Uriah and The Babe
On August 1st we buried Uriah Norwood. What an appropriate time of year – the end of baseball season.
Long before I knew Uriah, I knew his sister. Ruth Norwood was my 8th grade teacher, and I will never forget her smile that Sunday afternoon. A Stanly County sponsored historical tour visited Norwood to learn about our region and visit some of our sights. Randalls Church and the Fork region surely were on the agenda. I may have been a sixth grader at that time, and Mother and Daddy took me and my sister to the welcoming ceremony at the school cafeteria. Dozens of people from around the County were present, but I only remember Ruth’s flashing eyes and happy smile.
My father gave the welcoming speech – he was mayor at that time – and bragged on the strong character of our Norwood ancestors. To my delight, he mentioned that Norwood was known as a “hotbed” for baseball. I was sure, of course, that he was referring to the current crop of baseball players. Ruth knew better. Her four brothers were all baseball players. Jimmy and Freck played at Oak Ridge Military Academy, and Hugh and Uriah at NC State College, both captains of their teams. Uriah played professionally for many years.
Uriah and his wife often attended Sunday church in Norwood, driving over from Charlotte. I was an adult by then and enjoyed talking with them on those occasions. Once, when visiting with Uriah and Mildred in their cottage at the Methodist Home in Charlotte, Uriah told me an interesting story that I shall relate here. (In fact, he told me many interesting stories.)
It was back in April 1935 and the Boston Braves stopped in Fayetteville, on their way north from spring training, to play an exhibition game against N.C. State. Uriah played centerfield for State College.
The Fayetteville Observer reported paid attendance at 4,078. Other accounts placed attendance much higher, one at 6,800, another at 10,000. Many spectators must have slipped past the ticket takers unnoticed.
Why the great crowd? Playing first base for the Braves that day was George Herman “Babe” Ruth. This was The Babe’s final season in the Big Leagues.
Uriah said the game began with thirteen dozen new baseballs. As the game progressed, anyone who could get his hands on a ball would run to The Babe for his autograph. People stood in line at the Boston bench for an autograph. Some even ran onto the playing field between batters for his autograph. The Babe was gracious and obliging.
With a large smile on his face, Uriah concluded his story by saying, “In a late inning, the Braves at bat, the home plate umpire halted the game and announced to the crowd, ‘I’m out of baseballs. Someone throw a ball back and we’ll continue playing. Otherwise, I’ll have to call the game.’ No one threw a ball back. At that very moment the State pitcher stood on the mound, smiling, with an autographed ball in his hip pocket.”
At Uriah’s graveside service in Norwood, Toby Webb recounted to me an event that occurred in a game between Tarboro and New Bern. Coach Webb was batboy for Tarboro and Uriah centerfielder for New Bern. “Someone hit a long drive to centerfield and Swamp went for it with single-minded determination. He caught the fly just before hitting the wooden fence, full speed. Two planks fell to the ground and Swamp ran through the opening, clutching the ball for the out.”
I once asked Uriah how he obtained his nickname. He said, “There’s really nothing to any of those stories.” He claimed a New Bern sportswriter gave him that name, for no good reason at all, except that every ball player was expected to have a nickname. The late Billy Arthur was the sportswriter in New Bern during those years, so it may have been he who tagged our Swamp with his name
Published in the Stanly News & Press, Albemarle, North Carolina, August 6, 2006.