The other day, while waiting on the papers to come off the press, David Plyler, a high-school classmate, and I were talking about baseball and our shared love for the New York Yankees when we were kids.
Baseball was a big, big deal in those days for boys living in small towns across America.
David played shortstop for the Lee High Generals and, later, second base for the Columbus Redbirds, a semi-pro team that played on Redbird Field (or Park) at the northwest corner of Propst Park.
It’s been years since I’d heard anyone mention the Redbirds.
By the time David suited up for the ‘birds in the late 60s and early 70s, the team’s “semi-pro” status was in name only, and Redbird Field was in an advanced state of decay.
Sieg Shalles, whose dad, George, played with the team, remembers well the old ballpark. Shalles, 68, lives in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
“There were originally bleachers along the first baseline and covered stands along the third baseline. Those covered stands were disintegrating by the early 1960s and were torn down. The outfield fence was (made from) wooden slats about 10 feet high.
“I remember that fence because, during high-school baseball practice one year, I ran full speed into the left field fence trying to catch a fly ball and opened up a cut in my right eyebrow. Coach Ferris sent me to the old Columbus Hospital on Main Street, and Dr. (Elton) Thomas put in a couple of stitches and sent me back to practice.”
Shalles says the term “semi-pro,” when applied to the Redbirds, was always good for a laugh.
“The ‘team,'” said Shalles, “was just a bunch of guys who were in their 20s and 30s who just enjoyed playing baseball. There was nothing ‘professional’ about them.
“Dad was probably in his early 40s and clearly the oldest guy playing. He would occasionally pitch, but mostly acted as an unofficial coach. He threw a lot of junk because his fastball was not too impressive. I tagged along for some of the games as a batboy, but I can remember playing second base once or twice myself because there were only eight guys who showed up for those games.”
Former Ole Miss and Lee High School coach Billy Brewer played outfield for the Redbirds while he was a college student and football player at Ole Miss.
“It was a really good baseball league,” Brewer said. “You washed your own uniform. There was no practice; you came, took batting practice and played.”
Artesia native W.A. ” Billy” Switzer played for the team in its glory years. Switzer, who is 88 and lives in Greenwood, played for the Redbirds in the early 50s while home on summer break from Ole Miss. He remembers getting $75 for pitching a game, not an inconsequential sum in those days.
To raise funds, the team would sponsor games between Negro League teams. One frequent match-up was the Birmingham Black Barons and the Indianapolis Clowns, said Switzer.
The Black Barons had on their roster a teenager, who years later veteran sportscaster Red Barber (a Columbus native) would say was the best player he’d ever seen play the game, Willie Mays.
In “Tribute to an old friend: Redbird Field,” a piece Danny Lollar wrote for The Dispatch in 1993, Lollar recalls sitting on the scoreboard with his brother Bobby — a future Redbird pitcher — during one of those Negro League matchups.
Lollar describes seeing Mays in action:
“One year there was a 16-year-old black player who hit a home run in the huge oak tree 75 feet behind the scoreboard. It must have traveled at least 475 feet. Could that guy hit.”
“He was a great player even back then,” Switzer said.
Switzer said the Negro League teams played Redbird Field before a packed house of white and black fans.
The Redbirds were part of the State Line League, said Switzer, which included teams from Okolona, West Point, Millport, Gordo, Macon and Aberdeen.
Quite a few players in the league ended up in the majors.
Grenada native Jake Gibbs, suited up for the West Point Packers. Gibbs, who played quarterback at Ole Miss, spent 10 years with the New York Yankees.
Another Jake, Jake Propst, played for and coached the Redbirds after playing Triple-A ball. Don Pope, another Redbird, also played Triple-A baseball. Both were Columbus boys.
Switzer and Brewer both mentioned the Lary brothers of Northport, Alabama, who played in the league. Five of the brothers would play baseball for the University of Alabama. Frank Lary, who says Switzer, pitched for Macon, would go on to a storied career in the majors. While with the Detroit Tigers, Lary, whose nickname was “The Yankee Killer,” was named to the American League All-Star team in 1960 and ’61.
Baseball wasn’t the only attraction at Redbird Field. In a series of Facebook posts David Plyler forwarded is the playbill for what a Facebook user claimed was Columbus’ first rock and roll concert, July 22, 1956.
The event, which began 2 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, was billed as a “Rock and Roll Jamboree,” featuring “Top recording stars in person.” The headliner was Warren “Rock N Roll, Ruby” Smith. Second on the line-up was one Roy “Oobie Doobie” Orbison.
What a scene that must have been.