Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Old Slugger Remembered the Long Balls


Photos, Courtesy of Charles Reece

Top: (l to r); standing; James (Kaiser) Reece, Gar Agee, Gathel Franklin, Carl Smith, James (Towser) Hewitt; Squatting or sitting; Hugh McCall, Glen Ribinson, Draper (Spoodle) Sircy, Billy Armistead, Dow (Preacher) Smith, Bobby Hugh McCall, Albert Monroe (Uncle Bud) Witcher.

Bottom: Kaiser Reece at bat in Carthage, TN


You see them at funerals, elders of the community you hardly knew. When you were growing up they were older and you knew who they where but you never knew them in person. Your parents did, and through them to you the thread was spun.

My Aunt Lexie McCormick had died. I liked her very much. She’d worked hard her whole life without ever gaining much property. Her wealth was in the love she held for her children. She was a kind and patient woman. Long-suffering seems to run in the family. I think it yet finds expression in my endurance pursuits. I’d mailed her a copy of my first book, as a complete surprise for her. A voracious reader, she read the whole thing very quickly. The book was about endurance racing, an entire world that must have seemed strange to her. But that didn’t matter. Although she could barely hear well enough to have a conversation on the phone, she called me up to tell me how much she liked it and how surprised she was. No one could have given me a better review. A final gift, her wake led me to a story I would never have otherwise found.

I walked into the funeral chapel at Carthage where her family was receiving friends before the funeral. There sat Kaiser Reece in an armchair against the back wall next to the door. The funeral director greeted me, motioned at Kaiser and said, “Do you know this man?”

Kaiser lived in Smith County on Salt Lick Creek up creek from a community called Gladdice. I had grown up on Salt Lick Creek down creek from Gladdice, in the Smith Bend community of Jackson County. We’d been neighbors in that long ago time when I was a kid.

Kaiser stood medium height, stocky and as sturdy as a hickory stump. Although he was pushing 80, you would take him as a formidable man, and as much younger. We shook. His hand was thick and strong. It had swung a bat like a sickle. A life of farm work had added rough calluses.

I sat in an armchair at right angles to his and we talked. Being 14 years younger than he, when I was growing up I’d barely known Kaiser. But there was a question I wanted to ask him.

“I know you were a good baseball player when you were a young man,” I said. “I heard someone say—I don’t know who it was, I think it was when I was real young—that Kaiser Reece hit the longest home run they ever saw at Gladdice.”

“I hit one that went 16 corn rows.” He was talking about he corn rows beyond the outfield.

“Next time I came up I hit one that went 18 corn rows. Both times the bases were loaded.”

“Bases were loaded?”

“Yeah. They walked Carl and loaded the bases.”

He was referring to Carl Smith, a strong hitter who later played professional baseball. They’d been afraid to pitch to him. Kaiser continued.

“Jargo was playing center field. He said, ‘You’ve messed up now. He’s a good hitter.’”

Jargo Flatt was a loud-talking outfielder raised in Gladdice, but he played for the visitors. He knew Kaiser and knew he could hit the ball out. And Kaiser had, going 16 rows into the cornfield behind the outfield.

Next time Kaiser came up, the visitors, still ignoring their center fielder, pitched around Carl Smith again to bring up Kaiser. This time center fielder Jargo Flatt must have looked on with a mixture of outrage and disbelief. He’d tried to tell them. He could only watch as the ball flew over, heading back to the cornfield and going 18 rows deep.

“It was in the playoffs. We were playing Rock City.”

Rock City was a community west of Carthage, near Rome. Kaiser had hit two back-to-back grand slams against them. His dingers crushed the snakebit team.

“After that, they quit and went home,” Kaiser said.

Sitting there in the funeral chapel that day, I failed to ask Kaiser what the score was at that point, or even in what innings he had hit the homers. With two swings of the bat he alone had put up eight runs for Gladdice. Little wonder Rock City went home.

The incident happened during the late forties, I figure. My dad was a baseball player, too, a pitcher. I was born in 1940 and I can barely remember him playing. Daddy was around 11 years older than Kaiser, and so Kaiser’s peak playing years would have come correspondingly later.

In those years, neighboring communities like Difficult, Defeated, Gladdice and so on fielded baseball teams. Baseball playing was important to a young man, a way to prove his worth. Families turned out to watch the games on Sunday afternoons. That was their entertainment.

My question had started Kaiser remembering long balls. “They may have been talking about that one I hit up at Celina. It was long.” At Celina there had not been corn rows to count. Kaiser looked away to the front of the chapel as if still seeing the Celina ball sail away.

“That ball… That ball… Left there,” he said finally.

“They said I struck out 14,” Kaiser continued, revealing his position as pitcher. “I beat Don Cook three to two.”

“Don Cook!”

“He was pitching…”

“I know Don Cook! I still see him around Cookeville. He played basketball at Tennessee Tech. He played baseball, too?”

“He was the pitcher,” Kaiser said.

“His family, you know, came from Gladdice. Pete Cook, you know,” I said.

“Yeah, Pete Cook,” Kaiser said, nodding.

Then he drifted away from Don Cook and the Celina game, still pondering long homers.

“Billy Armistead hit the longest ball I ever saw at Monterey. He was playing for Baxter. You remember Billy Armistead?” he asked.

“Uh…yeah. They lived where Carl Smith used to live,” I answered.

That house in Smith Bend somehow engendered baseball spirit. Two outstanding players had lived there. It stands yet, a quarter-mile east of the Smith Bend Methodist Church and Margie Agee, a high school classmate of mine lives there.

“That’s right,” Kaiser said. “Billy hit the longest ball I ever saw hit there (Monterey). There was a light pole in centerfield. It hit two-thirds of the way up and bounced back in.”

“Yeah, they lived where Carl Smith used to live,” I mused. “Carl Smith was a pretty good baseball player too, wasn’t he?”

“Yeah, he played professional ball. He and [unknown] went up at the same time. [unknown] stayed, but Carl came back. They played in that league….”

Here, Kaiser couldn’t remember the name of the league but told me it had included Nashville, Atlanta and Chattanooga.

“I think it was called the Sally league,” I offered. I seemed to remember a league called the Southern-something that had had the nickname “Sally.” Undecided, we dropped the name quest. Kaiser continued.

“Carl was a good player, but he came back. He was such a hothead they couldn’t do anything with him.”

I remember him vaguely, a big, intimidating man, all the more fearsome because he was totally bald. Kaiser reflected on Carl’s hitting strength, the man Rock City had twice walked to get to Kaiser. He told me this about Carl Smith’s brief pro career:

“They said ever time you hit a home run you got a new pair of shoes. I heard that when Carl came back he had 14 pairs of new shoes.”

New shoes for a home run, a modest bonus—these were old times, old ways. Baseball was different then.

Don Cook, the pitcher Kaiser was so proud of defeating at Celina, was elected to the Tennessee Tech Hall of Fame. You can see his picture lined up with all the other honorees overhead in the concourse of Hooper-Eblen Center, hanging there today. He forever holds a basketball, poised to shoot.

In fact, you can see Don Cook himself. Go to a basketball game and check the first row behind the Tech bench. You’ll find him there still enjoying the game he played so well. We know now he also pitched baseball.

The mystery man, who played professional ball with Carl Smith? His name slipped by me that day when Kaiser told his story at Aunt Lexie’s wake. I’d planned to ask Kaiser who it was, but I didn’t bump into him again. Now it’s too late. Kaiser died a short while later, at the age of 81, in March, the season of spring training.

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