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.
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 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 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.”
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!”
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.
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 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.”
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:
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