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Honoring the pioneers of youth baseball in Covington

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Twenty years is a long time but it's still a true story.

I was 12 years old in 1950 and I was doing the only thing I really loved doing: playing baseball. I was on the first Little League team that Covington ever had. At that age I wasn't thinking much about girls yet; I knew a few, but only because their brothers played baseball.

There were two teams from Covington and two from Ripley. We went back and forth all summer playing each other. Mrs. Roy Turner, who we called "Priss," was one of the designated drivers that got us to the games. The team's names for Covington were Redbirds and Rebels. I was a Redbird and we won it all in the tournament behind the pitching of Elliston "Bill" Hopkins, who later became the basketball coach at Munford for 18 years.

He's back down there now, along with his brother Tom (aka Butch); I guess they just couldn't get enough of it.

At that time, we were not considered organized Dixie Youth. That came the following year. I'll never forget the men who put it in gear, like Jack Sanford and Otto Cherry. I skipped dinner and supper more times than I can remember just to play baseball. My mother didn't like baseball, but my daddy loved it. He thought Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals hung the moon. My daddy had a hearing problem and I've seen him stick his face right up in the radio to listen to the games. I've seen him get mad and want to tear up the radio when Stan the Man would pop up in a clutch situation. Everybody called him "Woody," but most people didn't know that he tried out for the Memphis Chicks in 1941, along with his brother "Pookie" and a man named Truman Brammer from Covington. All three made the team but never played a game. That was in 1941 with a war cranking up.

Uncle Pookie was fast, really fast, but he couldn't outrun the draft. Woody hung up his glove when his brother read the notice. He said he would take it down from where it hung when Pookie came marching home. And that's what he did, but it was too late for baseball. That's when Tipton County invented fast pitch softball. He never once spoke of any of this to any of his three sons. I was told the story by my uncle when my daddy died in 1977.

All these years have passed and I'm still trying to figure out why he never told me. In 1951, my daddy took up the job of the Little League umpire. He was good at it and fans loved him. He had more moves than Michael Jackson and everybody loved his style. He put a lot of enthusiasm into the game. My daddy was a giver. He kept working in Little League for 20 years. When he died, he was still wearing the watch that they gave him for those 20 years of umpiring.

I remember that one year the fans collected about $200 and gave it to him. He took it and then made a donation of that amount to the baseball program. I'm sure he could have used the money, but it wasn't about his needs. It was about the kids. I've seen him limp home after games many times with red and blue spots put on his body by foul tips from Tucker Ashford's bat.

I mention Tucker because he was the only youngster of that time who made it to the big show. Those foul tips and wild pitches came from the efforts of hundreds of boys that Tucker went on to represent. I ran into Tucker about a year ago; he's retired from professional baseball, but he still remembers the name of his Little League umpire.

By 1962, I had been out of the Air Force for a year so I decided to join the movement to revive fast pitch softball in Tipton County, something that might not have ever happened if it had not been for the efforts of a man like Embra Anderson. With my first steps on to the field, I looked up to recognize the home plate umpire. As I stepped into the batter's box for my first bat, I heard him say to someone, or maybe it was to anyone, "He can't hit." He was right. I had good hands as a fielder, but I couldn't hit a rock past the pitcher's mound.

Over the next 18 years, I corrected that problem, but Woody didn't live to see me carrying a hot bat. The year after he passed, I took on the job of putting together the first Woody Wilson Invitational fast pitch tournament. I brought in teams from Missouri and West Tennessee. We gave half the profit, $380, to Dixie Youth baseball. Somewhere during those years as an umpire, my daddy got smarter about those licks he was taking behind the plate.

His services were requested by the high school baseball coach, Don Chandler, a man who won more games than any coach that Covington ever had. He knew that if he went up on that hill where those licks came harder, he was going to need a different kind of protection. So he came up with a chest protector that covered the top half of his

body. It stood out wide because it had air inside. Sometimes, a foul tip would hit that thing and bounce back for a base hit. He never called another game that he didn't wear it. And he never took it or his mask off when he was in an argument with a player about one of his calls.

Once, in a softball game, a certain batter whose name starts with David Easley was taking his cuts at the famous Richard Overall. We called him "Topp." He threw a pitch that was called a riser. It would start out looking great but could end up over your head. David swung at the first two, but they were way out of reach. As I watched, I knew that Topp would give him the third one in the same place. David knew it too so he didn't swing. Woody called him out on strikes. David got bent out of shape about the call and mouthed off that that one was no strike. Woody replied with, "Them two you swung at wasn't either." Then he walked away laughing in that certain style he had that was designed to make you look bad.

The stories of his career as an umpire are like legends. They will last forever, but what happened to the chest protector?

Somewhere along the way, Woody came across another giver, Paul Morton. Paul was a lot younger than Woody but he loved the game just a much. Once, in 1941 at a baseball game out at Hype Park Mills ball field, Paul stepped in to bat. Not once in Paul's life had he ever swung at a first pitch, and he wasn't about to this time. Woody behind the plate called it a strike. Paul pitched a fit.

Woody said, "I could have hit it." So Paul handed him the bat and said, "Ok, you bat and I'll umpire." Woody said, "We won't need an umpire because I'm going to hit the first pitch, but you can run the bases."

The stage was set, but I need to mention that the outfield had no fences, only an old dye ditch that ran from the cotton mill. Past that, there were three sharecropper houses. Woody hit it all the way to the roof of the third one. Back in those days, the teams didn't have a lot of baseballs, so it was retrieved.

Daddy autographed it and wrote in "1941" and gave it to Paul with instructions to never again argue with any of his calls. And he never did. Paul gave me the baseball before he died. My granddaughter is keeping it for my two-year-old great grandson, Brennan Walker. I want him to have something to show what he comes from when he makes the cuts for the St. Louis Cardinals. Paul and my daddy called a lot of doubleheaders together. One would call behind the plate and the other would call the bases. After the first game, they would switch places. The new umpire became partial to daddy's chest protector. Daddy told me to make sure that Paul got it when it was all over.

One night, I walked into a baseball park and handed the chest protector to Paul. He knew he had a piece of history in his hands that he would never part with. However, he loaned it out once to a man who was once sports editor of The Covington Leader, Roland Weir, who needed it to call a high school baseball game for Don Chandler.

Before it could be returned, Roland and Don were involved in an automobile accident that eventually claimed the life of Don and came close to claiming Roland's too. Through it all, the chest protector survived and was returned to Paul. Before Paul passed, he told me that he had instructed his family to never loan it out again. In a way, it's a shame that it will never be used again. But you never know what life holds. Maybe somebody will pick it up someday and realize what it is and go out and umpire a ball game with it.

I hope so because I'm betting that thing still has some air in it that my daddy breathed into it.

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