the answer remains, why was he a hero?

Shelton Beverly Sutton, Jr. was born in Brewton, Georgia on August 21, 1919. His father worked as a mechanic. The Suttons left Laurens County when Shelton, Jr. or "Slim" was a young boy. They wound up in Vidalia, Georgia, where Slim became a star football player for Vidalia High School in the mid 1930s.

Slim's extraordinary athletic ability enabled him to earn a spot on the roster of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in 1939. Slim was a substitute offensive lineman on Georgia Tech's best team of the 1930s. The Jackets (8-2) won a share of the SEC Championship with a perfect conference record, losing only to Notre Dame, the nation's second best team that season, and to a very powerful Duke team by one point. The "Ramblin Wrecks" put an exclamation point on the season when a victory of Big Six Champion Missouri in the Orange Bowl. Sutton made his way into the starting lineup in 1940 as the team's center. Tech suffered through a 3-7 season, with the year's only highlights coming in a six-point loss to Notre Dame and a post season win over California by the score of 13-0. Playing at guard beside Slim was Wexler "Wex" Jordan of Dublin.

By 1941, Sutton came into his own as a suitable center. Losing to five top twenty teams, the Jackets suffered through a 3-6 season. Slim's last game was a heartbreaking 21-0 loss to intrastate rival Georgia. What made it even worse was that he was ejected from the game for an offense he really didn't deserve. Sutton tackled Georgia back Lamar Davis, grabbing him around the mouth and cutting off his breathing. Lamar bit Sutton's finger to break the deadlock. Sutton, sensing the amputation of a part of his hand, violently shoved Davis's head back. A nearby official noticed only the shove and promptly sent Sutton back to the bench. Sutton walked toward Davis and shook his finger at him chastising him for not telling the referee that he had Slim's finger in his mouth. Tech Coach Bobby Dodd ran out toward Sutton to reprimand the Tech center for being thrown out the game. Dodd's rage evolved into laughter when Slim told the soon to be iconic coach what really happened out on the field.

Georgia Tech was supposed to play another game, another post season game against California. But something happened the next weekend that would change Slim Sutton's life and the entire course of the world's history. Just eight days after he played his last football game, the Japanese air force bombed Pearl Harbor. Sutton and Jordan along with many of their teammates enlisted in the Navy. Before he left for military service, Slim graduated from Tech with cum laude honors. Many of the Tech players participated in Naval ROTC at Tech. In fact, Center Sutton became Ensign Sutton of the United States Naval Reserve on April 21, 1941. Owing to the loss of many of their team's top players, Tech's request to cancel the late December game with California was granted.

In the weeks after the war began, Sutton reported to duty with the Naval Reserve. On February 12, 1942, he was ordered to report to the Commandant of the Third Naval District for active duty. Just two days later, the U.S.S. Juneau, a light cruiser, was commissioned by the U.S. Navy. Sutton reported for duty aboard the U.S.S. Juneau on March 2, 1942. The Juneau served off the Martinique and the Guadeloupe Islands in blockade maneuvers and remained in the Atlantic Ocean until August 22nd. The Juneau was assigned to Task Force 17 and then Task Force 61. The ship's first major action came in the victorious Battle of Santa Cruz Island on October 26th.

On November 8th, the Juneau joined Task Force 67 to escort reinforcements to Guadalcanal Island. Japanese fighters began to attack the ship, which repulsed six planes with little damage. Early in the morning of Friday the 13th, a Japanese force engaged the Juneau's group. The Juneau suffered moderate damage from a torpedo, but managed to limp away from the enemy ships under her own power. Around eleven o'clock in the morning, a Japanese submarine fired three torpedoes at the wounded ship. The Juneau's helmsman managed to avoid the first two, but a third torpedo struck the ship in the exact same spot it had been damaged earlier in the morning. There was a tremendous explosion. The ship broke into. In twenty seconds, she was under water. The Juneau's sister ships, the U.S.S. Helena and the U.S.S. San Francisco, both damaged, steamed ahead fearing a similar fate. There was no time to look for survivors.

Of the nearly seven hundred man crew, only about one hundred sailors survived the explosion. For eight horrific days, the survivors treaded water and fought off thirst, hunger and sharks as best they could. Only ten survived. Also onboard the Juneau was Albert, Francis, George, Joseph, and Madison, the five sons of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Sullivan of Waterloo, Iowa. George, still nursing his wounds from the early morning action, managed to make it to a life raft. The other four brothers were killed instantly in the explosion. George died after five days in the water. The brothers were immortalized in the Hollywood movie, The Fighting Sullivans. Their deaths led to a directive by President Franklin Roosevelt that if any family lost two sons, then the remaining sons were to be removed from the military and sent home to their families. This directive is portrayed in the movie Saving Private Ryan. Private Ryan, actually Sergeant Niland, lost two of his brothers and was thought to have lost another. The stories of the Sullivans and the Nilands were the inspiration for Saving Private Ryan.

The Navy withheld details of the sinking of the Juneau. It was nearly four weeks later when the news arrived at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Sutton that their son was missing in action. Slim's body was never found. Ensign Sutton was one of the first Toombs Countians to lose their lives in the war. The abandonment of one hundred survivors was withheld from the public for a long time, making it one of the war's and the U.S. Navy's most secret scandals. It wasn't until 1994 when Dan Kurzman published Left to Die, the first true and complete account of the tragedy of the U.S.S. Juneau.

On August 6, 1944 in Tampa, Florida, Lillie Mae Sutton broke the traditional bottle of champagne across the bow of the U.S.S. Sutton, which was named in her son's honor. The Sutton served in the Atlantic until 1948, when she was taken out of service. The ship was lent to the Republic of South Korea in 1956 and was used by the Korean Navy as The Kang Won until 1974. Ensign Beverly Sutton was one of ten members of the crew who were selected by the U.S. Navy to have a ship named in their honor. He joined Captain L.K. Swenson, Commander William M. Hobby of Sylvania, Ga., Lt. Cmdr. T.O. Oberrender, Lt. H.C. Gearing, III and of course, the "Sullivan Brothers," in being afforded such a distinct honor. Lt. Cmdr. J.G. Neff was lauded by the U.S. Naval Hospital in Dublin with a street named in his honor.

           At the cruise ship dock at Juneau, Alaska stands a monument with the name of S.B. Sutton and the names of his fellow crewmen of the U.S.S. Juneau. His name also can be found on a monument at Fort William McKinley in Manila, the Philippines. But of a more local importance, among the hundreds of graves at the Brewton Cemetery, is a cenotaph marker commemorating the life of a man who lived as a hero and died as hero.

Could Slim have survived the catastrophic explosion? No one alive seems to know. My guess is that he did and that this Laurens Countian helped the survivors to escape the inferno toward what they believed was safety. Otherwise, why would the Navy have selected Ensign Shelton Sutton as the only junior officer aboard the Juneau with the naming of a ship in his honor? Perhaps one day the mystery will finally be solved.

Postcript: Exactly 364 days later on Veteran's Day, 1943 Slim Sutton's teammate Wex Jordan was killed in a training accident off the coast of San Diego, California. 



     For the last 517 Tuesdays I have chronicled the events of the past which have shaped our lives and guided us through the uncertainty of the future.  Today, just for
once, I ask leave to explain what the game of football means to the community of Dublin and what some of our senior players have meant to me personally.  Football is more than a game.  It is molded around many of the basic essentials of a successful life. Among these are teamwork, finishing a job, achieving a goal, perseverance, honor, dedication, contributing, problem solving and admittedly, having a great time.  A friend of mine, Pete Tyre, was a member of two of Dublin's state championship teams.  He was at every practice and every game but never played a down.  When asked about the impact that football had on his life, Pete said that "football and Boy Scouts got me through the horrors of Vietnam."

     This Saturday afternoon, in the first day time and the first Saturday game in Shamrock Bowl history, some of Dublin's finest young men will strap on the "green and the gold"for the last time  in the first state championship game ever to be played in Dublin.  The first three state championship games, all victories, were played on neutral sites.  The last three, all losses, were played on the opponent's field.  There is a saying that  everything bad or good happens in threes.  So we've lost three in a row.  Now is the time to begin another trio of state championships.

     My connection to this year's team comes through my son Scotty.  Through baseball, Boy Scouts and the band I have come to know, and yes admire, many of the
seniors of this year's team.  Over the last ten years, I have watched these young boys
mature into young men.  They are a part of me.  They will always be a part of me.

     I first met Chris Williams on the ball field at Little Hilburn Park.  He was a little
chubby and not very fast on his feet.  But immediately Chris showed one of his most
endearing and enduring qualities.  It seemed like he always had a smile permanently
cemented on his round face.  Well mannered and always well behaved, Chris was and
still is a compliment to his parents Luther and Valencia Williams, who were there at
every ball game and every Cub Scout outing.    Chris got stronger and faster and could knock a baseball as hard as anyone.  Chris is one of those kids you might not think of as being a member of the band. He played saxophone in the band until he settled solely on football as his number one extra curricular activity. This once teddy bear like kid will now knock your head off if you aren't wearing a green and gold uniform.

     I also met Tyler Josey on the ball field.  At the age of eight, Tyler, with his "Boog
Powell" physique and a buzz cut  towered over the rest of the kids in the league. I think I actually ordered him an XL jersey.    Tyler played first base and could catch nearly every ball thrown his way.  He never managed to get under the ball to lift it out of the park. But, I'll guarantee you if there was no fence and no Big Hilburn park next door, his line drives would have rolled into C.W. Anderson's side yard on Hodges Street.  I'll never forget the sight of Tyler rambling around the bases, his freckled face smiling and his parents cheering him on.   When I saw him four years later in the halls of Dublin Middle School, Tyler was as tall as I am.  I knew right there and then that this kid was going to be a very good football player some day.

     There is a  trio of seniors who never seem to draw the attention of the sportswriters.  I never coached only one of these young men, but my teams did play
against two of them on many occasions.  Thomas Cox was always as fast as greased
lightning. As a pitcher, Thomas had one of the best and most wicked breaking balls
you've ever seen in a young kid.  On the soccer field, where his true talents shine, Thomas is always one of the first to get down the field, with or without the ball.  Just
watch him on the kick off teams, he is usually the first one down and always manages to perform his assignment.  He's also a pretty fair defensive back in his own right and
somehow despite the rigors of football and soccer, he manages to be one of the top
students in his class.  Then there's Josh Tarpley.  "J.T.," the consummate team player, has persevered and this year took over the job of being the team's short snapper. Considering the fact that in the Dome the Irish set the state all time season scoring record, "J.T." just may have snapped more extra points in a season than anyone in Georgia high school history.   Izell Stephens and Miles Allen are also team players.  These kind young men with kind hearts l unselfishly play wherever it is necessary to help their team win.

     The team's quarterback, Ben Cochran, carries the dogged intelligent athleticism
of his mother and the courage and leadership of his father.  As an 8th grader, Ben
pitched a near-perfect game and was snaring nearly every ground ball in the second
game of a doubleheader to lead his team to the Middle Georgia Middle School Championship.  At last year's graduation ceremony, I observed Ben, dapperly dressed in a tux as a part of his duties as a marshal, take the arm of a special ed graduate who lost her way back to her seat.  Ben escorted the young lady back to her seat as if she was the queen of homecoming.  I have never been more proud of Ben than I was that night.

     No one and I mean no one, plays with more determination than Jesse Coxwell.  I have seen Jesse time and time again, dive, push, throw, stretch, play while hurting and hustle with the best of them.  Hampered by a nagging injury this season, Jesse is a smart sentinel in the defensive backfield.  Making less mistakes than his father has hairs on the top of his head, Jessie is more than aptly ready at a moment's notice to take over the duties of quarterback if necessary.

     If you don't believe in angels in the outfield, then you don't know Drew Griggs.
At the point of death two springs ago and buttressed with an army of empathetic supporters, Drew battled back to excel both on the diamond and on the gridiron.  Check him out as the long snapper.  After he snaps the ball, he is almost always the first Irish defender to reach and tackle or hinder the receiver.   Drew has stepped up and taken his place in the long line of place kickers in Dublin football history. Will Griffith is a combination of Larry Csonka and Dick Butkus.  It's too bad that the good Lord didn't see fit to bless him with an enormous frame to accommodate his bullish style of play.  Pound for pound, no one runs harder and hits harder than "Willie G."

     Brian Wilcher, another former sax player in the band, might be considered the best athlete on the team.  I once watched him lead a seven-man baseball team into a close contest with the best nine-man team in the league.  Had he stayed with baseball, he would have certainly been a star in that sport as well.  If you do the math and Coach Holmes let Brian carry the ball twenty five to thirty times a game as many team's number one tail backs do, Brian would easily be approaching 3000 rushing yards by now.     I used to watch Thomas Barnes as he would come into elementary school.  There was something about his demeanor that stood out from many of the other kids.  Now sporting a goatee and the bronze face of a Roman warrior, this quiet man came almost out of nowhere three years ago to become one the most important driving forces in this team's successes on both defense and offense in the last three seasons.  His leadership and aggressive style of play was a leading factor in the Irish basketball team's state championship this past spring.

     I think I met Michael Hall one time.  I hope to meet him on more occasions.  This
young man, with blazing speed, brute strength and a brilliant mind, spends many moments of his precious spare time after practice to tutor those kids who can't seem to keep up with the arduous standards of school work.  Michael has helped to organize a S.W.A.T. team and enlisted other seniors to help others in their studies.  I really don't know Tony Smith, though I hear Billy Beacham calling his name over the loudspeaker a lot.  I do know he loves to come by the concession stand after the game and ask for a piece of left over pizza.  Tony, if we have any pizza left Saturday night, you can have a whole one.

     I don't know Brandon Edmond or Jamon Morris.  I do know it's difficult to tell them apart as their single digit numbered uniforms are hard to differentiate as the fly down the field.  I would like to get to know Brandon Taylor and Tim Wells.  I hear great things about them as  players and  persons as well.   As for Nick Davis, Sammie Daniel, Grant Hingst, Derelle Lewis and Kenyardo O'Neal, I wish I knew you better as well. I do admire your dedication to the team.
     The boys in the band are pumped too.  It's their last football game as well.  Scotty
will eat his turkey sandwich for lunch instead of supper as he has for the last three
seasons.  It didn't work against Cook last year and he had to eat a standard Bryan's sub before the dome loss to Buford.  He will join Paul and Heath in driving  the fight song rhythms.  Sris and Tim will sing melodies on their saxes.   Jeremy, Matt, Joey and Josh will be blasting their horns rooting their classmates on.  Meanwhile Kentaro, on tuba, will keep the bass line pumping.  Nelson Carswell, IV, the unofficial leader in the student section and the team's 12th man, will be painted in green and waving the Irish battle flag.  Nelson's indomitable spirit and unbridled enthusiasm has become a special and integral part of Dublin Irish football.

     Here's my prediction for the game this Saturday afternoon.  Dublin will play with
the same intensity, determination, heart and discipline they have displayed in the past three seasons.  Many people associate luck with being Irish.  This year's incomparable team has relied on meticulous and exhausting preparation rather than an enchanted pot of gold.  Nevertheless, bring all your good luck charms.  Our angels will be there too.  They sit up in the trees in the north end zone in the bowl's best seats.  Look carefully. You may see a few of them rattling limbs and whistling after every Irish first down.  

     I do know this. When I turn off the light in the concession stand for the last time,
there will be tears in my eyes and the eyes of many others.  For no matter what the final scoreboard reads, ours will be tears of joy and our Irish eyes, well as always,  they will be smiling, and you'll hear the angels singing "Go Irish!"



I was right in my prediction of the outcome of last Saturday's state championship game at the Shamrock Bowl.  The Dublin Irish played with the same intensity, determination, heart and discipline they have displayed in the past three seasons. All season  long the players and the coaches kept their eyes on a single solitary goal.   They did not set out to score more points in a single season than any other team in the history of Georgia, colleges and professional included.  They did not desire to score more points in the playoffs than any other team in Georgia history.  Nor did they make it their goal to score more points and win by the largest margin in the history of high school football play in the Georgia Dome.  Their ultimate goal was to finish what they had started and win a state championship.  In the cooling darkness of a warm mid December evening they did just that.

Most people can't understand the concept which the Georgia High School Association has adopted concerning ties after the end of regulation play of championship football games.  It is a rule which has been in effect for at least forty-nine years.  It first happened in 1958 when Avondale and Thomasville were named co-champions.  It happened again in 1969, 1978, 1991 and as recently as 2004 when Hawkinsville and Clinch County, two great teams, battled to a draw at the end of the fourth quarter.  Last Saturday, it happened twice.  Roswell and Peachtree Ridge were named co-champions of Class 5A following a tie in their championship game.  Regardless of the reasoning behind the rule, a rule is a rule.  It is just as much a part of the game as having two feet in bounds or being able to interfere with a receiver on a Hail Mary pass in the end zone and give the offended team the ball back fifteen yards from the original line of scrimmage.

I first arrived at the Shamrock Bowl just after 8:00 on Saturday morning.  I had been there with my son and two of my loyal band boosters three hours the night before getting the concession stands ready for the game the next day.  As I topped the hill by the fire department, I began to notice the tailgaters were already there.  A motor home had been in the Century Club parking lot all night, parked in a strategic location on the slope outside the fence  where it's occupants and guests could shed their shoes, climb on top and get an optimal and free view of the spectacle about to unfold.     My trusted and loyal fellow band boosters had six hours to get ready for the onslaught of thirsty and hungry fans who were scheduled to come through the gate at 2:00.  Did we have enough food?  We ordered as much as we could store.  When I think about it, every restaurant in Dublin could not accommodate eight thousand people in four hours.

I walked up the hill to see a line forming sometime around 11:00.  My friends Ronnie and Renee Green were the first to station themselves within inches of the gate.  I noticed everyone was sitting down, enjoying the moments.  Someone even brought along a bingo game to pass the time.  As we scurried about trying to meet the deadline, the aroma of steaks and burgers on the grill and the rapidly warming sunlight made things more pleasant.  It was as if the Super Bowl had come to Dublin.  By 12:30, the line continued to grow as if there was a big sale going on inside.  Everyone in the line began to stand.  By 1:45 the line was so enormous the game manager decided to open the gates fifteen minutes early.  I saw hundreds of people running or walking as fast as they could to stake out their usual seats.  It seemed like a bomb had gone off out in the parking lot.  Only the reserved seat holders knew they had a seat for sure. Within thirty minutes and with one hundred and five minutes before kickoff to go,  the home stands and the imported baseball bleachers  were crammed to near capacity.  One by one and then by the dozens people began to line up at the concession stand.    Drinks were sold so rapidly, you might have thought that the stand was in the middle of the Arizona desert.  There wasn't enough ice to cool the thousand gallons of drinks.

But at 4:00 the highly anticipated match between Dublin and Charlton County began.  As I focused my camera toward the south end zone, I was amazed at the immense congregation on the hill.  Never before had so many people come to a football game in Dublin.  I was dumbstruck.  I couldn't believe what was unfolding before my eyes.  I was nervous. We were all nervous.  Those nerves subsided once Dublin jumped to an early 10-0 lead.  I will admit that I laid down face up on the slope next to the band.  It was the near the same place where I used to sneak under the fence forty years ago on Sunday afternoons to play football where my heroes did.  In the clear blue late autumn sky I noticed a jet airliner passing above, its occupants and crew oblivious as to what was going on thirty thousand feet below them.

As the second quarter ended, Irish fans were smiling.  The band stepped it up and put on one of its best performances of the season.  I could have announced the show from the booth but I wanted to be on the field with my kids for one final time.  I checked back in the concession stand and we had made it through half time.   We did sell out the supply of all the peanuts we could order.  Everything was going well and then it happened.

Charlton County, the two-time defending state champions, roared back with a vengeance. The state appointed public address announcer kept on calling out positive plays as the boys from South Georgia moved the ball with relative ease.  With a touchdown within their grasp, the Irish defense formed a stone wall and kept the ball out of the end zone when Thomas Barnes intercepted a pass and kept the Irish ahead. Drew Griggs kicked the ball through the middle of the uprights in the south end zone to give the Irish a 13-0 lead.  Buried between the "B" and the "L" in that end zone was a shiny penny, found heads up lying next to the curb of the Friendly Gus Store  on Claxton Dairy Road just two days before.  I buried it there as a good luck piece early Saturday morning while no one was looking.  My son Scotty said he hoped that Drew would kick the winning field goal. Well he did.

Dublin couldn't move the ball against the stingy Charlton defense.  Once again Charlton came back down the field. Charlton's champions would not relent and scored.  Another touchdown brought the score  to 13-13.  Dwight Dasher, the Indian quarterback, punter and place kicker lined up to put his team in the lead.  Brandon Edmond managed to get the tips of his fingers  on the ball and the conversion attempt failed.  The score was still knotted at 13-13. Maybe the lucky penny worked.

Then the Irish stepped up like the true champions they are.  One time-consuming play after another exhausted the score board clock.  The drive stalled in the middle of the field.  Coach Roger Holmes made a decision.  It was his decision, the right decision.  He was not conceding defeat, he was playing to win.  Let every true Dublin football fan shun the doubters,  nay sayers and skeptics.  Many of them couldn't coach a team of grown men and beat the Dublin Irish.  After all, a major reason why there were some eight thousand people there Saturday afternoon was the countless days of preparation and brilliant planning that Dublin's coaching staff put in to get our team to the championship game.

As the clock ticked down to 0:00, I knew our team had just won the state championship. Many were expecting an overtime session.  As I looked around, I saw no cheering, only wide eyes and open mouths in stunned disbelief as the announcer proclaimed both teams as state champions.  As parents, classmates and friends swarmed the field, I remained with the band.   When director Louis Foster announced the next band song was "Last Night," I made my way down to the field.  Just as I promised, I danced the twist on the field after we had won the championship.  My partners deserted me and I was forced to dance solo and endure alone the laughs on the faces of those around me.

I then walked to the center of the field trying to congratulate the kids whom I have known and grown to admire over the last ten years.  No one was smiling.  Tears were streaming down from their eyes.  Ben Cochran was sobbing uncontrollably as Johnny Payne attempted to get his thoughts on the game.  It seemed as if he had let the team down. He didn't.  I saw Tina Cochran crying.  She couldn't understand why her son was crying.  I tried to comfort her.  I hugged her.  We hadn't been that close since we slow danced to the long version of the Beatles' Let it Be some thirty eight football seasons ago on the dance floor of the un air-conditioned Shanty.  Guy Cochran was holding back his tears as well.

I found nearly everyone I hugged was crying. I kept looking for Chris Williams, but never found him.  I only found out later that he injured himself twice during the game and was unable to play at the end of the game.  I too began to sob when I hugged Tyler Josey, whom I coached ten years before.  He smiled a little as he towered over me.  Other mothers were crying.  Some daddies were too.  But I kept on saying, "It's a win! It's a win! It's a win!"  Few remember that the first game ever played in the bowl was a 13-13 tie.

I turned off the light in the concession stand and got in my truck to go to Ruby Tuesday's to celebrate another Irish victory with my fellow band boosters.  I took the long way around to avoid the long caravan of vehicles headed south to Folkston.  It has been a tradition for the last two years.  This time the place was crowded with a mixture of Dublin and Charlton fans.  We complimented our guests at the next table on the play of their team and their band.  They returned the compliment.  They were happy and we were happy.

On Sunday morning I drove out to the Shamrock Bowl just to see the place one more time. Forty years ago I did the same thing on the morning after the game.  I expected to see a gang of probationers stuffing trash into bags.  The bowl was empty.  The only evidence that a game had been played there fourteen hours before was the saturation of the bleachers with peanut hulls, spilled popcorn, empty nacho containers, candy wrappers and partially eaten slices of pizza. As I scanned the concrete for extra copies of over priced generic programs, I observed newspapers, magazines and other items brought in by fans to pass the pre game hours.  I picked up shakers and gold megaphones, their shouts long dissipated.  I must have picked up two dozen discarded tickets, the once highly desired piece of paper that caused people to stand in line for hours and criticize school officials, who sold all the tickets they could get their hands on.  There was an empty drink bottle under nearly every seat.  But my eagle eyes never spotted a single cent lying on the ground.  Maybe everyone kept their lucky pennies in their pockets. I do have to say that the band sections on both sides of the stadium were literally free of litter.

As an alumni, band booster president and school board member, I am extremely proud of the young men of the Dublin Irish football team.  Through the leadership and dedication of a unparalleled coaching staff, these champions finished the job. They achieved their goal. No asterisk, no "yea, but," no vent poster, and no one,  and I mean no one, can ever take it away from them.  They are champions, true champions. 


The Best Boxer You Never Heard Of

Time and even his own daughter almost erased the memory of Jimmy Bivins from the minds of boxing fans.  Though you have probably never heard of him, Bivins, a native of Twiggs County, is regarded as one of the best boxers of his era.  While he never won a championship, Jimmy Bivins, is regarded by experts as one of the best Light Heavyweight Fighters of the 20th Century.

James Louis  “Jimmy” Bivins was born in Dry Branch, Georgia on December 6, 1919.  His parents, Allen and Fleta, lived on their farm on the Old Griswoldville Road in the Smith District of northwestern Twiggs County.  The Bivins joined many other African American families who migrated to work in the industrial complexes of the Northeast and Midwest, leaving their boll weevil infested red clay farm behind.

The Bivins moved to East 53rd Street in Cleveland, Ohio.  Allen worked as a fireman  for the Ohio Cleaning Company.  James and his sisters Viola, Maria and Fanny May attended the neighborhood school.    It was in when he was in his  teens when Jimmy learned how to box.  In his first celebrated match, Jimmy lost to Storace Cozy in the third round of the 147-pound class in the AAU Championship in San Francisco.  

Bivins entered the world of professional boxing as middleweight.  His first professional fight came in Cleveland on January 15, 1940 with a one round TKO over Emory Morgan.  His sixth straight professional victory came in April in Chicago in an eight-round decision over Nate Bolden.  Bivin’s remarkable streak of 19 consecutive wins, highlighted by ten-round victory over Charley Burley,  ended in his last match of the year, when he lost a rematch with Anton Christoforidis.  

Jimmy picked up right where he left off in 1941.  As a light heavyweight, he won six of eight bouts.  In his fourth and probably the most important match of his early career, Bivins beat Joey Maxim in a ten-round decision in a match fought at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland.  Maxim won the world light heavyweight championship in 1950.  In defense of his title in 1952, Maxim, a native of Cleveland,  beat challenger Sugar Ray Robinson in the only one of his 201 matches where he failed to answer the bell.  Bivins ended 1942 with a record of seven wins and one loss.  Ring magazine named him the number one contender in the heavyweight and light heavyweight classifications. 

In his opening bout of 1943, Bivins defeated Ezzard Charles, a fellow Georgian and regarded as the third greatest light heavyweight of the 20th Century, in ten rounds.  Bivins continued his meteoric career completing the year with eight victories and no defeats.  His win over Ami Mauriello earned Jimmy the Duration Heavyweight Title.  Bivins won his only match in 1944, a year which saw few matches while he served in the United States Army.  During that last full year of the war, Jimmy Bivins was known as the interim or unofficial  Heavyweight Champion of the World. 

Jimmy’s greatest victory came on August 22, 1945 in his adopted hometown of Cleveland.  In a six round technical knockout, he defeated Archie Moore, selected by the Associated Press as the best light heavyweight of the 20th Century.  He ended the war years with an astonishing record of 48 victories,  two defeats and a draw.

Bivins ran his win total to fifty-two before a devastating loss to Jersey Joe Walcott in the winter of 1946.  Until that point, Bivins had not lost a boxing match since June 22, 1942.   Jimmy lost again in June and didn’t fight until two weeks before Thanksgiving when he was defeated by Ezzard Charles  in the tenth round for his third consecutive loss.   

In 1947, Jimmy Bivins regained his winning style and won ten matches and only losing one.  He carried a five match winning streak into a rematch with Archie Moore, which he lost in the 10th round.  Just sixteen days later, he lost another ten round bout with Ezzard Charles.  After a six round exhibition match with the great Joe Louis on November 17, 1948, Jimmy lost his third match of the year, a defeat by fellow Clevelander Joey Maxim.  

Jimmy Bivins continued to win, garnering six wins in eight matches in 1949.  By 1949, his competition was becoming less noteworthy.  After winning one of only two bouts in 1950, once again Bivins put together seven match winning streak, which came to a screeching halt on August 15, 1951, when he lost a heavyweight match to Joe Louis.   His only consolation was his winnings.  Though he lost the match to one of the greatest fights ever, Bivins was paid $40,000.00 his largest cash prize ever.  His last great fight came in Chicago on November 26, 1952 when he lost to Ezzard Charles.  For the rest of his career, Jimmy could only manage to fight small time fighters.  He won his last four bouts, his final victory coming at home in Cleveland on October 28, 1955.    

After his retirement, Jimmy drove a bread truck for his day job.  But boxing was in his blood.  He trained amateur boxers in the Cleveland area for many years.  

One of the darkest moments in Jimmy Bivins’ life came not on the mat of a boxing room, but in the home of his own daughter.  Forced to live with his daughter after the death of his wife, Bivins was horribly mistreated by his daughter and her husband.  When Bivins failed to show up at the local gym, concerned friends went out to look for him.  Bivins was found in the attic of his daughter’s home, bundled in a urine-stained blanket, missing a portion of his finger, blind in one eye and emaciated down to 110 pounds.     It was the athlete in him that guided him through one of the toughest battles of his life.  Just like he did in the 1940s, Jimmy battled and won, regaining his old fighting weight.  His former pupil Gary Hovrath helped to bring his mentor back to the gym.  

In his 112 fight career, the 175-pound 5-foot 9 inch tall Bivins posted an illustrious record of 86 victories (thirty one by knockouts,) twenty-five losses, and one draw.  He fought seven members of the Boxing Hall of Fame, defeating four of them.  He squared off against eleven world champions, defeated eight of them, including Joey Maxim, Archie Moore and Ezzard Charles. 

Though he never won a boxing title,  the voters of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1999  recognized the remarkable achievements of Jimmy Bivins during the 1940s.   A five-man panel appointed by the Associated Press named Jimmy as the fifth greatest light heavyweight boxer of the 20th Century.  In commenting on his induction, the quiet Bivins remarked, “I knew one of these days they would recognize me.  I did the best I could.  I’m glad it was appreciated.” 

Saturday, November 22, 2014


King of the K's

Most of you who are baseball fans know that Roger Clemens and Kerry Wood hold the record for the most strikeouts in a regulation 9-inning major league game with 2o. You would have to be a baseball purist to know that Tom Cheney set the game record with 21 strikeouts in a 16-inning game.  Cristen Vitek of Baylor and Eileen Canney of Northwestern hold the NCAA record for 28 strikeouts in a game in sixteen and eighteen innings respectively.  But how many of you know that a former Dexter kid struck out 28 batters in a 9-inning high school game  for a world record.  Millard Whittle of Dexter remembers.  Mr. Whittle remembers a lot about a lot of things. After all, he has been around these parts for more than ninety years.  Mr. Whittle called me and related the story of Hugh Frank Radcliffe.  I was hooked and logged onto the Internet as fast as I could to see what I could find.

Hugh Frank Radcliffe was born on November 27, 1928 in Fort Valley, Georgia.  He spent his early years in the Dexter community.  Sometime during the end of the Great Depression, the Radcliffes moved to Thomaston, Georgia.  Hugh attended Robert E. Lee Institute in Thomaston.  Hugh, or Frank, or "Redbone," as his friends called him, was a four-sport star at R.E. Lee.   Radcliffe was an all state and all South  end and the best kicker in Georgia.  He was an all state guard in basketball and a state champion in the pole vault.  But his main sport was baseball.  Now you will see why.

Hugh was considered big for his day standing  six feet one and one half inches tall without his cleats on  and tipping the scale at 185 pounds.  He was as clean cut as any teenager could be.  His coach described him as unimpressed with accolades and one who disdained alcohol, tobacco and even ice cream sodas.

It was the year 1948.  Hugh was just about half way through his senior year in high school.  As a sophomore, Hugh led his team to the Georgia and Regional American Legion titles.  The game was to be played in Macon, Georgia.  The Rebels' opponents that day were the Poets from Lanier High School in Macon.  The Poets, including future big leager Coot Veal,  were no slouches.  The team had a winning tradition for many years.    The Poets no longer had Billy Henderson, a former Dublinite and a high school All-American baseball player.  Sporting a five-game winning streak, Lanier was always a strong team.  The date was April 19th. The place was Silvertown Ballpark.

Hugh struck out three batters to end the first inning.  The fans and coaches all must have said, "well, Frank's on today."  Then he struck out three batters in the second.  Somewhere during the game he struck out four batters in one inning.  Some of you might say, "how can that be?" Well, the reason is simple.  Under baseball rules, when a catcher drops a third strike and first base is not occupied and there is less than two outs, the runner can advance to first base.  The catcher, or another fielder, must retrieve the ball and throw it to first base.  If the runner beats the throw, he is awarded first base, but the pitcher is given credit for a strikeout.  Usually an error is given to the catcher or the pitcher for allowing the runner to advance. But, enough of the rules, back to the game.

Radcliffe struck out at least three batters in every inning for the rest of game.  High school boys played the old-fashioned game with nine innings.  They play only seven today  to give the boys more time to study, as if they were going home after a long ball game and crack open a chemistry text book.

But before you think that every Poet batter struck out, you would be wrong.   In all, only ten balls were touched by a Poet bat.  Seven were fouled off. One Lanier batter managed to get a hit.  Rebel Coach J.E. Richards commented on the single safety by charging it to an inattentive fielder "who was too accustomed to watching Radcliffe playing the game by himself."  Two other balls were mishandled by Hugh's teammates.  The Rebels plated ten runners and won the game 10-0.  The Macon Telegraph's very brief account of the  game credited the Poets with two hits and two dropped third strikes by Rebel catcher Whitten.

Word of "the one in a million feat" got out and scouts from colleges and professional ball clubs descended upon Thomaston like flies at a church picnic.  When these old baseball veterans saw Hugh pitch, they drooled.  They had plenty of opportunities to drool.  Not since School Boy Rowe and Bob Feller came into the limelight in the early 1930s had such a young pitcher drawn so much attention.  Scouts from the Tigers, Indians, Reds, Senators, Yankees, Pirates, Athletics and Crackers came to watch the sizzling sensation.

At the end of R.E. Lee's eighth game of the season, Radcliffe posted a record of six wins and no losses.  On May 19th, Radcliffe took the mound to face nearby Griffin High School.  Two thousand people showed up for the game, a high school game!  The right-handed hurler didn't disappoint the crowd.  Twenty-five Griffin batters were sent back to the dugout with a "K" by their name in the scorekeeper's book.  Radcliffe had an off day, giving up three, but his offensive gave him eighteen runs, so the outcome of the game was never in doubt.  Radcliffe boosted his season totals to 210 strikeouts in 81.67 innings, or 2.57 strikeouts per inning an astonishing 23.13 per game.  During his senior season, he threw three no-hitters, allowing only 18 hits and giving up three unearned runs for a mind-boggling ERA of 0.37.    During that magical season, Radcliffe struck out 50 consecutive batters and 97 in four nine-inning games. By the way, Hugh hit .450 that season.

With all of the praise and accolades piled on him, Radcliffe's high school career game to a disappointing end.  He lost in front of 4,000 fans in the first game of the playoffs, 8-6.  Many of them came to the game on the twenty-six buses parked out in the parking lots and down the streets.  The scouts blamed it on the team and their nine errors, not due to their highly sought after prize, who struck out twenty-four.

The Philadelphia Phillies won the bidding war between 14 teams,  satisfying Hugh and especially his mother.  The young fireballer was assigned to the Phillies' Wilmington, Delaware club with a forty thousand-dollar check in the bank.  Radcliffe pitched well and was moved up to Toronto.    Soon Frank became the property of the New York Yankees and enjoyed a brief stint with the big club before returning to the minor league with the Syracuse Chiefs, Kansas City Blues  and the Birmingham Barons in addition to assignments in Binghamton and Beaumont.

Hugh Radcliffe didn't make it to the current National High School record book.  I guess they don't go back that far, or they just don't have folks like Millard Whittle to remind them of that spring day nearly sixty years ago when a Dexter boy became the "King of Ks," the "Wizard of Whiffs" and the "Sultan of Strikeouts."

Thursday, May 15, 2014


All You Have To Do Is Dream

Every kid whoever picked up a baseball has dreamed that one day he would pitch in the major leagues.   Tens of millions of tried, only a dozen thousand or so have ever toed the rubber of a big league mound and thrown his best pitch toward an awaiting slugger.  This is the story of Larry Foss, a former Dublin Irish pitcher, and who he achieved his dream of becoming a major league pitcher and in the process winning his very first game against one of the game's most feared and revered pitchers, only to lose all of his remaining games on the worst team in professional baseball history.

Larry Curtis Foss was born in Castleton, Kansas on April 18, 1936, seventy years ago today.  Foss was drafted out of West High School in Wichita by the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Inthe summer before his senior year at West High, Foss grew an amazing eight inches to a height of six feet two inches, a stature which greatly helped the speed of his pitches.   The young pitcher was assigned to the Dublin Irish, the organization's Class D entry in the Georgia State League.

During the 1955 season Foss appeared in 23 games posting an average record of four wins and four losses.  His earned run average of 5.51 runs per game was not good and his future in baseball was in doubt.  In eighty innings of pitching, he gave up 72 hits and 82 bases on balls.  His strikeout ratio of seven per game was not too bad for a 19-year-old hurler more than a thousand miles away from home.  There were no designated hitters in that era and Foss was expected to hit as well as pitch. In 28 at bats, he managed to bat a respectable .250 with seven runs batted in.  In a sign of times to come, Foss ended his first year in professional baseball playing on one of the worst minor league teams ever assembled in Dublin.  The Irish finished fifth out of six teams that season under the helm of George Kinnamon.  George Arent, the team's best offensive player that year, couldn't break the .300 mark, finishing with a batting average of .294.  Jim Hardison was one of the league's best pitchers, but couldn't help Foss from the bench.

Foss bounced around the minor leagues for six more seasons.  His first taste of being in the major leagues came on March 11, 1960 when he came in relief against the Baltimore Orioles.  He had control problems, but managed to give up only one run in two innings. Four days later he was brought in relief against the Kansas City Athletics.  The first eight Athletics batters reached base.  Ten runs scored.  Foss's teammates got him off the hook when they scored eleven more runs to win the game. A March 25th appearance wasn't much better.  He gave up four straight walks against the Senators before being pulled from the game.  But Larry Foss refused to give up. He worked hard and pitched well for the Asheville Pirates of the Sally League.

Just when it looked as if he would never pitch in the majors, Larry got a call from the Pittsburgh Pirates in the last weeks of September 1961. He was numb and exhilarated at the same time.  Foss drove from Asheville, North Carolina to join the Pirates.  The Pirates, the 1960 World Series Champions, were in a slump.  With the memories of Bill Mazeroski's championship winning walk off home run against the Yankees still fresh in their minds, the Bucs lingered in sixth place in the eight team National League.

Foss remembered, "I get into the clubhouse and Danny Murtaugh, (the Pirates manager), says, "You're pitching tonight."   Not only was he pitching, but he was starting. What the young pitcher didn't realize was that his opponent that night was a another 25- year-old pitcher for the Cardinals, Bob Gibson.  Though he was still striving for his abominable hard driving style which catapulted him to the position as the National League's best pitcher and eventually into the Baseball Hall of Fame, Gibson was still an imposing opponent.

It was a cool evening in Pittsburgh on September 18th.   As he took his warmup pitches, Foss peered around the vast confines of Forbes Field.  Tradition was all around him.  The pressure was on.  It must have seemed to Larry that it was now or never.   He walked Curt Flood, Julian Javier and Bill White to load the bases.  The first three pitches to the cleanup hitter Ken Boyer veered outside the strike zone.  Then somehow Larry gathered himself and managed to get out of the inning without a single Cardinal runner crossing the plate.  The Pirates took the lead, which they held until the fifth inning when Foss gave up the first run of his career.  The Pirates bounced back with two runs in the bottom of the inning and five more in the seventh stanza.  Foss pitched to two batters in the eight before being relieved by Harvey Haddix and Elroy Face, two of the game's best relievers.  The Pirates held on to win 8-6.  Foss gave up three runs, two of them earned.  He struck out five and walked six. Larry had done it. He won his very first major league game and beat Bob Gibson and held the legendary Stan Musial to one hit  in the process. He never won another regular season game.

Two weeks later, Larry took the mound against the Cincinnati Reds.  Foss gave up three runs in the first inning and three more in the sixth lowering his record to 1 and 1. A third start resulted in a no decision.  At the end of his first season, Larry Foss had accumulated a record of 1-1 with an ERA of 5.87.

After a stint in the winter Dominican League in 1961, Larry returned to the Pirates spring training camp in 1962 with high hopes of making the team's roster.  Larry returned to his superb form of his first start when he pitched three scoreless innings against the Mets. His blazing fastball caught the eye of the venerable Met manager Casey Stengel, who had led the New York Yankees to an unprecedented string of World Championships, but who was then managing the cross town Mets in their inaugural season.  Foss won his next game against the Twins.   Larry didn't make the roster, but enjoyed a good season at Asheville with a record of 10-5. He was placed on waivers by the Pirates.  Stengel, one of the game's greatest sages, remembered Foss, whom he called "Foos"  and convinced the team's general manager to pick up the promising rookie for the $20,000.00 wavier price.

Larry Foss pitched his first game for the 1962 Mets.  He lost to the Colt .45s on September 19th.    Larry pitched well in relief in a 3-2 loss to the Cubs 9 days later.  The Mets lost 120 of 160 games that year, the worst team record in the history of major league baseball.  He returned to training camp in 1963.  His last appearance for the Mets came on April 3, 1963, when he gave up one run in one inning against the Reds.  He was picked up by the Milwaukee Braves and assigned to their Denver AAA team.  Larry left professional baseball with arm problems, but pitched his hometown Service Auto Glass team to the 1964 National Baseball Congress World Series championship.   He worked in the oil and gas business for twenty plus years before moving to the mountains of Colorado, where he enjoyed fishing and hunting. Larry Foss returned to Wichita in 1993 to open a sporting goods store.  

Larry Foss loved baseball.   Despite his short major league career he fondly remembers his victory against Bob Gibson, his favorite pitcher, and being a member of  the hapless 1962 Mets.  He told a reporter from the Wichita Eagle, I had no idea that team would become as legendary as it has.  I would have grabbed a jersey or something or gotten some balls autographed."  All he has to remind him of being a member of baseball's worst team is his old cap.  But dreams do come true.  Hard work and determination can take you  to high places.   All you have to do is dream. Happy Birthday Larry!


During eight weeks in the spring of 1914, brawny behemoths climbed into the ring on the stage of Dublin’s elegant Bertha Theater to battle each other to determine just who was the best wrestler in the land.  In April and May 1914, several of the country’s greatest wrestlers fought it out in a series of matches under the promotion of Harry P. Diggs, the Bertha’s manager and an amateur song writer.

Big time wrestling debuted in the Middle Georgia area in the autumn of 1913 when “Big Jack” Leon defeated Gus Kerveras at the Old Armory in Macon. For the next seven months, Diggs’ wrestlers fought it out in Macon, Columbus and Dublin.

The first match at the Bertha came on the evening of April 3, 1914 in a bout which pitted Dr. Ben F. Roller, (LEFT) a real physician, against Billy Jenkins and Mort Henderson.  Handicapped from the start, Roller  had to wrestle the men back to back - Henderson being his greatest nemesis.  Roller,  a former professional football player, easily took Jenkins in 16 minutes.  Still weary from wrestling Zbyszko in Birmingham the week before, Henderson held his own against his famous opponent Roller, a three time American Heavyweight Champion.

The following year, Henderson would try something new in the wrestling arena.  He was credited with being the first wrestler to don a mask to hide his identity, wrestling as “The Masked Marvel.”

A rematch was set for April 9 in what promoter Diggs proclaimed as “The American Championship.”  With several Maconites who had come down on a special M.D. & S. train in attendance,   Roller was “at his best from start to finish, and the champion’s best is about the best there is in the wrestling business,” wrote the Courier Herald.  Roller took the first round in 51 minutes with a leg and arm hold.  In the second round, a Courier Herald writer wrote, “The doctor went after Mort like a large sized tornado” in defeating Henderson, who had gone toe to toe with Jack Leon in Macon the night before, in less than ten minutes before a near capacity crowd.

Greek wrestler Gus Kerveras jumped into the ring and urged the champion to go another round.  Roller’s manager, Billy Sandow, a professional wrestler himself and one of the sport’s most well known managers, objected as Roller had already fought enough during the evening.  Sandow did agree to allow his champ, to return to the ring the following night to fight the grandiose Greek.

Roller, a clean sportsman and of Greek ancestry himself, kept his word and climbed into the ring the next evening.  “The bout was a cross between science on one side and plain every day ‘head buttin’ on the other,” a Courier Herald writer reported.  Despite his aggressive manner, the powerful Kervarus, not exactly a fan favorite by the small crowd,  was defeated for the first time by Roller, who won the first fall in 48 minutes and the second one in only 4 minutes.

The third week of the season featured a match in which Henderson, Dublin’s favorite wrestler, defeated  Paul Sampson, a giant German journeyman wrestler.

Another “championship bout” was on the card for the fourth week.  Promoters, who expected Dublin’s largest wrestling crowd ever,  provided for a special train for fans  to leave Macon at 6:00 o’clock and return to Macon a half-hour after the match was over all for the sum of $3.00 for the train ride and a ringside ticket.

Mort Henderson’s  (LEFT AS THE MASKED MARVEL) throng of local supporters filled the Bertha Theater.  His opponent was Jack Leon, a wrestler on the rise, who was making his first appearance in Dublin.

Leon, a long-legged, ugly-looking, big boned, Swedish, bulldog of a  wrestler, was on his game, taking the offensive from the beginning.  Henderson’s supporters hoped that Leon (LEFT)  would wear himself out with his strong efforts.  Those hopes were dashed at the 49 minute point of the 60 minute round.  The second and deciding fall came when Henderson fell half way through the round.

The final match of the 1914 wrestling season came on May 22, 1914.  Jack Leon, still celebrating his championship victory over Mort Henderson three weeks before at the Bertha, was slated to fight Ed “The Strangler” Lewis.    Diggs, in order to boost the attendance in the final fight, offered a purse of $300.00 to the wrestlers in addition to their share of the gate receipts.  Diggs, backed by wealthy, prominent Dublin boosters, was once again boosting the encounter as the most sensational match ever held in Dublin.   All women were admitted free of charge.

“Eddie Lewis, who by the way is a handsome youngster, beside a strangler of international fame, is one of the classiest and fastest wrestlers in the business,” proclaimed  the Courier Herald.

The writer was correct. Lewis (LEFT) used his strangle hold to win six World Heavyweight Championships and a have dozen state and regional championships.  “The Strangler” was inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2002.  Lewis’ manager, Billy Sandow, once issued a $10,000 challenge to Jack Dempsey that Lewis could beat him in any ring anywhere in 20 minutes or less.

Lewis took the first round when he used his patented “strangle hold” on Leon a quarter of the way through the first round.  Leon turned the momentum in his favor, when he caught Lewis in a half Nelson nearly half way through the second stanza.

Referee Harry Diggs called the match for Lewis, when once again, the “Strangler” put his strangle hold on Leon at the twenty minute mark for the victory.

That summer, the voters of Dublin inexplicably decided to ban wrestling at the Bertha Theater.   Just when Wrestlemania was peaking and fans were thrilled every week, it was all but gone from the city.  Dr. Roller did return to Dublin two years later in 1916 to defeat the Frenchman, Constant Lemarin, (LEFT)

Wrestlemania never really returned to Dublin.  In the 1920s and throughout the 1930s, boxing became the pugilistic preference of Dublin’s contact sport fans.   Over the years, promoters booked matches in high school gyms and in the Laurens County Ag Center to entertain a new generation of wrestlemaniacs.

But, none of these overly fake wrestling matches can compare to those days of a century ago when Dublin, along with Macon and Columbus, featured some of the best wrestlers in the country in Wrestlemania 1914.


Baseball’s Barnstorming Belles

A century ago,  baseball teams with women players were somewhat of a novelty.  The all-women teams, with the exception of one or two essential male players, made a nearly modest living traveling throughout the country, playing in big cities and little towns against all  male teams, usually a squad formed from local boys and young men.  Such was the case with the Indianapolis Star Bloomer Girls, who traveled through Georgia in the spring of 1914, stopped in Dublin for a contest against our local team.

“Bloomer Girls” teams were formed in different parts of the country from New England to the Mid West.  The teams were not all women. Many hired a male player, “a topper”  to pitch or catch.  Among three of the most famous toppers, some of whom wore wavy wigs, were Hall of Fame infielder Rogers Hornsby, who would return to Dublin with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1933,  Smoky Joe Wood a star pitcher for the Boston Red Sox in the years before World War I and another Hall of Fame pitcher, Grover Cleveland Alexander. 

Named for Adelaide  Bloomer, a woman’s rights activist, the Bloomer Girls began in the 1890s and lasted for more than four decades when women’s professional baseball teams disbanded in the mid 1930s.  The Girls, who originally wore loose-fitting bloomer pants  before switching to more traditional baseball pants, helped to introduce night baseball games in the early 1900s.  Used to playing at night, the blinding glare of the arc lights often gave the Bloomer Girls a decided advantage to their daylight playing competitors. 

After spending the winter training in Cuba, the Bloomer Girls, managed by Frank Schmalz - the brother of former Cincinnati Reds owner George Schmalz,  began a grueling schedule in February 1914, playing first in New Orleans and then playing on most days across the Deep South.  

Eastman was the first stop on the Georgia schedule for the Bloomer Girls, who billed themselves as the “Lady Champions of the World,”  on April 20, 1914.   One thousand or more baseball fans and curious spectators witnessed the Eastman Boys jump out to an early 5-0 lead at the end of three innings.  The Bloomer Girls committed eight errors in the game, but managed to pull within two runs with a three-run six inning. Eastman’s catcher Wright had a big day with three hits, while Eastman starting pitcher, Henry Skelton, held the Girls in check for most of the game. 

The Star Bloomer Girls traveled from Eastman to Dublin by train for a game  on the afternoon of April 21, 1914.  Under fair, warming skies the teams took the field, most likely at the 12th District Fairgrounds at the corner of Telfair and Troup Streets.  There may have been as many as 1500 fans on hand to see the game.

Although no specific accounts of the game have survived, the Dublin boys scored single runs in the first and third innings before plating four to take a commanding 6- 0lead in the bottom of the 5th inning.  With outstanding fielding, the Dublin boys held the Girls to a single run in the top of the 8th, taking an easy 7-1 victory with the pitching of Whetor.  Margaret “Peg” Cunningham,  the left-handed, nineteen-year-old,  star pitcher for the Girls,  started for the Bloomers until she was relieved by Loyd, who pitched well in relief.  The Dublin boys boasted that they had the second greatest victory by a Georgia team against the Bloomers, only a single run behind the boys from LaGrange. 

Margaret "Peg" Cunningham and Minnie Fay Phelan, Feb. 1914

Among the girls playing in Dublin that day were: Selma Wanbaum, an eight-year veteran at first base,  “Happy” Murphy, the team comedian and second baseman with six year’s experience, and third baseman Elizabeth “Lizzie” Fargo.  Playing left field was “Carrie Nation,” aka Mae Arbaugh, who reportedly played in 6,486 professional baseball games (and at least 4600 as reported by Baseball Magazine in 1931.)  If true, Arbaugh would have surpassed Pete Rose for the most games played by a professional baseball player. 

Marie  Dierl took center field and Watsworth, right field. Minnie Fay Phelan, sister of Chicago Cub infielder, Art Phelan, and the Girls’ right handed pitcher, once pitched a 3-2, 14-inning complete game against the men of Syracuse.  Jack Reilly, a semi-pro player, was the sole male member of the team and usually played the key stone position at shortstop.  

Margaret Cunningham was regarded as the best female pitcher of her day.  Seems that Margaret learned how to pitch under the mentorship of Ed Walsh, a Hall of Fame pitcher, who played with the Chicago White Sox for most of his career and who still holds the all time record lowest (1.82) career ERA.  One of Cunningham’s greatest pitching victories came in 1913 when she defeated Louisville, Kentucky’s male team 2-1 in an 11-inning complete game victory.  
The next stop on the swing through Central Georgia came on the 22nd of April in a game between the Star Bloomers and Hawkinsville. 

On the 24th, the Girls traveled to Macon to play an All Star team made up of members of the Central City League.  Margaret “Peg O’ My Heart” Cunningham started the game in front of more than a thousand men and their wives.

At the end of three innings, Cunningham, obviously exhausted from pitching too many innings on too many days, cried out, “Oh, my!  I am tired.  Take me out!”   With their star pitcher on the bench, things weren’t looking up for the Bloomers, who were playing their fourth straight day of baseball, all on the road and far, far from their homes.  

With three men playing against the powerful Macon team, the Bloomer Girls’ Mr. John came into pitch, holding the Macon nine scoreless for the rest of the game.  The Girls fought back scoring  one in the 6th inning and two runs in each of the next two stanzas to squeak by the Macon men, 5-4.

The next day, the girls traveled to Atlanta to face the Atlanta Federals, a semi-pro team, whom they upset in front of a stunned crowd.  

The Bloomer Girls continued their swing through Georgia in May playing teams from Columbus, Talbotton, LaGrange and the Bibb Mills team from Macon.  Bloomer boosters claim that the Bibb Mills team had to import players to keep the girls from sweeping the two-game series from Macon men. 

By the time the Star Girls made it to Montgomery, Alabama, they had won five games  in a row. Managers of the men’s capital city’s team scoured the countryside for men with semi-pro experience to prevent further embarrassment to the ego of the men of the “Yellowhammer State.”   The Montgomery team assembled a team which they deemed to have “the best amateur infield in the state.”    The bought and paid for  team won, but the Bloomer Girls kept right on playing throughout the summer and throughout the nation, playing as many as two hundred games a year.

Those who saw the “Star Bloomer Girls” went away believing that baseball’s  barnstorming belles in dark uniforms with a big star on the front were not just novelties, but an aggregation of good baseball players who could hold their own with the best men that any city or town could send out to beat them.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


More Umpires of Lovett Park

From 1949 to 1956 and again in 1958 and in 1962, Dublin fielded a team in the Class D Georgia State and Georgia-Florida Leagues.  For many of those ten seasons, the leagues’ umpires were based in Dublin.  Eight umpires, who called games in Dublin and around South Georgia, combined for 123 seasons in the major leagues. Seven of the “Men in Blue” umpired 19 World Series and 18 All Star games. From 1961 through 1986, only three times (1963, 1964 and 1984) were none of these men on the field for either the World Series or the All Star Game.  

       You may have read about Harry Wendlestedt and  John Kibler, who are potential inductees into the National Baseball Hall of Fame after iconic careers spanning a third and a quarter of a century respectively.  There was also 15-year-veteran Russ Goetz and Cal Drummond, who died during a minor league game one game before his return to the majors.  Now, I will tell the stories of four other “blues,” who made it to the big show.  

Harry Wendlestedt 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 John Kibler

                                        Cal Drummond

           Russ Goetz 

William Haller, brother of Major League catcher Tom Haller, broke into umpiring in the Georgia-Florida League in 1958.    It didn’t take long for Haller to run into his main nemeses, Earl Weaver, the player-manager of the Dublin Orioles.  Haller joined the American League in 1963 after working the New York - Penn, Northwest, Pacific Coast and International leagues.   When Weaver was named the manager of the Baltimore Orioles in 1968, Haller and Weaver frequently went head to head, nose to nose and toe to toe in several of the most heated, foul mouthed arguments ever seen in a major league game.  (Check it out on You Tube)

Haller officiated 3,068 regular season games in the American League from 1961 and from 1963–1982. He also worked 15 American League Championship Series games in four series (1970, 1973, 1976 and 1980), 27 World Series contests in four different years (1968 -Tigers/Cardinals,1972-Athletics/Reds,1978-Yankees/Dodgers, and 1982- Brewers/Cardinals) and four All-Star games (1963, 1970, 1975 and 1981.) Haller was the home plate umpire when Carl Yastrzemski got his 3000th major league hit on September 12, 1979.

Anthony “The Pope”  Venzon came to the Georgia State League from Thurber, Texas. Venzon, who spent four years in the U.S. Army during World War II, played a little ball before the war.  In his first season in the minors, Venzon called several games featuring the Dublin Green Sox.  

After one season in the league, Venzon moved up the ladder first to the Provincial League and the Eastern League, before winding up his minor league career with three seasons under his belt. (1954-1956.)   Venzon was selected as an umpire in the National League in 1956.  

Over his 15 years in the majors, Venzon was honored to call World Series games in 1963-Yankees/Dodgers, 1965-Twins/Dodgers, and 1970-Orioles/ Mets.  Venzon called All Star games in 1959, 1962 and 1969.    Four times during his career, Venzon drew the assignment to call from behind home plate no-hit games (Don Cardwell-Cubs-1960, Jim Maloney-Reds, 1965, Earl Wilson-Astros-1969, and Dock Ellis-Pirates-1970, which puts him tied for fourth place in major league history for behind the plate no-hitters. 

Tony Venzon, who called 2,226 games during his career,  died at the age of 56 near the end of the 1971 season, after missing the entire year because of cardiac health problems.

Henry “Hank Morgenweck’s first appearance as a professional umpire came in the Georgia State League during the 1954 season when the Dublin Irishmen, a newly affiliated team in the Pirates organization, enjoyed one of their better seasons.  

After one season in the Georgia State League, Hank worked in the Carolina and  South Atlantic Leagues, before voluntarily retiring after the 1960 season.  Morgenweck returned to the game after more than a dozen year absence when he joined the American League.  In an inauspicious Major League debut in the first game of the 1970 National League Championship Series, Morgenweck was a part of a minor league crew asked to call the first game of the series when the regular umpires staged a strike against Major League Baseball.   

In his five-year stint in the majors, one of Hank Morgenweck’s biggest moments behind the plate came on June 1, 1975 at Anaheim Stadium.  Calling the game from behind the plate, Hank watched history in the making.  For nine innings, the Baltimore Orioles, managed by former Dublin Oriole manager, Earl Weaver, made it to first base only four times, each time on walks.  The Angel pitcher struck out one of three batters in a close 1-0 victory.  The California pitcher, who set the American League career record for no-hitters with four and tied Sandy Koufax’s National League record, was the great Nolan Ryan, who retired with seven no-hitters in his career. It was Hank’s second n0-no, his first one coming on July 19, 1974 when Dick Bosman of the Cleveland Indians no hit the defending World Champion Athletics.

Hank Morgenweck ended his career on a high note as a member of the umpiring crew working the 1975 American League Championship series.  He died in 2007. 

One long time National League Umpire, Paul Pryor played for three days as a member of the Baxley Cardinals of the Georgia State League in 1949.    From 1961 to 1981,  Pryor umpired almost 3,100 games.  He umpired in three World Series (1967, 1973 and 1980), four League Championship Series (1970, 1974, 1977 and 1981) and three All-Star Games (1963, 1971 and 1978).

Ed Vargo, a National League umpire from 1960 to 1983, was assigned to the Georgia Florida League from 1954-1956.   Jerry Neudecker, who worked the Georgia-Florida League in 1950, worked thousands of games in the National League from 1966 to 1985. 

Theodore Max Howe, who called games in the Georgia State League in 1952, came close to making it to the big leagues, finishing his career with three seasons in the AAA Pacific Coast League.

Two of the most famous umpires to call in a baseball game here were not really umpires at all.  In an exhibition game between the St. Louis Cardinals and Oglethorpe University, two members of St. Louis’ “Gas House Gang,” Dizzy Dean (right)  and “Pepper” Martin (left)  were asked to help officiate the game.   The game, played at the old 12th District Fairgrounds in the early spring of 1933, was part of Dublin’s Homecoming Day.

So, as we kick off yet another baseball season, here’s to you, the eleven “Men In Blue,” who, in their early years in baseball, called “America’s Greatest Pastime,” right here on our own “Fields of Dreams.”