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Thursday October 23rd 2014

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Take Me Out To The Ballgame

Baseball in Pensacola Reunion
by Jessica Forbes

In their second season, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos are just one of the latest chapters in Pensacola’s baseball history. At the same time Quint Studer was establishing the Blue Wahoos organization and construction of the Pensacola Bayfront Stadium was underway, a couple of other significant projects related to local baseball were also in the works.

In 2010, author Scott Brown and Jill Hubbs, director of education, outreach, and content at WSRE, joined forces to develop a documentary film on baseball in Pensacola, also the subject of a book Brown had been researching.

The result was a full-length documentary and book, both titled, “Baseball in Pensacola.” The projects are the first of their kind to chronicle the complete history of the sport in the city, and have brought much attention to the rich tradition of Pensacolians as fans and participants in America’s Pastime.

A “Baseball in Pensacola” Reunion event will be held at the Pensacola Blue Wahoos game on Thursday, August 15 in which several players and families of those profiled in the book and documentary will be in attendance.

“The nice thing about it was that we decided not only to include locals that had made it to the Major League level, but we also included what I consider legacy family members of men who have passed now,” said Brown of the evening’s scheduled honorees.

The reunion honorees are individuals with World Series appearances and/or wins, awards from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, time spent playing for Negro League teams, and decades of minor and major league play among their experiences—and all grew up and received their fundamental baseball training in Pensacola.

Representing the Seagulls

The earliest period of Pensacola’s baseball history that will be represented at the reunion is that of one of Pensacola’s former Negro League teams, the Pensacola Seagulls.

Lawrence “Shake” Sampson played with the Seagulls in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Now 72 years old, Sampson continues to play softball in the Softball Players Association league, as he has done for over 20 years.

Ed Coleman, whose father David played for the Seagulls in the late 1940s, remembers his father as a local baseball celebrity who never lost his love of the game.

David Coleman, who passed away in 2011, played for the Seagulls in 1949 before joining the Army in 1950. “In ‘49 was when he actually played professionally and he was making $250 a month,” his son recalled recently. “He said, to him, that was a lot of money for 1949.”

Dr. E.S. Cobb, a local African-American physician, owned the Seagulls, having previously owned the Giants, another of the city’s Negro League teams. “To start a baseball team required funds,” Coleman said. “This is one of the things I remember my father talking about:  He said he could play baseball and make more money playing baseball than he could on a job. That’s real for a lot of men during his era. Most of the Negro League players were making a whole lot more money barnstorming than they could have working jobs.”

Sampson recalled his barnstorming days with the Seagulls. “We used to go to Key West and play. Dr. Cobb had a bus,” Sampson remembered. “We’d play Birmingham, Port St. Joe, Mobile, Andalusia, all parts of Mississippi. We used to travel. We used to leave on a Friday or Thursday night and get back on Sunday.”

Sampson played PONY League baseball as a teenager and got his start with the Seagulls as a result. Dr. Cobb visited his home to talk to Sampson’s mother about the possibility of her son joining the Seagulls.  Sampson played for the semi-pro team while in high school and upon returning to Pensacola in the 1960s after attending college.

David Coleman got out of the Army in 1953 and got a job at NAS, but continued playing baseball in local adult leagues and coaching PONY League teams in his spare time in the 1960s.

“He was a superstar,” said Coleman. “I can hear people bragging on my dad all of the time.” Coleman recalls friends and neighbors talking about his father consistently hitting the ball out of the ballpark at the former Kupfrian’s Park, the site of the present-day Baptist Hospital Campus.

When David Coleman began developing dementia in 2004, Ed became his caretaker; it was during that time that Ed’s interest in his father’s baseball career was piqued and he started researching the history of the local Negro League teams. “I really kind of connected and knew,” he said. “And I was trying to do it for a way of giving him some motivation to continue to live. We’d talk about baseball and that would excite him.”

“I was able to get some pictures and show Dad,” Coleman said of his research at local libraries and conversations with other players’ families. “He would really light up when I would bring him pictures. I would put them in his room and it made him happy.”

Sampson, who played baseball with the Seagulls until the semi-pro league broke up, continues making memories playing slow-pitch softball. “I’m still doing that for some reason,” Sampson said of the senior-league tournaments he travels for. “I’m still playing.”

A Voice From Pensacola

Very close in age to Shake Sampson was Pensacola native Tom Cheek. Though he played some ball, Cheek from an early age was more interested in announcing the game for his friends.

Like several other of Pensacola’s young men, Cheek pursued and eventually achieved his big league dream. After entering radio broadcasting, Tom later went on to a career with the Toronto Blue Jays, for whom he announced over 4,300 games in 27 years.

Tom attended his first baseball game at Pensacola’s Legion Field with his grandfather. From there, a lifelong passion was set. “He, at 7 years of age—and everybody, if you ever talk to anybody that knows him, would say—they’d be playing stickball out on the street and Tom would have something in his hand pretending he was broadcasting the ball game,” Tom’s wife Shirley remembered. “Everybody will tell you that, so it’s remarkable that his dream came true.”

When she spoke to the IN, Shirley Cheek had just returned from Cooperstown, N.Y., where she accepted the Ford C. Frick Award on her late husband’s behalf. The Frick Award is presented annually by the National Baseball Hall of Fame to a broadcaster chosen from 10 nominees; Cheek, who passed away in 2005, had been nominated for nine consecutive years.

“Tom would be very humbled,” Shirley said of his receipt of the Frick Award and his recent induction into the Vermont Association of Broadcasters and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.

Tom Cheek graduated from high school in Pensacola in 1957, and met Shirley in her native Canada in 1958 while he was serving in the United States Air Force.

Discharged in 1959, Shirley said Tom worked odd jobs in Canada and upstate New York. One night while driving home from a midnight shift in Saranac, N.Y., he told her he heard a commercial asking, “‘Would you like to be a broadcaster? Why don’t you join the Cambridge School of Broadcasting in Boston?’ And he said he was banging his fists on the dashboard—this was like 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning—saying, ‘Yes, that’s what I want to do!’”

Tom attended and graduated from the broadcasting school, and then worked as a DJ in New York before announcing for the University of Vermont sports teams. A part-time broadcasting job with the Montreal Expos led to his position with the Blue Jays in 1977, the team’s first season.

“He loved Pensacola,” Shirley said. After Tom’s death, Shirley found a legal pad with his notes for a second book. One of the stories about his childhood began, “To know my love of the game, you would have to know my grandfather,” and acknowledged the huge influence attending games in Pensacola had on his life.

“He just loved doing his job and it showed in his delivery,” remembered Shirley, who said fans continue to leave memorabilia at a monument for Tom near their home and the Blue Jays Spring Training Camp in Dunedin, Fla. “He was a really folksy kind of broadcaster, you felt like he was your best friend, that he was telling just you that game.”

From Pitching to Scouting

Like many others before him, Kevin Saucier began playing baseball as a child in Pensacola. Like few others, however, Saucier’s career took him not only to the big leagues, but saw him win a World Series ring as well.

Saucier’s earliest memories of baseball are from Warrington, near NAS where his father worked, “I started out there when I was 9-years-old and I remember a coach telling me if I came back the next year he was going to make a pitcher out of me, and that’s what he did.”

At age 10, Saucier began pitching, a skill that he showed a great aptitude for. “I kept working at,” Saucier said, even with his natural ability. “It’s one of those things:  You’ve got to have the talent, but you’ve also got to have the desire and willingness to work at it.”

At Escambia High School, Saucier played under Coach Fred Waters, “who was probably at that time one of the best coaches around and he’s the one that very much influenced my career,” said Saucier.

Saucier remembered a story some of his high school teammates relayed to him, “I didn’t hear him make this comment, but some other players did. When I was a freshman in high school, I was throwing in the bullpen on the side lines and he told some other guys, ‘This guy is going to be a Big League pitcher one day.’” Waters’ words proved true only a few years later.

Saucier graduated from high school in 1974 and was drafted in the second round by the Philadelphia Phillies and played in the Phillies’ farm system until being called up to the majors in 1979. “In 1980, I was with the Phillies when we won the World Series,” a moment Saucier says was unquestionably the highlight of his career.

After the Series win, Saucier was traded to the Tigers and played two seasons for them before retiring in 1982. Saucier began scouting almost immediately after, and is now in his 29th year with the Major League Scouting Bureau. Saucier also works with USA Baseball, a side project that keeps him travelling when needed. “I went to the Olympics in ‘08 doing advance work for Team USA, giving them reports on other countries,” he said, also assisting with their World Baseball Classics.

Though he travels for work, Saucier has remained based in Pensacola, raising a family here, “Pensacola has been my life.” Saucier also maintained tied to his high school alma mater and Coach Waters, “I’d always go out there and work out with Escambia High School when he was still coaching out there. He was my mentor.” The two even wound up scouting together, and stayed in contact until the day Waters died. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have got where I got,” Saucier said.

This type of tightknit relationship extends beyond the coaches to the baseball players themselves keeping them closely connected. “It’s sort of like a fraternity of, ‘We’re from Pensacola, we’re proud we’re from here,’” said Saucier. “Here’s the deal with baseball—once you’ve been in it, it’s in your blood. I’ve got to be around the game.”

Hard Work Paid Off

When Greg Litton’s family moved to Pensacola from Panama in 1978, as a 13-year-old with major league aspirations, Litton quickly realized he had some work to do. “Coming to Pensacola was one of the things that helped drive my career, mostly because of the talent and the level of baseball here was so high,” Litton now says, looking back at a move he credits with helping get him to the majors.

Litton tried out for the Woodham High School team, but didn’t make the cut his freshman year. “That was a huge wake up call,” he remembered.

Learning his son hadn’t made the team, Litton said his father, who had played baseball at Mississippi State, responded by saying, “‘We’ll be ready next year.’ It wasn’t an option to quit. I played summer ball, the next year I practiced, I stayed in shape.” The following year, Litton made Woodham’s varsity team and started second base every game of sophomore season. Litton credits Woodham coach Jimmy Norrell, a football coach assigned to baseball, with teaching him the importance of running and conditioning, which he says put him ahead in college.

“My dream was always to play major league baseball, and I learned real quick that I was going to have to earn it. It wasn’t going to come easy,” he said of his high school experience. “If I wanted it, I was going to have to start lifting weights, I was going to have to start running, and working at it, and that’s what I did.”

Litton played for then-Pensacola Junior College and was drafted in January of his sophomore year by the San Francisco Giants. In 1989, his rookie year, Litton—a utility player—was called up to the Giants early in the season.

“My first home run in the major leagues is a home run I’ll never forget,” Litton said. “That was the highlight of my career, we had 50,000 people there. To hit a home run and get a standing ovation and a curtain call was pretty neat.”

That same season, the Giants went on to play in the World Series against Oakland. Though Oakland ultimately triumphed, “Getting to the World Series was just amazing,” Litton remembered. “Hitting a home run in game 4, personally, was a really just—it’s hard for me to describe exactly how cool that was. I remember rounding first base and thinking, ‘Wow, you just hit a home run in the World Series.’ I’d been dreaming of that since I was 6-, 8-years-old,” Litton said.

Litton went on the play for the Seattle Mariners and Boston Red Sox before retiring in 1997. Since then, Litton has focused on raising his children and recently began announcing Blue Wahoos TV broadcasts with Dan Shugart. In addition, Litton works and speaks with the Studer Group and occasionally mentors younger players. “Those are the guys I really like working with:  The guys that really just love the game, no matter how talented they are, that just really want to get better and work at it,” Litton said.

As a Pensacolian, Litton credits local players who preceded him in the Majors—namely Don Sutton and Jimmy Pressley—as encouragements, something he strives to be for younger players, “When I was in the minor leagues, Jimmy had made it to Seattle, and you had that inspiration: ‘Hey, if they can do it, I can do it.’”

Pensacola’s New School

Billy Sadler is part of the most recent generation of major leaguers to return to Pensacola and start giving back to the local community.

“There’s a long line of great ball players and coaches and it’s just one big hot bed here in Pensacola,” Sadler said recently while looking back on his formative years as a player.

Born in Pensacola, Sadler briefly lived in Alabama where he began playing Little League baseball. After moving back to Pensacola at age 8, Sadler played in the city’s Bill Bonds Baseball League. “I’d have to say that what shaped me were the people, the atmosphere, the competition,” Sadler said of his childhood.

At Catholic High School, Sadler tried out for Coach Richard LaBounty. “I tried out as a freshman and I was fortunate enough for him to think that I could play at the Varsity level,” said Sadler, who remained on the Varsity squad for all four years of high school. “I look at my life in baseball and see each stepping stone. Richard LaBounty was another major, major influence that brought me to that next level.”

Between high school and junior college, Sadler was twice drafted by the Seattle Mariners, but opted to play for Pensacola State College and LSU, where he helped win the SEC Championship and played in the College World Series in 2003. In 2003, his junior year at LSU, Sadler was drafted and signed with the San Francisco Giants.

Sadler moved between farm teams and the Giants until 2009 when he became a free agent and signed with the Houston Astros. In 2009, Sadler played 19 farm system games and one major league game for the Astros before right shoulder scapular dyskinesis put him on the disabled list, and he returned to Pensacola for treatment at the Andrews Institute.

Now retired, Sadler is putting his experience to use, training younger players just as Major Leaguers of his childhood did for him. “Guys like Greg Litton, Jay Bell, Travis Fryman, guys from this area, they did that [Fred Waters Baseball] clinic and that inspired me to make it to the Major League.”

Through Billy Sadler Baseball, Sadler offers lessons regularly and puts on the Billy Sadler Baseball Clinic once a year. “Kids get to come out and be around major leaguers, professional ball players, college players, coaches, and scouts, cross checkers,” said Sadler, who taps into Pensacola’s vast baseball expertise for the clinics. “We’ve got a plethora of great baseball players, scouts, and coaches that are involved and want to give back to the community.”

When speaking of his new direction as a mentor, Sadler sounds every bit as enthusiastic as when he speaks about his own development as a player. “I’ve really enjoyed moving into that career, to train and teach lessons for the youth,” he said. “That’s been a real joy in my life, because I’m seeing results through those players, seeing a smile on their face whenever they get it and do really well.”

Having recently opened a sports management agency, Sadler continues to look for ways to encourage player development. “Pensacola is my hometown, I love it with a passion,” Sadler said. “My goal and my mission are to really make an impact here in Pensacola. It’s already a hot bed as I said, but I want to do anything and everything I can to make it even better.”

The Future of Baseball History

As Pensacola continues to produce Major League caliber players and the city is once again home to a Major League affiliate, it seems baseball fans and historians will have no shortage of experiences to take in.

Though the stories that Brown documented from decades ago are what surprise many at present—the fact that Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Lou Gehrig played here, et cetera—in the future, the number of successful MLB careers that began in Pensacola could be what astonishes.

Brown hopes the reunion will be one step in a continued effort to present Pensacola’s baseball history. As he points out, each era in his book has numerous individuals and events all worthy of their own detailed study.

“I’ll probably be off to another project at some point, but my desire is to see Pensacola know its history of the game the fullest. I’m willing to dig in and direct and help,” said Brown. “My desire really is and always has been, to spur the imagination and the passion in others where they pick up the baton and go forward.”

Brown’s project has inspired at least one participant to move forward documenting the history. Ed Coleman moved back to Pensacola a little over a month ago and is planning to continue researching Pensacola’s Negro League team histories.

“I really want to develop some archives for the Negro League here in Pensacola. I’d like to develop something people can see and appreciate,” said Coleman noting an important motivation. “When you think in terms of people who went before us, kids need to see that:  They need to get a feel for what people actually had to go through to get where they got. It wasn’t easy.”

“Scott just kind of opened up something,” Coleman said of the recent interest in recording Pensacola’s ongoing baseball tradition. “It’s a passion.” And like baseball itself, the storytelling will likely remain an active pursuit in Pensacola.

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Baseball in Pensacola Reunion Honorees

The following is a list of honorees expected to be part of the Baseball in Pensacola Reunion on Thursday, August 15. Below are quick facts about their ties to Pensacola and careers as players. Several of the Major League players listed also had extensive Minor League experience, and many have also gone on to coach or work in baseball in a variety of capacities. For additional information about these and others that have shaped Pensacola’s baseball legacy, pick up a copy of the “Baseball in Pensacola” book and/or DVD. To meet the players or legacy families, grab a ticket for that evening’s Wahoos game.

Jay Bell
Tate High School
Cleveland Indians, 1986-1988
Pittsburgh Pirates, 1989-1996 (Played in 1993 All-Star Game)
Kansas City Royals, 1997
Arizona Diamondbacks, 1998-2002 (2001 World Series Champions)
New York Mets, 2003

Bernie Carbo
Pensacola Pelicans, Field Manager, 2003-2005

Tom Cheek
Born and Raised in Pensacola
Announcer, Toronto Blue Jays, 1977-2004
Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame 2012
National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award 2013
Represented by wife, Shirley Cheek; daughter, Linda Cheek Hall; and sister, Elizabeth Cheek-Jones

David Coleman
Washington High School
Pensacola Seagulls, 1949
Local amateur adult leagues and Pensacola PONY League Coach, 1950s-1970s
Represented by his son, Ed Coleman

Bill Hamilton
Head Coach, Pensacola Junior College, 1990-2010

Frank Hardy Sr.
Official photographer of the Pensacola Dons (1957-1960)
Represented by his son, Frank Hardy, Jr.

Phil Hiatt
Catholic High School
Kansas City Royals, 1993-1995
Detroit Tigers, 1996
Hanshin Tigers (Japan) in 1997
Los Angeles Dodgers, 2001

Jim Hutto
Pensacola High School
Philadelphia Phillies, 1970
Baltimore Orioles, 1975

Johnny Joe Lewis
Booker T. Washington High School
Pensacola Seagulls, 1950s
St. Louis Cardinals, 1964
New York Mets, 1965-1967

Greg Litton
Woodham High School
San Francisco Giants, 1989-1992 (1989 National League Champions)
Seattle Mariners, 1993
Boston Red Sox, 1994

Gilbert “Lefty” Lybrand
New York Giants Pensacola Spring Training Camp Rookie Recruit, 1936 (Went to Chicago Cubs Farm System)
Manager, Pensacola Babe Ruth League and PONY League, 1950s and 1960s
Represented by his nephew, Rusty Bizzell

Joe Panaccione
Owner, Pensacola Angels (1960-1961)
Owner, Pensacola (1961-1962)

Hosken Powell
Woodham High School
Minnesota Twins, 1978-1981
Toronto Blue Jays, 1982-1983

Lawrence “Shake” Sampson
Washington High School
Pensacola Seagulls, late 1950s and 1960s
PSA Softball, 1990s-present

Kevin Saucier
Escambia High School
Philadelphia Phillies, 1979-1980 (1980 World Series Champions)
Detroit Tigers, 1981-1982

Joe Szuch
Pensacola Fliers, 1940s
Represented by his son, Cliff Szuch

Tim Spooneybarger
Pine Forest High School
Atlanta Braves, 2001-2003
Florida Marlins, 2003 (Won the 2003 World Series)

Fred Waters
Head Coach, Escambia High School, 1971-1980s
Coach, Pensacola Angels and Pensacola Senators, 1960-1962
Minnesota Twins Rookie League Manager, 1964-1988
Represented by daughter Mary Francis Waters-Blackard

John Webb
Pensacola High School
Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 2004-2005

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‘Baseball in Pensacola’
A Reunion and Multimedia Experience

Over two years ago, a meeting at a Pensacola Pelicans fundraiser began a project that has ignited public interest in Pensacola’s baseball history.

Author and baseball historian Scott Brown was at the Pelicans’ fundraiser that night to meet potential interview subjects for his research on “America’s Pastime” in Pensacola. A friend introduced him to Jill Hubbs, the director of education, outreach, and content at WSRE, who had been assigned to developing a documentary about Pensacola’s baseball history.

From there, Brown and Hubbs met, realized their visions were similar, and Brown began working on the two projects concurrently. “While writing the book, I was able to do interviews for WSRE, which was again collecting info for the book which fed back into the documentary,” Brown said.

The film and book trace the history of baseball in Pensacola in the late 1800s until the opening season of the Blue Wahoos in 2012. Both look at the various minor league teams, Negro League teams, and the famous Major Leaguers—including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jackie Robinson—who traveled through and played on Pensacola’s fields, as well as Pensacolians who have gone on to play in the Major Leagues.

The documentary premiered on WSRE in November 2012; the book was released in March 2013.

“We’ve had great response. I get comments all the time from people, former players,” said Brown. “It’s just been phenomenal.” In addition to fan compliments, the documentary is also meeting with critical acclaim. In July, the film was awarded a National Telly Award, and Brown said the film is looking at a potential Emmy nomination.

Brown, WSRE, and the Wahoos management have all continued to conceive ways to share Pensacola’s baseball history with the public.

In April, WSRE’s Imagination Station opened at the stadium. In addition to the free children’s activity area, the center houses a historical exhibit displaying baseball artifacts dating back to 1908. “There’s memorabilia there that’s enormous,” Brown said.

During a break for a WSRE telethon focused on “Baseball in Pensacola,” Brown recalled, “Quint Studer who is ever the visionary said, ‘Scott, you know what I’d like to do during the season? Wouldn’t it be fun just to present a baseball in Pensacola reunion, with as many guys that have made it to the major leagues?’ From there the idea was hatched.”

Brown met with Bruce Baldwin and Jonathan Griffith, the Blue Wahoos’ President and Vice President, respectively, to connect the team’s staff to those who participated in the book and documentary research. Whether they appeared on camera or off, Brown acknowledges that all of the honorees assisted him by providing information for the book, documentary, or both, “Somehow, they’ve all contributed to the success of what this has been.”

The reunion events will include on-field honors and presentations, and autograph opportunities for fans. Clips of the documentary will run throughout the game, and both Brown and Hubbs will be there with copies of the books and documentary to sell and sign.

Brown is excited about including not only players themselves in the reunion, but family members of those who have passed on, as well.

“Men who played in the Negro Leagues and their family members will be there. Fred Waters’ daughter will be a part of this—Fred probably put more of our local boys into professional baseball than anybody else. Of course, the Cheek Family,” Brown said. “It’s just wonderful that we can include these people before the Wahoos fans to give them more of a snapshot about the incredible legacy that we have here in Pensacola from the diamond.”

For Brown, the reunion will serve as just one more avenue for sharing Pensacola’s rich baseball tradition and will hopefully spark additional interest in the topic. “I’ve said all along that the documentary, the book—neither could cover the totality of the history that we have here,” he said. “So this is one more component in allowing the people of Pensacola to know who they are in the history of baseball.”

BASEBALL IN PENSACOLA REUNION NIGHT
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 15, during Blue Wahoos vs. Mississippi Braves game
WHERE: Pensacola Bayfront Stadium, 351 W. Cedar St.
COST: $5.00-$50.00
DETAILS: bluewahoos.com