When Jackie came to town
Editor’s note: Longtime Greenville resident Gil Worth Sr. spent a summer as the batboy for the Atlanta Crackers. Worth, now 86, came to Greenville as a young serviceman for the United States Air Force. He met his wife, Beth, in Greenville and later started a successful tire company.
The one bedroom apartment that we lived in from December 1941 until June 1950 was located about five hundred yards beyond the center field fence at Ponce De Leon Ball Park. The park was the home of the Atlanta Crackers, a member of the now defunct eight team Southern League. The league included teams like The Chattanooga Lookouts, the New Orleans Pelicans, the Mobile Bears, the Birmingham Barons, the Nashville Volunteers, the Memphis Chicks, and the Little Rock Travelers.
My first job inside the park was selling Coca Colas out of a metal basket. We paid five cents apiece for our drinks… in advance. When we successfully sold all twenty drinks, we had two dollars. One dollar to buy another case of drinks, and one dollar to put in our own pocket. It was not uncommon for me to make as much as fifteen dollars on a hot Sunday afternoon doubleheader.
When the Crackers head ball boy, Emory Jinks, moved to Buckhead, the job was vacant. Head coach Ki Ki Cuyler asked me if I would like to have that job, and I jumped at the chance. The job paid absolutely nothing, but it did have its own perks. I was allowed to keep all of the old worn out baseballs and the broken Louisville Slugger Bats.
Included in this job was the duty to back up the pitcher during pre game batting practice. I stood on the back of the pitchers mound with my baseball glove and retrieved the baseballs when they were thrown back to the pitcher.
The new season always started in early April when the Brooklyn Dodgers arrived on a private rail car from Vero beach, Florida. The pullman car was parked on a rail siding just beyond the right field fence, and the players would walk down a red clay path to enter Ponce De Leon Park. When the three game series was finished, the team would board their private car and continue on north.
The three game series in April of 1947 featured the first black man to play for a major league team. Jackie Robinson was brought up by Branch Ricky from the Toronto farm club to fill a void at the second base position. He did not know if Jackie was good enough to make the jump to major league baseball, but he did know that Jackie had world class speed in the 100 yard dash.
For this particular series Earl Mann stretched a long rope from the rear of the stadium to the front row. It divided the grandstand into two parts … the white seats, and the “colored” seats. Earl though he had provided ample room for the crowd of black fans expected to attend the game, but as early as two hors before game time, the black seats were all taken. Earl moved the white fans farther down the baseline and adjusted his rope to accommodate the swarms of black people entering the stadium. And still, outside the front gate, more and more black people were coming off the streetcars.
During batting practice, I had the chance to sit on the bench near Jackie. I could not help but stare at this massive man. His baseball shoes must have been size fifteen. His hands were like baseball mitts, and his legs completely filled his uniform. He also carried a towel with him every where he went to mop the perspiration that poured off his neck and face. I remember my thoughts at that time were whether his jet black color would rub off on the white terry cloth towel.
Jackie sat on the bench all by himself. His teammates all had their own little groups, and, although that all like Jackie, they did not socialize openly with him. Jackie took the game of baseball seriously, and was committed to providing his part for the success of the team.
His moment came early that afternoon when he hit a line drive single into centerfield. He made the trip to first base so rapidly that he might have had time to make it to second base.
Jackie immediately took a large lead off of first base. When the Atlanta pitcher made him stretch to pitch to the next batter, Jackie did a little dance to intimidate the man. He made several throws to his first baseman to hold Jackie on the bag, but when he made his pitch to the batter, Jackie was off!
The throw to second by the Atlanta catcher was never close. Jackie slid into second and bounced up on his feet. The crowd was standing, now, and in a constant roar.
But when Jackie took an unusually large lead away from second base, I stood up. Very, very few ball players are fast enough to steal third base, in any league, much less the major leagues. When the pitch was delivered to the plate, Jackie was off. The Atlanta catcher threw to third, but the third baseman muffed the ball, and Jackie raced home with the score.
For the next five or six minutes the stadium was in wild celebration. The noise was so great that the Atlanta pitcher refused to the next batter until things had calmed down. One man was so excited that he fell over the grandstand and retaining wall and onto the playing field. The park police had to help him back to his seat.
Coach Leo Durocher instructed Jackie to step out of the dugout and wave to the fans. Jackie did as he was told, but he kept a very somber face.
Still, the yelling and screaming went on. Durocher asked Jackie to repeat his appearance, as a personal favor to him. Jackie did, but he never cracked a smile. The crowd went wild.
Because of this encounter with en extremely talented black man, I became a life long fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The USA Today Newspaper recently ran a story about Jackie Robinson, and I sent a copy of this story to them. They, in turn, forwarded copies of it to both Jackie’s widow and to the author of the story in their newspaper. He answered my letter with a very kind thank you note.