Valdosta Daily Times

October 31, 2012

Baseball in Valdosta

Historical Society exhibit honors Valdosta’s baseball history

Christian Malone
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — A few decades ago, Valdosta was home to minor league baseball.

Memoirs of those days are now on display at the Lowndes County Historical Society and Museum in downtown Valdosta.

A new exhibit, Professional Baseball in Valdosta, opened last week at the Historical Society. The exhibit will be open until spring.

The exhibit features a number of items from Valdosta’s minor league days, including pictures, baseballs and newspaper articles. There is a 1952 Valdosta Dodgers jersey, and a 1958 Valdosta Tigers cap on display. There is also a championship ring from the 1958 Valdosta Tigers that belonged to third baseman Don Wert (who later played for the Detroit Tigers).

Valdosta had minor league baseball teams from 1939-42 and 1946-58. They played in the Georgia-Florida League, a Class D league. The Valdosta Trojans were a minor league affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1939-42. After World War II ended, the Brooklyn Dodgers established a minor league team in Valdosta, which lasted from 1946-52. The Dodgers moved their Georgia-Florida League team to Thomasville in 1953, and the St. Louis Browns (which later became the Baltimore Orioles) took over the Valdosta team. Then in 1954, the Browns left and the Detroit Tigers moved their Georgia-Florida League team to Valdosta. The Valdosta Tigers played from 1954-58.

Valdosta’s professional teams played at Pendleton Park, which was located at the current site of South Georgia Medical Center.

The 1952 Valdosta Dodgers included an 18-year-old left-handed pitcher named Deane Mink. Mink, who had just graduated from high school, went 5-4 with a 3.38 earned run average for a team that went 81-58. Mink went on to play seven seasons in the minor leagues, then later moved back to Valdosta. Today he is a chiropractor in the city where he started his career.

“At the end of the year, we tied Waycross for the league lead,” Mink recalled last week. “We ended up playing a one-game Sunday afternoon playoff. The significance of being the winner of the league was you got $25 extra if you were a player. Pendleton Park back in those days probably had room for 800 or 900 people, the bleachers in left field could seat another couple hundred and the bleachers in right field could probably seat a couple hundred. The rumor was there were close to 5,000 people there that Sunday afternoon. ... Really a phenomenal game. We won it 1-0.”

The 1958 Valdosta Tigers included a right-handed pitcher named Steve Kebler. Kebler had a 6-4 record that year and a 4.14 ERA, and helped the Tigers go 75-52. Like Mink, Kebler later moved back to Valdosta. He was the baseball coach at Lowndes High School for several years. Kebler loaned the Historical Society one of his old gloves for the exhibit.

“I played baseball in Valdosta, Ga. in 1958,” Kebler said last week. “I met my Lord and Savior in Valdosta, Ga. I met my first wife (and) I met my lovely second wife here. ... I played in several leagues through my years of playing, and I think Deane would (agree), this was right up there with any of them, a strong league.”

“This was a great place to play,” Kebler added. “It was good to me.”

Both Mink and Kebler were on hand for the exhibit’s opening ceremony last week, and cut the ceremonial ribbon.

Many of the items in the exhibit were compiled and loaned to the Historical Society by Lynn Thomas, a Valdosta native who grew up attending minor league games at Pendleton Park in the 1950s.

“One of my fondest memories during the summer of 1958 is of watching the last minor league professional baseball team Valdosta had — the Tigers,” Thomas said in the foreword of the notebook he compiled and loaned to the Historical Society. “While it admittedly was Class D baseball (the lowest rung in the minor leagues), we kids nevertheless loved cheering on our guys against their league rivals (especially the despised Albany Cardinals).”

Thomas moved away from the area after becoming an adult, but recently moved back to Lake Park. In the past few years, he has become interested in Valdosta’s minor league history.

A few years ago, he wrote letters to many of the players who played in Valdosta and later made it to the Major Leagues. A few of them wrote back, telling Thomas about their memories of Valdosta. Thomas has loaned the Historical Society photocopies of those letters.

“(Valdosta) was a beautiful small town and its people were fantastic,” wrote former third baseman Dick Gray. “I remember we won the pennant that year.”

“Playing with the Valdosta Dodgers was my stepping stone to the big leagues,” former catcher Joe Pignatano wrote.

Thomas also talked to former first baseman Eddie Robinson on the phone, and Robinson loaned him some items, including a signed team ball from the 1939 Valdosta Trojans and a copy of Robinson’s book, “Lucky Me: My Sixty-five Years in Baseball,” which includes several pages about his time playing in Valdosta.

Thomas also loaned the Historical Society a number of photos and baseball cards of some of the former Valdosta players who made it to the Major Leagues.

In addition to the Lynn Thomas Collection, other baseball items are also on display. There are articles about Paul Carter, Ellis Clary and J.D. Drew, three Lowndes County natives who played in the Major Leagues.

There is also an article about Stan Wasiak, who was a minor league manager from 1950-85 and holds the minor league record for most career wins (2,530), most career losses (2,314) and most games managed (4,844). Wasiak began his managerial career managing the Valdosta Dodgers in 1950, and also managed the Valdosta teams in 1951, 1954, 1955 and 1957.

There are also articles about amateur and semi-pro teams in Valdosta from 1912 and the 1920s. And some information about an African-American minor league team known as the Valdosta Trojans.

The exhibit also includes items related to amateur baseball in Valdosta. There is an article about longtime Valdosta State baseball coach Tommy Thomas, a Valdosta native who holds the Division II record for career wins (1,309). There is an article about the Valdosta Red Sox, an amateur baseball team that played summer baseball for over 40 years under the late Ralph Starling.

One of the most interesting items in the exhibit is a reprint of an article from the Pearson Tribune in 1919. The article talks about the 1875 Valdosta Wide-Awakes, which was likely the first-ever organized baseball team in Valdosta. That article offers proof that baseball has been played in Valdosta for at least 137 years.

The Lowndes County Historical Society and Museum is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission is free.