In the new book that celebrates the first 50 years of baseball’s Southern League, its splendid author Mark McCarter recalls that very early in his career as a sports writer, he was riding with his boss somewhere and mentioned that if the legendary Allan Morris ever needed help covering the Chattanooga Lookouts that he’d love to help. Today, as he looks back, he ruefully adds, “I wasn’t talking about 330 games over the next three summers!”
So his old “boss” called him yesterday to set the record straight. “I wasn’t your boss; we were both lucky enough to work together,” I reminded him. Mark came to work at the News-Free Press while he was a senior at Brainerd High, he and Ward Gossett the greatest “package hire” I ever made. Today he’s just been promoted as Columnist-at-Large for the Huntsville Times, which is what he deserved after dressing up as the Easter Bunny last spring at a shopping mall and then writing a hysterical story about it.
In the years he headed what newspaper insiders call “the toy department” for the Huntsville Times, he was the Sports Writer of the Year almost continuously, was once selected as the National Sports Writer of the Year, and was summoned into a couple of Hall of Fames. He even wrote a best-seller on stock-car racing, which one pundit bragged “would do for NASCAR what Jack London did for dogs and James Joyce did for drunken Irishmen.”
His new book on the Southern League, “Never A Bad Game,” is filled with warm anecdotes about teams, players, managers and more. Predictably, it is a treasure and there is even a picture of former Lookout Joe Charboneau gracing the cover. But the “editor” in me came out when I demanded to know why Mark omitted the greatest story he ever wrote. My lifelong pal laughed and countered, “This is more about baseball!”
Are you kidding me? No baseball story is better than what happened one summer day in 1976 when Mark, on his way to lunch with future Major Leaguers Brian Kingman and Bruce Robinson, drove past the Governor’s Mansion. “Reckon George (Wallace) is at home?” McCarter mused and suddenly Kingman sat up in his seat and ventured, “Let’s go see him!”
Mark and “Robby” both told Brian he was crazy. Four years earlier Wallace had been shot five times in Maryland while running for president and was paralyzed and in a wheelchair. It would have been easier to get gold out of Fort Knox than penetrate the Governor’s Mansion because Wallace still had enemies. “No problem!” said Kingman.
So as the trio approached the first security checkpoint and had earlier agreed to let the zany Kingman do the talking, Brian took the role of an earnest preacher. “My father once played baseball with Gov. Wallace and they were great friends. I’m in town playing ball against Montgomery tonight with the Chattanooga team and I’d just like to thank Gov. Wallace for being such an inspiration to my Dad.”
Mark later said he was scared to look at either Kingman or ‘Robby’ – lordy, Brian was taking this one too far – but in about ten minutes a phalanx of state troopers showed up and escorted the three (now a bit scared) rogues into Wallace’s inner chamber. All the while Kingman was non-plused.
“Governor, I’m Bill Kingman’s son! He talked about playing baseball with you and the way you gave purpose to his life. My sister’s middle name is even Wallace!” he spouted as the Governor looked at him with narrowing eyes.
“Kingman … Kingman … “Wallace whispered to himself, his brain desperately searching for “Kingman” or any “Bill” he could think of. The masterful Kingman then set the hook. “You remember him, don’t you, sir! He loved you … “
“Son, ever since the accident,” Wallace paused as he looked down at his wheelchair, “some things come back slowly. I am sorry but I do vaguely remember him. I’m so happy you’ve come by. Say, meet my friend Harvey Glance,” Wallace said, changing the subject with a smile and pointing across the room.
The Olympic hero from Auburn was watching the scene unfold while waiting on the state photographer to take a picture of the great runner with his gold medal from the Montreal Olympics. Glance seemed thrilled to meet “Bill’s son” and said he appreciated his old teammates, too.
In no time, with the state photographer snapping away, our three interlopers were having candid photographs taken with Gov. Wallace, more snapped with each wearing Harvey Glance’s gold medal, all while they stood proudly with the champion and had a grand time sipping Coca-Colas with “George.” As they left, Kingman asked Gov. Wallace if he wanted him to leave tickets at the “Will Call” window that night and George loved that, regretting he had other obligations.
That story has to be in any history of Southern baseball because it is the biggest “steal” of all time. Without the Southern League it would have never happened. Kingman, you’ll remember, finally got his payback for the outrageous prank during the 1980 season when he lost 20 games on the mound at Oakland.
But the grand caper is still is immortalized in the hearts of every writer to cover the Southern League back then. I later asked Mark what they did when, finally out of the state trooper’s eye, they realized Kingman’s antics were so ridiculous they worked. “We went to lunch,” he deadpanned.
About a week later each of the guys got a thick packet of “official business” from the State of Alabama, Wallace dutifully signing autographs on even the pictures of Harvey Glance.
It has been said that in the heart of a baseball optimist, there is never a bad day, hence the title of Mark’s new book. You can order it from Amazon or on a Facebook page McCarter has set up with the book’s title. But the best way is to write to Mark directly and send a check or money order for $22.00 (postage included). That way he’ll personalize the book with his autograph and will get to keep every penny of the sale.
Mark’s home address is 2726 Deford Mill Road, Owens Cross Roads, Al 35763. And make sure you include a note who he should sign the book for, just don’t put “Gov. George C. Wallace.” He died in 1998.
Mark McCarter, an award-winning sports writer who has just written the book, "Never A Bad Game: The First 50 Years of the Southern League", is shown standing where his illustrious career first started -- Chattanooga's Engel Stadium. Mark first covered the Lookouts for the Chattanooga News-Free Press when he was still a student at Brainerd High School.