The Elbertons were a pretty catty bunch, and their pitcher was a lanky fireballer with good control. I managed a couple of singles; then I came up in the final inning with the score tied and a Royston runner on base. I was surprised that my knees didn't knock. I felt comfortable despite the hollering Elberton fans. And no poet, however great, could describe my sensation when I cowtailed a pitch for my third single of the day—the game-breaking hit. We'd won, and I returned to Royston a boy hero. Once an athlete feels the peculiar thrill that goes with victory and public praise, he's bewitched. He can never get away from it.
Early in 1904 I secretly wrote letters of application to every team in the South Atlantic League. Only Augusta answered—"This will notify you that you are free to join our spring practice, with the understanding that you will pay all your expenses." I signed a contract (without telling Professor Cobb) calling for $50 a month salary if I made the team. Faced with the desperate need for railway fare, I stalled furiously until the night before I had to catch the Southern Railroad spur line south. Then I had no choice but to talk it over with my father. I confessed to my contractual agreement with the Augusta team, outlined my reasons and waited for the roof to fall in. Striding up and down the room, he spoke gravely, his measured words bearing down on the absolute necessity for an education.
It was 3 o'clock in the morning before he began to tire. I think he knew that if he refused I'd be out the window during the night and hiking. He walked to his roll-top desk, sat down and began writing checks. He wrote six of them, each for $15. He feared I'd shoot the bankroll before proving my point if he handed me a lump sum. "You've chosen. So be it, son," he said. "Go get it out of your system and let us hear from you."
At the Augusta park my first manager, Con Strouthers, barely looked at me. "Get into the clubhouse and get dressed," he grunted and walked off.
I was the only candidate who had paid his own way to camp. I was the only one buying his own steaks and bed. Emerging in my bright-red Royston uniform, I must have be en a laugh to those pros. I hustled balls and hung wistfully around the batting box, not invited to take any swings. Through the exhibition schedule, I didn't get into a game. Then came the grand opening-day contest against Columbia, S.C. Our first baseman, Harry Bussey, was ineligible to play, which meant shifting the center fielder to first. Strouthers sent me to center field. When I batted my second or third time Engle, the Columbia pitcher, fired one into my groove. Lining it into left field, I tore around the bases as if my pants were on fire. When I slid into the plate for an inside-the-park homer, I thought, this isn't so hard.
When Strouthers called me into his office two days later, I was sure he was going to offer me a regular contract, which meant that my expenses would be picked up by the club. "Bussey just got a telegram reinstating him," Strouthers said. "You're released."
I went out of there angry and sick. Back at the hotel I ran into Thad Hayes, a young pitcher from Mobile who'd drawn his own pink slip two days earlier. Thad said he had a friend who was managing a semipro team in Anniston, Ala. We crammed ourselves into an upper berth for the train ride to Anniston. Anniston was impressed enough to pay me $65 a month, throwing in board and room with the family of a Mr. Darden, a well-to-do steel executive, who set a table that was most welcome.
I was leading the Southeastern League with a .370 average when the Augusta club decided it could use me after all. For one thing, Con Strouthers had been dropped as manager. Returning to Augusta, I managed a modest .237 for my on-again-off-again season's record there. That winter Andy Roth, the new manager, sent me a feeler for the 1905 season.
I demanded $125 a month—quite a salary for an 18-year-old with 37 games of organized ball behind him. Augusta finally agreed. Andy Roth ran what was called a joy club. That is, the players blithely went through the motions and had nighttime fun. As an impressionable kid, I fell into the spirit of things. I was fast losing all ambition to go higher in the game. The Augusta surroundings satisfied me pretty well, and I had no desire to reach the far-off big league.
But in the summer of 1905 a fateful thing happened to me. Roth was released as manager. George Leidy, an outfielder, succeeded him. Leidy was an oldtime minor league star, quiet, fatherly and bighearted. One night, playing Savannah, I strolled to the outfield with a bag of popcorn in my hand. We had a 2-0 shutout going, when a fly ball was hit my way. The popcorn flew one way while the ball bounced off my glove and a run scored.