Defending The Family Name

I enjoy watching the History channel on TV and I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that the International History Channel was included in my ESPN 2 package. There is a regular feature on IH that spotlights a particular year in history and provides short segments on all the outstanding events of that year.

Today I was watching IH when the program came up for the year 1936. After several items from around the world, the segment came up on the World Series of that year and specifically the first game between the New York Yankees and the New York Giants. There was nothing very unusual about the game other than the Yankees lost 6-1 which pleased me since I am a life long Red Sox fan but near the end of the game a ball was hit to the Giants second baseman who made a routine throw to first for the out. The name of that second baseman, Whitehead, rang a bell for me and reminded me of a story that occurred 63 years ago.

Those of you who have read my bio know that early in my life I lived for a short time in the little town of Woodville in Eastern North Carolina. Woodville is a very small place and some would not even call it a town. It had a couple of stores but I believe it was necessary to go to Lewiston for gasoline or to visit a drug store. Lewiston wasn't much bigger.

I mention this because to properly appreciate this story you need to know how small the place was with all the accompanying characteristics of a small town such as everybody knowing everybody ( and their business) and the excitement that a base ball game could have on a Sunday afternoon when the local team consisting of farmers would play. It was particularly exciting when they would play a team from another location rather than playing among themselves.

In 1937 when I was 5 years old, the local team had a game with the Norfolk Police Department. I had never been to a baseball game before so it was with a great deal of excitement that our entire family went to the school house to see the game and, of course, socialize.

I remember several people referring to the second baseman for Woodville, Burgess Whitehead, as a major leaguer but I had no idea what that meant and questions to my parents didn't make it any clearer. All I knew was that it was something good because you could tell from the way people talked that he was considered to be better than the other players.

Well, Burgess came up to bat and excitement ran throughout the small crowd that had come to see the game. But guess what. He struck out. I can't remember whether it was a swinging strike out or a called strike out but I remember the fans being upset so it must have been a called strikeout.

Burgess had a brother named Joe who was a local farmer and also a player on the team. He came to bat and the crowd was yelling for him to get a hit and even though I didn't know what the word meant at the time, atone (my word) for his brother's failure to get a hit. As if from a Hollywood script, Joe hit a home run and the crowd went wild. I was excited because everyone else was excited but it never occurred to me that it might have been doubly embarrassing to Burgess. I think we felt that Joe had defended the family honor by hitting the homerun and the more I think about it, the more I am convinced it was a called strike out on Burgess.

Burgess Whitehead, I learned later, was the second baseman for the New York Giants. I don't know what year he retired but if he played in the 1936 World Series and he was playing in Woodville in1937, it may very well have been that he retired at the end of the 1936 season. Oh yea, he was also a phi beta kappa graduate of UNC, another fact I learned years later.

I was telling this story to some fellows my age in the Dean Dome one night who were from Snake Bite, a community near Woodville and they said I should go by and tell the story to Joe Whitehead who, at the time, was still residing in the area. I thought I would do that but I delayed it and then I heard that he had passed on. Burgess' widow lived in Windsor for years but I believe she has passed on now also. Gra Whitehead, a member of UNC's basketball team several years ago, I'm told still farms in the area and I just might drive down one day and relate the story to him. The ball park and the school are gone, the result of school consolidation, new facilities, etc. Some people call it progress.

I doubt seriously whether this modern age would allow a story to happen such as the one I have told. There are not many small town baseball teams anymore and I doubt whether the Norfolk police have a ball club. Probably had to discontinue it because of the insurance costs.

I wasn't aware of life's complexities in 1937 but I learned about them soon enough. I may be the only person left who remembers that Sunday afternoon when a national star was among us and I didn't even know it. All I knew was that we beat the Norfolk Police Department that day and I bet the policeman who struck Burgess Whitehead out never forgot it or let anyone else forget it.