The summer of ‘63 was magical in Ahoskie

Published 4:50 pm Tuesday, June 27, 2023

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By Tony Doughtie

AHOSKIE – During the summer of 1963, this 10 year old boy had an up close and personal view of the greatest season in the history of Ahoskie Legion Post 102.

My father “Shorty Doughtie” was a Legion member and the first game of that season was on the road at Benson. Legion members helped get the players to the games and he was driving so if he was going to the game I’m going too. There were 17 members on the ‘63 team, but only 12 made the trip to Benson the for season opener.

We waited for the team to dress at the old Benson High School when Legion Coach Al Vaughan comes up to me and asked me “do you want to drag the bats”? I didn’t understand what he meant and he says “be the batboy”. That started my three-year career to be the Ahoskie American Legion batboy.

Missing the first game was Bobby Hall, a first baseman/rightfielder from Plymouth who went on NC State to play football and become an All Conference wingback. Four other Post 102 players from Perquimans County were playing in the State 2A baseball state championship that day. They were third baseman Gene Nixon, shortstop/pitcher Freddie Combs who would become an All American football player at NC State and in 1968 played on NC State’s first baseball team to go to the College World Series, his brother Francis Combs, a catcher would also play on the ‘68 NC State baseball team who went to Omaha, and Jimmy Hunter who would in 1986 be elected to the Major League Baseball Hall Of Fame. He wasn’t known as “Catfish” Hunter in 1963.

Jimmy Whaley, the only Ahoskie player on the team that year gets the start pitching. Carl Taylor (Gates County) relieves Whaley and finishes the game. Post 102, who managed only four hits in its opener, loses 4-1. Whaley got two hits, Doug Britton from Lewiston got one and King Burgwyn (Murfreesboro) the other. Post 102 scored as Bobby Harrington (Lewiston) hit a groundout scoring Carl Taylor.

In game two, Whaley is on the mound, but relieved in the second by Taylor. Whaley returns to finish the game in the seventh. Harrington was the hitting star, getting three hits and Whaley another two. Hall gets his first hit of the season to help Post 102 beat Greenville at Guy Smith Stadium, 8-3.

Game three is the first home game and the first game for the now State 2A baseball champs from Perquimans. Edgar Parker (Woodland) gets his first start pitching. He finds himself down 4-0 in the first inning to Benson. Coach Vaughan brings in Jimmy Hunter, a 2-1 winner in the state championship game. The final will be 8-4 in favor of Post 102 as Hunter strikes out 21 batters. The News-Herald had a picture of Francis Combs with a towel, fanning Hunter trying to cool him off after the game. That just might be a baseball record, striking out 21 batters in a nine inning game and not be the starting pitcher. Freddie Combs and Hall led the hitters.

Game four of the season is at Rocky Mount to play Post 58. Rocky Mount High School had just won the state 4A baseball title and many players from Rocky Mount, Nash County and Tarboro make up the team. Rocky Mount was led by Danny Talbott who would go to Carolina and play football and baseball, becoming the first player in the ACC player of the year in football and baseball. Jim Best and Jimmy Hunter go toe to toe for ten innings with Rocky Mount winning 3-2 after a Post 102 error. Frank Rice (Sunbury) was the only Post 102 hitter to get two hits. Rice would play baseball for East Carolina and later die as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.

Three days later, Rocky Mount visits Ahoskie and once again Best and Hunter are locked in a pitcher’s dual. It is another ten inning game. Hunter had a no hitter going in the eighth inning. In the bottom of the ninth, Freddie Combs is on first and Coach Vaughan calls for a hit and run with twin brother Francis at the plate. Francis hits a bloop over the head of the first baseman Talbott. Freddie is one of the fastest runners in North Carolina and as Talbott picks up the ball, Combs is rounding third heading for home. On a bam bam play at the plate, Freddie is safe and Post 102 wins 2-1. It’s Rocky Mount’s first loss but most importantly Ahoskie is within one game of them in the Legion standings.

Game six is back to Greenville where Whaley starts on the mound. He’s relieved by Taylor, but Hunter comes in the ninth. It took 13 innings before Post 102 wins 7-6. Harrington has a homer and Hunter also homers.

This sets up our second trip to Rocky Mount where Best and Hunter square off for the third time. This night will be the Bobby Harrington show as he homers and has three doubles. Hunter gets the win but it will be his worse outing of the year. Ahoskie wins 11-5 but the most important thing is we are now tied with Rocky Mount for the league lead.

Game nine of the season sees Carl Taylor get the start and goes four innings. Hunter replaces him and pitches through the seventh and Edgar Parker finishes. Hunter is the leading hitter, getting three hits including a homer.

The next two games are with Greenville making up a rainout game. Jimmy Whaley and Carl Taylor pitch as Post 102 beats Greenville 9-7. Taylor leads the hitting parade with three hits. Francis Combs get a double, driving in the winning runs. In the next game vs. Greenville, Hunter wins on the mound with Taylor and Hall getting two hits each. Post 102’s record goes to 8-2 with a 4-2 win.

It is finally the last week of the regular season and rain is at it again. The final trip to Benson is now on Tuesday night and Rocky Mount scheduled for Wednesday.

For the trip to Benson, I am riding with Ahoskie attorney Carlton Cherry. Sitting beside me on the front seat is Jimmy Hunter. Freddie and Francis Combs are in the back along with Gene Nixon. Mr. Cherry chewed tobacco and my job was hold his Dixie Cup so he could spit while we were driving. During the drive, a conversation comes up about Jimmy Hunter’s future and Mr. Cherry told Jimmy if and when the time came up and he needed any help with a baseball contract he would be glad to help him. Before the next baseball season, Hunter will sign a professional contract with Mr. Cherry’s help.

Coach Vaughan was saving Hunter to pitch against Rocky Mount. Carl Parker gets the start and pitches his best game of the year, going the distance on the mount as Ahoskie beats Benson, 6-2.

Now it is time for the showdown. Wednesday is winner take all game vs. rival Rocky Mount. In the old days only the regular season winner made the playoffs. You would think everyone in Ahoskie showed up this night. The News-Herald estimated over one thousand fans showed up to watch. People brought the chaise chairs and lined up down the left and right field line six deep. There were only about a 100 that could sit in the bleachers. Hundreds stood everywhere.

Rocky Mount puts their ace, Jim Best, on the mound and everyone knew that Al Vaughan will pitch Hunter. Jimmy Hunter tripled in the eighth inning and Rocky Mount brings in Danny Talbott get them out of trouble.

It would turn out that these two teams would once again, for the third time, would go down to the last pitch.

Tied at 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth. Ed Storey (Gates County) walks, and Freddie Combs singled him to third. Jimmy Hunter is intentionally walked. The bases are loaded with one out and Carl Taylor comes to bat. He hits a slow ground ball towards second. The only play is to home and Storey is hauling towards the plate. The hurried throw goes over the head of the catcher and Ed Storey safely scores, sending the whole town of Ahoskie into jubilation.

Post 102 will start the playoffs hosting Siler City on Saturday night. It is a three out of five series. After a record crowd on Wednesday, they say 1,500 were there this night….ten deep along the lines in the chaise lounge chairs.   Coach Vaughan starts Carl Taylor and in the fifth inning he sprang his nkle sliding into second base. The game is tied 5-5. Vaughan had held Jimmy Hunter out because he had just pitched nine innings on Wednesday. He sees a chance to pitch Hunter these next four innings and pull out a win. The only problem is the game will go 16 innings and Hunter will still be in at the end.

The game had started at 7:30 and by 11 pm people started going home, but many would come back as the game would not end.

As part of the championship celebration, Ronnie Vann, who ran the Manhattan Café, had promise the team steaks in the café after this game.

The Jimmy Hunter legend was born in the ninth inning. He walked the first batter, hit the second, and walked the third. Vaughan calls time and heads to the mound. He asked Hunter if he was ok. His reply from Hunter was “yes Sir” Vaughn tells him to throw nothing but fastballs and come sit beside him. Nine pitches later, Hunter sits beside Vaughan after throwing nine fastballs and striking out the side.

It is now 12:40 am and Siler City scores on a Post 102 error. Ahoskie fails to score in the bottom 16th and loses game one 6-5. Ronnie Vann fed the team after 1 am that night. It was a great steak but a bitter moment.

Monday we are in Siler City. Hunter having pitched 19 innings last week is out. Carl Taylor is out for the rest of the playoffs. Post 102 loses game two and on Wednesday Hunter beats Siler City in game three, but the season ends on Friday with a loss back in Siler City.

Just about everyone will return in 1964 so there is great optimism for next season. The Legion season starts a week earlier than last. Perquimans once again plays for the state baseball title. Jimmy Hunter, after getting back home, is offered a major league baseball contract and with Carlton Cherry’s help will never play in the minors and become the first million dollar major league baseball player in 1974.

Before the three Perquimans players arrive, Post 102 is off to an 0-4 start for the 1962 season. They will rally to finish the season at .500.

As I look back, the summer of ‘63 brought Ahoskie it’s only Legion regular season championship and for one week in July the whole city thought baseball was just as important as football in a football town. Those were great days!