BASEBALL: A field of dreams

STANLEY — A grassy field resting on the side of Aylor Grubbs Avenue in Stanley, sits empty, awaiting the World Series. 

Kids from every nook of town are anxiously finishing their daily chores, while making sure the tires on their bicycles are packed with air.

Floyd “Bucky” Nauman rushes to get the cows milked so that his parents will let him play. 

For this group of neighborhood children, August 29, 1955, has been marked on their calendars for months. It is the pinnacle of a 60-game season, and the final contest between the Shady Grove Dodgers and the Piney Wood Tigers. 

While it isn’t the actual October classic between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers of 1955, it holds just as much importance to these youngsters.

Unseasonably cold weather cancelled the makeshift championship that day, and the Tigers claimed the ultimate prize based on their winning percentage.

Nelson Painter led the way with 41 hits and four home runs in the four-game series, while J.C. Painter followed up with 36 hits and a home run. 

Sixty-one years later, five members of the Dodgers and the Tigers reunite in the back room of Hawksbill Diner in Stanley, less than two miles away from the fields they used to call home. 

“This is the first time that we have all been together since 1955,” Jimmy Painter mutters from across the table.

Sandlot baseball was a staple in the 1950’s throughout the United States. There were few organized youth league teams and no video games or fancy technology to divert kids’ attention. Instead, there was a group of buddies emulating legends like Ted Williams and Rocky Colavito, while using a rustic barn as a backstop.

Many people struggle to remember the details surrounding their sandlot games, especially the ones that occurred more than six decades ago. But that isn’t the case for Stanley legends of the Dodgers and the Tigers.  

After each and every game, J.C. Painter recorded statistics from that day. He jotted down everything from batting averages to pitching percentages. Those memories will never be forgotten. 

“I always liked stats and numbers,” J.C. Painter said. “Every night when I went home I wrote it all down. It was just something to do as a kid.”

Some members of the group knew that Painter had tracked each game, while others didn’t. But now, as they all meet for breakfast for the first time since those seemingly never-ending summer days, details begin to emerge. 

Like how on August 21, the Dodgers signed Kaye Tobin and resigned Pat Jenkins. Shirley Goode was dropped that same day.

Or how the Tigers had 32 wins in 1955, while the Dodgers had just 29. Each play was meticulously written down so that those games could be relived again and again.

For Donnie Wilson — who is now 71 and retired — playing baseball with the neighborhood kids was one of the fondest memories from his childhood.

“There were no computers and hardly any TVs,” Wilson said. “A lot of pride went in to winning those games. Some kids would cry when they lost. There was nothing else to do. This was our number one thing.” 

On a given afternoon, as many as 35 kids gathered to play under the gleaming Shenandoah sun. Age groups ranged from 5 to 18, but it wasn’t uncommon for someone’s dad to fill in if a team needed an extra player.

 Instead of an actual baseball, they played with a sponge ball with a cork center that was purchased for 15 cents at the local five and dime.

“The first couple games, you could crush that thing,” Wilson said. “But it would start to get worn out the more that we played. We would have to use tape to keep it together.”

At the beginning of each April, a new Major League Baseball season kicks off. Each time one of these men hears the crack of a bat, or smells the scent of freshly cut grass, they will be instantly taken back in time to Aylor Grubbs Avenue.

Beacause that’s where it all began.

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