John Shearer: Random Thoughts About Baylor-McCallie Game, Artificial Turf, White Oak History, And Mountain City Club

  • Friday, December 1, 2023
  • John Shearer

I was one of the 18,000-plus who attended the Baylor-McCallie football game Thursday night at Finley Stadium, and it was indeed quite a spectacle and event.

McCallie had a great 34-28 win to cap its fourth state championship in five years, and the Blue Tornado faithful are no doubt relishing like a good Thanksgiving meal two wins in the same season over archrival Baylor for the first time since the two began playing early in the 20th century. Hats off to them and the esteemed coach Ralph Potter for overcoming a challenging playoff slate, and to the Chattanooga Sports Committee and the Blue Cross Bowl organizers for successfully handing a large crowd.

Baylor feels it is in good hands with successful former South Carolina prep coach Erik Kimrey as well after he helped them reach the championship game for the second year in a row. And congrats to Boyd-Buchanan in its state runner-up finish, too, in only the second year under the highly successful Gary Rankin, whom I used to cover when he was at Alcoa High, and I helped the Knoxville News Sentinel.

These three seem to be equivalent of the Nick Sabans and Kirby Smarts of high school coaches right now not only locally but throughout the state.

By attending the Thursday night game, I was able to keep a streak alive of not missing a Baylor-McCallie game since I began going again in 1986 after also watching them from 1972-78 as a Baylor student and as a freshman at Georgia.

But it was not easy getting there. I am teaching an introductory journalism class at UT-Knoxville on Tuesdays and Thursdays this fall after initially doing that while living up there, and it was a challenge to get back through the holiday rush hour traffic, visit my father, Dr. Wayne Shearer, briefly in Hixson and walk his dog, and then head downtown.

For games at Finley Stadium, I have traditionally parked for free between the Read House and the Chattanooga Convention Center on Chestnut Street and walked a few blocks. But all the meter spots, which are free at night, were already full.

However, thankfully I found a place on Broad Street by the Read House and ended up burning a few more calories than expected walking up to the stadium. This time, in contrast with past years, I was not alone coming and going, as other fans also had to walk from that far away to the nearly full stadium.

I got into the stadium after missing only the first three or four plays and soon realized that with all the people there, I had trouble texting and making phone calls on my phone for a good part of the first half in my effort to find the people I was planning to meet.

It was certainly a good game amid several other close and exciting ones over the last 10 or 15 years between these two schools, which have seen their overall skill and athletic levels increase greatly during that time. McCallie can cite in the victory its running game that resulted in several broken tackles, its passing game that almost always seems to work to perfection against Baylor, and its blitzing that affected Baylor’s passing game.

Baylor, which was aided by a 98-yard defensive steal of the ball for a TD, can pinpoint in the loss some dropped passes, its failure to score a couple of times in the red zone, and maybe one or two plays in which they wished video review was in effect at the high school level. But they can hold their heads high that they gave a good effort against such a high-caliber and top-notch team as McCallie and made plenty of big plays of their own. And, despite the various mistakes, these big plays still gave the Red Raiders a chance to win late in the game if they could have scored a TD when they had the ball at midfield.

I went back and checked, and I believe this game and Baylor’s two losses this year make the series record 45-44-3 in favor of Baylor, if one includes the two McCallie victories in 1905 and 1906, when Baylor says it was not officially fielding varsity sports teams. So, if McCallie wins next year, the series might be all tied up.

But at this point, much of the past in this rivalry is quite distant, and McCallie proudly claims eight out of the last nine after Baylor had won the previous seven out of eight.

One aspect I miss from the past is natural grass at stadiums like Finley and at Baylor and McCallie. The trend toward artificial surfaces continues as well, with Hamilton County looking at adding artificial playing surfaces to fields at four public schools initially and maybe others later.

I understand that artificial surfaces decrease the needed maintenance and manpower at places like public schools, and that even more groups can use them without worry that the fields are being damaged. And I also know that those who do work selling and installing artificial surfaces are simply trying to earn honest and rewarding livings.

But I am still a natural grass person. I like the look and smell of freshly cut grass, the mud that might result after a rain during a late-season game, perhaps better mirroring the reality of life, and simply the fact it reminds me of playing sports in my childhood.

I am also a nature lover. And grass, not artificial turf, is part of the natural environment.

And speaking of nature, I recently wrote a story about a spring in White Oak that was a popular spot to visit in the early 20th century and later. I vaguely mentioned that it was near the duck pond, and one or two people emailed to say exactly where it was. So, I began investigating and think I found it.

If you drive on Memorial Drive from Dayton Boulevard, go past Chattanooga Memorial Park and the duck pond on the left, and then turn right onto Pine Breeze Road after you pass Altamont Road as Memorial Drive becomes White Oak Road, the piped-up spring is on the left. It is by the lower end of the first structure, which was a former Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall building.

I also wrote a story about the former White Oak Elementary in that same area and the fact the rusting mid-century building might be threatened with demolition due to an interest by some in Red Bank to build a new school at that site. I guess I was vague when mentioning that an older White Oak Elementary was in that area before it burned down in 1958, as a couple of people told me that its exact location was at James Avenue and Memorial Drive, where the White Oak youth ballfields are now.

I am glad to know about both, and glad to know there are still a few folks proudly holding on to the White Oak memories of their youth from a decade or two after World War II. In fact, I will drink some spring water to that!

My parents’ former farm off North Runyan Drive in Mountain Creek had a pretty spring on it as well, and I deduced that a spring is usually at the base of a hilly location.

Regarding some other history in the news, I saw that the Mountain City Club has agreed to finalize the sale of its longtime headquarters at 729 Chestnut St. to the DeFoor Brothers development firm and will likely move to the Gilman Building just across Eighth Street.

It is at a time when development pressures are on that part of downtown and because the club does not have the membership of a few years ago. Plans are to redevelop the site.

In the late 1990s, I helped the Mountain City Club write a history with the encouragement of club member Dr. North Callahan, and I went back and scrolled through the small coffee table book we produced.

I remember it was quite fun going over to the club for a few weeks and looking through their fascinating old board minutes.

The club was founded in 1889, and some of the original members were future Mayor Alexander Chambliss, future New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs, future Georgia Congressman Gordon Lee, and the Fischer Brothers who operated a watch and jewelry store that featured a giant clock in front of it.

Among the later members were noted politicians Estes Kefauver and Bill Brock, Chattanooga Lookouts head Joe Engel, and UT football coach Robert Neyland, who was stationed in Chattanooga with the Army Corps of Engineers. I also learned the club had a longtime likable manager named Bob Guthrie, who served for more than 40 years before being succeeded by Bill Bower.

Famous visitors included Jimmy Carter in 1985, Moshe Dayan, and coach Bear Bryant, among many others.

The current clubhouse was moved into in December 1974 and was designed by Wayne Caughman in the style of the presidential palace and governor’s palace in Williamsburg, Va. It had replaced a clubhouse that had been on the same property since 1904.

The club over the years was also known for people sitting at the same table and for much important business being discussed there. Members also enjoyed the club as a place to unwind. I was surprised when I researched the history and was over there regularly and saw former Coca-Cola bottler Jack Lupton simply enjoying regular games of pool along with chocolate sundaes.

In 1987 as times had changed, the club accepted its first black member – Dr. Irvin Reid of UTC, who was sponsored by Scott Probasco and Hardwick Caldwell Jr. The first woman member was Mary Navarre Bailey, later Mary Navarre Moore, in 1992.

As part of writing the history of the club, Dr. Callahan had me interview several members and do short profiles on their memories and relationship to the club. I went back and saw that some of them I got to interview were Hardwick Caldwell Jr., Jac Chambliss, George Clark Jr., Joe Decosimo, Alan Derthick, Roy Exum, John Guerry, Tommy Lupton, Lorie Mallchok, Olan Mills Jr., Gilbert Stein, Gerry Stephens, John C. Stophel, and Robert Kirk Walker, among others.

Some of these people even kindly treated me to lunch or dinner, and I remember never having a bad meal there.

Except for maybe one time about 2018, I had not eaten at the club in a few years before I met former boss and longtime local golf pro Billy Buchanan there for a story interview back in the summer. I had brought a sportcoat but quickly realized the dining rules had been relaxed from my days of gathering material there for the history book. I also noticed that not nearly as many people were there for lunch as back in the 1990s.

Let’s hope the club is able to continue in its planned new nearby location in some fruitful way.

After all, it will still be in the heart of a downtown Chattanooga it never left.

And the heart of downtown was where I had to park my car Thursday night for the long walk to Finley Stadium due to the large local crowd on hand for the historic Baylor-McCallie game.

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