Note: The following is one of a series of columns looking at places and events of interest in Bulloch County history.
In 1952, Statesboro created a piece of baseball history. It all started when the Fitzgerald Pioneers traveled some 100 miles to Statesboro, for a special promotional "Elks Night" evening game with Statesboro's baseball team.
Fitzgerald carried with them their batboy, a 12-year-old named Joe Louis Reliford of Douglas. The Pioneers manager had promised Joe’s mom that if she allowed Joe to accompany the team on away games he'd make sure he was OK.
The Pioneer players had sort of adopted Joe, who was black, showing him how to bat and catch on the field. The game on July 19 went badly for the Pioneers. By the end of the seventh inning it was a blow-out as the Pilots were winning 11-1. Statesboro fans started chanting loudly "send in the batboy, send in the batboy."
Pretty soon, the whole stadium was ringing with the refrain. After consulting with head umpire Ed Kubick, Pioneer manager Charlie Ridgeway was heard to say quite loudly: "Well, if they want a show, let's give them one."
Up to the plate trotted little Joe: all of 5 feet tall, weighing 90 pounds. The Pilot's pitcher stared at him in disbelief, but finally threw the ball. To his (and everyone else's) amazement, Joe smacked a hard grounder to the third baseman, who barely managed to throw it to first in time to beat Joe crossing the bag.
Soon the Fitzgerald team took the field, and none other than Joe sauntered out to centerfield. When Harold Shuster (the Pilots’ best hitter) smashed a line drive right at him, Joe made a diving catch.
When the game finally ended, what seemed to be the entire crowd swarmed out onto the field, patting Joe on the back, and (it is said) even stuffing money in his pockets?
There was a very good reason for their reaction: By playing, Reliford, at the ripe old age of 12 years and 234 days old, was the youngest player ever to take part in a professional baseball game. He also became the first black player to play in a Georgia State League game.
League officials were not pleased: umpire Kubick was fired; Pioneer manager Ridgeway was suspended for the next five games and fined $50; and Reliford was summarily dismissed as batboy.
Joe's actions earned him a place in the Coopers-town, New York National Baseball Hall Of Fame; his actions are recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records; and his actions are recorded in the Ripley's Believe It or Not.
Roger Allen is a local lover of history. Allen provides a brief look each week at the area's past. E-mail Roger at email@example.com.