“J. M. says he saw you playing ball today,” he said.
“Really? What else?”
“He said you looked pretty good, thinks you can be a ballplayer.”
“J.M. said that?”
“He sure did.”
My day was made. I looked for my glove and a ball. Suddenly, I wanted to play catch, air it out, maybe snag a few grounders, which we called “ground-skinners” in those days. J.M. Culberson, the best player on the mill team, the best player in the entire Northwest Georgia Textile League, said I could be a good player.
I was maybe 11 years old and thought J.M. Culberson invented the game. He fed my growing passion for baseball and provided all the proper pursuits as a role model. My dad, aware of this adulation, laid it on and said J.M. didn’t smoke, would never go near an alcoholic beverage, got his rest, was a fine student, loved and respected his parents and other grown-ups, and milk was his favorite beverage. Only thing he left out was that J.M. was an Eagle Scout, helped old ladies cross the street and changed clothes in a telephone booth.
“YOU SHOULD grow up wanting to be just like him,” he said, knowing a great father-son approach to proper kid behavior when he saw one.
Most of the things he said about J.M. were true, never mind his laying it on a little thick at the time. I thought about those bygone days, when J.M. stood 10 feet tall, as I attended his funeral services two Wednesdays ago. It was ironic, I thought, that he died on the same day a relative, Charlie Culberson of Calhoun High fame, made it to the big leagues as a San Francisco Giant.
He was 91 years old and leaves a legacy as perhaps the best athlete ever to come out of Floyd County, or even this part of Georgia. They ran a looping videotape prior to the official service, and there was J.M. in that old woolen uniform, Brighton scripted across its front. It showed him completing his pitching follow-through, with a bat and with those so-long-ago teammates. I was mesmerized. Has it really been 60 years?
J.M. and wife Edna moved next door in the early fifties. I was starting my I-know-everything-so-don’t-bother-to-tell-me teen years but found I still wanted his approval, especially about my baseball skills.
HE LIVED a quiet life and didn’t even have a TV set at the time. But when former major league brother Leon signed with the Atlanta Crackers, he bought a set that he hooked to our antenna so he could watch his brother play.
Leon, attempting a final comeback, won a job with the Crackers after asking for a try-out when the team played an exhibition game against the then-Brooklyn Dodgers and hard-throwing Don Newcombe. According to J.M., Leon told him, “I could always hit that big sonuvagun, so I asked for a try-out.” He got two or three hits that day against Newcombe, and the Crackers signed him.
When I was a high school senior. J.M. encouraged me to play for the mill team. I did, which made us teammates, an unbelievable turn of events. Me and my boyhood hero. “Just give it your best shot,” he advised me. It was the waning years for mill league baseball, or town teams, but I could always say I was a part of Americana — mill league baseball, once a vital part of our way of life. Then came TV; you know the rest. We got to know Milton Berle better than we knew our neighbors, and the mill league became part of our historic past.
TIMES CHANGE. That’s a fact of life. Still, it isn’t as the blowhard Charles Barkley said: “I ain’t no role model,” proving only his grammar was no better than his behavior. The man who could stand at home plate and throw a ball out of the park, almost as far as he could hit it; a man whose fastball made that “whizzzzzzzz” sound as it zipped past batters; a man who once ran a touchdown 109 yards at Darlington; a man who shot his age on the golf course when he was 83, was mine. Now, more than six decades later, I can say I chose well. Suddenly, J.M. is gone, taking a part of the good old way of life he never chose to leave with him. But we’ll remember . . . we’ll remember.
Wayne Minshew grew up in the Shannon mill village, played baseball at the University of Georgia and had a long career in sports journalism. He writes a monthly column for the Calhoun Times, where this column originally appeared.