In a recent conversation with friends, there was a reference to memories and how much we appreciate them, especially those which gave us a lift, those which remind us of signature moments in our past. Sometimes it was something clever someone said.
With high school football being forever prominent on our minds in August, I thought about a former coach in Perry, Oklahoma, by the name of Faye O’Dell. He coached at a Native American school and enjoyed head turning success. After retirement, he had a nice run as a banquet speaker. Somewhere along the way, I got to know him and recommended him to the Touchdown Club of Athens to speak at one of its meetings. He came to Athens and delighted the audience with his collection of humorous stories. The following story brought down the house. Before a critical championship game, O’Dell asked his best player to lead the team in prayer, a long time ritual with teams at all levels of competition. “Oh Lord,” the Indian kid began, “Please help us do to them tonight what their forefathers did to our forefathers.” ******* A conversation with Ellis Clary was one, which you never wanted to end. Ellis grew up in Valdosta and played for the Washington Senators and St. Louis Browns during the war years. A baseball lifer, he ended his career as a scout with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Ellis was one of the most colorful characters you could ever meet. He had an endless supply of well-crafted yarns and could hold court into the wee hours of the morning. He knew everybody in baseball, and they all were enthralled when he began his off-the-cuff routine.
One day, the Senators were hosting the Cleveland Indians at old Griffith Stadium in Washington. Ellis was the leadoff hitter and, in his South Georgia vernacular, had this description of Feller’s remarkable speed as a pitcher, reputed to be the fastest pitcher in baseball and one of the fastest of all time.
“Feller was so fast,” Ellis said, “that he looked like he was shaking hands with the catcher with a white hoe handle.” ******* Tommy Lasorda, the long-time manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, has been a popular banquet speaker for decades and has not gone inactive. Tommy never was at a loss for words. Every organization hosting a banquet wanted Tommy to come speak. He accommodated as many requests as he could. He had an endless supply of oneliners and could tailor his remarks to fit any occasion.
When the Dodgers were in Atlanta for a four game series one September in the late eighties, I asked Mike Fratello of the Atlanta Hawks if he would ask Lasorda to come to speak to the Georgia football team. Lasorda only agreed to make the trip if he could be “helicoptered” over. Those arrangements were made with the help of singer Kenny Rogers. One of the incentives for Lasorda to make the trip to Athens was to visit with Italian legend and friend, Charley Trippi. Lasorda delighted the Bulldog team and later emceed the State of Georgia Sports Hall of Fame dinner in Atlanta.
One of his most delightful stories has always been about why so many Italians are named, Tony. “It is simple,” Lasorda said. “When they were getting on the boat to come over to America, they stamped on their foreheads, “To N. Y.” ******* There remain a handful of former Georgia baseball players who revere the memory of their colorful coach, Jim Whatley. Big Jim was indeed a big man, standing 6'6'. He has always been considered one of Alabama’s greatest allaround athletes; some say the greatest, lettering in four sports for the Crimson Tide: football, basketball, baseball and track. He was a professional athlete and became a football-basketball coach after World War II at Ole Miss and then finished his career coaching football, basketball and baseball for the Bulldogs, living out his life in Athens.
In an SEC basketball game many years ago, a referee made a call which “Big Jim” considered lousy. Whatley then went out on the edge of the court to berate the game official who stood about 5'9'. After a couple of minutes of raw castigation, the offended ref pointed up to Whatley and said, “It is going to cost you a technical for every step it takes you to get back to the bench.”
With that, “Big Jim” dropped to his hands and knees and crawled off the court.