Several weeks ago I was visiting my mother on a Sunday afternoon. She gets the Asheville Citizen Times and I happened to glance down at the sports section of the paper lying on the floor. Mother never cared about sports and always pulls the sports section out of the paper first and throws it out of her way. I spotted a headline, Hathaway to be Enshrined. The only Hathaway I ever heard of used to be a manager of the Asheville Tourists when I was a small boy. I picked up the paper to read the article. It was about Ray Hathaway who managed the Asheville Tourists in the early and mid 1960s. Both my parents worked all their life at Beacon Manufacturing Company, the blanket mill in Swannanoa. Beacon always bought a section of box seats each year for employee use. They had the best seats at McCormick Field, first row box seats directly behind home plate. I think there were four seats in their box, I can’t remember for sure. Anyway, Beacon would give these tickets out to the employees on a first come basis. Mother would usually get tickets for me and daddy three or four times a year. In the 1960s, Asheville was a Pittsburgh Pirates farm team and most of the people in this area were Pirates fans.
My first cousin, James “Jim” Burleson, was a Pittsburgh Pirate’s fan. Jim was the son of my mother’s oldest sister and over 20 years older than me. He got polio when he was around 12 years-old and was confined to a wheel chair the rest of his life. Baseball was a major interest in his life. He would listen to the radio every night to keep up with all the games, especially Pittsburgh. The Pirate games were on KDKA Pittsburgh. It was one of the clearest channels on the radio at night. Their announcer was Bob Prince. Prince was there to win. He didn’t care how or give a darn about anyone or anybody but the Pittsburgh Pirates. Several times when Pittsburgh was in the pennant race, Prince would bring his secret weapon out when the Pirates would get in trouble. His secret weapon was the Green Weenie. The Green Weenie was a large rubber green hot dog. When the other team got a rally going, Bob Prince would bring out the Green Weenie to jinx the evil opposing ball team.
Jim’s stepfather would sometimes take him to McCormick Field, especially in 1961 when the Tourists had their best team ever. That season the ball club had a contest. The winner would get a baseball autographed by every player on the 1961 team including the manager, Ray Hathaway. Jim won the drawing for the baseball that season. It was one of Jim’s prize processions.
I was old enough to take an interest in baseball by 1965 and I was a dyed in the wool Los Angeles Dodger fan because of Sandy Koufax. That presented a problem because no team in the eastern two thirds of the country carried the Dodger games. I had to listen to them on other team’s radio stations or listen to other team’s games playing on the west coast to find out the Dodger scores. I would listen to Bob Prince on KDKA Pittsburgh, Joe Nuxhall on WCKY and WLW Cincinnati, Harry Cary on KMOX St. Louis, Milo Hamilton on WSB Atlanta and the Astros on WWL New Orleans.
In the summer when I was out of school I would call Jim at 10 am each morning to talk about last night’s baseball games. Armed Services Radio would broadcast a day game on short wave several days of the week. Jim had a short wave radio and sometimes I would call Jim and listen to his radio over the phone. One game I will never forget. In September the Dodgers, Pirates and Giants were neck and neck for 1st place in the National League (the only league as far as most people in Buncombe County were concerned). The Pirates were playing at San Francisco and it was a day game at Candlestick Park. I was listening over the phone with Jim. Willie Mays made a very rare error in the outfield that allowed Pittsburgh to score two runs and move ahead by two going into the bottom of the ninth. Jim was ecstatic. He figured he had the game in the bag. Jim Davenport led off the bottom of the ninth for the Giants with a single. Tom Haller came up after him and hit a two run homer, tying the score. The pitcher, Juan Marichal, came up next and hit a home run. Jim hung up the phone and would not answer it for a couple of days.
Jim died in 1968 at age 37. When his mother Mildred died in 1996, Jim’s brother and stepfather had a garage sale to get rid of Mildred’s things and also some of Jim’s possessions. One of the items for sale was Jim’s prized 1961 Asheville Tourists autographed baseball. I bought the ball and brought it home. Over the years everyone I showed it to said they doubted it was real. They said I had no proof — only Jim’s word. That did not go over very well with me. I didn’t like anyone calling my deceased cousin a liar. I didn’t believe Jim would lie to me when I was a little boy. What would be the reason? He had nothing to gain by lying and he never wanted to sell the ball. Several times I took the ball to the guys who ran a full page ad in the paper saying they were coming to Asheville and interested in autographs and sports memorabilia. They would say I had no proof it was authentic and I would have to send it up north to be verified. This made me wonder who verifies baseballs and why “up north”? I never did send it “up north”.
I was very glad to see the recent article and to find out that Ray Hathaway at 94 was still alive and living in Buncombe County. Needless to say I called him on the phone and told him about the autographed baseball and made an appointment to see him. Hathaway’s mind is still very sharp. He has a little trouble getting around but what 94 year old doesn’t? I handed him the baseball. He looked it over and verified that it was his signature on the ball. Hathaway said he remembered the team signing at least one baseball that season and that the ball was authentic. He even signed a paper of authenticity. Some of the more famous players on the 1961 Asheville Tourists that signed the baseball are Willie Stargell, Gene Alley, Bob Lee, Jesus McFarlane (who went by Orlando McFarlane in the majors), and Bob Bailey — the 1st big bonus baby whom Hathaway said got him fired as manager once.
Ray Hathaway ranks second in wins for the Asheville ball team. He won 518 games and lost 410 as manager — a .558 wining percentage. Hathaway was recently notified by South Atlantic (Sally) League president, Eric Krupa, that he had been selected to be placed in the South Atlantic League Hall of Fame. Ray Hathaway spent 37 years in baseball and 27 years as a minor league manager. Hathaway is the eleventh oldest former major league player alive. He appears healthy enough to make a run for the top spot as the oldest living former major league player. He still likes to watch baseball on TV but admits he often has to go to bed before the game is over.
Local historian Bruce Whitaker documents genealogy in the Fairview area. If you have photographs, documents or history on residents of the community, call Mr. Whitaker at 628-1089 or send an email to him at [email protected].