A Baseball Fan for the Ages

Willie Smith is a throwback to the past when baseball fans often were as entertaining as the players on the field. In most ballparks across America, we now get silly mascots prancing around and scoreboards with JumboTron television screens showing people mugging for video cameras while loud music numbs our eardrums.

Willie Smith

Willie Smith — sitting pretty.

Both past and present can be experienced at historic Grayson Stadium in Savannah, Georgia, home of the Sand Gnats, a New York Mets farm team in the Class A South Atlantic (Sally) League. Willie has been hanging out at the ballpark since the 1940s when he went to games with his dad. Blacks and whites couldn’t sit together in the stands any more than they could play against each other on the field. So father and son sat in the colored section along the third-base foul line.

These days Willie, soon to be 76, sits in the general admission section directly behind home plate. There’s even a seat with his name on it: “Mr. Willie Smith.”

“Times have changed,” Willie said at a recent playoff game between the Sand Gnats and Asheville Tourists. “My daddy should’ve lived to see this. He would love it. But, you know, people back then like my daddy, as I got old enough to see what was going on, they didn’t care where they were sittin’ at. They didn’t worry about it. They’d go to a ballgame and enjoy the game like there was nuthin’ to it. That’s the way it was. All they wanted was to get to the ballpark. That’s it!”

Willie is ushered to his seat at Grayson Stadium by Rozy Gober of the Sand Gnat staff.

Willie is ushered to his seat at Grayson Stadium by Rozy Gober of the Sand Gnat staff.

 

Willie is treated like royalty at Grayson Stadium, much like Roberta “Angel Annie” King at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles in the early 1950s.

Angel Annie was a tiny black woman referred to as “The Screech” or “Human Siren” because she had “a shouting voice somewhere between a police siren and dynamite explosion.” Hearing Angel Annie shout was as exciting and memorable as watching a Steve Bilko home run soar over Wrigley Field’s ivy-covered brick walls. She had her own fan club, military personnel from all over the world writing to request autographs and photos of players they knew she had wrapped around her finger. When fans found out Angel Annie didn’t have a free pass to games, they chanted, “Get a pass for Angel Annie or we’ll kick you in the pants.”

Willie poses with Dominic Smith, first baseman for the 2014 Sand Gnats.

Willie poses with Dominic Smith, first baseman for the 2014 Sand Gnats.

 

Willie doesn’t need a pass. People call out his name as he enters Grayson Stadium before the gates open and roams the field and Sand Gnat dugout as he pleases before games. “Everybody knows Uncle Willie, don’t they?”

A lineup and barbecue sandwich, French fries and cherry Coke is delivered to his seat just before the home plate umpire yells, “Play ball!”   Willie has a gravelly, bubbly voice that reverberates around the grandstand like a Jackie Robinson line drive against an outfield wall. “St-r-r-r-ike!” he’ll holler, pumping a fist to celebrate a called strike on an opposing batter.

“I won’t sit nowhere else,” Willie explained. “I can call strikes and balls right here. I call them out loud, too. I let the whole stadium know what is a strike and what is a ball.”

Willie shows off the championship ring given to him by the Sand Gnats after they won the Sally League title in 2013.

Willie shows off the championship ring given to him by the Sand Gnats after they won the Sally League title in 2013.

 

He’s wearing khaki shorts, a gray t-shirt, size 12 ½ tennis shoes with no socks and a Sand Gnats baseball cap. On the index finger of his left hand is a South Atlantic League championship ring given to him by the Sand Gnats after they won the title in 2013.

Overhead, windmill-sized white blades of four Bad Ass fans whirl, cooling the crowd below.

Asheville has a runner on first base so Willie dutifully reminds the Sand Gnats they have a chance for a double play. “Give me two, now! Give me two, give me two! Make him hit it on the ground.”

The batter strikes out. “Sit down in your seat, Big Boy! Sit down in your seat! Go play football!”

When the Sand Gnats take their turn at bat, Willie unleashes his signature yell, “Put the wood on it! Put the wood on it!”

They’re called Bad Ass fans and four of are needed to keep fans in the grandstand cool on hot summer nights in Savannah.

They’re called Bad Ass fans and four are needed to keep fans in the grandstand cool on hot summer nights in Savannah.

 

Between innings, Willie reminisced.   “I like the team. I like baseball. But the outlook, the feel of the game ain’t there no more. Back then, in the ‘50s, when the players were on the field, no matter whether it was the Savannah Indians or the Jacksonville Braves, or whatever, those guys acted like they wanted to play ball on the field. The defense would get out there and they’d talk to each other. You could hear ‘em. You could hear ‘em poppin’ the glove. You know, playin’ defense. They’d be talkin’ to each other like: ‘Come on, Baby! Hang in there, Baby! We got ‘em. Come on.’ You don’t hear that no more out of the players.”

Willie would ride his bicycle to Grayson Stadium and watch the players practice. “They didn’t allow blacks in there during that time. I was in there, though. I jumped the fence. Put my bicycle up against the concrete wall, man, and get on the field and just keep on moving.” He was 14 in 1953 when 19-year-old Henry Aaron came to town with the Jacksonville Braves. “He was a big thrill for me along with our colored players that we had.”

Willie ticked off the names of the first blacks to play for Savannah – Fleming “Junior” Reedy and Al Isreal in 1953 and Al Pinkston and Isreal in 1954.

Al Pinkston won six batting titles in his career, including four straight in the Mexican League.

Al Pinkston won six batting titles in his career, including four straight in the Mexican League.

Five blacks – Savannah’s Reedy and Isreal and Jacksonville’s Aaron, Felix Mantilla and Horace Garner – played in the ’53 season opener at Grayson Stadium, breaking the 50-year-old Sally League’s color barrier. Aaron and Mantilla batted in the tying and go-ahead runs while Garner made a sensational catch in the outfield.

“Almost half of the 5,508 people in Grayson Stadium were Negroes,” the Savannah Evening Press reported. “By actual count of the turnstiles, the white fans outnumbered the Negroes by an even 400 – 2,954 to 2,554.” According to the Savannah Morning News, blacks filled “one section of the grandstand, the bleachers down the left field line and one section of the left field bleachers.”

Pinkston gave Willie and other Savannah fans plenty to cheer about the next year, hitting .360 to lead the league. He was the top hitter in the Class C Provincial League in 1952 and four-time Mexican League batting champ with averages ranging from .369 to .397. Altogether, Pinkston won six batting titles, tying him with the legendary Smead Jolley for the most in minor-league baseball history. He never made it to the majors. “The greatest hitter you never heard of,” one minor league historian said.

Willie’s son pitched for the Cardinals but this baseball card shows him in a Yankees uniform.

Willie’s son pitched for the Cardinals but this baseball card shows him in a Yankees uniform.

 

Willie vividly remembers the 6-foot, 5 ½ inch Pinkston. “Everybody know Pinkston for his size – long legs and big feet.” Pinky wore size 14 shoes and a 16 ½ shirt with a 37 sleeve.

The same season Willie saw an 18-year-old black outfielder for the Columbia Reds – Frank Robinson. “Shoot, yeah, Big Frank! Long, tall….”

Willie gets excited all over again, thinking about Robinson and Aaron, both Hall of Famers, and the humongous Pinkston. “Them guys were ready to explode, man. They were good players – super players in their league. They were ready, man. They were ready!”

Dale Murphy, a white player, starred for Savannah in 1976 before moving up to the Atlanta Braves and slamming 398 homers in an 18-year big league career.

In 1988, Willie’s son, also named Willie, was a relief pitcher for the Augusta Pirates, a long-time Savannah rival. “Mr. Willie, who are you going to pull for?” people asked.

“I’ve been coming to this stadium long before he was born,” Willie said. “I want Savannah to win but I want my son to have a good night. I want him to go on up.”

Willie made it to the big leagues, appearing in eight games for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1994.

Grayson Stadium was built in 1926, making it the oldest minor league ballpark still in operation. Hardball Capital, owner of the Sand Gnats, is seeking a new ballpark either in downtown Savannah or in Columbia, South Carolina, where one is being built on the hope that a team will soon come. “Everybody wants new stadiums,” Willie said. “But that doesn’t guarantee they’re going to have a lot of fans.”

Here’s the view from Willie’s seat behind home plate at Grayson Stadium.

Here’s the view from Willie’s seat behind home plate at Grayson Stadium.

Willie looked around Grayson Stadium. The trees behind the left-field wall are twice as tall as they were when he was a kid. The old concrete walls have been replaced by the new wood fences closer to home plate and covered with advertisements. Willie pointed to a white tent where the colored section used to be. “We had to sit right over there — right behind third base. A little further down. Wooden seats. No backs on ‘em; went about 12 rows high. Of course, I was a little boy. I didn’t care to sit down, no how.” He laughed at the memory.

“They were good seats. On a big night they were full up, people standing along the sidelines. Shoot, blacks went to games more than they do now. They couldn’t choose where they sit at but they came to the game.”   Willie paused as he considered the future of Grayson Stadium. “Dale Murphy and all them boys played here. It’s got a great history. I think if they could add onto it in a fashion – bring it out! More convenience for the people who work here – the office and even the ballplayers. The dugouts and stuff. They can stay right here. Keep what they’ve got; don’t kill the image of the stadium. It’s got too much history.”   Rain halted the Savannah-Asheville game in the bottom of the eighth inning. After a delay of 90 minutes, the game was suspended and completed the following day. The Sand Gnats lost, ending their season.

As a kid, Willie listened to games on the radio with his father. “Radio was better than television. The announcers let you know what was going on. These guys on TV don’t do nuthin’. They sit there when somebody hit a home run: ‘Oh, he hit a home run.’ We can see he hit a home run. You don’t have to tell us that. It’s so dead that I go to sleep on the game. But radio was good.”

As the rains came down, Willie entertained fans around him with a home run call like he used to hear on the radio: “And, partner, there’s a ball going deep into right field. It looks like it’s outta here. The centerfielder is going back. He’s going back. And this ball is still traveling. I think it’s outta here. And, partner, it’s outta here! It’s a home run! Larry Doby just put one out of here 350 feet!”

Willie’s laugh is joyous and uplifting. What better way to spend a rainy night in Georgia than re-creating the past in a storied ballpark with a long-time fan that still has his boyhood enthusiasm for the game he loves.

Watch videos of Willie Smith and the Savannah Gnats game below:

Willie Smith / Calling a home run

Willie Smith / Put the wood on the ball

Rain Delay

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

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4 thoughts on “A Baseball Fan for the Ages

  1. Just this year I was the recipient of the 2014 Hilda Award by Baseball Reliquary in Pasadena. My dad picked up pop and beer bottles and got free passes to Cubs games at the Old West Side ballpark in 1908.(The last time the Cubs won a World Series) He was a great story teller and when I was 8 years old in 1945,he gave me a crash course in Baseball 101 and Cubs history. Then took me to my first game at beautiful Wrigley Field(when it was)! When the Cubs clinched the Pennant, I asked him to take me to the World Series. He felt I was too young,however made me a PROMISE… he would take me the next time! I heard the expression WAIT ‘TIL NEXT YEAR for the first time in 1946. I recall a fan who used to entertain between innings… and on his shirt with iron on letters was his name. SLOW MOTION HAPPY. He would imitate pitchers giving up homers, or outfielders making great catches, hitters hitting homers or striking out… and all of course in slow motion. Like my dad, I also cleaned the granstands after a game to get a free pass to the next game. I made sure when possible that the next game was a double header! I went to my first opener in 1947, and the following month was on hand with 47,000 other fans to see Jackie Robinson debut at Wrigley Field. I was fortunate to see many players as vets and rookies that later found a home in Baseball’s Hall of Fame. I used to go to sleep with a baseball in hopes of dreaming of being a hero in a big game.

    I am now 77, and from the middle 1980s and for the next 25 years I became part of the fabled fans in the cheap seats(when they were) of the Friendly Confines. I called myself the “Bleacher Preacher” and created all kinds of awards for fans and players alike. Harry Caray had me on his 10th Inning show in 1985 and introduced ma as JOHN Q. PUBLIC-The fan! A few years later he tabbed me as the Cubs #1 fan. I was known for my instant signs and razzing the visiting outfielders. I also created the 10 Cub-Mandments and thought # 8 was the most important. Thou shall not start or paticipate in the wave at Wrigley Field or you shall be Ex-Cub-Municated! In all my years waiting to get to the PROMISED LAND, I have met so many great fans. Sadly after the Cubs installed lights, the complextion of the ballpark changed dramatically. Some people in the bleachers were talking about DOW-JONES instead of batting averages, people brought cell phones and even ties into the bleachers. Back when the Tribune Company bought the Cubs for 20 Million Bucks… Lock,stock and vines in the early 1980s, they had promised the fans new traditions, but forgot to tell us it came at the expense of old great traditions. I boycotted the Cubs in 1991 when they raised the price of a bleacher seat from $4. to 6 bucks. Today they sell for almost $50. and on certain days as high as $75. for a kid or an adult. I have been priced out of the ballpark at the face value of a ticket… I now believe that like Moses, that I will not make it to the PROMISED LAND. How do I spell baseball? B-A-$-E-B-A-L-L!

    1. You’re spot-on with your comments, Jerry. I’m a diehard Cub fan and as much as I want to see the Cubs win it all, I know that it won’t be the same as it would’ve been in 1969 or even 1984 when they came close. I’d love to take in a game with you and Willie. Come on down to Georgia and we’ll make it happen!

      1. If I win the lottery, maybe then I can make that happen. During my boycott, I started to go to some of the minor legue ballparks and they were fun and affordable. However, a team like the Kane County Cougars put in sky boxes and seats in the grassy areas… and even yuppies invaded the ballpark. And one yuppie is too many in any ballpark! Thanks for the invite and if you see someone with a pith helmet and propeller on top… it’ me!
        Cheers…

        1. I’ll be looking for the pith helmet, Jerry. By the way, congratulations on receiving the 2014 Hilda Award. It’s well deserved. Check back Monday for a story on The Mad Russian.