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Players had to fix their 'field of dreams' before play
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A "Field of Dreams" is planned at Alberta Banks Park in south Hall County for children with physical and developmental disabilities.

Almost 60 years ago another "field of dreams" took shape in Gainesville.

The Gainesville High School baseball field was carved out of the football field used for decades at City Park. And the players practically built it themselves.

Coach A.D. Watson had the players digging ditches, pulling weeds, sowing and cutting grass, picking up rocks and dragging the infield to get it into shape. There were no groundskeepers, outfielder Lewis Spain recalls. However, Spain's first paying job in the summer was with Coach Watson at 25 cents an hour to work on the field. "We cut the grass with push mowers," Spain said.

"There was nothing, no field," he said. He remembers a big kudzu patch where Little League fields are today. Watson had about a dozen children poised to chase balls when they were hit into the kudzu. "He didn't like to lose balls," Spain said. Chicken wire served as a backstop behind home plate.

Curt Moore, an infielder on the 1949 team, recalls the diamond actually being started in 1947 with the first games played in 1948. He rode on the bus with the Atlanta Crackers back to the locker rooms at Gainesville High School after their ceremonial opening exhibition game with the Industrial League All-Stars on the brand new field.

Larry Pardue, who played catcher on the '49 team, not only helped build the field, but received pitches from one of baseball's all-time greats at Gainesville High, Jack Roberts. Roberts led the team to an improbable state championship, but there were other stars as well.

Gainesville started the season about as rocky as the infield had been, often making more errors than hits or runs. Games with 10 or 11 errors weren't uncommon.

But fielding improved, and Roberts' and Bobo Smith's pitching, along with Marvin Free's hitting, kept the team in contention. Roberts had pitched a no-hitter against Fulton and struck out 22 against North Fulton. He struck out 16 in a 5-4 loss to West Fulton, but when he pitched a two-hitter against Decatur later in the season, GHS won 2-0 and committed only one error.

It was a momentous occasion for the City Park baseball field, too, as the first high school game in Hall County to be played at night under the lights featured Roberts throwing a two-hitter against Russell for a 6-1 victory.
As the team entered tournament play, Free was batting better than .500.

The Red Elephants beat Athens 3-0 in region play, and they advanced toward a showdown with defending Class B champions Fulton. But first they had to dispense with Albany, Roberts allowing only a single hit in a 1-0 victory. The next game against Canton was even more a thriller. Canton led 5-2 with two out in the ninth inning, but Gainesville scored four runs to win 6-5.

Pitcher Bobo Smith became the star in the state championship game, shutting out Fulton 9-0. The Class B champions later would play the Class A champions, Marist, but lost twice.

Infielder Curtis George said Roberts was almost a one-man team. In the playoff game against Albany, Roberts pitched a one-hitter and got Gainesville's only hit, a home run that went into the woods. It was a pitching duel between Roberts and Phil Clark, who later played several years in the majors.

State baseball tournaments usually were played in Macon because of its central location and superior facilities. But after the Georgia High School Association looked at City Park's field the players had helped build, Gainesville became host for the playoffs.

While Gainesville had some talented players, Spain said the team was lucky to win a championship, especially the way it had played earlier in the season.

Some other players on that team included Harold Grigg, Bill Fortner, Doug Ledford, Jimmy Spencer, Gene Jones, John Hulsey, Ferris Wing, Fred Culberson and Eddie Bird. Roberts, Smith and Pardue went on to play professionally.
They hope to have a 60th reunion of the school's first baseball state championship next year.

The old baseball field is no more, succeeded by one built behind Gainesville High, but Red Elephant home games today are played at Ivey-Watson Park, a baseball/softball complex named in memory of Coach Watson and Ted Ivey, a longtime GHS superfan and supporter.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays.