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A Boy, His Hilanders and the Summer of ‘56 | By Thad Mumau

09/01/2006 12:21PM, Published by Anonymous, Categories:

I have this old baseball. It has turned a yellowish color despite being wrapped in a plastic bag, but you can still make out the names even though they were signed nearly 50 years ago.

The autographs of Danny Osinski and Wynn Hawkins stand out partly because both pitchers made it to the major leagues, but also because they “adopted” a small boy who idolized them. Jim Pokel was probably the most popular autograph back then, and my dad and other men who knew baseball talked a lot about an infielder named Donnie Montgomery.

These names and the others scrawled on my treasured ball were listed on the roster of the Fayetteville Hilanders, this city’s last professional baseball team until the Generals arrived at Riddle Stadium in 1987.

I was nine years old when the 1956 Carolina League season began. My dad worked at the old Corder-Vossler Goodyear Tire store on Russell Street, and one of the co-owners, Frank Corder, had two season tickets to the Hilanders’ games. But he didn’t care much for baseball, and knowing that Dad loved it, Mr. Corder gave the tickets to him.

Dad and I attended every regular-season game at Pittman Stadium. It was located where Crown Ford now sits off of Skibo Road. I heard people say how the stadium was rickety and in need of major repairs, but I thought it was heaven. You see, I have always been partial to places that have green grass, a hill of dirt in the middle and two dugouts filled with baseball players.

My dad, the late Bill Mumau, taught me about baseball – why a bunt is a good thing, the importance of players backing up one another, what the cut-off man is and why outfielders need to hit him … things like that. And, so, for as long as I can remember, I loved everything about The Game.

The summer of ’56 was special. The best player I saw was Curt Flood of High Point-Thomasville. The Hi-Toms’ center fielder was so fast that it seemed he could catch everything from foul line to foul line. He slammed home runs, hit for average and stole bases. The future St. Louis Cardinals’ star was just plain amazing.

Eventual Hall of Famer Willie McCovey played first base for Danville, and his teammate, outfielder Leon Wagner, belted over 50 home runs that season. He also made it to the majors.

Hawkins and Osinski paid me a lot of attention. Dad and I sat behind the Fayetteville dugout, which was located down the first baseline. The Hilanders’ bullpen was a little way down the right field line. I became a frequent visitor to the bullpen, standing by the fence and talking to the two pitchers when they weren’t on the mound.

They answered my questions, slipped me a baseball every now and then, and enjoyed the fact that I was in love with the game they played for a living. Osinski and Hawkins were like pals.

Pokel was the Hilanders’ glamour boy. A strong, dark-haired left-handed first baseman, he blasted long home runs and had a flair for the dramatic. He might strike out four times and then launch a game-winning homer in the ninth inning.

Montgomery was one of those guys that looked like a ball player. You watched him trot onto the field, and you knew he was good. He was a smooth fielding shortstop, and he could hit, especially in the clutch. Hawkins told me that Montgomery would have been in the major leagues if not for an injury that permanently weakened his throwing arm.

I remember Ed Cook was a terrific center fielder who hit nearly 30 home runs. Dick Hofleit in right field and Glenn Phillips in left also had some power at the plate. Hofleit and Cook both had rifle arms that nailed runners at third base and home.

Osinski and Hawkins were outstanding pitchers, and so was Larry Dresen, who led the Hilanders in wins. All three were right-handers.

Fayetteville finished in fourth place during the regular season, then knocked off High Point and Danville in the playoffs to win the Carolina League championship.

I was thrilled for my heroes, except for the fact that I missed the last two home wins as the Hilanders won the title in the middle of September. I had my tonsils taken out and was in the hospital for two days.

When Hawkins and Osinski saw my dad at the last game without me, they asked where I was. Dad told them, and the pitchers got a ball signed by everyone on the Fayetteville team. They brought it to me in the hospital, and I cried.

As it turned out, that was the final game ever played at Pittman Stadium and the final game ever for the Hilanders. The team folded after winning the championship.

It was funny years later, when plans for the Generals were unfolding. Folks recollected that huge crowds had attended games at Pittman Stadium in 1956. But that wasn’t so. The numbers were small until playoff time, and they weren’t enormous even then.

As a small boy, I didn’t know anything about baseball being a business and could not believe there would not be a team in Fayetteville the year after my beloved Hilanders had won it all.

I have wonderful memories of the summer of ’56. I will never forget Wynn Hawkins and Danny Osinski and how kind they were to me. The happiness of those nights at Pittman Stadium still lingers. But so does the sadness of not getting to do it again in 1957.

My old yellowish baseball would not get any attention on eBay. But, then, I would never put it up for auction anyway. No one has enough money to buy it.

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