"My fault! My fault!" a Rocket infielder yells. "We'll get the next one."
I looked at my father in unbelief, “Why’d he say that? That other player missed the ball.”
I was seven years old and attending my first night baseball game, one of the first night games ever played in Stanly County. The dazzling new Morton Ballpark, the first lighted baseball field in the Stanly County, had a grandstand advertised to seat 500 fans, but we sat in the bleachers along the first base line. Later that summer, more than 2,500 fans would attend an American Legion play-off game there between Albemarle and Kannapolis.
In reply to my question, my father explained, “He doesn’t want his teammate to feel sad. By saying ‘My fault,’ he’s helping him forget his error and concentrate on making the next play.” As play progressed, Daddy did what fathers often do. He began to reveal the secrets of baseball to me: why base runners slide into second base, but not into first; why the catcher backs up infield throws to first base; and why one batter bunts the ball, but others hit it. There was much to learn and I loved it all.
Morton Ballpark and Albemarle Rockets, 1948
Clarence and Charlie Morton built Morton Ballpark along Highway 24/27/73 east of Albemarle, near today’s ABC store. In wintertime, when the weeds and brush recede, remnants of the old cement-block outfield fence can still be seen. But, in 1948, colorful advertisements were painted on the outfield wall.
The Mortons had secured the Rockets franchise and brought the club to Albemarle for that one season only, while the Rockets’ home field in Landis was undergoing renovation. The Rockets played in the Class D North Carolina State League and had a 112-game schedule. Other teams in the league were from Mooresville, Hickory, Statesville, Lexington, Thomasville-High Point, Concord, and Salisbury. Admission to Rockets home games cost 60 cents for adults, 25 cents for children.
From early on my favorite player was Bob Deese, an Albemarle native and Rockets’ shortstop. I was as confounded by his not being chosen for the Big Leagues as I was over one player taking credit for an error committed by another. In my eyes, Bob Deese could do no wrong, especially after I saw him respond one night to an announcement over the public address system. In the bottom of the first inning, as Bob approached home plate, the announcer said, “Any Rocket hitting a home run tonight over the ‘such and such’ sign will receive five dollars from the sponsor.” For the life of me, I cannot remember the name of that sponsor, but it was a local merchant. An out-of-town advertiser, such as Lucky Strike or Coca-Cola, would have offered the prize to any player, no matter his team, who cleared their sign with a home run. The merchant had nothing to fear, I was confident of that. His five dollars was safe. I had never seen anyone hit a ball that far. As I watched intently, Bob strolled into the batter’s box, focused his eyes on the pitcher, and prepared to swing. Lo and behold, he connected with a pitch and it sailed deep and far, straight toward that sign in right-center field. As everyone stood and watched, the ball disappeared into the darkness somewhere far beyond the 12-foot high cement block fence. This may have been the first home run I’d ever seen hit, and I know no one was cheering more strenuously than I. Bob was my hero. Neither Ted Williams nor Joe DiMaggio could do what Bob had just accomplished.
The Rockets did not win often. In fact, they finished 8th in the eight-team league. But that did not stop fans from coming to the games. There was one fan who attended often and everyone enjoyed his presence. His name was John Temon Dennis who lived nearby in the Anderson Grove Church community. When the game grew dull, along about the fifth inning or so, someone in the bleachers would bellow, “Temon, are you thirsty yet?” He would nod to acknowledge his thirst. At that, the Coca-Cola boy was summoned, and he would pry open a bottle cap and hand the Coke to Mr. Dennis as he ambled to the low fence separating the diamond from the bleachers. In bib overalls, as the majority of men wore in those days, Temon placed the Coke on the ground and commenced to stand on his head, balancing himself with his hands, his derriere propped against the wire fence. When well settled in, he grasped his free Coke and drank its contents. To a well earned round of applause, Temon then sprang to his feet, placed the empty bottle in a wooden ale crate, and returned to his seat.
“Ginger” Watts Era, 1948 - 1950
The Rockets were not the only team in Albemarle in 1948. The American Legion team also played its home games under the lights at Morton Ballpark, while Albemarle’s semi-pro team, the Spinners, played afternoon games at Efird Ballpark on Carolina Avenue. The Legion team had a new coach that season – Herman “Ginger” Watts from Mt. Pleasant – who was awarded a three-year contract. Watts was a highly regarded baseball man, and Albemarle fans hoped for a return to the glory days of the recent past when their 1940 and 1944 Legion teams performed so magnificently. Both Legion teams came from behind, series after series, advancing to the Little World Series, which the renowned 1940 team won by defeating San Diego in Albemarle at Efird Ballpark. Memories of heroic pitching by J.W. “Lefty” Lisk, Tommy Swanner, and Clyde Dick (1940), and Ed Gibson, Tommy Andrew, and Buell Lefler (1944) combined with clutch play by their teammates sparked great hopes for the new “Ginger” Watts era.
Led by the battery of Bill Dennis and “Shorty” Crook, the 1948 Legion team finished their regular season in 1st place, nine wins against three defeats. Their league opponents were Monroe, Troy, Hamlet, Southern Pines, and Denton. In the playoffs, Albemarle defeated Monroe twice to capture the League championship, and then defeated Kannapolis 4 to 3 in the opening game of a best of five series. That was the game attended by more than 2,500 fans. The Kannapolis skipper was “Ginger’s” younger brother, Marvin Watts, which provided an increased measure of excitement to the duel.
Sadly, there was a polio scare in North Carolina that summer, one which was considered acute in Cabarrus County. Due to this “polio situation,” as the Stanly News and Press termed it, Kannapolis forfeited the remainder of their games, thus sending Albemarle to the best of five Area championship series against Lexington. Here Albemarle’s season ended with Lexington taking three victories to Albemarle’s one. It was reported that more than 6,000 fans attended the final three home games of the 1948 Legion season.
Watts coached the Albemarle Legion teams again in 1949 and 1950, fielding contenders each season. My father continued taking me to Legion games, and one night in 1950 we saw Ed Byrd, our Norwood neighbor, pitch a no-hitter. His was not the only no-hitter pitched during Watts’ tenure as coach. Bill Dennis had done so in 1948 and “Red” Lentz in 1949. Other outstanding players I remember from Watts’ teams were Don Marbry, Kenny Brown, Bill Kluttz, Bill Hutchinson, Buck Snuggs, and Don Fowler.
Many who may not have followed local baseball, or even known of “Ginger” Watts, may yet have been familiar with his Mt. Pleasant downtown residence, located on the south side of West Franklin Street (Highway 73), a block from the square. Perhaps nowhere was there such an unusual fence as “Ginger” built around his front yard. It was constructed from hundreds of broken baseball bats standing on end. Cham Glen, who played on each of Watts’ three Albemarle teams, recalled jokingly that he himself may have broken half of those bats. Aluminum bats would not be used for another two decades.
Albemarle Spinners, 1948
Over at Efird Ballpark on Carolina Avenue – south of the present-day “Diz” Owens Dixie Youth Optimist Field – the Spinners hosted their Yadkin Valley League opponents: Spencer, Rockwell, China Grove, Rowan Mill, Kannapolis, Cleveland, and Cooleemee. The Spinners were managed by Russell “Rut” Kluttz and played a 49-game schedule, three games per week. The 1948 Spinners finished 3rd in the Yadkin Valley League and participated in the North Carolina semi-pro baseball tournament in Asheboro, losing to the Chatham Blanketeers and the Hanes Knitters of Winston-Salem. In one tournament game, the Spinners defeated the Durham Bees by the score of 6 to 2. Joe Kelly scattered eight hits and pitched the entire game for the Spinners. Pitching all the way for the Beas was youthful Roger Craig who gave up 13 hits to the Spinners. Some years later, Craig pitched for the Collins & Aikman (Norwood) team on his journey to the Big Leagues, where he pitched for eleven seasons for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, the New York Mets, and others, culminating his baseball career as manager of the San Francisco Giants. Craig had a 2-2 World Series record and collected three World Championship rings. Among others who saw frequent playing time for the 1948 Spinners were “Diz” Owens, Pete Kearns, John and Frank Little, Smith Poplin, Paul Holt, Don and Jake Lyerly, and Dan and Cob Talbert.
Wiscassett Ballpark, 1952
Morton Ballpark continued as home field for American Legion teams through the 1951 season. Also, the Spinners played most, if not all, of their home games there after the Rockets’ departure. Then, for the 1952 season, Wiscassett Mills constructed a lighted ball field of its own on Ash Street in North Albemarle, with a large grandstand and grass infield. Opening game was between the Spinners and the visiting Collins & Aikman (Norwood) team. The first hit in the new stadium came quickly, a single up the middle of the infield by “Shotgun” Talbert, C & A’s lead-off batter and second baseman. The Spinners and American Legion each made Wiscassett Ballpark their home until interest in baseball faded in the early 1960s, replaced by television, air conditioned homes, and slow pitch softball.
Following Watts’ departure, the Albemarle Legion teams were coached by T. R. Brown, 1951 and 1953; Hugh Giles, 1952; Russell “Rut” Kluttz, 1954 and 1955; Charles Fortenberry, 1956, 1958, and 1960; Joe Ferebee, 1957; Bob Deese, 1959; and “Diz” Owens in 1961. Fortenberry’s 1956 team won its Area championship by eliminating Rockingham, Kannapolis, and Greensboro before losing to Gastonia in the State semi-final series. The following season, Ferebee’s 1957 team won its League championship, eliminating Kannapolis and Rockingham, then losing to Greensboro in the Area championship series.
American Legion Baseball Revived, 1985
The final season of the “old era” of Albemarle American Legion baseball was played in 1961. Following a twenty-three season absence, a new era of American Legion baseball began for Stanly County in 1985, which continues through today.
(Correction: After this article was published in the Stanly News and Press on August 15, 2010, I learned that Albemarle American Legion teams were fielded again in 1963 and 1964, each led by T.R. Brown who had coached in 1951 and 1953. In 1962, and again in 1965, Albemarle did not field a team. It is now believed that the 1964 season was the final year of Albemarle American Legion baseball prior to the current era which began in 1985.)
Only recently I discovered that my 1957 Albemarle Legion coach, Joe Ferebee, played on that 1948 Albemarle Rockets club. He was listed as a third baseman, but Stanly News and Press box scores, preserved on microfilm in the Stanly County Public Library, indicate that Ferebee also played in the outfield and pitched in relief. I now realize that Coach must have been one of those Rockets who yelled “My fault!” when a teammate committed an error.
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