To welcome Black History Month, Dad shares his memories of baseball – an encounter with his all-time favorite player – and the impact of these memories throughout his life. Thank you , Reverend Dr. Wilson Felix Haynes, Jr. for being today’s guest blogger and sharing your stories and your own father’s stories – and for instilling in your children a deep love of and respect for all people.
I have always loved baseball. As kids in the early 1950s, we played sandlot baseball behind the grammar school at Gilchrist Park in Waycross, Georgia, where Willie Clyde Oxford could hit the ball over the bamboo fence. We all collected Topps baseball cards from the iconic candy case in Haynes’ grocery store – the hub of that blue collar part of town. I still collect baseball cards.
My dad, Reverend W. F. Haynes, Sr., sold peanuts at Old Nine Baseball park as a boy. Old Nine was the number of the nearby railroad passenger stop in this railroad town. Mostly he sold them outside the ballpark, but peanut sellers could go inside and sell their peanuts if they got a foul ball and took it to the ticket booth (I would have kept the ball). He always arrived early and sold most of his peanuts outside the ballpark of the ACL Railroaders, a Minor League team in the Georgia-Florida league.
Among those players who came early to the park was a player-coach on the oft- opponents Savannah team. This player drove a paneled woodie station wagon and sold all kinds of things out of the back of his car before the game. He had once played Major league baseball and “retired” early, but still loved the game. Dad enjoyed his encounters with this unique ball player and probably bought from him a popular toy of the day – a Duncan Yo-Yo! That player- coach just happened to be the legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson!
I had a conversation with Kermit Carter of Jesup, Georgia, who attended First Baptist Church when I was pastor there. Journalists came from all over to talk baseball with Kermit, a historian of Southern Minor League baseball, who confirmed the stories that my dad told about Shoeless Joe. Kermit, an outfielder on the Waycross team, said, ”Oh yes, I remember Shoeless Joe well. In that park, I caught fly balls off his bat on occasion– when they didn’t go out of the ballpark! He was really something to see.”
Only later did Dad and Kermit learn the full story.
Ty Cobb, the great Georgia Peach, said of Jackson, “He was the finest natural hitter in the history of the game. He was batting against spit balls, shine balls, emery balls and all kinds of trick pitch deliveries now outlawed. He had no scientific knowledge about the game. He just swung. He could have been the most phenomenal player ever!”
Babe Ruth said, “I copied his swing, the greatest player I had ever seen.” These quotes could continue about Shoeless. I commend the script writer of the movie “Eight Men Out,” about the Black Sox team for whom Jackson played and was accused in the Black Sox scandal of accepting money and fixing the 1919 World Series. I do not think Jackson was guilty. The famous quote by a kid when Shoeless left the courtroom was, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” History validates and vindicates Jackson. Even public opinion did not diminish the recognition of his superior baseball talent.
My Dad interacted with one of baseball’s greatest players and the most compelling figures of the game and told hundreds of stories. If only he had gotten an autograph! Shoeless Joe’s signature is one of the rarest of all the great players. I am both proud and envious that Dad had that experience and could share his memories about the memorable players he met at the Old- Nine Park.
My mother’s brother, my uncle A.G. Harris, was one of the nicest people you would ever meet. He owned a Piper-Cub airplane and would give us occasional rides. The Milwaukee Braves spring training camp was near the Ware County Airport, and he gave many of the ball players airplane rides for enjoyment and developed a good relationship with the team. One afternoon, he took me to the camp, where he had some clout and appreciation. I was 9 years old and met the Braves’ best player, Eddie Matthews, who gave me a colorful Indian Chief patch from an old jersey, a treasure I passed on to my son, Ken. I became an avid life-long Braves fan because my uncle AG treated me to this thrilling boyhood adventure!
I listened to the Waycross Braves team almost every night on the radio and still remember most of the players’ names. One year, I had occasion to go to Memorial Stadium to watch the Waycross Braves play an exhibition game against the Jacksonville Braves minor league team. Those scenes stayed etched in my memory because the Jacksonville Braves had a young phenomenal player soon to play for the big Milwaukee Braves team. On that day, Henry Aaron hit 3 massive homeruns over the left fence into the adjacent Newton field. In the coming years, I would run High school track on Newton field and think about that game. I savor that memory and all because of it, I became a lifelong Hank Aaron fan. I followed his career through 715 home runs and more. He became an idol to me in my feverish love of baseball.
Imagine my excitement when the Braves came to Atlanta! It was truly an act of God just for me! I went to the very first major league game there in the first ballpark when I was a student at Mercer University in Macon (Pete Rose was playing for the Macon team at that time).
Beyond Mercer, I attended Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky in 1966, moving there from Georgia with my wife, Miriam, and our young daughter, Kim. In the summer of my first year, I became the Pastor of the Port Royal Baptist Church just 35 miles from the Seminary. This picturesque village town was situated on the Kentucky River. The sanctuary had beautiful stained-glass and was an ornately captivating place of worship. Attendance ran around 100, and it was a sound economic area owing to cattle and burley tobacco.
I was “different” and well received. Pastoring there was a fun experience and a tremendously profitable learning time. Lillian Pollard was a great mentor to whom I will always be indebted. One of the best historical novels which receives rave reviews is entitled Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry, poet Laureate of Kentucky and member of Port Royal Baptist Church. The book is the enthralling story of Port Royal, Kentucky.
In September of 1967, our Brotherhood planned a trip to Cincinnati to see the Reds play the Atlanta Braves in the days of the Big Red machine. These men took me to dinner in Cincy and to the ball game, feeling highly optimistic about the Reds’ chances. This was a memorable time shared by preacher and parishioners – a dozen of us on a Friday night at the old ball-park. This would become for me a never- to- be forgotten experience in more ways than one.
The seats were spectacularly situated seven rows behind the Braves dugout. What a view! I heard the words, “Play Ball!” Time for excitement.
The Reds’ pitcher, Milt Pappas, hit a two- run homer in the third inning – right over the centerfield scoreboard! Pitchers do not hit like that. But then again, Tony Cloninger was in the Braves dugout. Tony , a pitcher for the Braves, in an earlier season had hit two grand-slam homeruns and a bases-loaded double in the same game for the record number of 10 RBIs. My friends were ecstatic and having fun with the Johnny Bench-Pete Rose Reds whipping the preacher’s Braves. But I know how to be a good sport. The game was thereafter a great pitcher’s duel between the Braves’ Ron Reed and Reds’ Milt Pappas.
The sixth inning score was 2-1 Reds. Felix Millan (no kin) singled for the Braves. Two outs. Hank Aaron came to the plate. I cheated and whispered, “Lord please.” There’s no praying in Baseball. Is there? I just had a feeling something good was about to happen. So, I boldly held up two fingers and shouted, “TWO!” indicating the Hammer was about to drop. They understood that I was arrogantly calling the shot – predicting a 2-run homer.
And it happened! I hollered with excitement, “TWO! TWO!” I was thinking maybe this bolstered a prophetic status as their preacher.
I hadn’t seen the beer vendor in the aisle. Honestly. Suddenly, two beers were coming my way. A Baptist preacher with the Baptist brotherhood ordering 2 beers. That ain’t kosher! My brothers knew I had been calling for a two- run homer and not 2 beers. However, they did not make any attempt to halt the transaction. So much for the prophet status. I think John the Baptist may have consumed some wine to neutralize the alkaline in the water. Fortunately, two fellows seated behind me said, “If he doesn’t want’em, we’ll take em.” God delivered Daniel from a Lion’s den and me from a testy- moment. My friends saw how God intervenes!
How can a trip to a ballgame get any better? But it did!
After the Braves hit in the seventh inning, during the stretch time, Morgan Perry, a well-to-do cattleman and person with some Kentucky clout said, “Preacher, come with me.” There was an usher standing near the Braves dug-out gate. He opened it for me to enter and there stood Hank Aaron! Morgan Perry had prearranged this opportunity. He told the Cincinnati- brass about their preacher and his love for the Braves. I had a 10-minute memorable conversation with the Hammer, who had hit a home run in that game! I told Aaron about seeing his 3- homerun game in Waycross at age 10. His eyes sparkled with excitement in that memory, and the bond was immediate. I added that I was pulling for him to win the homerun crown that year. (He did). I had a new friend in that packed moment with the all- time great Hank Aaron, at least for one shining moment. I knew then he was a gentleman and a person of unusual character. As the world knows, Hank Aaron was a vital person in positive breakthroughs in the world of racial relations – always a class act. The Braves won the game. I had a great time, unintentional Beer-ordering and all – and I got Hank Aaron’s autograph!
You cannot imagine the atmosphere at church on the following Sunday. One person said, “I heard you had a great time at the Ballpark. Did you order peanuts to go with the beverages?”- and lot of other fun comments in a friendly teasing manner. That “awkward” occasion became a time of deepening the human bond with that Church family.
I returned to Kentucky recently, along with Dink Nesmith, a Georgia newspaperman who wanted to interview Wendell Berry regarding his views on environmental protection. The Sunday afternoon meeting had been prearranged with Wendell. The Church, aware of our coming, arranged for an after- worship dinner for the return of a former Pastor. The dinner was classic and delicious with the choice Kentucky dishes. Dink was impressed. I was reminded 45 years later of the beer- event at the ballgame, all in fun. I find it rather amazing that such simple moments in life, like that ball game, hold the value of a sermon, and sometimes more because it opens the door to be heard in a unique way. I learned again the need that people have for their pastors to be real and non- pious.
Back to Aaron. I have read all the books by and about Hank Aaron. The story of his impact is well-chronicled. Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson were history-altering people. Aaron’s autobiography, If I Had a Hammer, records the story of his remarkable journey. The Atlanta Braves won the World Series the very year after the deaths of Phil Niekro and Hank Aaron! Coincidental?
From my own dad’s encounters with Shoeless Joe to my life-long love of baseball, I hallow the memories!
– W. Felix Haynes, Jr.