Toombs County’s Professional Baseball History
ToombsNow1 began its research on professional baseball in Toombs County with a conversation with Jody Peacock, who has been digging into this subject for several years.
Don Dillard played with Vidalia in 1955 and in the Major Leagues with Cleveland and Milwaukee.
Lou Holdener was the catcher on the 1956 team and he shares his memories.
Parnell Ruark, a GSL batting champ and home run leader, played on the 1954 team.
Jerry Silverman, who played for Vidalia-Lyons for three seasons (1948, 49 and 50), was a fine defensive first baseman and a contact hitter who rarely struck out.
Vidalia’s Ralph Parson played one season in the GSL with the Statesboro Pilots.
Vidalia’s Bob Bass was the team’s bat boy for many years and he shares his many stories.
From 1948 to 1956 professional baseball, for the most part flourished, in Toombs County. The first incarnation of the team was called the Vidalia-Lyons Twins. It, like all the other five teams in the Georgia State League, was unaffiliated with major league baseball. The team was called the Twins because of the close proximity of Vidalia and Lyons.
In the first season (1948) the Twins finished fifth in the league with a 54-66 record and drew 31,580 fans to Twin Cities Stadium, an average of over 500 per game. Harold Johnson was the team’s top pitcher with a 17-13 record and Truman Connell was the top hitter with a .358 average. Connell finished second in the GSL in batting average, but he topped the circuit with just 11 home runs. Gene Solt hit .285 and was top five in seven different offensive categories and he led the league with 43 extra base hits. Also fielding teams in that league during the first season were the Sparta Saints, the regular season champions with a 81-37 record, the Fitzgerald Pioneers, the GSL champs after beating Sparta 4 games to 3, the Baxley Red Sox, the Eastman Dodgers and the Douglas Rebels.
Jerry Silverman, from St. Petersburg, Florida, joined the 1948 team during the season and he continued to play for the Twins until 1950. Silverman was a fine defensive first baseman who hit .290 or better each season. Silverman struck out just 31 times in 830 at bats with the Twins. Silverman, who enjoyed his playing days in Vidalia-Lyons, said the players were treated well by the community, “They were the greatest fans in the world, they treated us just like a family,” the 86-year old Silverman said. “They fed us all the time and they could not do enough for us. The stores always had donations for us, they gave us shirts, it was the greatest town in the world.” And the players needed all the financial help they could get. The total team payroll for 17 players in 1949 was $2,600, an average of $153 per month, per player.
In 1949 the GSL increased to eight teams with the addition of Dublin and Tifton. Vidalia-Lyons improved its record to 72 and 65 and finished in fourth place, qualifying the team for post season play. The Twins upset Eastman, the league’s top team during the regular season, 3 games to 2 before losing to Tifton 4 games to 2 in the championship series. Attendance in Toombs County improved to 45,463, an average of around 650 per game. Jim Smith hit .310 and Don Ricketson was second in the GSL with 26 home runs. Mike Rossi was the teams top pitcher. Rossi lead the league in wins with a 25-13 record and he had a 2.80 ERA. Rossi holds the league record for innings pitched with 325 in 1949. Bob Bass, was the teams bat boy and he said Rossi was a workhorse, “Mike Rossi used to pitch double headers and win them. He pitched a no-hitter and won that game with a home run and then pitched the second game and threw a shutout and drove in the runs in that game as well. I remember him pitching several double headers.” Rossi pitched his no-hitter on July 16, 1949 when the Twins shutout Tifton 2-0 in a seven inning game.
The 1950 season was not a good one for the Vidalia-Lyons Twins. A 56-83 record sent the team to the bottom of the league standings, 29 1/2 games out of first place. Attendance dropped to 30,350. The Dublin Green Sox ruled the regular season with an 84-60 record. However, the Eastman Dodgers won the league championship nipping Dublin 4 games to three. Eastman’s Edgar Hartness had a huge season at the plate batting .400 with 201 hits and 137 RBI. In 15 minor league seasons he batted .326. He played very briefly earlier in his career in the Double A Southern League and the Triple A Pacific League. He also managed seven seasons of minor league ball.
Parnell Ruark hit 39 homers for Dublin and the top pitcher also played for the Green Sox. Charles Smiley won 23 games and had a 2.46 ERA with 237 strikeouts.
Toombs County did not field a team in 1951, but in 1952 the Vidalia Indians re-entered the GSL and won the league title. The team finished third in the regular season with a 66-58 record. In the playoffs the Indians defeated the second place Hazlehurst-Baxley Cardinals 4 games to 2. In the championship round Vidalia took care of the fourth place Douglas Trojans 4 games to 2. Jim Burns, a left-handed hitting outfielder from Morgantown, West Virginia, had a standout offensive season batting .324 with 47 doubles, 25 home runs and a whopping 155 RBI. At 6-2 and 205 pounds Burns played 14 seasons of minor league baseball and he was a .320 hitter with a career 156 homers.
Beginning in 1952, Vidalia businessman Bill Estroff became the president of the Georgia State League and he held the title through the end of the 1954 season.
The 1953 team had no chance to defend it’s title. The Indians dropped to the bottom of the standings winning just 33 percent of their games. At 41-82 Vidalia finished 42 games behind Hazlehurst-Baxley. Who got the blame? Well it must have been the coaching staff. The team had three managers that season. Bull Hammons, who led the 1952 team to the championship, was let go on May 22. Jake Daniel took over and he eventually was replaced by Donald Cross. The Indians drew 28,665. Hazlehurst-Baxley only attracted 19,101 to the ballpark, but the Cardinals preformed well before the small crowds winning the regular season title and then taking care Eastman 4 games to 3 to win the GSL Championship.
What a bounce back season 1954 was for the Vidalia. The Indians were the best team during the regular season finishing five games ahead of second place Douglas. Vidalia won 66 percent of their games going 85-44. In the semifinals the Indians knocked off the Statesboro Pilots 4 games to 2 and they swept Douglas in four games in the finals. The championship Indians drew 53,334 fans averaging roughly 821 per night.
James Beavers, who was from Manchester, Georgia, was a player manager that season. He batted .327 with 31 doubles, five triples, 16 homers and 84 RBI. The 6-1 165 right-handed hitter could also run as he stole 23 bases. He was a first baseman and relief pitcher from 1947 to 1954.
Phil Gilbert was the ace on the mound in 1954. He wasn’t a big guy at 6-1 and 165 pounds, but the right-hander had his best season of his five year career in Toombs County. He threw 258 innings and went 22-6. He also hit .239 with a double and a homer. He finished his career in 1955 with the Indians going 11-9 with a .348 ERA.
In 1955 the Indians dropped to fourth place with a 56-44 record. Ed Levy was the manager and the Birmingham, Alabama native had Major League experience. He played in 54 big league games for the Philadelphia Phillies (1940) and the New York Yankees (1942 and 44). His pro career was interrupted by World War II. He served in the Coast Guard. Levy hit .215 in the Major Leagues with four homers and 32 RBI.
Levy was a big time minor league hitter. In 2,176 games he hit .298 with 486 doubles, 95 triples, 1,368 RBI and 238 homers.
Two future Big Leaguers played in Vidalia in 1955. Gary Bell was in his second season of pro ball and he went 7-5 for the Indians with a 3.33 ERA. He struck out 126 batters and walked 70. He spent a year in Reading and Mobile and two in San Diego (Pacific Coast League) before making his Major League debut with the Cleveland Indians.
Don Dillard was born in Greenville, South Carolina and he grew up in Taylors, South Carolina. He played high school and American Legion ball and eventually signed to play in the Textile League in Greenville. He signed with the Cleveland Indians and was sent to Vidalia for his first season of pro ball. In 27 games he batted .247 with two doubles a triple and a home run. He drove in 19 runs and scored nine in 93 at bats.
Dillard advanced to Daytona Beach, Reading, Mobile and San Diego before making his Major League debut in 1959 with the Cleveland Indians.
A future Hall of Famer played in the GSL the 1955 season- the only one in the history of the league. Willie McCovey, from Mobile, Alabama, was only 17 years old when he began his career with Sandersville. The future San Francisco Giant great had a fine season batting .305 with 19 homers, 24 doubles and one triple. According to the stats he drove in 113 runs on 125 hits. McCovey played 22 seasons in the big leagues and he smashed 521 home runs.
The 1956 season would be the final season of minor league baseball in the GSL. Vidalia finished third with a 63-57 record and the Indians drew only 17,272 fans in their last year. However, if you wanted to see some great pitching and watch a future Major Leaguer all you had to do was drive to the field located somewhere behind Big Lots.
Dick Stigman, a 6-3 lefty from Nimrod, Minnesota, dominated the GSL. In 213 innings he allowed only 138 hits and with a 1.44 ERA and he went 17-9. Just four seasons after pitching in Vidalia, Stigman made his Major League debut with the Cleveland Indians. Stigman would also throw for his home state Minnesota Twins and the Boston Red Sox.
Stigman, in seven seasons in the majors, went 46-54 with a .403 ERA. He struck out 755 batters and walked 406. He was both a starter and a reliever and he made 119 starts in his 235 appearances.
The Douglas Reds defeated the Sandersville Giants 3 games to 1 to win the final GSL championship. The Reds were managed by a famous major leaguer named Johnny Vandeer Meer.
In 1938, Vander Meer (Cincinnati Reds) pitched no-hitters in back-to-back starts. In all he tossed 21 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. His first no-hit game was thrown in Cincinnati- at Crosley Field. He struck out four in the win over the Boston Bees. His second no-hitter went down on an important date in baseball history- the first night game at Ebbetts Field. On June 15, at the legendary home of the the Brooklyn Dodgers, he walked eight and struck out seven before a crowd of 38,748. He got out of a bases loaded jam in the ninth by inducing a pop up by Hall of Famer Leo Durocher. Vander Meer pitched 13 seasons in the majors and won 119 games. He was a four-time All-Star.
So, after the 1956 season professional baseball left Toombs County for good. The Toombs County teams won 493 games and lost 509 for a winning percentage of .492. Vidalia won GSL titles in 1952 and 1954 and lost in the championship round in 1949.
Toombs County teams bounced around in the regular season finishing 5th, 4th, 7th, 3rd, 8th, 1st, 4th, and 3rd. At the gates the team drew 268,401 fans in eight years, an average of 536 per night. Three players, who played in Toombs County, eventually made it to the Major Leagues- Dick Stigman, Don Dillard and Gary Bell.
|Baxley Red Sox||66||54||.550||16||24,901|
|Tifton Blue Sox||74||63||.540||12||53,846|
|Dublin Green Sox||63||75||.457||23.5||62,049|
|Dublin Green Sox||84||56||.600||–||50,160|
|Tifton Blue Sox||69||70||.496||14.5||54,784|
|Baxley-Hazlehurst Red Sox||48||91||.345||35.5||25,000|
|Dublin Green Sox||55||71||.437||21||34,434|
|Statesboro Pilots #||25||40||.385||NA||8,750|
Jody Peacock’s collection of authentic memorabilia
Vidalia Indian team picture- year unknown
Jersey salvaged from the old Threlkeld Ford building
From 1948-50 the team was called the Vidalia-Lyons Twins (notice the light poll in foul territory in left field)
The 1948 Vidalia-Lyons Twins were one of six franchises in the inaugural season of the Georgia State League. None of the teams were affiliated with a major league club. The Twins had only one winning season- in 1949 they went 72-65 and finished fourth in an eight team league. Toombs County did not have a team in 1951 and in 1952 minor league baseball returned with the Vidalia Indians.
A sparse gathering for a day game- in its last season the team averaged just 288 fans
This is a bat used by Lloyd Swain. He played for Vidalia-Lyons in 1949 and 1950. He was a pitcher who could hit. Swain hit .296 in 1949 and .306 in 1950. As a pitcher, the lefty was 5-6 and 9-5 with a 5.53 ERA.
A full house at Vidalia Municipal Stadium. During the championship season of 1954, the Indians drew 53,334 fans and averaged around 821 fans per game.
Don Dillard played just 27 games in Vidalia in 1955. The outfielder hit .247 with one home run. Four years later he was in the big leagues and in 1961 he hit .272 with Cleveland. Dillard’s lifetime batting average was .244 in six major league seasons. Story
Gary Bell made his major league debut at the age of 21 and went 12-10 with a 3.31 ERA. In his second season with the Cleveland Indians he won a career-high 16 game. Bell won 10 or more games in seven of his 12 big league seasons. Bell was on the AL All-Star team in 1960, 1966 and 1968.
In 1967 Bell pitched in three World Series games for the Boston Red Sox, who lost a seven-game series to the St. Louis Cardinals. Bell started and took the loss in game three, pitched in relief in game four and he pitched two scoreless innings (8th and 9th) in game six and was credited with a save as the Red Sox stayed alive in the series with an 8-4 victory. The Cardinals closed the series with a 7-2 win in game 7.
Bell pitched 14 games for the Vidalia Indians in 1955. He went 7-5 with a 3.33 ERA and in 105 innings struck out 126 batters and walked 70.
|Dick Stigman spent the 1956 season in Vidalia, Georgia and it was his best in professional baseball. Stigman was 17-9 with a 1.44 ERA. He struck out 263 batters in 213 innings and walked 97 batters. In 1960 Stigman made his major league debue with the Cleveland Indians and he was 5-11 with a 4.50 ERA. He was an American League All-Star as a rookie. In his best season, in 1962, Stigman was 12-5 with the Twins. He was 15-15 in 1963 with Minnesota with a 3.25 ERA. In total Stigman won 46 big league games in seven seasons.
Are you in this picture?
Pictured to the left is a bunch of local children who participated in a summer league. On the front row are five Vidalia-Lyons Twins baseball players who taught the kids the fundamentals of the game. On the far right, with his head titled down, is Mike Rossi. Rossi was the top pitcher in the Georgia State League in 1949. He threw a no-hitter on July 16th and he set the all-time GSL record for innings pitched with 325. Rossi went 25-13 with a 2.80 ERA. He lead the league in wins and was third in ERA. Sam Hamrick and Jim Smith, from the Twins, are also on the front row.
These pictures were sent to Toombs Now by Clint Chafin from Moultrie. They were taken by Tex Young, who played for Vidalia-Lyons in 1948 and 1949. Young was a pitcher and he had a 14-11 record in 1948 with a 2.82 ERA. In 1949 Young was 7-10 with a 6.02 ERA. Chafin is very involved in preserving the history of Class D baseball in Georgia. His father, Robert, was a pitcher for the Griffin Pimientos, of the Georgia-Alabama League, during the 1949 season. Clint has organized a series of reunions for all Georgia Class D players.