The Norcross Old Timers Baseball Association’s museum class collection of memorabilia is officially at home at the Norcross Welcome Center, and it had its opening reception last Sunday.
“For now at least,” said the association’s president, Carl Garner Jr.
“I think we’ve finally, thanks to Cate Kitchen, have a place to properly display all of this,” Garner said, expressing his appreciation for the city and the other Old Timers gathered around him and their families.
“I am so happy to have all of ya’ll around me today.” Garner smiled and said, “And I know every one of you!’
Like a reunion, families eagerly searched for the names of grandfathers, uncles and husbands listed on the pages of the museum’s rich collection of newspaper clippings, books and magazine articles. So many who attended the dedication day happily hugged, snapped pictures, and reconnected on the porch and within the room that highlights the baseball history, a room dedicated on Sunday to Garner. Garner, along with the tireless help of his wife Joan, has held fast to his boyhood memories of days spent on the old open lot, now Lillian Webb Park, which was just an old ball field behind the school then.
What began in the 1990s with a bunch of self-proclaimed "old codgers," sitting around reminiscing about those long summer nights of their youth spent watching local boys verse other town teams in a game of baseball, resulted in the formation of the Norcross Old Timers Baseball Association.
Baseball was as popular then as an evening of concerts in the park are today in Norcross. Shops closed up, ladies spread blankets on the hillside of the open lot, now Webb Park, and children shadowed runners rounding the bases, dreams of playing in the "bigs" swirling in their imaginations.
Avery Graves, a man who grew up in those glory days of baseball when Norcross boasted more professional players drafted than any other city, per capita, in America, along with several of his childhood pals, felt strongly about physically preserving the memorabilia. It includes fading newspaper clippings, worn out leather gloves, tarnished trophies, and baseballs likely thrown or cracked from the hands and bats of some local boys who would find their names in analogs of baseball history, and the Old Timers Baseball Association was born.
Graves and some of his childhood pals, men like John Adams, Bill Payne, Ray Garmon, Thurman Terrell, Carl Carner, Troyce Cofer and Jimmy Carlyle, learned the game of baseball on the same open lot about a block from the depot and can spin stories of glorious afternoons in the dust and grass of the historic field. The gang collected all they could of those old clippings piping the earliest of players, like Ivey and Red Wingo and Roy and Cleo Carlyle, and the semi-pro Norcross Nuggets into the first museum, which first called the old library on Carlyle Street home.
The artifacts were moved to city hall and rededicated at that location in 2006 with about 21 Old Timers in attendance, today only an handful remain. Perhaps the tales of big bats and strong arms have found the perfect place for the irreplaceable displays for the enjoyment of the public here at the Norcross Welcome Center directed by Cate Kitchen.
On Sunday, March 18, with the smell of popcorn and Cracker Jack in the air, some of those men and women still living gathered at the welcome center to recall walking to town to cheer on neighbors and schoolmates (many who have long since passed away), and to rededicate the new, and perhaps final, home of this treasure trove of sports legends who called Norcross home. If the history on the walls and in the glass cases were not enough, just listening to the tales being told stirred up memories for many attendees.
One original member of the association on hand yesterday was Dodger Deleon, who recalled heading up to town on his bike to watch some of the retired pro players smack down pitches.
“Roy Carlyle would sit around the old pot belly stove at Cofer’s [a garage along South Peachtree Street] just chewing the fat, talkin’ about his days in the big league,” said Dodger. Of his boyhood ritual, he continued, “A lot of us boys would follow him over to the old field and someone would pitch ball after ball to Roy, and he, even in his forties, could effortlessly send those balls 400 feet into the pine trees behind the centerfield fence.”
Roy Carlyle and his brother Cleo made it to the big leagues in the 1920s and Carlyle’s name can be found in the Guinness Book of World Records for having hit the longest homerun in recorded baseball history. He smacked a miraculous 618 feet on July 4, 1929, in Oakland, Calif., during a AAA exhibition game. Ernie Nevers, a former All-American football player at Stanford, threw the pitch.
With this rich history preserved on easy to read storyboards on the walls, an effort of historians Edie Reihm and Gene Ramsey and director Cate Kitchen, along with bats and artifacts in the lighted cases, the history center is preserving Norcross’ rich and vivid chapter in the book of baseball trivia. It makes it easy for visitors and locals to "Dip themselves in magic waters," as Terrance Mann put it in the movie "Field of Dreams": "The memories will be so thick they will have to brush them away from their faces."
The Norcross Welcome Center, located at the crossroads of Mitchell Road and Lawrenceville Street, is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit the city website for details on special events around Norcross.