Category Archives: Sports

Capone, the Cobbs, and Me

Originally published in Alabama Writers’ Forum on Jan. 11, 2016

Capone, the Cobbs, and Me

Capone, the Cobbs, and Me

By Rex Burwell
Livingston Press, 2015
$17.95, Paper; $30,Hardcover,


Reviewed by Ed Reynolds

With a title like Capone, the Cobbs, and Me, (and featuring photos of Al Capone, Ty Cobb, and Cobb’s drop-dead gorgeous wife Charlene on the cover), the reader is intrigued right off the bat. The story told within doesn’t disappoint, either. The “Me” hanging out with Capone, his thugs, and the Cobbs is a Chicago White Sox catcher named Mort Hart who quickly falls in love with Cobb’s wife. Hart is second in hitting percentage in the Roaring ’20s when a knee injury places him on the disabled list. Hart also happens to be the only major leaguer with a law degree. The ballplayer’s life suddenly catapults into spellbinding adventure when Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis needs someone special to investigate Capone’s fixing outcomes of ballgames using Cobb.

Author Rex Burwell spins a fictionalized tale based on a real-life major league catcher named Moe Berg, once described by baseball Hall of Famer Casey Stengel as “the strangest man ever to play baseball.” Berg was an average major leaguer who was a spy for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) during World War II and later for the CIA. Over the next 200 pages, the author takes readers on a surreal journey through baseball, gambling, organized crime, murder, and mayhem—with enough subtle descriptions of sex and violence to spice things up. Burwell also tosses in a few musical elements to make for a fascinatingly quick read.

Among the characters is Milton Mezzrow, a jazz clarinet player. Better known as “Mezz,” the musician is a bookkeeper at the Arrowhead Inn in Burnham, Illinois, a hotel owned by Capone where Mezz not only keeps two ledger accounts but also leads a house band called the Mezzophonics that features guest trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbek. In one memorable passage, Burwell shares Mezz’s description of the Mezzophonics as a “zebra band,” the first mixed-race band in history. “Black and white cats, Matts. And some hot guests with good chops too. You never seen a mixed-race band before, did you? And nobody else did either. This is history.”

Mezz is actually a white Jew who had decided years earlier to pass himself off as an African American, with the author referencing Mezz’s “perfect Negro hipster accent.” Burwell lets Mezz do the talking: “We got a real tight band,” says Mezz. “historic, like I told you, the dark and the light and the lightly toasted playing together so hot, Jack. You’ll hear it tonight. You can’t hear it anywhere else in the universe, nowhere but here, tonight.” Our hero Mort Hart elaborates on Mezz: “His metamorphosis from Jew to Negro with no change in complexion was a bold strike, not undertaken foolishly, but knowingly. Only white people thought Mezz a fool. Negroes took him as a brother who talked their language. I thought him crazy at first. Then I thought him courageous. One changes one’s mind.”

Dig it. Especially the Mob violence. Hart wanders into an icehouse loaded with meat while exercising his baseball-playing damaged knee, only to discover the dead husband of a woman who was sleeping with a Capone thug named Jimmy. “I walked in a few steps on the soft, wet sawdust, and lit and held up the cigarette lighter I always carried,” says Hart.” Behind hams and a side of beef hung a dead man wearing a hat, suspended by a noose and a hook. I got a good look at the waxy face. I never forgot the face.”

Burwell uses several references to indicate that Hart is telling his story in today’s world. Hence, the introduction of a pitcher named Dutch used by Detroit Tigers manager Ty Cobb to throw a ballgame for Capone. Hart notes, “My complete baseball record is available on the internet. I batted against Dutch eight times in the 1926 season and got only one hit—that after he’d hurt his arm and had nothing.” The fix was in because Dutch was forced to pitch though “Dutch’s arm was so sore that he couldn’t comb his hair, but Cobb started him anyway…. In the first inning, with two runners already on base, I batted against him for the eighth and last time that 1926 season. The first pitch Dutch threw was a nothing spitball—he had nothing. He was through as soon as he started. Even as I swung and knocked the ball on an arc to the wall, I felt a drop of his saliva fly up and hit my eye.”

In a strange twist, Hart becomes a spy for Kennesaw Mountain Landis as he also serves as legal advisor for Cobb and lusts after Cobb’s wife. Burwell writes in sexually flirtatious descriptions of our hero’s first introduction to Mrs. Ty Cobb during a blizzard: “At the hotel I met Charlene for the first time. She was outside in a bulky coat that could not hide her good figure. Without vanity, she was aware of her beauty…. She took off a glove and shook my hand. Women, ladies, did not offer a hand in those days, much less take off a glove…. She unbuttoned her fur. One does not often see such a beautiful figure. A man must take advantage of rare occasions. I could feel Cobb watching me look at her.”

Hart continues: “Charlene and I had been corresponding for months, exchanging typed, unsigned letters. I fell in love by mail…. Tucked in one of those letters had been a picture of her that I still have today. She wears a cloche with wings, like Liberty on the dime. In profile her upper lip pushes out…. Cobb made his first wife his ‘trophy wife,’ as they call it nowadays, and kept her thereafter above his mantelpiece with the boars’ heads.”

The musical passages are among the most memorable, historically speaking, especially when Capone is present. Referencing Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, Burwell writes: “Both musicians were Mezz’s friends. Beiderbecke happened to be living and drinking himself to death in a farmhouse somewhere in the area. This was not the first time he’d played with the Mezzophonics. He was the acknowledged best white jazz cornet player in the nation. Armstrong, of course, was simply the best, white or Negro…. After the show, the band members all ate where the Negroes ate, in the kitchen. Beiderbecke had five shots of free whiskey in three minutes, fell off his chair and had to be helped outside to puke. From here he was poured into the back seat of a car…. Mr. Capone joined us, stepping through the swinging doors, a Heavy on either side of him…. Vain Capone was adept at keeping people, especially photographers, from seeing his left profile with its two long, vivid scars. His wide-brimmed fedora was canted left. He carried his head toward his left shoulder. He wore high collars and often carried a handkerchief to hold his left cheek…. ‘Good music,’ he said to the musicians. ‘Good music, everybody.’”

As long as Mr. Capone is happy, I’m happy. Capone, the Cobbs, and Me is a hell of a novel. Jan. 2016

Ed Reynolds is a writer in Birmingham.


Hotheads Return to Talladega

Hotheads Return to Talladega

Driver Kevin Harvick out for a Sunday afternoon hunt with his favorite weapon, his Goodwrench Chevy.

Dale Earnhardt’s death two years ago on the final lap of the Daytona 500 left no shortage of NASCAR drivers contending for Earnhardt’s celebrated role as a racetrack bully. Driver Kevin Harvick, who replaced Earnhardt in the Goodwrench Chevrolet, immediately developed a reputation as a hothead who refused to retreat from confrontation. After one race, he chased an opponent (on foot) who had bumped him on the track, leaping from the roof of a competitor’s racecar to pounce on the offender—all in front of a national television audience. Harvick later violently bumped his nemesis in the following weeks and was suspended by NASCAR.

Tony Stewart, 2002 Winston Cup champion, filled the Earnhardt void with even more abandon. Over the next two years at various racetracks, Stewart ran up a list of impressive bad boy behavior. He crashed into driver Jeff Gordon on the “cool down” lap following a race at Bristol Speedway; intentionally knocked a tape recorder from a reporter’s hand while being interviewed; punched a photographer in Indianapolis; shoved an emergency worker who was attempting to help him from his wrecked racecar at New Hampshire Speedway; and pushed aside a woman asking for an autograph in Bristol. Stewart finally entered anger management counseling after his racing sponsor Home Depot fined him $50,000 and threatened to fire him.

The sporting world’s most exciting soap opera, NASCAR racing, returns to Talladega Superspeedway September 25 through 28 for the EA Sports 500 weekend. Driver Kurt Busch is currently playing this season’s villain with relish—his summer feud with driver Jimmy Spencer erupted into fisticuffs in the garage after the race at Michigan this past August.

Amidst all the intentional wrecks, name-calling, and brutal punches, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will be vying for his fifth straight Winston Cup victory at Talladega. Adding another bit of drama to this year’s EA Sports 500, veteran driver Terry Labonte ended a four-year losing streak when he won the final Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend at Darlington Raceway. The Southern 500 (formerly the Rebel 500) is the oldest race on the NASCAR circuit, but officials have decided to move the race to California Speedway beginning next year as stock car racing continues to expand beyond its Dixie roots. This weekend also marks the final race at Talladega in which the NASCAR series will be known as Winston Cup; next year Nextel will replace R.J. Reynolds as the series’ official sponsor.

Despite the cosmopolitan marketing employed by NASCAR to diminish its longstanding redneck image and reach a wider audience, it’s good to see that redneck tempers still veer out of control at 200 mph. Call 256-362-7223 or visit —Ed Reynolds

A Pair of Kings


A Pair of Kings

Sure, national championships are great, but we all know that bragging rights live and die at the Iron Bowl. In advance of this epic contest, Ed Reynolds remembers some of the greats from both teams.


November 10, 2011

Paul Bryant and Ralph Jordan personified football royalty in my world. For two decades, Bear Bryant and Shug Jordan were the icons producing weekly football melodramas that starred an All-American lineup featuring Joe Namath, Pat Sullivan, Tucker Frederickson, Major Ogilvie, Snake Stabler, and Terry Henley, to name a mere handful.

When I was a kid in the 1960s, everybody had a television, but football-viewing choices were severely limited. For those games we couldn’t watch, men with unforgettable voices (Buddy Rutledge and John Forney, representing Auburn and Alabama, respectively) were the wizards broadcasting play-by-play action, casting a mesmerizing spell over autumn Saturday afternoons.


“Bear” Bryant (Photo: Paul W. Bryant Museum/The University of Alabama) (click for larger version)





In the Beginning
Ralph Jordan became Auburn’s head football coach in 1951, winning the school’s first national championship in 1957. Dr. Lloyd Nix, a retired dentist in Decatur, Alabama, had a 19-0-1 record as the Tigers’ starting quarterback those two seasons. “I played quarterback in high school. When I got to Auburn, they told me they were going to put me at halfback,” Dr. Nix recalls on a recent afternoon. In the summer of 1957, Coach Jordan switched him to quarterback, where Nix mostly handed off or tossed the ball to his running backs. He always took the snap directly from behind the center instead of standing back several yards as today’s quarterbacks often do playing out of a typical shotgun formation. “I would have loved to run the shotgun. I would have loved to have the snap back there instead of running backwards and turning around and seeing what was going on,” he admits, laughing. “But we didn’t throw the ball much. We’d throw it maybe 15 times a game if we had to. Our defense was so good, we never did feel like we had to throw it.”

Larry Ellis was a blue-chip running back out of Murphy High in Mobile, recruited by Alabama, Florida, and Auburn, as well as approved for appointments to the Air Force Academy and West Point to play football. Ellis decided on Auburn his junior year. “Well, I was coming out of an era of impressionable football in the Southeastern Conference, very impressionable,” he says of his decision to stay close to home. The SEC’s current domination of college ball is nothing new to Ellis who played fullback from 1966 to 1968. “When I was 10 years old, Auburn had won the national championship in 1957; in 1958, LSU won the national championship; in 1960, Ole Miss and Johnny Vaught won the national championship. Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant won it in 1961 at Alabama. You think the SEC’s just now dominating? Wrong. So, as a kid, I said, ‘I’d love to be a part of that.”‘

Nobody above anybody that I met at my young, tender age compared to Ralph ‘Shug’ Jordan because, very simply, he was what we might call a ‘man’s man.’ An all-around person. His military background was unbelievable. And once you met the man, it was just infectious. He was a role model and a guy that nobody else that I had ever been around would compare to. He hooked me.”

While Jordan was generally viewed as a gentleman, Ellis saw the coach’s temper on display a few times. The 1968 Sun Bowl against Arizona was Larry Ellis’s last game. At halftime, the score was 10-10. Jordan was not happy, uncharacteristically flinging his clipboard as he ordered the team’s seniors front and center. Ellis recalls: “Shug threw his clipboard across the locker room and shouted, ‘If you sons of bitches don’t go out in the second half and exert some leadership, I’ll have every one of you in spring training!’ He told us we’d be the blocking dummies for next year’s team during the upcoming spring practice since our scholarships lasted until the end of the school year.” Auburn went on to win 34-10. One of Coach Jordan’s comments regarding leadership still moves Ellis 43 years later: “Leadership is like a cooked piece of spaghetti. You put it on a plate. If you get behind it and push it, it has no direction. But if you get in front of it and pull it, it’ll follow you anywhere.”

Birmingham attorney Gusty Yearout was a walk-on at Auburn. “I tried out as a freshman, I didn’t have a scholarship. I made the team and they gave me a scholarship,” Yearout says. “I came back in 1964 and got hurt. There was one coach there who didn’t like me and he was on my ass. So I finally said, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ I was young and kind of immature, so I quit. But before the end of that fall season, I went to Coach Jordan and said, ‘Look, I made a mistake and had some personal issues. I just want to know if you’ll let me come back on the team.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you can come back but you don’t have a scholarship any more. You’ve got to try out again.’” During his final two years at Auburn, Yearout was elected captain of the team.

Going to law school had long been a goal for Yearout, but he was also attracted to coaching. Jordan gave him some invaluable advice. “Coach Jordan knew from the time I entered Auburn that I wanted to go to law school. When I finished in ’67, I had been accepted to law school but I had that football stuff down in my blood and in my throat,” he says. “I told Coach Jordan, ‘What I’d like to do, if you’ll hire me, is to coach for a while to see if I like it, and then go to law school if I don’t.’ Coach Jordan said, ‘Coaching is not as glamorous as you think it is. You have proven yourself as a leader and as a smart guy of football. But you have to go to law school first and then if you don’t like law school you can come back down here and I’ll hire you.’ And obviously it worked out a lot better for me to go to law school than it did to become a football coach,” he says, laughing.


Pat Sullivan (1969), current head coach at Samford. (Photo: Auburn University) (click for larger version)





Yearout credits players and staff more than head coaches for victories, however. “Coach Saban is a great coach and I think Chizik is a great coach. But basically, what wins football games is the quality of the football players and the quality of the staffs,” he says. “Head coaches have to have great talents to put all that together and motivate and all that stuff. But they don’t win games on Saturday. People get all this bulletin board stuff to motivate the team—but when you get hit the first time square in the mouth, that [motivational message] won’t work any more. You’ve just got to be ready to play. You can forget being pissed off.”

Innovation on the Field
In 1969, Auburn beat Alabama for the first time in five years using a weapon that Shug Jordan had rarely deployed—the forward pass. A sophomore quarterback named Pat Sullivan gave Auburn football a makeover by lobbing long throws downfield to split end Terry Beasley, who was legendary for running blindly at full speed with his head toward the sky looking for Sullivan’s passes.

“Coach Jordan and I were very close. He was known around the athletic department as ‘the man.’ He commanded that kind of respect,” Pat Sullivan says during a phone call on an October afternoon. “He was a Southern gentleman, but he was also a very disciplined person. He was a strict disciplinarian. We played Houston in the Bluebonnet Bowl my sophomore year. Back then, the quarterbacks called a lot of the plays. We were at their 35-yard line and it was fourth down. Coach Jordan sent the punter in. And I sent him back out and called a pass play. We didn’t complete it. I went to the sideline and Coach Jordan met me, put his arm around my neck. People in the stands may have thought he was consoling me. But he actually said, ‘You didn’t understand that I wanted to punt.’ And I said, ‘Yes sir, but I felt we ought to go for it.’ Well, he told me in no uncertain terms to go sit my rear end on the bench, to not get up until the game was over. Which I did. And I certainly never crossed him again. That was something that he and I laughed about as time went on.”

Sullivan was the first of three Heisman Trophy winners at Auburn. He recalls an intoxicated John Wayne at the Heisman banquet at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club in 1971. “When we were at the Heisman Banquet, John Wayne was the guest speaker,” Sullivan remembers. “John Wayne was well into a fifth of Scotch, and Coach Jordan got up and made a nice talk. As he was sitting back down, John Wayne reached over and put his arm around Coach Jordan and said, ‘Coach, you made a hell of a talk there. I may have a part in my next movie for you.’ And Coach Jordan never batted an eye; he looked at him and said, ‘Well, John, I come high.’ That cracked John Wayne up and he said, ‘Well, I think I can afford you.’”

By 1972, Pat Sullivan had graduated to the NFL and Auburn’s immediate future looked rather dismal. Losing the forward pass forced Jordan to return to his traditional “three yards and a cloud of dust” style of football. The shining star of this dull offense was a running back named Terry Henley, who was anything but dull—on and off the field. He was named second-team All-American and led the SEC in rushing, averaging 93.7 yards a game. Henley also loved to run his mouth, endearing himself to the media with hilarious, brash quotes. His rapport with Jordan was unique.


Alabama’s Bob Baumhower (Photo: Paul W. Bryant Museum/The University of Alabama) (click for larger version)





“Well, Coach Jordan and I had kind of a different relationship. I mean, he was the coach and I was a player. But he was my buddy, he was my friend,” Henley explains. “I’d go by his house all the time and visit with him and sit down there in the den and talk about things. He was the daddy that I never had. Now, he was tough, too, like a dad is supposed to be. But he was a wonderful, wonderful person. Coach Jordan used to tell me that he never liked to see me before one o’clock because he said it always upset his lunch if he did.”

We went to Georgia Tech my junior year. In the first half, I fumbled at the one-yard line coming out of the end zone; I fumbled at the one-yard line going in; I fumbled at midfield; and I batted a pass up in the air for the other team to intercept—all in the first half. Now, a normal coach would have set you on the bench after the second fumble . . . So we go in 7-0 at halftime.” Coach Jordan tells the team how well they’re playing despite Henley’s poor performance. He said, ‘I want Terry to apologize to y’all.’ I just sat there and I thought he was kinda joking about me apologizing. He let out some vulgarity like you’ve never heard in your life . . . and, buddy, I jumped out of that seat and I told them, ‘I apologize to all of y’all for the way I’m playing. I’ll play better in the second half.’ Well, of course, the second half I go out and rush for a hundred and something yards; caught three or four passes; I caught about a 30-yard touchdown pass that broke their backs, helped put the nail in the coffin. And I ended up as SEC Player of the Week. After I caught the pass and ran it in for the touchdown, I came to the sideline. Coach Jordan wore an old rain hat . . . He put that hat on me and he said, ‘You the damnedest player I’ve ever had. You should be the coach. Here, you wear the hat.”

Being the team’s star, Henley felt he could park wherever he desired on campus, prompting a confrontation with Jordan. “Parking tickets!” exclaims Henley, howling. “Coach Jordan called me in and he was just eating me out. He said, ‘Are you a member of the faculty? Do you work in the janitorial department here at the university?’ I said, ‘Well, no, sir.’ I didn’t know where he was going. He said, ‘Why the hell are you parking in their parking spots? I’ve got $325 worth of tickets for you. I’m not going to stand for it. You’re going to have to walk to class like the rest of them. And I mean it!’ He was getting loud with me. So I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and I stood up and he said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not finished.’ I sat back down and he said, ‘You’ve got a parking ticket for parking in [Auburn University] President Philpott’s space!’ I said, ‘Well, I knew he wasn’t going to be there that day, so I parked in his spot.’ And he said, ‘How did you know he wasn’t going to be there that day?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve been going out with his daughter and she told me that he was going to Tallahassee that day, so I decided to park in his spot.’”

The Man with the Voice of God
My father and grandfather went to Auburn, so the rivalry’s dynamic was established for me at an early age. The Auburn-Alabama game was the most exciting, intense day of the year. It was the only time I ever heard my mother and father discuss divorce. Despite being an Auburn fan, my mom would annually scold my father for acting like a fool when he banged his head against the wall in frustration yearly as Alabama dominated Auburn in predictable fashion. My father was a deeply religious man, so notions of Bear Bryant walking on water created a conflict. There were weekends that I was convinced my dad really thought God was a Bama fan. He would glare at the sky whenever the Tide got “a lucky break,” shaking his head while muttering, “Somebody up there sure likes the Bear.”

The Crimson Tide was going through a drought in the late ’60s when Sullivan to Beasley was the rage at Auburn. Even Vanderbilt beat the Tide. “The ‘Bear’ Bryant Show” always preceded the “The Shug Jordan Show” on television each Sunday afternoon. Both were replays of the previous day’s game, featuring each coach’s observations and analysis. At one point during Bryant’s brief “down” years, alumni became so disgruntled that Bear told them to “go to hell” during the broadcast. A few days later, Bryant apologized. Newspaper headlines around the state proclaimed: “Alumni: Bear Says You Don’t Have to Go.” He really was like God.


Shug Jordan’s hat was never as stylish as the Bear’s (Photo: Auburn University) (click for larger version)





Wide receiver Joey Jones, current head football coach at South Alabama who played for Bryant from 1979 until the coach’s retirement in 1983, is quite familiar with Bear’s intimidating presence. Jones remembers the first time he came face to face with the coach. “I saw him right before the first practice, we’d had a big dinner the night before,” he says. “He was sitting at the table and I walked over to him and he shook my hand and I said, ‘I’m Joey Jones from Mobile, Alabama.’ He looked at me like, ‘What in the world are we doing spending a scholarship on somebody this size?’ He looked at the coach that recruited me and kind of gave him a bad look.”

The receiver learned the value of earning one’s own way. “The number one thing I learned from Coach Bryant was to make young men earn what they get. He did that with me, made me earn a starting position,” says Jones. “He didn’t give me anything, made me fight for it, and I’ll always appreciate that about him, not just rolling out the red carpet for anybody. Because when you do that, I think you get a much better, tougher football player who really had to fight for their job.”

Bryant didn’t do too much motivational talking on game day. “He did more during the week. His big speech came on Wednesday nights when we would have a big team meeting. He’d give a motivational-type talk then. It wasn’t so much during the games because they mainly worked at halftime, talking X’s and O’s and trying to make adjustments,” recalls Jones. “And even before games he wasn’t a big ‘let’s tear the door down’-kind of coach because I think he did so much of that during the week that he didn’t need that. That’s the way he operated.”

Two-time All-American running back Major Ogilvie agrees that Bryant wasn’t overly emotional. “We were really not a rah-rah kind of team. We didn’t play on emotion,” Ogilvie says. “I mean, there’s a certain amount of emotion that goes with adrenalin but we had so much poise and confidence, and we were so well prepared..” Ogilvie was on the team when Alabama won national championships in 1978 and 1979. “I was there when we won 44 games and lost four, so we had an awful lot of fun.” He recalls his introduction to Bryant well. “It was that day that I signed. I can remember going back in [his office]. I saw all the rings on his fingers,” says Ogilvie. “‘Cause keep in mind, I played on two state championships in high school and knew how much fun it was to play and be on successful teams. So, I walked back in there and asked him if I could see his rings. We chit-chatted for a minute.”


Alabama’s Major Ogilvie. (Photo: Paul W. Bryant Museum/The University of Alabama) (click for larger version)





Nose tackle Bob Baumhower, who played for the Bear in the mid-1970s before starring for the NFL Miami Dolphins, came very close to chucking it all away.” He turned on a light for me, that’s for sure,” Baumhower admits with a quiet laugh. The player hadn’t had his heart in the game until that fateful meeting with Coach Bryant. “I played football for all the wrong reasons. I got talked into playing football in high school,” says Baumhower. “I enjoyed the game atmosphere and I enjoyed the camaraderie. But as far as thinking about the best I can be, I never had that mentality. I was fortunate enough to be offered a scholarship only after the signing day.”

Baumhower didn’t enjoy playing offense his freshman year, so asked to be switched to defense. The coaches agreed, but Baumhower failed to pay much attention to conditioning during the off-season. “I don’t think Coach Bryant was real impressed with my conditioning. Instead of first string I was last string. I caught an attitude and said, ‘I don’t need this.’ I left football practice,” he says. “Coach Bryant got word to me that he wanted to talk to me and my dad that afternoon. The first thing he did—after he greeted my dad really warmly—was he looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I said, ‘Well, I heard you wanted to talk to me.’ And he said, ‘Well, I don’t talk to quitters but since you’re here, come on in.’ And he started working me right off the bat in that meeting. He made me start thinking about myself as a quitter. He asked me a question: ‘What did you do between spring practice and now to get better as a ball player and a person?’ And I couldn’t give him an answer. He went down a long list of players that had done things that he was aware of, whether it was a particularly player losing ‘x’ amount of weight, getting in better shape or a player getting stronger since the spring . . . He was real engaged at what everybody was doing to improve themselves for the betterment of the team. I couldn’t answer the question. He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t think you’re a quitter, Bob. I think you’re frustrated. But I don’t think you know what it takes to be a winner. You’ve got to change the way you think. And if you want to play for me, you’ve got to be the best that you can be and you’ve got to show me that you’re committed to give a hundred and ten percent and you want to be special.’ And I never thought in those terms before that meeting. And that’s what I mean by ‘turning my light on.’ My dad still talks about it. It changed my life.”

Baumhower and his old coach grew quite close after he left to play professional football. “The longer I got to know Coach Bryant, the better our relationship was. When I went to Miami, I would get phone calls from him, letting me know he was coming down,” Baumhower recalls. So my relationship with Coach Bryant, I still consider it a gift. And that gift, I keep getting benefits of it throughout life because he taught me so many things that have been good for me in a positive way through the years.” &

Saturday Night Speed Demons


Saturday Night Speed Demons

One long, wild, left-hand turn at the Sayre Speedway.


August 18, 2011

For those who want to liven up Saturday night with an adventure where the entire family can gawk at the craziness, take a drive northwest out of Birmingham up Highway 78 to Sayre Speedway. The racetrack—formerly known as Heart O’ Dixie Speedway—bills itself as “the South’s Action Track.” With roaring engines propelling race cars around a tiny, quarter-mile, banked asphalt speedway, the close racing here makes Sayre Speedway an intimidating, intimate place to watch automobiles crash, spinning out of control as they slam against one another.


Scenes from a recent night’s events at the Sayre Speedway. (Photos courtesy Steve Lasseter.) (click for larger version)





Tiny tracks like Sayre (pronounced:say-ree) are where the NASCAR stars of tomorrow get their first opportunities to compete. Racecars at Sayre span several classifications, including sleek, open-wheel modified racers, as well as compact Hondas and Toyotas souped up for quick bursts of speed. Some cars have professional paint jobs; others look as though they haven’t been painted in years, are full of dents, and can be identified with huge duct-tape numbers on the side of the car.

(click for larger version)

Sayre Speedway is also a great place to watch people—it’s a culture unto itself. The aroma of burning tire rubber fills the night air. There is a sign forbidding alcohol consumption, though any honest-to-goodness racing fan worth his suds can no doubt find a way to skirt that rule. Otherwise, the concession stand offers the typical fare one might find at a little league baseball game: soda pop, burgers, chicken sandwiches, hot dogs, et cetera. Shoes for children are optional, with bare-footed kids dashing through the stands as their screams of joy compete with deafening engines. Teen girls dressed in cheerleader outfits sell raffle tickets for a local school. Tonight’s big prize is half the gate receipts—nearly $1,000. Some people even bring exotic pets: One night I sat in awe observing two racing fans in different areas of the grandstand, each holding in their lap a spider monkey dressed in a little nightgown. If that’s not excitement enough, tempers are guaranteed to flare on any given Saturday night between drivers when the action on the track gets out of hand. For details visit or call (205) 648-2041. Racing begins at 8 p.m., with most events ranging in length between 20 and 50 laps. You’ll be home before midnight. &

Hitting the Mat

Hitting the Mat

Memphis-style wrestling was once the real king of the ring.


August 04, 2011

Before Vince McMahon debased professional wrestling by creating a circus of steroid-enhanced clowns and stamping the sport with mass appeal, wrestling once had a dignity capable of mesmerizing fans into suspended disbelief. There were no fireworks or guys swinging on ropes like Tarzan on a vine. The plots were simple and frills non-existent, with wrestlers sporting briefs, wrestling boots, and perhaps a mask if they were playing a “heel” (bad guy).

Prior to McMahon, professional wrestling thrived in territories scattered across America. Former wrestler and promoter Jerry Jarrett, founder Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, ruled the legendary Memphis territory in the 1970s. Memphis’s rabid fans rendered it among the country’s most exciting towns for wrestling in the 1960s and ’70s, as crowds of more than 10,000 routinely sold out the city’s Mid-South Coliseum.

On Friday, August 5, the film Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’, will be shown at the Alabama Theatre downtown. The documentary highlights the glory days of Jarrett, Jerry Lawler, Andy Kaufman, Tojo Yamamoto, Sputnik Monroe, and other stars who sparkled, strutted, and slapped one another shamelessly in the ring. Sherman Willmott, the film’s producer, began the endeavor in 2009 to publicize his friend Ron Hall’s coffee-table book Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets: Early Days of Memphis Wrestling, which features some 300 images of heroes and villains. Willmott recently shared his opinion regarding what made Memphis wrestling unique: “You had some really creative minds, with Jerry Jarrett at the top,” he explained. “You had one of the greats of all time—Jerry Lawler—who was great at being a heel but also great at being a good guy. It was a great combination of story lines and talent. The main thing was having a TV show that they could send out to all the territory. And in Memphis, because there was no major sports team, wrestling kind of took over.”

Wrestling pre-WWE: Jerry Jarrett and Tojo Yamamoto. (Photo courtesy of Chris Swisher) (click for larger version)

Birmingham’s Nick Gulas, arguably the Southeast’s leading wrestling promoter, hired seven-year-old Jerry Jarrett to sell programs at wrestling matches in the late 1940s. In 1956, at age 14, Jarrett promoted his first bout. He went on to referee and eventually became a wrestler himself at the insistence of Tojo Yamamoto, his tag-team partner. Perhaps the best known of Jarrett’s promotional feats was comedian Andy Kaufman’s foray into wrestling. Kaufman refused to wrestle men, instead wrestling women. He was never beaten and declared himself the “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World.” Jarrett spent a recent afternoon discussing the good old days of wrestling; Andy Kaufman; and the renowned Sputnik Monroe, a white wrestler who is considered by some to be the real guy who broke segregation in Memphis when he refused to wrestle unless black patrons at his matches had access to the same seats as whites. Jarrett has been quoted as saying that black Memphians had three portraits on their living room walls: Jesus, Martin Luther King, and Sputnik Monroe. &

The film Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’ will screened at the Alabama Theatre, 1817 Third Avenue North, at 7 p.m. For details, call 252-2262 or go to Jerry Jarrett will be on hand to sign his autobiography Jerry Jarrett’s Story: The Best of Times. Admission is $8.

Black & White: Working in the wrestling business as a kid must have been pretty exciting.
Jarrett: I was seven or eight years old when I started selling programs and then I went from there to taking up tickets. That was my beginning in the business. When I was 14, I got a license to drive on a hardship license case, and Nick and Roy started letting me promote the little country towns. If you can just picture a kid in the late ’50s walking around with a couple hundred dollars . . . I was a wealthy guy. [laughs]

How did the setups work, planning out rivalries ahead of time?
There was a period that was called ‘kayfabe’ where we allowed the fans to suspend their disbelief so that they could enjoy like they would when they go to the movie. [Note: "kayfabe" is defined as the portrayal of professional wrestling, in particular the competition and rivalries between participants, as being genuine] But today everybody realizes that it’s choreographed completely. Yeah, you worked out tight spots and moves and where do you go into the finish of the match. Today they go even farther. The guys get to the arena early and get in the ring and actually go through the spots, which I think hurts the business because it takes away the spontaneity of it . . .Today, it’s pretty much choreographed like a script.

Did anybody ever really get mad and tempers flare, where wrestlers were really out to get one another?
Yeah, on occasion. It didn’t happen much; about like it would in your business if you were able to fight and not get fired. I’m sure there’s some people at the office you’d like to bust. [laughs] So on occasion that would happen.

Were you afraid when you started wrestling?
Well, yeah, I was real nervous. You know, I had played football, basketball, and baseball—I had played sports. But you work out in the gym on the mat and then all of a sudden you’re in front of several hundred people, it’s nerve-racking. And you know if you screw up, back in those days, your opponent would knock you upside the head and pretty much eat you up, because he didn’t want to expose the business. So it was a lot of pressure when I first started.

Any memories of wrestling in Birmingham come to mind?
Yes, Joe Tennenberg had a pawn shop there. Joe was Nick Gulas’s partner. I bought my wife’s engagement ring from Joe and he was just a really sweet, nice man. I remember the fans were very, very passionate. The Birmingham trips were real fun. One of Nick’s brothers had a hot dog stand and we’d always go over there and eat a good hot dog before the matches when we got to town.

Do you remember Birmingham wrestling television studio announcer Sterling Brewer?
Oh, sure! Sterling was the announcer and Birmingham TV [live wrestling] didn’t come on until 10 o’clock at night. And so we’d usually run down from Chattanooga and make the late night TV [in Birmingham].

Famed Memphis wrestler Sputnik Monroe. (Photo courtesy Memphis Heat!)

I’m amazed how many times you wrestled in a single day, in different cities.
Yeah, we’d wrestle Memphis TV Saturday morning. Then we would drive from there to Huntsville and wrestle on Saturday afternoon. And then we’d run to Chattanooga, and Chattanooga TV came on at 5 o’clock, we’d wrestle there. Then we’d get to eat a bite and then go wrestle the house show, do one of the preliminary matches in Chattanooga if we were going to Birmingham. We’d get to Birmingham and dress in the car. Sterling would announce, “Well, it’s time for our next match!” and we’d run right into the ring. [laughs]

You were affiliated with the matches in Memphis when Andy Kaufman was wrestling women, declaring himself the undefeated Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion.
Yes, I promoted that series of matches. Andy was extremely talented. And if he had wanted to and stayed in the wrestling business he would have made a lot of money because he had great psychology and he understood the business. And was a really, really nice guy. And, really, the people would hate him because he would make fun of us as southerners. And he knew how to project that so that the people thought, “This son of a gun is not acting. He really feels that way.” And of course, that’s what a great actor does. Andy was great at that.

You gave Hulk Hogan his first break?
A guy named Louie Gillette called me and said, “I’ve got a kid down here that looks like the Incredible Hulk and I think that if you take the time to teach to him to wrestle, he can draw you some money.” So I told him to send him up. And Hulk Hogan came to my house and of course he’s a giant of a man. So I took him to Tupelo, Mississippi, where there was a ring set up and I could be out of the sight of the fans and we worked out. He never was a great wrestler but he had great charisma, and drew a lot of money all over the world.

Did Sputnik Monroe really help to integrate Memphis?
Sputnik was way ahead of his time as far as prejudices.. And he would go down on Beale Street and have a drink at the black clubs—have a beer with the black people. Well, back in those days, they arrested him, said you can’t do that. He went to court, hired the top black attorney in town. They lost. Sputnik paid the $50 fine, went back to the beer joint, and continued drinking. Word spread, and he started drawing a whole lot of blacks. And one night he told the promoter—they had the Crow’s Nest where the black people sat. And the balcony [where white patrons sat] had empty seats. There was no more room in the Crow’s Nest so Sputnik told the promoter, “If you don’t let my black fans sit in the balcony, I’m not gonna wrestle.” And of course, he was the main event, so this forced the issue. And then what they ended up doing, they opened up the upper deck of Ellis Auditorium and they had it half black and half white. The black people respected Sputnik because he was helping their cause.

Can you share some of the tricks wrestlers used to create a badly bleeding wound when they received what might be construed as a less-than-severe blow to the face?
Back in those days we took a little corner of a razor blade and wrapped tape around one end of it where just the point was out. And we’d stick it in our tights or in our jaw—which was quite dangerous ’cause you could swallow it. But anyway, we’d take it out and you could cut your forehead. We had a product called “New Skin” that you would put over it and it would kind of seal it. And then we’d put a Band-Aid over that. Well, back in those days you wrestled one night and another night and another night. So to keep from having to cut yourself again, you could just take the Band-Aid off and when you hit that New Skin, the skin would break open again and you’d bleed again.

Was there any kind of wrestling school in those days to learn the trade?
Well, there is now, but back in those days you had to get a wrestler to break you in. It was kind of a brotherhood—unless a wrestler teamed [up with] you, you didn’t get in. &

Dead Folks 2010: Innovators, Sportsmen, and Politics

Dead Folks 2010: Innovators, Sportsmen, and Politics


January 20, 2011

Inventors and Innovators

Fran Lee (99)
A fiery consumer advocate responsible for New York City’s adoption of pooper-scooper laws in 1978, Fran Lee initially opposed the ordinance, believing it to be too lenient as she denounced notions of dogs being allowed to desecrate the city. Though dog waste may be her claim to fame, Lee appeared on local and national radio and TV programming from the 1940s through the 1990s, playing characters such as Mrs. Fix-It, Mrs. Consumer, and Granny Fanny as she doled out consumer tips. She once appeared on “The Steve Allen Show,” and she taught Allen how to make a bikini from a tattered sweater. She acted in off-Broadway plays and had a small role as a Macy’s customer in Miracle on 34th Street.

After immersing herself in public health and safety issues, she went all out. Her son told the New York Times: “She had the elevator man in each of her buildings bring her all the medical journals that were being thrown out by the doctors in the building. So she had files on spider bites, ticks, all sorts of diseases.” He added that he could overhear his mother—a staunch atheist—talking to herself in her final years, when she would mutter, “God, when I get to see you, am I going to tell you a thing or two.”—ER

Fred Morrison (90)
Visit the beach in Santa Monica, California, on any given afternoon, and more than likely you will see Frisbees being tossed. That’s fitting, because the flying disc’s inventor was selling “Flyin’ Cake Pans” there before eventually creating a plastic version known as “Flyin-Saucer” with investor Warren Franscioni in the late 1940s. A former World War II fighter pilot, Morrison was determined to improve the disc’s aerodynamic qualities, which he did after parting ways with Franscioni. Specifically noted in Morrison’s U.S. patent is the outer third of the disc, known as the “Morrison Slope.” By the mid-1950s Morrison’s new and improved version, “The Pluto Platter,” caught the attention of entrepreneurs at Wham-O, the toy company responsible for the Hula Hoop, the Super Ball, and other iconic toys. Ed Headrick, (later owner of the Disc Golf Association), further improved the design by adding stabilizing concentric rings at the disc’s edge (known as the “Rings of Headrick”). The new name was coined when Wham-O reps learned that college kids in New England referred to the Pluto Platters as “Frisbies” after the Frisbie Pie Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut. That company’s cake pans were already being used as makeshift toys. The Wham-O legal counsel naturally insisted on altering the spelling to “Frisbee.”

The whole process, instigated by Morrison’s idea to capitalize on the era’s flying saucer craze, made him a millionaire. He wasn’t the only one who got rich. Before selling the name and design for Frisbee to Mattell, Wham-O sold approximately 100 million discs.—DP

Elizabeth Post (click for larger version)




Elizabeth Post (89)
Is it proper to talk about the deceased while comforting a bereaved survivor? Are floral patterns appropriate to wear at a funeral? Is it okay to bring a date? You’ve missed your chance to ask Elizabeth Post, who succeeded her grandmother-in-law Emily Post as America’s leading expert on manners. She enjoyed a long career that included frequently revising the book Emily Post’s Etiquette. Elizabeth also kept a column under her own name that ran in Good Housekeeping for 25 years. Known as “Libby” to her pals, she had a notably relaxed notion about the etiquette industry. She mostly believed in respect and consideration as a way to bring people closer together. She was on the front lines of dealing with things like wedding showers for unwed mothers—so it’s pretty impressive she lived as long as she did.—JRT

Glenn Walters (85)
Many people can curse Glenn Walters as the inventor of cubicles. At the very least, he was a major figure behind the workplace innovation. Back in 1966, his vision was more about the concept of movable walls. Still, it was inevitable that his big idea would be turned into little boxes for office employees. Cubicles made a success of Walters, who started out as a salesman for the Herman Miller furniture company. He retired as the company’s president in 1982.

Walters might not have even noticed how his dehumanizing eight foot by eight foot enclosures (if you’re lucky) became a touchstone of Generation X revolt a decade later—and soon had hip corporations embracing an open office workplace as a fashionable option. You can still thank him for absurdist humor ranging from the “Dilbert” comic strip to the cult film Office Space. He should also get credit for that cute picture of a cubicle dolled up like a gingerbread house that someone emailed you last week.

This is also a good time to salute UAB employee David Gunnells, who was the winner of Wired magazine’s 2007 competition for America’s Saddest Cubicle. Revenge is yours, sir.—JRT

Morrie Yohai (click for larger version)

Morrie Yohai (89)
You might think of them as a trashy Southern tradition, but Cheez Doodles—marketed under the Wise Foods banner in the mid-1960s—originated in the Bronx under the eye of Morrie Yohai. His company was later absorbed by Borden, who promptly moved the product to their affiliate’s potato chip division. The cheese-flavored corn snack was a Cheetos knock-off, but the Cheez Doodles brand has continued to prosper. Yohai did pretty well for himself, going on to work with Borden’s snack food division on (the predominantly East Coast–preferred) Drake’s Cakes and (the universally beloved) Cracker Jack. Yohai always insisted that the invention of Cheez Doodles was a group effort, but he conceded that he invented the name. He certainly embraced his proud heritage—passing away in the New York home that his wife of over 50 years described as “the house that Cheez Doodles bought.”—JRT


Alexander Haig (85)
A veteran of the the Korean and Vietnam Wars, former U.S. Army General Alexander Haig was perhaps best known for wrongly declaring himself to be in charge of the country in the immediate aftermath of the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. It was the first of several controversial episodes that prompted Reagan to fire him after Haig was appointed Secretary of State. (He pronounced himself “the vicar of foreign policy” after accepting the post.) He took over H. R. Haldeman’s position as President Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff as Watergate began to unravel and is widely credited with keeping the government functioning during Nixon’s final days.

Alexander Haig (click for larger version)

Noted for his staunch anticommunist posture, Haig readily admitted to feeling that way at a young age in a 2000 interview with Fox’s James Rosen: “I started out as a Cold Warrior, even my last years in grade school. I used to read everything I could get on communism. In fact, the first paper I wrote as a plebe at West Point caused a major upheaval in the faculty, because I predicted that our next enemy was the Soviet Union. . . . It was during the war [World War II], when we were allies. . . . I was viewed with some suspicion by the social sciences department.” Later in the interview, he knocked his old boss Reagan: “There ain’t anybody else in America that I know that has quit three presidents—but I have. And I quit Ronald Reagan for exactly that reason. He’s sitting there, not knowing what the hell was going on, and he had [Deputy Chief of Staff Mike] Deaver and [Chief of Staff James] Baker and Mrs. Reagan running the government!”—ER

James Kilpatrick (89)
Like many Southerners before him, political writer and pundit James Kilpatrick finally realized that the racial discrimination he once championed was simply wrong. As the editor of the Richmond News Leader in the 1950s and ’60s, Kilpatrick was a fervent segregationist who in editorials espoused states’ rights and separation of the races. In 1963, he submitted an article to the Saturday Evening Post titled “The Hell He Is Equal,” writing that the “Negro race, as a race, is in fact an inferior race.” The Post pulled the article out of sensitivity to the deaths of four young black girls in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. By the late ’60s, Kilpatrick began to repent.

James Kilpatrick (click for larger version)

Kilpatrick became a conservative political TV star for his in-your-face debating prowess on the CBS “60 Minutes” segment “Point-Counterpoint.” He verbally jousted with liberal opponents, the most memorable instances being snide exchanges between him and liberal Shana Alexander. Kilpatrick and his colleagues called their debates “a political form of professional wrestling.” The pair was parodied by Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd on “Saturday Night Live” during Weekend Update sketches.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy was a neighbor and friend of Kilpatrick’s. “The man is not locked into a mold. He’s not just the curmudgeon you see on TV,” McCarthy told The Washington Post in 1973, adding that Kilpatrick had “kind of a country manor style.”

My favorite things that Kilpatrick wrote were his weekly syndicated columns on grammar and word usage in the Birmingham News each Sunday. He mercilessly scolded, scoffed at, and corrected writers who committed grammatical sins in print. I was once inspired to send him an email praising him after he relentlessly shamed a writer for misusing the word “shimmy” when the scribe wrote of someone who “shimmied up a pole.” Kilpatrick admonished, correcting the mistake with the pointed barbs and verbal skill of a master swordsman when he informed that “shinny” is the correct verb to represent such an action. “Shimmy” is more correctly used to define the intense shaking in the front end of an automobile. I shared with Kilpatrick that I first heard the word “shimmy” used by my father to describe the intense vibrations from the engine of our 1967 Chevelle. The next morning, Kilpatrick had already responded, writing:

Dear Mr. Reynolds,

Many thanks for your note. We have a good deal in common. I’m 84. I learned to drive under my father’s tutelage in a Studebaker sedan, and thus learned all about shimmy. This was in 1934 or thereabouts. Great car, but—

You could do me a favor if sometime, when you’re thinking about my column, you could drop a note to the News editor saying you enjoy my pearls of wisdom. Nothing helps a columnist quite so much as a few letters from readers, writ by hand.

James J. Kilpatrick

I remain forever amused that a writer of Kilpatrick’s prominence asked me to dash off a note to the editor of a newspaper that ran his column to tell them what a great job Kilpatrick was doing.—ER


Don Meredith (click for larger version)

“Dandy Don” Meredith (72)
For nine seasons “Dandy Don” Meredith was quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, later making a name for himself as part of the original Monday Night Football broadcasting team. Meredith was commentator Howard Cosell’s comic foil for 12 years. His ever-present smile, effervescent personality, and down-home humor made him popular with viewers. One of his favorite quips was the night he was working a game in Denver. “Welcome to Mile High Stadium—and I really am,” he said.—Ed Reynolds

George Steinbrenner (80)
Noted for his demanding, outspoken demeanor, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was the first professional sports franchise owner to pay outrageously large salaries to players. Building a baseball dynasty second to none, Steinbrenner was renowned for firing and rehiring managers, with hothead Billy Martin taking five turns managing the team. The revolving door of personnel changes earned the Yankees the nickname “the Bronx Zoo.” During his college years, Steinbrenner flirted with coaching football and was an assistant coach to Woody Hayes at Ohio State the year the Buckeyes were the undefeated national champions. Before acquiring the Yankees in 1973, he dabbled in producing Broadway plays.—ER

Bobby Thomson (86)
Born in Scotland, Bobby Thomson moved to the United States at age two. His game-winning home run—known as “the shot heard ’round the world”—lifted the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers in a 1951 playoff game to secure the National League pennant. It was later confirmed that the 1951 Giants employed telescopes to steal the pitching signals that opposing catchers gave to pitchers.—ER

John Wooden (click for larger version)

John Wooden (99)
Known as the “Wizard of Westwood,” John Wooden is considered the greatest basketball coach in college history; his UCLA Bruins won 10 national championships in 12 years, including 7 in a row. No collegiate team dominated a sport the way UCLA did basketball with Wooden at the helm, spawning two of the greatest names to play the game: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. His teams were noted for their merciless full-court press on defense. Wooden always described his job as teacher, not coach. Abdul-Jabbar wrote in the New York Times in 2000, “He broke basketball down to its basic elements. . . . He always told us basketball was a simple game, but his ability to make the game simple was part of his genius.”—ER

The Football Coach with the Green Thumb

The Football Coach with the Green Thumb

Vince Dooley signs his gardening book at Aldridge Botanical Gardens.

November 11, 2010

Former University of Georgia head coach Vince Dooley is regarded as one of the top college football coaches of all time. He won a national championship at Georgia in 1980 in addition to six Southeastern Conference titles during his 25-year career. He also coached one of the greatest college running backs of all time, 1982 Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, the anchor of the 1980 championship team. Dooley later took the reins as athletic director at Georgia, but he still found time to indulge in several interests, including gardening. His wife of 50 years, Barbara Dooley, has recently overshadowed her famous husband with her off-the-cuff, outrageous comments on sports radio talk shows, including WJOX’s Paul Finebaum Show, where she is the most anticipated weekly guest. Vince Dooley will be in town on Tuesday, November 16, at Aldridge Botanical Gardens (3530 Lorna Road, Hoover) to sign his latest book: Vince Dooley’s Garden—The Horticultural Journey of a Football Coach. Dooley’s appearance (which is free) from 4 to 6 p.m., with a reception from 5:30 to 6 p.m., will also include a Q&A session. Details: 682-8019 or

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Black & White: How did you get interested in gardening?
Vince Dooley: Well, I had absolutely no background when I started gardening. But if you live around a university and you have a curiosity for anything, you can satisfy it, because there’s an expert on everything. I have always enjoyed auditing courses on different subjects while I was athletic director at Georgia—history, I particularly enjoy. I was always curious about trees and plants, so I thought I’d sit in on one course, not realizing that I would be bitten by a bug and get infected. And there is no cure. (laughs) If I can do it, anybody can do it.

Do you have a favorite flower?
Well, I love Japanese maples, I love hydrangeas. There’s a wide variety of them, and one of the very best is at Aldridge Gardens, the Snowflake. I enjoy camellias and peonies.

Is your wife, Barbara, as enthusiastic about gardening as you are?
Not really. We finally reached a compromise. She would be in charge of domestic affairs and run the house, and I wouldn’t mess with anything. I would be in charge of foreign affairs outside of the house, and she wouldn’t mess with my garden.

Is it true that you considered running for governor of Georgia in the early 1980s?
I did think about that. I got my master’s in history and wrote a lot of papers on elections. There are some good people in public service, but you’ve got to be totally committed. I guess that my commitment was more to athletics and serving in that respect, to be in a position to influence young people. My head wanted to run for governor, but my heart wasn’t totally into it.

When you and Fob James [a teammate of Dooley's when the two played football at Auburn in the 1950s] were roommates in college, did you discuss politics?
Yeah, we used to. Fob was an example of someone with no political background who could be elected to office. I probably would have been what you call an old southern Democratic—a very conservative Democrat. But the parties have gotten so mixed up and screwed up, you might call me an Independent now.

Auburn has surprised quite a few people this season.
I’ve never seen one player make so much difference in a football team as [Auburn quarterback] Cam Newton. They’re probably a pretty respectable team without him. But they may be the best team in the country with him. There’s no position he couldn’t play.

How did playing and coaching under Shug Jordan at Auburn influence you?
I learned my basic philosophy about football from him. I had the advantage of being in an area where there were some great football coaches, and I used to always scout Alabama and Georgia Tech [as an assistant coach at Auburn]. Bear Bryant and Bobby Dodd had two contrasting styles, but both were successful. So I was able to pick what I liked from them, but I got my base [coaching philosophy] from Coach Jordan; he gave me my first coaching opportunity.

The coaching profession has changed a lot since your days. Coaches switch jobs frequently.
There were always demands on coaches in the past, but there are more demands today, primarily because they’re getting paid incredible salaries. They make more now in 2 years than I made in 25 years. I never had an agent when I was coaching, either. In my latter years when I was athletic director at Georgia I could have, but I went so long without an agent I said, heck, I’m not going to have one this late in my career.

Was Herschel Walker the best player you ever coached?
He was the most productive player by far. He combined three things: He had incredible speed—world-class speed—he had great strength, and he had an incredible mental toughness. I’ve never seen all three of those things combined so well in one package.

Your wife speaks her mind quite freely when she’s on the radio here. Does she ever embarrass you?
Nah, what comes in her head goes out her mouth. She has no filtering of her thoughts. It makes her, in one respect, well liked and respected. But on the other hand, it gets her in trouble periodically. (laughs) I’m more of the “think first, speak later” type.

Will Barbara be with you at the book signing?
Oh, I don’t know. She’s so busy these days, she’s hard to get a date with. (laughs) &

Vintage Motorcycles Take the Track

Vintage Motorcycles Take the Track

Photos: Lori Sparacio (click for larger version)




September 30, 2010

The Barber Motorsports Park hosts the sixth annual Barber Vintage Festival the weekend of October 8–10 at the world-class racing and museum facility near Leeds. The festival includes vintage motorcycle races staged by the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA), the largest organization in the nation devoted to restoring and racing classic motorcycles from eras past. The Barber event is the final event on the AHRMA’s 2010 schedule.

The festival also offers auctions of motorcycle parts, memorabilia, mechanic tools, and customized motorcycles known as “project bikes” built by enthusiasts from around the world. A swap meet will take place, including 400 vendor booths offering motorcycle-related items. Vintage motorcycles will be exhibited, in addition to the more than 1,000 bikes (500 are on display at any given time) in the Barber Motorsports Museum, showcasing the evolution of motorcycles from the early 1900s to the present. The museum also features an impressive collection of Porsche, Lotus, and Ferrari race cars.

The Third Annual “Motorcycles by Moonlight Dinner” will include legendary motorsports champion John Surtees as the featured speaker. Surtees won several world championships racing motorcycles in the 1950s. In 1960 at age 26, he switched to automobiles, finishing a stunning second in the British Grand Prix in his second auto race at the top level of racing. A native of Britain, Surtees is the only person to win world championships on motorcycles and in automobiles, including the Formula 1 World Championship in 1964, driving a Ferrari. After retiring from racing, Surtees became renowned for designing and building racing machines when not managing racing teams.

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There will also be some unique motorcycle races at this event, including the Century Race, which involves bikes that are a minimum of 100 years old (some look more like bicycles than motorcycles). On the track there will be competitions for all classes of road racing machines, from 1920s-era hand shifter V-twins to booming Grand Prix single-cylinder machines. Off-road fans can enjoy vintage motocross, trials competitions, and cross-country—an hour-long race through the woods. Other highlights are a Wall of Death (in which motorcyclists ride in a circle, horizontally), vintage fire trucks, and an air show by the Aeroshell Aerobatic Team, flying four North American T-6 Texans. &

Barber Vintage Festival, Barber Motorsports Park, 6030 Barber Motorsports Parkway, Birmingham. Tickets: $15–$35, children 12 and under free with ticketholder; additional cost to camp on site. Details: 699-7275,

Pitching Paige

Pitching Paige


(click for larger version)


May 13, 2010

Leroy “Satchel” Paige pitched his final baseball game in 1965 at age 60, throwing three scoreless innings for the Kansas City Athletics. His professional baseball legacy began with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1927, where he established himself as the greatest pitcher in the history of the Negro Leagues. Born in Mobile, Paige was locked up at age 12 for six years at the Industrial School for Negro Children, a reform school in Mt. Meigs, Alabama. (He had numerous theft and truancy incidents on his record prior to incarceration.)

In 1971, Paige was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The pitcher was among the pioneers who crossed Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1948 when he signed a contract with the Cleveland Indians. His tryout included throwing four of five fastballs directly above a cigarette representing home plate. Joe DiMaggio referred to Paige as “the best and fastest pitcher I’ve ever faced.”

On May 18, from 6 to 7 p.m., author Larry Tye will appear at Vulcan Park and Museum to discuss his book Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend. Tye’s appearance coincides with the exhibit From Factory to Field: The Dream of Baseball in Birmingham. For details, call 933-1409 or go to