The Vagabond - Growing up in Gadsden, Part V

July 31, 2020 chris
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

By Danny Crownover

Episode 9: Gadsden Pilots baseball
The following is a piece written by my old school buddy, Ben Barnes.

The Gadsden Pilots were a mid-20th-century minor league professional baseball team. In the late 1940s, the Pilots were one of eight teams in the Class B Southeastern League. The Pensacola Flyers were from Florida and the Vicksburg Billies, Jackson Senators and Meridian Millers were based in Mississippi. The Anniston Rams, Selma Cloverleafs, Montgomery Rebels and Gadsden Pilots were from Alabama.

Gadsden had several minor-league teams during the early 20th century with various names and in various leagues. The name “Pilots” was not related to aviation, but instead a holdover from the days of riverboat pilots on the Coosa River.

Before World War II, professional baseball in Gadsden was played at a ballpark in East Gadsden. After the war, baseball moved to West Gadsden at City Park, which was located one block south of Alabama Avenue on North 14th Street. The field was apparently constructed for Gadsden’s postwar revival of organized baseball.

When the Southeastern League was organized for its first postwar season in 1946, this writer was an 11-year-old sixth grader in Gadsden. The arrival of the Pilots was one of two events in 1946 which would have long-lasting effects, the second being a a carrier for a local newspaper. As was customary in that simpler time, the boy had free run of the entire city, either on his bicycle or on foot. City Park became one of his favorite locations, which he first visited in 1946 with his aunt from Tennessee, who was a sports fan extraordinaire.

The 1947 baseball season was special for the Pilots and their fans. That team was managed by Bill McGehee, a relative old-timer who actually pitched in one game that year. McGehee’s team consisted mostly of young ballplayers with major-league ambitions, of which very few of them would realize. That was unimportant to the Gadsden fans, especially with the pre-television kids who had never seen the game played with the skill displayed by the Pilots.

The names of those players of the 1940s still ring with magic over 60 years later – Grover Bowers, Bill Johnson, Mel Hicks, Roy Pinkston, Barney Bridgers, Art Luce, Ken Guettler, Jimmy McClure, Grover Resinger, Danny Radakovich, Billy Seal and Ray Willett.

One particular city park anecdote involves Gadsden ophthalmologist Dr. Herman Frank, who was a regular attendee of Pilot games and had a box along the first base line. During one game, speedy centerfielder Grover Bowers was racing around second base on his way to a triple. The normally stoic Dr. Frank leaped to his feet, pointed at Bowers and shouted, “Look at him go!”

During another game, Art Luce was at bat for the Pilots when a pitch high and inside struck him flush in the skull. This was in the days before batting helmets, and Luce was wearing only the usual cloth cap. Unbelievably, the ball caromed off Luce’s head and disappeared over the grandstand. Luce was unperturbed and trotted down to first base. After that incident he was known as “Hammerhead” Art Luce.

One of the young Pilot fans often brought along a flashlight to assist him in navigating dark streets on the way home. One night he had moved down into an unoccupied box seat to better see the action, diddling with his flashlight. Pilots pitcher Jimmy McClure suddenly called time and spoke briefly with the home plate umpire, who then called a Gadsden policeman over. This sequence had all the fans puzzled, until the policeman strolled over to the box seats and said all too loudly, “Son, turn that damn flashlight off!”

Even after spending years on three campuses of the Southeastern Conference where football is undisputed king (Alabama, Auburn, and Tennessee), baseball is still this writer’s favorite sport. And he can still fold newspapers into those quaint Gadsden triangles.

Episode 10: High school band
For our family, music was our life during the school years. We grew up knowing we would eventually play in the high school band. There are many good stories about that experience, but the following are my favorites.

Jacksonville State Teachers College (now Jacksonville State University) once played a football game at Murphree Stadium in Gadsden. The Gamecocks had no marching band back then, so someone decided both the Gadsden and Emma Sansom high school bands would play for the event. Pre-game activities included having both bands march out on the field together and then play the national anthem.

We never rehearsed this together, because all bands play the national anthem countless times from memory. They raised the flag, and both bands began playing … in two different keys! It was awful. I’m not sure the if The Star-Spangled Banner was recognizable enough for people to realize that they should have stood up.

Charlie (not his real name) had a drinking problem. He played the bass drum, and it soon became obvious that he had swiped a few beers at home before coming to the stadium. At the halftime performance, the band began marching down the field.

The farther we went, the faster Charlie beat that drum, until we were practically running. I glanced back just in time to see Charlie trip. He fell forward and rolled completely over the big bass drum strapped to his chest, until he was lying flat on his back, looking up at the stars…and still beating the daylights out of that drum!

Christmas time in Gadsden meant a big Christmas parade. I remember one year when several bands participated, along with special floats, beauty queens, and, of course, Santa Claus.

That particular year the Christmas Queen was dressed in a beautiful pink layered gown. Rather than put her on a float, somebody came up with the very creative idea of making a large extension for the skirt, using the same fabric in layers, and fastening it around a metal frame, looking much like a pink volcano. They installed a platform near the top opening of the cone-shaped extension, so the Christmas Queen could stand inside the hole with the bottom of her gown draped over the outside. The effect was a fifteen-foot tall queen gliding down the street in a beautiful long gown.

The entire contraption was mounted upon a three-wheeled Cushman motor scooter, and a small hole in the skirt allowed the driver inside to see where he was going. The parade went down Broad Street to the river and back up Chestnut Street, where it disbanded in front of St. James Catholic Church.

All went well as our queen was gliding down the street, smiling and waving to the crowd. As she approached the end of the parade, however, the scooter suddenly swerved to the right and bounced off a parked car, our queen screaming in terror. The scooter then dashed across to the left and hit another parked car before coming to a stop at a bizarre angle, the queen screaming all the while.

You guessed it – nobody thought to route the exhaust from the scooter to the outside, so the driver was overcome by carbon monoxide. He recovered and was lucky to be alive. As for the queen, she had a good story to tell her grandchildren about the time some poor fellow passed out under her skirt.

Does anybody remember who the queen was?