Lost in the Lights: Sports, Dreams, and Life / Edition 2

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A veteran journalist’s collection of sportswriting on the blue-collar South.

Sport mirrors life. Or, in Paul Hemphill's opinion, “Sport is life.” The 15 pieces in this compelling collection are arranged along the timeline for an aspiring athlete's dream: “The Dawning,” with stories about boys hoping and trying to become men, “The Striving,” about athletes at work, defining themselves through their play, and “The Gloaming,” about the twilight time when athletes contend with broken dreams and fading powers. Through all the pieces, Hemphill exhibits his passion for the sports he covers and a keen eye for the dramas, details, and hopes that fire the lives of athletes, allowing them to become prototypes of all human existence.

Most of the stories have been previously published in such national magazines as Sports Illustrated, True, Life, Today’s Health, and Sport. In “White Bread and Baseball,” the author chronicles his own boyhood infatuation with the minor-league Birmingham Barons, while in “Yesterday’s Hero” he details the sad end of a former All-American football player named Bob Suffridge, a portrait of a lion in winter. “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad Whirl” covers nights on the road with the roller derby, and “Saturday Night at Dixie Speedway” captures all the raucous glory of a stock-car dirt track under the hot lights. “Big Night, Big City” tells of an anxious, small-town high school basketball team facing their crucial chance for glory at a state tournament in Atlanta, and the classic “Mister Cobb” details a personal lesson on sliding the young author received from “the greatest player in the history of baseball.”

These stories are often bittersweet, emotional, and mythic: little dramas bearing impact and psychological “size.” Some of them are distinctively “Dixie,” but they ultimately transcend time and place. Frye Gaillard, author of Kyle at 200 MPH: A Sizzling Season in the Petty-NASCAR Dynasty, writes, “For more than 30 years, Paul Hemphill has been one of the finest writers in the South, and I think he proves it again in this collection. He exudes a natural feel for the players and the game, drawing out the real-life themes of struggle and desire, occasional triumph, and the omnipresent possibilities of heartache and failure.”


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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This is the blue-collar, blue highway, blues-in-the-back-of-the-bus side of the American sports obsession. . . . The things [Hemphill] says about baseball, stock car racing, pro wrestling, and even roller derby are very topical, relevant to the evolution of much of this 'rough South' sports entertainment. [This is] the ultimate underdog sports book, by a writer of real gifts and real empathy for these dreamers, losers, and oddballs."

—Hal Crowther, author of cathedrals of Kudzu: A Personal Landscape of the South

Over the past 30 years, Paul Hemphill has published over four million words as a newspaper columnist and as an author of 14 books. His first success was in sports writing, and it is that abiding interest that has led to present these previously published essays. Hemphill insists in his Prologue "this collection is not a sports book." He recalls that his editor at Sport, the legendary Dick Schaap to whom this book is dedicated, "was always looking for pieces that would dig deeper" and the essays selected for this book do just that. In this light, the book is logically divided into three sections. Part I deals with "boys hoping to become men"; Part II shows us "men at work"; Part III gives us "glimpses of twilight, the time of broken dreams." In Part I, "The Dawning," Hemphill reminisces about his passion for minor league baseball as a youngster. We meet a construction worker, Marty Malloy, with a dream of playing in the major leagues. In Part II, we spend some time with Rodney Dickson, a young man with a family, a job mowing lawns, and a passion for driving racecars. There is a profile of Karl Wallenda, of the world-famous Flying Wallendas high-wire act, who performs without a net, believing "that there is never anything to be afraid of ... if you know what you are doing." The worlds of semiprofessional football and the Roller Derby are also visited. In Part III, Hemphill describes his encounter at a baseball camp with an aging Ty Cobb, "gun-toting, hard-drinking, all-but-certified psychotic wife-beater" who also happened to be one of the greatest players in the history of the game. In "Whatever Happened to What's-His-Name?" Hemphill follows up on some of baseball's original "bonusbabies," who live today "with the memories of shattered expectations and broken dreams." In a brief Epilogue, the author updates us on some of the characters profiled. We learn, for example, that Marty Malloy did fulfill his dream of playing major league baseball and that Karl Wallenda died while attempting to walk a wire between two skyscrapers. Hemphill's eye for detail makes these essays especially effective. These are stories of dreams, ambitions, hard work, success, and failure. As Hemphill states in the Prologue, these "pieces ... ultimately deal not so much with sport but with life." The interest level for this book should be high among most young people, and the insights gained should be significant as well. KLIATT Codes: SA-Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Univ. of Alabama Press, 173p., Ages 15 to adult.
— Anthony Pucci
Library Journal
Veteran journalist Hemphill is the author of 14 books as well as countless newspaper and magazine articles. He began his career as a sportswriter before graduating eventually to fiction (e.g., Long Gone). In this selection from his best sports writing, he focuses on works that "transcend sport." The 15 selections are arranged in three sections. "The Dawning" includes five baseball pieces that deal with the theme of boys becoming men. "The Striving" features essays on athletes at their peak in stockcar racing, semipro and college football, roller derby, and even trapeze. "The Gloaming" concerns the athlete's decline and includes two novel excerpts in addition to three nonfiction looks at "lions in winter." Hemphill is an evocative writer, and this is a nice selection of writings on sports that reveal deeper truths from a Southern perspective. Recommended for any sports collection.-John Maxymuk, Rutgers Univ. Lib., Camden, NJ Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780817313166
  • Publisher: University of Alabama Press
  • Publication date: 3/26/2003
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 1,079,150
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Hemphill is a journalist and sportswriter and author of fourteen books, including Leaving Birmingham: Notes of a Native Son and The Ballad of Little River: A Tale of Race and Unrest in the Rural South, both published by The University of Alabama Press.

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Read an Excerpt



The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2003 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1316-6

Chapter One

White Bread and Baseball

It was enough to make a man cry. In another time, during the years immediately following the end of the Second World War, there would have been a jaunty mob of some four hundred red-faced steelworkers and truck drivers and railroad switchmen lined up at the four ticket windows-the soot and grease of a day's work still smeared on their bodies, their eyes darting as they waited to get inside old Rickwood Field to take out their frustrations on the hated Atlanta Crackers-but now, hardly an hour before a game between the Birmingham A's and the Jacksonville Suns, the place was like a museum. Five rheumy old-timers lolled about the one gate that would be open for the night. A cadaverous old fellow who had celebrated his eighty-second birthday the night before sat on a stool in the lobby behind a podium stacked with scorecards, a position he had occupied for most of this century, calling out "Scorecards, get your scorecards!" in the same froggy voice I remember from the first day I walked through these turnstiles twenty-seven years ago, in 1947. On the cracked plaster wall, needing a dusting, were the familiar faded photographs of the heroes of my youth: Fred Hatfield, Walt Dropo, Eddie Lyons, Red Mathis, JimmyPiersall, Mickey Rutner, and, not the least, a rabbit-quick drag-bunting outfielder named Ralph "Country" Brown. In contrast to the 1948 season, when the Birmingham Barons of the Class AA Southern Association averaged more than 7,000 paid fans per game, the attendance on this blustery June night in 1974 would come to exactly 338.

Mounting the creaky stairs to the executive offices, I sought out an old acquaintance. Glynn West had been fifteen years old in '48, the holder of an exalted position in the eyes of the rest of us. On summer afternoons when the Barons were playing at home he walked the two miles from his apartment project to operate the scoreboard and supervise the younger kids lucky enough to be hired to shag baseballs hit out of the park during batting practice. Now, in his forties, he found himself general manager of a totally different Birmingham club, no longer called the Barons, fuzzy-cheeked chattels of the Oakland A's farm system.

Seated behind a desk adorned with historic baseballs and photographs from the glory days,West wasn't angry at anybody. "We used to get free publicity on the radio and in the papers," he was saying. "It was a civic responsibility to support the home team back then. But last year we had to spend as much as we spent in an entire three-year period in the late 1940s just to draw twenty thousand people against the million we drew in 1948, '49, and '50."

"Doesn't anybody care?"

"Oakland cares to the extent that every dollar we take in means a dollar they don't have to pay out. They'll call and say, 'Sorry, Glynn, but we've got to take so-and-so from you. We're calling him up to the big club.' What can I say? If it wasn't for Oakland, I guess we wouldn't have a club in the first place. When we were kids and some rain would come up, the fans would jump out of the stands to help spread the tarpaulin on the field. Now only one club in the league even has a tarp. We had to sell ours to help pay some bills." He fiddled with a baseball once signed by a great Barons team of the past. "Go find a seat if you want to. There's plenty for everybody. Last year we had a promotion where the first one hundred people through the gate got a free copy of The Sporting News. Four people went away mad."

The Birmingham Barons. With the possible exception of the one week I spent in the spring training camp of a grubby Class D club in the Florida Panhandle during the mid-1950s, no experience in my life has been so profound as my undying awe for the hundreds of fading outfielders and flame-throwing young pitchers and haggard managers who wore the uniform of the Barons during the late '40s and early '50s. It began on a Sunday in late August of '47 when my old man, a long-distance truck driver, announced that we were going to see my first professional baseball game. The Barons, stumbling along then as threadbare members of the old Philadelphia Athletics farm system, were playing a doubleheader against the strong Dodgers-operated Mobile Bears at Rickwood. I fell in love with it all that day, at eleven years of age, the moment we walked up a ramp and I saw the bright sun flashing on the manicured grass and the gaudy billboarded outfield fence and the flashing scoreboard in left-center and the tall silver girders supporting the lights. I would later read that Rickwood was regarded as one of the finest parks in the minor leagues, but nobody had to tell me that. Yankee Stadium would not have been more impressive to me. Taking our seats, we become one with the crowd: hooting at the umpires, needling the opposition, scrambling for foul balls hit into the stands, ooh-ing when a lanky Mobile first baseman named Chuck Connors towered a home run all the way over the right-field roof (the Chuck Connors, later famous as "The Rifleman" of the television series). Only the mighty Ted Williams had ever done that before, my old man advised me. The Barons lost both games that day, the second game shortened when disgusted fans began sailing their rented seat cushions onto the field at dusk, and I even found that exciting, assuming it was the norm.

From that day on and for the next ten years Rickwood and the Barons were at the center of my life. Hurrying to deliver my seventy-eight copies of the afternoon Birmingham News (after first reading sports editor Zipp Newman's account of the Barons game of the night before), I would take the one-hour trolley ride to Rickwood in hopes of arriving early enough to see the players crunch into the gravel parking lot around five o'clock before suiting up and heading onto the field for batting practice. (Once I was stunned to see that a particular favorite was a gaunt chainsmoker.) In those days the big-league clubs played their way up from Florida to begin the regular season, and during one spring exhibition game between the Barons and the Red Sox I out-scrambled an old geezer for a ball fouled into the bleachers by Walt Dropo, one of my heroes from the previous Barons team, who was getting his shot in the big leagues. It was a ball that we kids in my neighborhood were able to keep in play for the entire summer-my "Baron ball," repeatedly patched with waxed kite string until it finally wore out. At night when the Barons were playing on the road I would curl up in bed with the lights out and my radio under the covers to hear Gabby Bell's imaginative re-creation of the game, not knowing for some time that Gabby wasn't actually in, say, Nashville, but was sitting in a downtown studio with a "crowd machine" and constructing his "live" account from a Western Union ticker tape. Occasionally my family would load up the car at dawn with fried chicken and potato salad and tea and watermelon and ride to Atlanta or Memphis or Chattanooga to root the Barons through a Sunday doubleheader in the lair of the enemy. We always bought box seats next to the Barons' dugout. One time, in Memphis, Barons pitcher Willard Nixon gave me a baseball at day's end because I was the most vociferous Barons fan in the ballpark that day, and I curled up with it in the back seat of the car during the long drive home that night.

Nor did the interest wane during the off-season. There was always some Barons news in the Birmingham papers every day of the fall and winter: the Barons had renewed their spring-training lease in Ocala, Florida; or they had signed a fading major leaguer such as Brooklyn's Marv Rackley or the Senators' Bobo Newsom; or they had sold a star from the previous season to a big-league club and he was "thankful for the wonderful fans in Birmingham." And then there was the Hot Stove League. Every Monday night in January and February, downtown at the Thomas Jefferson Hotel, a covey of locally-bred stars like Dixie and Harry Walker and Alex and Pete Grammas and Jimmy and Bobby Bragan would lollygag with fans and then watch a black-and-white film of the most recent World Series, narrated by Mel Allen. And, too, you were likely to run into a Baron star on the streets in December-Eddie Lyons riding shotgun in an ambulance, Fred Hatfield selling suits in the men's department at Blach's department store, Norm Zauchin operating a bowling alley-for these were the days when a player might settle down with one minor-league club during the remaining years of his career.

Looking back, I'm still convinced that during those years the Southern Association was the best all-around minor league in the history of baseball. The eight cities were paired off in four perfectly natural civic rivalries-Atlanta and Birmingham, Little Rock and Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga, Mobile and New Orleans-and it was, indeed, regarded as one's civic responsibility to support the home team. Twice my old man and I stood for five hours behind a rope in center field with two thousand others (Rickwood seated 16,000 then) to shout obscenities at the Atlanta Crackers during Sunday doubleheaders. The nearest major-league operations were the Washington Senators and the St. Louis Cardinals. All of the clubs in the Southern Association had strong working agreements with big-league organizations, but they also had a certain amount of financial autonomy. After one particularly successful season, the general manager of the Barons, a feisty Philadelphia Irishman named Eddie Glennon, magnanimously sent a check for $5,000 to millionaire Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey "in appreciation for what the Boston Red Sox organization did" to help the Barons.

There simply wasn't anything better to do during summer nights in those Southern cities at that time. There was no air conditioning, and television hadn't quite come into its own. There were no nightclubs, no thanks to the hard-shell Baptists, and there was scant affluence to create the disposable income necessary to spread the joys of boating, golf, and expensive dining to the masses. And so, in Birmingham and Chattanooga and those other bleak workingman's towns of the postwar South, baseball was the only game in town. Fans passed the hat around the box seats after a meaningful performance to show their appreciation in dollars and cents. Businesses offered free suits or radios or hundred-dollar bills for home runs or shutouts or game-winning hits. Kids, like young Paul Hemphill, went speechless in the presence of Fred Hatfield. Citizens offered the use of their garage apartments, rent-free, to whoever happened to be the Barons' shortstop that year. In this atmosphere the Barons of 1948, with 445,926 paid customers and a total attendance of some 510,000 for seventy home dates, outdrew the St. Louis Browns of the American League.

With infield practice over, Harry Bright stood smoking a cigarette in the runway leading from the playing field to the newly remodeled A's clubhouse while his young players changed sweatshirts and relieved bladders and played fast games of poker. Bright is forty-five now, a baseball itinerant since the day he signed a contract with the Yankees at the age of sixteen. He knocked around the minor leagues for twelve years, hitting .413 one year in the woolly West Texas-New Mexico League, before getting in eight big-league seasons as a utility player. This was his ninth season as a minor-league manager, his second straight with Birmingham. I remembered when he played for a great Memphis Chicks team in the early 1950s, a club managed by Luke Appling and stocked with several veterans who had leveled off at Class AA.

"Yeah, that was in '53," he was saying, leaning against a concrete wall in a gold-and-green uniform identical to that of the parent Oakland A's. "I was making $350 a month."

"How'd you feed your family?"

"With a lot of peanut butter."

He flipped the cigarette away. "Actually, I picked up a lot on the side that year. You remember that laundry that used to pay $200 for every home run hit by a Memphis Chick?"

"Sure," I said. "Memphis Steam Laundry."


"Had their plant behind the center-field fence."

"Right. Well," said Bright, "I hit fifteen homers that year and fourteen of 'em were at home. Somebody said the laundry shelled out $21,000 in home run money that year. We had a lot of power."

Bright's eyes would shine as the old names and stories were brought up. Ted Kluszewski, Jimmy Piersall, Carl Sawatski. The train travel, the grotesque 257-foot right-field fence atop an embankment at Sulphur Dell in Nashville, the wild extravaganzas promoted by entrepreneur Joe Engel ("Barnum of the Bushes") in Chattanooga. The low pay, the poor lights, the fleabag hotels, the maniacal fans, the hopelessness of it all. But Harry Bright has, by necessity, quit living in the past. "It's my job now," he said, "to bring these kids along and prepare 'em for the big club. You know. Teach 'em the 'A's way of baseball.' It would be better for them if more people came out for the games, because a crowd gives you an edge, makes you go harder. But people won't buy minor-league baseball anymore. They can see the real thing, the big leagues, on television. What the hell." His club was slumping into last place. Bright pulled the lineup card from his hip pocket and trudged out to meet the umpires at home plate to go over the ground rules. Hardly anyone noticed.

I should have seen the first signs of demise as early at 1950 when my mother came to see my YMCA team play on a rocky grade-school sandlot one day and commented afterward that she would rather watch "boys I know" than go to Rickwood to witness "boys from Chicago and places like that," no matter how good the latter were. When the Little League program came along, involving every kid in America with any propensity for the game at all, it robbed the minor leagues of the business from those kids' parents. Those parents were the hardest of the hard-core fans. Then along came television and air conditioning and affluence (and then the Atlanta Braves, in the case of the Deep South), and one day the minor leagues simply died in their sleep.

The state of Georgia once had twenty-two minor-league towns; now, in 1974, it had only three. In 1973, the Southern Association as a whole drew two thousand fewer fans than Birmingham alone had drawn in 1948. During this season of '74 there is no radio broadcast of Birmingham A's games, and the baseball writer for the morning paper is the thirteen-year-old son of the sports editor of the Post-Herald. Rickwood Field is as pretty as ever, although some of the uncovered bleachers have been taken down. These were once called the "nigger bleachers," and it was below them that a precocious teenager named Willie Mays once made incredible catches for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League before baseball finally desegregated. Now high school football and baseball games share billing with the A's on the lush green turf of Rickwood where once Eddie Lyons and Walt Dropo and Gus Triandos and Country Brown and hundreds of my other childhood heroes romped and stirred my heart.

One of the most prominent billboards lining the outfield fences at Rickwood these days is one reading "When Visiting Atlanta See the Braves." As the game went on that night, Harold Seiler squinted in that direction and tugged at his A's cap and patted the knee of his wife, Mabel, sitting beside him in their third-base box seats, not knowing quite what he could add to the story of the death of the Birmingham Barons. Hal Seiler owns a paint store in Birmingham and has been known, for as long as anybody can remember, as the city's Number One Baron booster. Nearly every night of a Birmingham home game for some three decades, he and his wife have been there. One night last year, in fact, he suited up and actually managed the A's through one of those insufferable late-season "let's-get-it-over-and-go-home" exercises.

"Coached third, even changed a pitcher," he said.

"You win?"

"Won it, four-to-one. Bright panicked and took his job back."

Minnie Minoso's son, a good-looking Kansas City prospect playing right field for Jacksonville, cut down a runner trying to go from first to third and got applause from the Seilers. A black man in the grandstand behind Seiler suddenly broke out into a funky dance in the aisle, wildly thrashing about in a cream-colored suit. "Name's 'Cat.' Comes every night, too, wearing a different outfit every time. Hell, I bet I know the first name of two hundred of these people here tonight. It's like a family reunion out here."


Excerpted from LOST IN THE LIGHTS by PAUL HEMPHILL Copyright © 2003 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Prologue 1
Pt. 1 The Dawning
1 White Bread and Baseball 9
2 Big Night, Big City 18
3 "I Gotta Let the Kid Go" 22
4 Marty Malloy, 2b 35
5 The Kid and the Third Baseman 44
Pt. 2 The Striving
6 Saturday Night at Dixie Speedway 51
7 The Great Wallenda 68
8 The Boys of Stalag Thirteen 79
9 It's a Mad, Mad, Mad Whirl 93
10 We Were Champions, Once 103
Pt. 3 The Gloaming
11 Mister Cobb 121
12 The Billy Ray Hunsinger Show 126
13 On the Bus 143
14 Whatever Happened to What's-His-Name? 149
15 Yesterday's Hero 161
Epilogue 171
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