By Bonnie Bartel Latino
Special to Atmore News
Ten of Atmore’s 1961 Sr League Baseball All Stars will return home this Saturday. Look for them after 1130 a.m. when they make two presentations to the Atmore Historical Society at Heritage Park.
Over a year ago I received a call from my childhood Atmore friend Ricky Webb. The back yards of our parents’ homes on S. Trammell and S. Carney Streets were on the katywampus side of adjacent. I have a soft spot for the kids from that neighborhood. Rick, his grown-up name, called from Sacramento, CA late last summer to ask if I’d write a story in 2021 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1961 Atmore All Stars playing in the (first ever) Sr. Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA. And he wanted to have something that could be presented to the Atmore Historical Society. I said yes without having any idea what this article would spawn.
Over the next few months Rick and I found phone numbers for the former all stars. They are scattered from Sacramento, CA to Raleigh, NC and down to Pensacola, FL. Rick contacted them to say that either I or my writing partner and ace graphic designer, Bob Vale in Ocean, NJ. would be contacting them about the article.
The more all stars Rick, Bob, and I talked to, the more excited everyone got. Suddenly our article morphed into a reunion on Williams Station Day on Oct. 23. Kudos to Rick’s sister, JeanieWebb, for pointing out the obvious. If not now, when? At the time, I didn’t yet know what I didn’t know.
But this much I know is true. I was 13 in the summer of 1961. And I’m here to tell you, those all stars, that particular group of teenage boys, was iconic for their era. Representing four different school grades, some were cute; others were handsome, several were downright precious. Many were funny. All were well known at school and well liked by their classmates; most were even liked by their teachers. Lest I forget, they were all athletically gifted and played a little baseball.
In those halcyon August days in the year of our Lord, nineteen hundred and sixty-one, for a brief shining moment in time, mere boys transformed into legendary beings — Atmore’s Senior Little League All Star Team! So who were they, these Boys of the Summer of ‘61? For starters they were 15 of the best players selected from among Atmore’sfourSenior Little League teams that season.
Tragically, three All Stars were unexpectedly called, too young, to their heavenly home. I like to think of them playing baseball on a gigantic replica of Tom Byrne Field, complete with red dirt – that doesn’t stick to their faces, hair, or uniforms. Just beyond the outfield fences, a traveling amusement park, complete with flashing lights, a Ferris wheel, and a cacophony of tacky carnival sounds roars on. Blended scents of popcorn and cotton candy float overhead as gossamer as a bridal veil.
Best of all, their team, The Cloud Chasers, hasn’t lost a game. Not with Eddie Fancher and Keith Russell sharing duties on the pitcher’s mound and Preston Barnett swiveling to make the perfect catch every time, stopping only occasionally to lift his catcher’smaskand flash his slow sweet smile. The team’s biggest supporters are all there, too: Coaches Stirling Fancher and Frank Patrick, Claude Steele, Sr., who managed Atmore’s 1961 Sr. Little League program and Wheeler Crook, who managed Atmore’s entire Little League program, were all there. May God bless them and their families.
As Larry Troutman offered in atmore magazine, “Our coaches, managers, and Atmore were our real MVPs.” Atmore’s small and large businesses, plus civic clubs, and individual citizens raised $2000 to cover travel expenses. Rick Webb told me that $2K is equivalent in purchasing power today to $18,348.49. This was an astounding accomplishment for a small town.
Meanwhile back here in Atmore the All Stars are now an even dozen: William Blackburn, Rodney Blackburn, Wayne Godwin, Ronnie Headley, Wayne Lowery, Leon “Leapy” Phillips, Todd Rodgers, Buddy Sharpless, Claude Steele, Jr., Larry Troutman, Ricky Webb, and John Wingard. Only two are unable to be here Saturday. Todd Rodgers and Larry Troutman will truly be missed.
Readers now know the names, but who did they become as individual men? And where are they now? I have written individual player profiles. In November, atmore magazine plans to publish two or three profiles each month, until Atmore has met all 15 of these remarkable men. Depending on space, Atmore News may publish the first few in today’s paper. Don’t pass them by.
Here’s a sneak preview of who the All Stars became as men. Two were Eagle Scouts. One went to junior college on a baseball scholarship. Another graduated from college on a four-year football scholarship. All had some college. Nine earned bachelor’s degrees. Of those, five earned advanced degrees. One went on to earn his Doctorate, become a college professor, and ultimately was Dean of the Business School at a Catholic University in Texas. Another earned a law degree, but with an unexpected job offer in Alabama government too good to reject, he never practiced law..
Two of the15 became Baptist ministers. Three served tours in Vietnam. Two more served in Guam at Andersen AIr Force Base and in support of the War in SE Asia. Two others joined the Army, and they and their Atmore wives were stationed in Germany. Yet another joined the Navy – and was sent to Morocco. Two more were in National Guard units for six years each. Another became a teacher, coach, and a principal.
Two eventually owned their own businesses in the engineering and construction industries. One spent his career in investment management with firms from San Francisco, CA to Hartford CT, and ultimately, New York City, NY. Now retired, another owns a popular cigar shop and smoker’s lounge. Two had long careers in loss management and insurance. Three worked in marketing/sales and management.
The original 15 All Stars have 20 children, the youngest of whom is 25. There are a bushel of grand children, and a few great grands.
The men are all humble, smart, delightful. Most of all, they represented Atmore and themselves with dignity and class. They were, and are, good men. Several have been married to their spouses for 50-plus years. Only one has become a confirmed bachelor, by choice. I suspect he chats up Siri a lot.
This Saturday, should you see a group of fun loving gentlemen of a certain age who arehaving way too much fun, please say, “Welcome back home, you make Atmore proud” to the Boys of the Summer of ‘61. They will all probably be wearing ball caps and white t-shirts with attractive logos, both created by John and Cindy Wingard.
The article Bob Vale and I wrote for the October 2021 issue of atmore magazine has been matted and framed (thanks again, John Wingard) and will be presented to the Atmore Historical Society by four adult children of the team’s managers and coaches, at Heritage Park this Saturday.
Rick Webb, All Star reunion organizer and the grandson of Dr. A.P. Webb (of Peavy-Webb Building fame) will also present a restored photograph of his grandfather’s home, which stood for many years on North Main Street beside what is now the Peavy-Webb Building, before the doctors’ office was moved to its present location in Heritage Park on South Main Street.
[Bonnie Bartel Latino is an award-winning novelist and journalist. She is a former columnist for Stars and Stripes in Europe. After living all over the world, from Guam to Greece and many places in between, she chose to move back to her hometown. Fortunately her husband of 53 years agreed.]