Baseball reigned King. Baseball and tobacco, that is.
In 1939, minor league baseball came to the small, southern town of Valdosta, Ga.
Until 1958, (with the exception of 1943-45 due to World War II) the residents of this rural community would experience minor league baseball for themselves.
Four different major league teams had Class D affiliates in Valdosta during this time period, including the Brooklyn Dodgers, Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Browns and Detroit Tigers.
In 1952, Deane Mink, a young pitcher from Cocoa, Fla., came to Valdosta with a minor league contract. Despite only playing one year in the town, Mink picked up on the culture, which was baseball and tobacco.
Mink went to a tobacco auction not far from town after arriving in Valdosta.
“If you have never seen (a tobacco auction), it was the funniest thing in the world,” Mink said. “Fifteen or 20 buyers are walking up and down these big piles of tobacco, and this guy is literally chanting and auctioning off the tobacco.”
Mink recalls baseball being so popular because there weren’t many other options.
“(Baseball) was king (when I played in Valdosta),” Mink said. “There was nothing else. There was no TV. If you had a TV, you were the richest guy in town, but it only had one channel.”
The now 79-year-old Mink is a chiropractor in Valdosta, where he has been practicing for the past 53 years.
There are still residents in Valdosta that recall minor league baseball being played in their little farm town.
Lynn Thomas is one of those residents. Thomas remembers going to Pendleton Park, the baseball field the teams played at, as a child with his mother and watching baseball games.
Thomas saw players such as Don Wert play in his hometown. In 1958, Wert was a member of the Valdosta team that won the Georgia-Florida League championship. Wert played eight seasons with the Detroit Tigers and was a member of the World Series-winning 1968 team.
After getting married, Thomas moved to Houston where he attended many Astros games and became familiar with people in the organization. One year, Wert was in Houston for an old-timers game.
Thomas received word from a former player that Wert would be playing in a charity golf tournament the day before the game, and he was able to meet Wert after the tournament.
“I walked over (to Wert) and said, ‘I’m from Valdosta, Ga., and I used to watch you play third base (when I was 10 years old),’” Thomas said. “He looked at me like I was a man from Mars. He said, ‘You’re kidding me.’
“I don’t know who was more thrilled. He was really excited about it once he realized I wasn’t feeding him a lie.”
More recently, Thomas found Wert’s ’58 championship ring on an online auction and knew he had to have it. After negotiating with the seller, Thomas acquired the ring and immediately donated it to the Lowndes County Historical Society.
In 2006, Thomas moved back to Valdosta. It was shortly thereafter that he decided to dig up the past and look at the roster for the 1958 championship team.
After noticing a handful of players that went pro, Thomas was inspired to write a book on the 39 players who came through Valdosta during the 1940’s and ‘50’s and made it to the big leagues.
Thomas wanted to make them more human than just their statistics, and that’s what he did in his book titled “From Valdosta to the Major Leagues,” which was published in 2012.
“I thought, ‘What kind of guys were (the 39 players)?’” Thomas said. “We don’t necessarily think of athletes as people, and more so now with the media… putting everything they do on the internet.
“Back then, unless you happened to know one of (the players), you didn’t know what they were about.”
Thomas interviewed the players and their loved ones to tell the stories in his book. He doesn’t only mention their time in Valdosta, but their whole careers.
Some of the players featured by Thomas include Don Hoak, who played in the majors for 10 seasons; Eddie Robinson, who played and coached in the majors for more than 40 years; Roger Craig, who played 12 years with five teams, pitched in four different World Series, and managed for 10 years; and Dick McAuliffe, who played for 16 years, including 14 seasons for the Detroit Tigers.
Thomas also writes about Jackie Moore who was a bench coach for the Texas Rangers from 2008-13. Moore was a coach from 1970-99. He made a return to the majors in 2008, and was the last remaining player from the Valdosta minor leagues in the majors.
When baseball was being played in Valdosta, the town rallied around its team.
During Mink’s rookie season, there was a one-game playoff against Waycross for the league championship. Mink remembers seeing signs in the middle of intersections−the few that existed at the time−advertising the baseball games.
“(There were) 7,000 people trying to get into (Pendleton) Park to see that game,” Mink said.
The stadium only held 1,200 people.
Thomas donated a portion of his collection to the LCHS, including the championship ring. His collection consists of baseball cards, autographs and photographs. The proceeds from his book also go toward the museum.
Thomas used his book as a way of making his knowledge of the game count.
“As we get older, you just start thinking back on things and… I really want(ed) to try to make some sort of contribution,” Thomas said. “I thought that was a story worth telling.”
Pendleton Park was removed in the 1980’s and South Georgia Medical Center sits on the lot the park once occupied.
This story was written by Alex Tostado.