Back then – we’re talking the mid to late fifties here–
Little League was all there was in terms of youth baseball. Although it is a national program, the words Little League became generic and were used when talking about almost all kids’ leagues.
We played our games at Honeycutt, now known as Kiwanis Park, and there were four teams. I played for Moose Lodge, which was coached by Henry Goff. We all called him Mr. Goff. Our biggest rival was C&I Bank, which was coached by Rip Rhatigan. Both of those men are deceased.
Today, in certain programs, there are various leagues for all ages, starting with tee ball and working through coach-pitch, machine-pitch and on up to regular baseball. The age of the players defines the league in which they compete.
When I played, Little League baseball was for boys 8-12 years old. The youngest boys sometimes did not even get uniforms, but sat on the ground at the end of the bench and waited for their day to come. The older boys dominated play for obvious reasons.
Mr. Goff was a terrific coach. Although he appeared to be hard-shelled to the casual observer, he was a man who loved children and who gave much of his time to them. And he was an excellent teacher of the fundamentals of baseball.
He was a tough competitor who ran rigorous practices during which much was accomplished in a fairly short time. He was a no-nonsense guy who didn’t dilly-dally around and didn’t baby his players. I can attest to that.
One day, Mr. Goff was hitting ground balls to outfielders and teaching them to get down on one knee to prevent the ball from getting past them. He did not hit little rollers; he hit the ball hard. During the drill, I got down as I was taught, and the ball bounced up and hit me in the mouth, splitting my lip. When I put my fingers to my mouth and saw the blood, I started to get tears in my eyes. But there was no time for crying. “Get ready,” he shouted, “here comes another one.” I scooped the ball up, and I was fine.
Another time, I was hit by a pitch twice in one game. The first time, I took a fastball in the leg. The next time, I got beaned. The ball bounced off the plastic headgear (nothing like the sturdy helmets players wear today) and rolled away. I was stunned, but okay.
But I kept thinking about getting hit in the head, and by the time practice rolled around the next day, I was frightened. And wouldn’t you know it, when Mr. Goff took the mound to pitch batting practice, he yelled, “Mumau, you’re first.”
I figured he would lob the ball in, build me some confidence and take it easy on me. After all, I had a knot on my head. It didn’t happen that way. Mr. Goff’s first pitch zoomed over my head. The next one was right under my chin. I had to skip rope to avoid the third one. “See, son, you can get out of the way of that ball,” he said. “Now, get in there and hit it.”
Some folks might have thought Mr. Goff was too tough. My parents told me he was a master psychologist.
Raymond Floyd – the famous professional golfer – was a star pitcher for Moose Lodge the year before I earned a uniform. Wayne Byrd was one of my teammates. He was a tremendous athlete who would go on to become a standout football player at Appalachian State University. Wayne was (and still is) as nice and kind as he was talented.
Former Cumberland County Clerk of Superior Court Tommy Griffin played first base once for Moose Lodge. So did Vann Williford, who went on to become an All-ACC basketball player at N.C. State. Local businessman Costa Lampros had his turn as the first baseman, and so did I.
In addition to my teammates, there are three players from that league who are stamped indelibly in my memory.
Two were twins, Gary and Jerry. No one could tell them apart, except that Jerry batted left-handed. One would pitch and the other would catch. If one happened to have a bad day on the mound – say, he gave up one or two hits or walked a couple – they would just switch places.
I was intimidated by the Wilson twins. I thought they were big leaguers disguised as 12-year-olds.
And then there was Chris Cammack. I think he came out of the crib hitting line drives. Younger than me by a few years and smaller than many players in our league, Chris seemed to hit the ball hard every time he went to the plate. He continued doing that through a four-year All-ACC career at N.C. State.
Those were great days. The competition was extremely rough, with no pitching machines or coaches to toss the ball so it was easy to hit. There is a lot to be said for today’s way of doing things in youth baseball, mainly that many more youngsters get the chance to play and get to learn gradually.
But baseball back then at Honeycutt was the best.