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In old days, ballplayers threw gloves on field

Monday, August 27, 2007
(Updated Saturday, July 19, 2008 - 12:21 am)

At a recent Grasshoppers game, two spectators exchanged thoughts about changing looks and traditions in minor league baseball.

One assured the other his memory wasn't failing after he recalled an odd gesture in the 1950s and before.

Players on both teams tossed their gloves in the air and left them on the playing field when an inning was over and they left the field to bat.

Don't ask why. But Cart Howerton, a Greensboro resident who played 13 years of professional ball and managed teams after that, says he can't remember the left-behind leather ever getting in the way.

He delights in a story about a teammate in Savannah who had a phobia about bugs and tiny animals. While the player was in the dugout, an opposing player finagled a lizard into the glove the player had left in the outfield.

When the player returned and stuck his hand in the glove, "I'm telling you, he was running around in circles and hollering," Howerton said.

Some sights from the past remain, such as outfield fences covered with advertisements. But no longer, at least not here, does the public address system announce that a player hitting a home run over the Guilford Dairy sign in left field gets $50 or a freezer full of ice cream.

These enticements were common in the '50s at War Memorial Stadium, home of the Grasshoppers' predecessors, including the Patriots, G-Yanks, Hornets and Bats.

Also, wealthy spectators — the late Ben Cone Sr. was one — announced they would give $10 to players hitting home runs that day.

Cone sometimes picked a youngster in the stands to take the money to the dugout after the homer hitter finished trotting the bases. One now recalls giving a $10 bill to Bill White of the Danville Leafs after he sailed a ball out of the stadium.

White was a history maker. In the early 1950s, Greensboro was segregated. Black spectators had to sit in a section behind first base.

Danville was the league's only integrated team. Its first black player, Percy Miller Jr., played briefly at the end of the 1951 season.

In '53, Bill White became the first black player to stay a season.

White would later play for the Leafs' parent club, the New York and San Francisco Giants, and two other major league teams.

From 1989 to 1994, he was president of the National League, the first black person to hold a high executive post in big-league baseball.

When White was league president, a reporter called to ask what his season with Danville had been like.

He said he didn't want to talk about it. Spectators must have been harsh at some ballparks.

Apparel is another change in the game. No matter the heat, teams of old — from Little League to minor leagues to major leagues — wore wool: all-white wool at home games, all-gray wool on the road.

Now players enjoy cooler polyester and nylon. The old white-gray ritual has been altered, too.

The Grasshoppers wear a cream color at home. It's not quite the same as white. League rules state only that a team can't wear white on the road, Grasshoppers' President Donald Moore says. The league doesn't count cream as white.

"So basically, we wear the same pants on the road as at home," he said, adding that the away jerseys are either green or orange.

At home, the team wears a cream color to match the pants, although once a year they wear loud tropical shirts, and on a July Fourth they once wore jerseys resembling the American flag.

Howerton, who signed with the old St. Louis Browns after graduating in 1945 from what's now Grimsley High School, remembers the relief players felt when they were allowed to wear a uniform using lighter-weight wool.

Spectators stayed sober in the old days — no Thirsty Thursdays. Howerton, who later ran the Winston-Salem minor league team, said alcohol was banned at all parks in the league. Now liquor, wine and beer are available.

Smoking was more common in the 1950s, even among players. Some Patriots sneaked into a passageway next to the dugout for cigarettes.

Conflicts of interest aren't allowed anymore. In the 1900s, the lone umpire for the Patriots game at the old Cone Athletic Park on Summit Avenue was sometimes the mayor, Leon Brandt.

Howerton says what galls him about minor league ball games now are the gimmicks needed to lure spectators. At First Horizon Park, children play games on the field between innings.

There's a playground next to right field. In his day, people came to watch baseball.

Teams did hold promotions in his time, but not the elaborate productions of now. Back then, companies and organizations got discount tickets and a salute from the PA announcer. Occasionally, the late Max Patkin, the touring clown prince of baseball, would cut up between a few innings.

Or Hardrock Simpson, the distance-running mail carrier from Burlington, would jog around the inside of the stadium for the entire game.

As for white home uniforms and gray road outfits. Howerton tells a story about Wilmer "Vinegar Bend" Mizell, a naive country boy who had played for a one-uniform team in rural Alabama and who later pitched in the majors and served in Congress for North Carolina.

He arrived as a rookie in Albany, Ga., and was handed sets of white and gray uniforms.

"He gave back the gray uniform,'' said Howerton, later a close friend of Mizell. "He said, 'I like the white one best.'"

Contact Jim Schlosser at 373-7081 or jschlosser@news-record.com

Accompanying Photos

Photo Caption: In old days, ballplayers threw gloves on field

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