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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

No. 5 "That ball was high!" Originally posted 23 Feb 2011

My cousin, Creston Gaskill, called “Sno’Ball” by almost everyone, loved to tell a story of a memorable game of baseball played between Harkers Island and it’s sister community of Salter Path. I call Salter Path a “sister” to Harkers Island because like the Island, it was settled mostly by families who migrated from Shackleford Banks after the great Hurricane of 1899. Even as late as the mid-point of the last century the two villages shared not just their history and family surnames, but also a taste for stewed loon, a knack for catching jumping-mullets, and an absolute hysteria for the game of baseball.

Moe is second from left-front row. Sno' Ball is third from right-back row.
Given their mutual love for the sport, it was little wonder that ball games played between the two were always a family squabble, and sometimes, to borrow a phrase from Ty Cobb, “something like a war.” This was never more so than on a late summer afternoon, sometime in the late 40's when the two teams met on the sandy field of Salter Path. The game was tight until the very end, and came down literally to the very last pitch — even if it wasn’t a pitch.

As related by Sno’Ball, who was catching for the Island team, the Islanders held a one run lead going into the last half of the ninth inning. But even after giving up two outs, the home squad was able to load the bases and put the tying run within just ninety feet of home plate. The Salter Path batter then worked the count full so that everything, yes “everything,” would came down to one last throw to the plate.

By this time, the sun had begun to set behind the sprawling oak trees that bordered the first base line of the ball park, and the late summer shadows had already extended onto the field and beyond the pitchers mound and home plate. Realizing that the game, and the pride of both communities hung in the balance, Moe Willis, the pitcher, called his catcher out to the mound for a conference.

Moe was young and strong, and was one of the best pitchers ever to play for the Island team, but by that time he was spent, and realized his best stuff might not be enough to close the matter out in the way his family and friends hoped and expected. No one is sure exactly how or when he came up with the idea, but when the catcher joined him to discuss what the last pitch might be, the pitcher suggested that they just “fake it” and go on home!

“What do you mean,” Sno’Ball  inquired, “how can you just fake it?”

“Easy,” the tired but ingenious young Islander responded. “It’s getting so dark, and everyone is so excited, I’ll just wind up and pretend to throw, while keeping the ball in my glove. You (the catcher) set-up your target right in the middle of the strike zone, and just pop your mitt really hard. If we act it out good enough, the umpire will never know the difference. Since he’s the only one that matters, we’ll just go on home and chalk this one up as a win!”

So, that’s exactly what they did. After a long, long glare at the plate (to allow the sun to dip a little lower), Moe Willis curled into a full windup and let loose toward home with all his might, but without a baseball. In less than a second, Sno’Ball banged his right fist into his closed mitt with a mighty thud and the umpire (who was said to be from Morehead) jerked his right hand into the air and screamed “strike three!”

Pandemonium immediately broke out on the field and especially in the bleachers and among the crowds who had lined up three deep all the way down both foul lines. It was all the Island team could do to get to their cars without being trampled, but in short order they had made their escape and were headed to Atlantic Beach. This was where they planned to gather and celebrate before heading home to tell their story to the pitiful few who had not been able to see the game in person. But as the gathering commenced, it soon became obvious that their group was one player short. Sno’Ball it seemed had been caught up in the tumult at home plate and was unable to extricate himself in time to get with the rest of his team as they hurried to their departure.

It was not until almost an hour after the others reached their rendevous spot at Atlantic Beach that their catcher, and their hero, came straggling in looking even more spent than when the game was being played.

Anxious to know what had ensued in the aftermath of the final out and their rapid escape, everyone gathered around him to ask, “What happened, were they mad at you, what did they say?”

“You’ll never believe it” was all he could get out before pausing again to catch his breath. “I wasn’t even noticed,” he finally explained. “They were mad at the umpire and not me. Everyone of them swore that the last pitch was high!”

Friday, October 11, 2013

No. 4 “Billy Hancock ‘soaks’ Sam Windsor” (c. 1870)

... my father’s favorite story about his legendary grandfather, Billy Hancock, was of when Billy was recruited to play “cat” (an early version of baseball) for Diamond City against a team from Beaufort. The squad from the “town” sported a player considered to be the fastest man in the whole county. Sam Windsor was a former slave who had made a name for himself as a ball-player, and would later move to Shackleford Banks where to this day a clump of cedar trees and yaupon bushes still are known as Sam Windsor’s Lump.

In cat, in order to make an out, a runner had to be touched with the ball while it was still in the hand of the fielder. Thus fielders had to catch the ball and then try to run-down the hitter before he could reach the base. According to the legend, no one had ever been able to run-down Sam Windsor – no one that is until Billy Hancock caught him on his very first at bat against the team from the Banks. My father’s voice would rise and his cheeks would grow flush as he would try to act out for those who were listening how his grandfather had held back his hand and the ball until the very last moment so as to decoy the over-confident runner. Finally he would throw out his own clinched hand to show how Billy had gleefully outstretched his arm with the ball to “soak” (put out) the runner just before he reached the base.

Friday, October 4, 2013

No. 3 "A mattress made of seaweed" 20 Feb 2011

Sometime before the mass exodus from Shackleford Banks that followed the great storm of 1899, a 
property tax collector visited there in an effort to collect money for the county. None of the "Bankers" had 
any money with which to pay, so the tax collector began to seize their personal property in payment. 

At Tom Styron's house they took his mattress. Since all mattresses were then filled and stuffed mainly with
the seaweed that was readily available all along the shore, Tom hollered at him as he left, 
"Don't make no difference. I'll get me another one as soon as the tide goes out!"