Former Eastern Dixie Youth championship team celebrates coach
By Tim Gayle
Summer league players are practicing and playing on all-star teams this week, getting ready for upcoming Dixie Baseball (and softball) tournaments, advancing through the ranks of the city, district and state tournaments in hopes of making it to the World Series.
Former players, who are old enough to remember the early years of Dixie Baseball, recall the Eastern League group that dominated the city’s baseball landscape in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Recently, several of those former all-stars gathered at a local restaurant to honor one of their favorite summer league managers, Dinky Hughes.
“We just wanted to have an opportunity to thank him for what a blessing he’s been to us all these years,” said Doug Singleton, who is now chairman of the board at Montgomery American. “When you end up playing Dixie Youth Baseball, you have no control over who your coach is. They draft you. For us to be drafted by Dinky Hughes was such a huge blessing. I was blessed to be drafted by Earl’s Gulf, which meant I had Don Harris (at age 9 and 10) and then Dinky Hughes (at 11 and 12). I couldn’t have asked for better coaches. Even all these years I’ve been involved with Dixie Youth Baseball – for the last 47, 48 years – I still haven’t seen two coaches better than those guys.
“I give them more credit for my ability to go play college baseball (at Huntingdon) for free, go to college for free. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know if I would have ever made that. That was an incredible blessing to have them in my life.”
“Me and Timmy Harris, who passed away a few years ago, were the only 10 year olds on the team,” recalled Tommy Hughes. “I played second base and got my first ink in the newspaper when I got a base hit in the city tournament in extra innings to win the game. I didn’t see the field again. The way it is now, everybody’s got to play but I didn’t touch the field again.”
The Eastern League, comprised of players from the Chisholm, Highland Gardens and Boylston communities, made history in 1968 with its World Series championship in Myrtle Grove, Fla. Steve Blackwell, who teamed with Mike Carpenter to give the all-star team a dominating presence on the mound, set a state record by striking out 16 and pitching a no-hitter in the state tournament, then set a World Series record when he struck out 18.
“We both threw hard,” Blackwell said. “One would pitch one night and everybody would go, ‘I’m glad he pitched tonight and won’t be pitching against us,’ and the next night we had one that would throw even harder. We had a team that was just unbelievable.”
As an 11-year-old, Hughes was part of the Eastern League team that hosted the World Series in Chisholm in 1969, where they finished as runner-up. In 1970, his all-star team finished as the state runner-up.
The team would have played in the Dixie Boys League after that but the city of Montgomery wasn’t participating in that organization at the time so the Eastern League participated in Babe Ruth for a year (where they won a World Series title at Paterson Field) and Palmetto for a year before Dixie Baseball initiated the Dixie Majors League. Eastern, playing as the “Belser League,” won the first two World Series in that organization as well.
“It was just a bunch of Chisholm and Highland Gardens guys,” said Skip Mainor, an 11-year-old from Highland Gardens on that 1968 team. “Somebody asked me the other day at work if that ’68 team that won the World Series was the same players that were on the ’75 (state championship) team at Lee. A lot of them were. And then we won the first two World Series (in Dixie Majors).”
A half-dozen of those Eastern League Dixie Youth stars of 1968 were high school standouts that brought the Generals their only state baseball championship in 1975 – Blackwell in center field, Hughes at first base, Mainor at shortstop, pitcher Haywood Coggins, Carpenter at catcher and Ben Spivey.
“We had so many Dixie Majors league teams, they took the state championship team and the state runner-up (to the World Series),” Mainor recounted. “Well, East Montgomery hosted the state championship and we beat East Montgomery so both teams rode on the same bus to Texarkana, Texas for the World Series. Texas beat us the first night and we came through the loser’s bracket and had to beat East Montgomery twice. Then they had to ride back on the bus with us, all the way from Texas.”
The former stars gathered to honor Dinky Hughes as a way of paying tribute to the former manager, now in his mid-80s.
Despite developing into stars at the high school and collegiate levels, the Eastern League standouts said it was Hughes who laid the foundation.
“It was the same bunch of kids,” Blackwell said. “Mr. Hughes was the turning point in my life. I was a good athlete but I had a temper. Nobody could control it but him. I would have never, ever done what I did in 1968 if not for that man.”