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Baseball’s youngest pro made here
Fitzgerald’s Joe Reliford part of Statesboro’s pro sports story
Joe Louis Reliford.jpg
This photo of Joe Louis Reliford in Fitzgerald Pioneers uniform is credited to the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.

When Joe Louis Reliford went to bat for the Fitzgerald Pioneers in a Minor League game in Statesboro, Georgia, on July 19, 1952, he stepped into the record books as the youngest person ever to play professional baseball.

Reliford, then 12, stood 5 feet tall and weighed 90 pounds, or by some accounts less. Pioneers travel manager Charlie Ridgeway’s compliance with the crowd’s taunts to “Put in the batboy!” didn’t result  in a win for his team, which was trailing the Statesboro Pilots 13-0 at Pilots Field, but Reliford both set that lasting record and momentarily integrated the previously all-white Georgia State League.

“The story that gets national and international attention is a story that takes place here in Statesboro, takes place with the Pilots and it happens in 1952 … the Pilots’ first year of playing in the league,” Darin Van Tassell, president of the Tormenta FC soccer franchise, told the Bulloch County Historical Society.

Tormenta FC is in the process of rising from semipro to pro status. United Soccer League officials announced in January that the Statesboro-based club is joining the USL effective with the 2019 season. Construction of Tormenta’s new stadium complex is also planned for 2019. So, although “Pros Start Here,” has been Tormenta’s slogan for the past three years, “Pros Are Here” now seems appropriate, Van Tassell said.

 

Pros already here

He made “Pros Were Here” the title of his review of pro sports teams and players who have called Statesboro and Bulloch County home. Van Tassell, Ph.D., also a Georgia Southern University professor emeritus of political science and international studies, had done  his homework for Monday’s presentation, which included a slideshow.

“It seems appropriate today to remind ourselves that the story didn’t just start with us,” he said. “We may be the latest professional team in Statesboro … but we certainly weren’t the first.”

Starting decades before the Pilots, the Ruff Riders Ball Club was an all-black baseball team that played in Bulloch County from 1914 into the early 1960s. Rough Rider Road, a dirt road east of Statesboro, still leads to their home field, now partly planted in pine trees. The Ruff Riders – or Rough Riders as the spelling apparently changed over the years – may have been semiprofessional, but are an important part of local sports history, Van Tassell said.

He shared a photograph of the first Ruff Riders team and noted that players’ last names included Tremble, Bundy, Jenkins, Williams, Gibbons and several others still recognizable as names of Bulloch County families.

He also displayed photos of 16 past and current Bulloch-born pros in various sports, and said he thought of two more during the meeting.

 

Youngest pro

But the centerpiece was the story of the batboy from Fitzgerald who broke the color barrier and became a pro at 12.

Reliford, who was 3 when his father died, sought employment as a batboy at age 10 to help his mother pay bills. The general manager of the Fitzgerald Pioneers was Ace Adams, who had been a relief pitcher for the New York Giants in the 1940s. But Adams didn’t travel with the Pioneers to away games, when the team was instead led by Ridgeway, the travel manager, who also played.

When the team would stop at restaurants, which were segregated then, Ridgeway would tell the restaurant staff that Reliford needed to eat with the players or the team would leave and go to another restaurant, Van Tassell said.

“It gives you a sense at least of what their relationship is because  I think that relationship offers some insight into what’s about to happen,” he  said.

That day in 1952, the Pioneers rode in their bus about 100 miles to Statesboro for the Elks Night game at Pilots Field. The field, which had wooden stands and wooden box seats, was on the road that runs by the old Georgia State Patrol headquarters, now the Department of Driver Services office, from U.S. Highway 301 North toward Brodie International. The location is still visible as the first clearing on the right past the Driver Services parking lot.

“In those days, Fitzgerald was a Minor League club for the A’s, the Athletics. Statesboro was independent.... So some teams had affiliations; some didn’t,” Van Tassell said.

This is different now, when all official Minor League teams are affiliates of Major League clubs. But both the Pioneers and the Pilots were D League teams, roughly equivalent to “Rookie League or below,” he said.

“Teams that played in that league were from Baxley, Douglas, Eastman, Fitzgerald, Sparta – Vidalia-Lyons had a piece in there – Jesup, Sandersville, Hazlehurst, Thomson, Tifton,” Van Tassell said.

One Bulloch County Historical Society member, Robert Tanner, now 75, was there the night of the historic game, although nobody realized history was being made then, he said. Tanner said he probably attended 90 percent of the Pilots’ games. Parents could buy a child a $10 T-shirt with the Pilots’ logo, an airplane in blue on a white background – and then the child got into all the games free as long as accompanied by a parent. And no, Tanner doesn’t still have his T-shirt.

“I wish I did,” he said. “I’d give anything if I had one.”

 

Breaking ground

The Statesboro Pilots never had a winning season in their three and a half years in the pro league. But they were trouncing the Pioneers in that game, and there was a big crowd.

“So it’s Elks Night, the score was 13 to nothing, the crowd was feeling pretty good, they were rubbing it in, and they kept hollering to put in the batboy,” Van Tassell related.

Eventually Ridgeway told Joe Louis Reliford to grab a bat and go hit. “Joe Louis said, ‘Mr. Ridgeway, you know that’s against the law’ … and he said, ‘I know, you’re going to hit anyway,’” Van Tassell told.

Statesboro Pilots pitcher Curtis White did not take it easy on the youngster. White pitched a fastball for strike one. On the second pitch, Reliford hit the ball hard, but Statesboro’s third baseman threw him out, one step short of first base.

“And the place was going crazy,” Van Tassell said.

Ridgeway did not put an end to Reliford’s unorthodox experience after the at-bat, but sent him out to play right field.

Reliford ended a 21-game hitting streak by Statesboro player Harold James “Jim” Shuster. Some versions of the story have this as the point where Reliford stopped a potential homerun by catching a fly ball at the top of the fence.

“At that point, as he’s jogging off the field – the game’s not over – he’s rushed,” Van Tassell said. “All of the fans start pouring out onto the field – at least this is his story – and he’s nervous. All-white crowd for the most part, at least that one that’s coming onto the field.”

Older teammates rushed out to protect Reliford but found the fans were patting him on the back and cheering. On the bus ride home he reached into his pockets and found dollar bills the crowd had stuffed in there.

“So much so that he said it amounted to at least two weeks’ paycheck that his mother would be bringing home,” Van Tassell said, “and it is at that point that he became the youngest player to ever play professional baseball.”

His story can be found on the Minor League Baseball website, www.milb.com, and at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. Van Tassell noted a 1990 Sports Illustrated story, which included a contemporary interview with Reliford. He went on to play baseball for Florida A&M and became a police officer in Douglas, where he lives in retirement.

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