We pulled together 40 or so of our neighbors the other day—men, women and grandchildren—to drive an hour each way to sit in a drizzle and watch a baseball game.
It wasn’t difficult to round up a crowd: nine bucks a ticket for seats right behind the third base dugout, half-price beer night, hot dogs that don’t cost what a steak did a generation ago, our group’s name in lights on the scoreboard. A good time was had by all.
This was Single-A ball—low Single A—where nobody knows your name and nobody goes home bitterly disappointed if the home team doesn’t win. The perception of relevance gets a little greater as you go to higher levels and see name prospects in bigger ballparks, but still, going to a minor league game is an experience a world away from entering Yankee Stadium.
I have many fond memories of major league games I’ve seen in person from high above the action. Most vividly I recall the important ones—pennant-clinching games, league Division and Championship Series games, World Series games, a classic All-Star Game. I remember details, and results, and the games’ significance.
My minor league reminiscences are bereft of statistics. Instead, they’re heavy on sights and sounds and smells and the feel of warm nights in close-up seats with plenty of elbow room in ballparks where you can hear everything.
I remember: “Hey, Fielder,” someone shouts at the 20-year-old round mound of Prince, “One man to a pair of pants!”
That was in Huntsville, Ala., where Mark McCarter currently watches Double-A Southern League ball. He started covering that league as a newspaper sportswriter in 1976, which means he’s been following it more than two-thirds of its modern existence.
Now, he’s written a history of that league, entitled Never A Bad Game; Fifty Years of the Southern League: 1964-2014. It’s a book full of anecdotes about the early careers of players who eventually made it big in the bigs, including seven Hall of Famers. Its greatest charm, though, is that cumulatively it is a paean to Minor League Baseball.
I need to say right here that I can’t write a credible review of the book on its merits. Mark McCarter has been a friend for the past quarter century and a professional colleague off and on. I get a too-generous acknowledgement in the book. But I can say that he’s a many-time Alabama and Southern League writer of the year. And I can say that the book shares my enthusiasm for this level of baseball, and for …
I remember: The Charlotte O’s used to play in Crockett Park, a since-burned wooden structure in a quiet residential neighborhood. In lean years, it was quiet around there even on game nights. A friend of mine used to say, “I go there when I want to be alone.” It was more popular when it brought in Ric Flair and Bobo Brazil rather than ballplayers; the park’s namesake family was in the wrestling promotion business.
Rickwood Field in Birmingham opened before the first Yankee Stadium, before Ebbets Field. It is older than Wrigley Field, older than Fenway Park. McCarter writes:
On August 18, 1910, every major business in Birmingham shut down for the grand opening… The Birmingham News suggested that visiting team officials “will see sights never before presented in the (then) Southern League, and which will never again be equaled.” Other headlines proclaimed it was a “model of beauty and convenience [that] causes a dawn of new and brilliant baseball.”
One of a kind, yes. It’s 90 feet from the plate to the backstop at Rickwood. McCarter writes of the old catcher who grumbled, “A wild pitch and you gotta take a cab ride to go get it.” Old Polo Grounds seats were installed there once. The light stanchions rose up inside the fences and were in play. If you’re wondering where you’ve seen the name of the ballpark before, perhaps it was in the credits for 42 or Cobb, which shot scenes there.
Less-than great ballplayers with great stories
I remember: His career peaked when he scored as a pinch-runner for Baltimore; he was otherwise hitless in five major league at-bats, four of them strikeouts. But, oh, was he a popular Southern League player. The Charlotte public address guy would announce him with the enthusiasm you might expect for a rock star, voice rising with each name: “Drungo. LaRue. HAAAAAZZZZEWOOD.” The fans loved it.
Drungo Hazewood doesn’t make Never a Bad Game‘s list of “The Top 50 Southern Leaguers Who Didn’t Make It,” however. Manley “Shot” Johnston does. After converting from slugging outfielder, he won 20 games for Lynchburg, Va., in 1964, the first year of the league. No one’s done that since. He moved up and continued to win in the high minors.
These were the days before pitch counts and kinesiology consultants and Drs. Jobe and Andrews. Tommy John was in his first full season in the majors, a decade before the surgery that would make him more famous than his All-Star-level pitching.
By the age of 25, Johnston had a sore arm, a family and a job prospect in a paper mill. He pitched no more.
Michael Jordan, who wasn’t nearly as good a Southern League player, doesn’t make that list, either, but like Johnston, he gets a chapter. His story is much better known—the most famous basketball player in the world chucks that career (temporarily, we know now, of course) for a flyer at baseball.
His entire pro baseball career was spent in the Southern League in 1994, playing for the Birmingham Barons, helping the league set an attendance record, being a good teammate … and hitting .202 in 127 games. Baseball then made it easy for him to return to the NBA by shutting down in a labor dispute.
Great ballplayers growing before your eyes
I remember: You get to see future major league stars before major league fans do. Watching them as youngsters, I thought it was obvious that Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken and Tim Hudson and Miguel Tejada would make it big. Then again, I thought the same of Mike Neill, Mike Coolbaugh, Mark Corey and Drungo Larue HAAAAZZZZEwood.
The alumni list of Southern League players makes up a good part of a major league All-Star team of the past half-century. Start with the Hall of Famers: Rollie Fingers, Tom Glavine, Reggie Jackson, Fergie Jenkins, Murray, Ripken, Frank Thomas. Add those who will be in the Hall shortly after they’re eligible: Miguel Cabrera, Randy Johnson, Chipper Jones. And consider those who played in the league before they were controversial: Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez, Curt Schilling. And those who were maybe just short of Hall of Fame good, which is very good indeed: Darrell Evans, Jack Morris, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, and others.
Ripken, who would famously break Lou Gehrig’s major league record for consecutive games, had one year in the Southern League, in Charlotte. He played in every game that season. Jones hit .346 at Greenville. Jake Peavy and Mark Prior showed off the flashes of greatness they’d bring to the big leagues in a pitchers’ duel one night in Mobile.
I remember: He sat at a folding table outside the ballpark on a humid midsummer Georgia evening, his 300-plus pounds straining his striped shirt and a small chair, ready, for a price, to sign books, balls, bats, magazine covers. Few of the people trickling toward the gate for the game between the Greensboro Grasshoppers and the Savannah Sand Gnats approached the only 30-game winner of their lifetime, Denny McLain.
The best of the several photos in Never a Bad Game, which is pictured above, is unfortunately in black and white. It shows a young man dressed in the kind of poly-something formal wear that was fashionable for a couple of months in the ‘70s and won’t be again. It was powder blue, McCarter writes. The mop-headed man is holding a champagne glass, what appears to be a cane, and a sly smile. The background says “Lookouts.”
This was Joe Charboneau, in his year in the Southern League with Chattanooga. He opened beer bottles with his eye socket. He predicted that he’d lead the league in hitting. He drank beer through his nose. He led the league in hitting.
The hitting part earned him a promotion to the Cleveland Indians the next season. He was the 1980 American League Rookie of the Year. And then it all went away. Seventy games later he was out of the majors, never to return.
Jim Bouton played in the league, too, for Savannah, on his way to an unlikely, post-Ball Four comeback that got him briefly on big league mounds again. Chips Swanson played in the league, too, pitching a perfect game for Montgomery on his way to a career writing musical scores for Cheers and Frasier. Bo Jackson played in the league (Memphis), on his way to becoming an all-star in two major league sports.
Never a bad game? Oh, yes, there certainly have been. By definition, these are not the currently best baseball players in the world. But there are not many bad warm summer nights to be at a minor league game. As Craig Kimbrel (who grew up in Huntsville) writes in the introduction, that’s cool.