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‘The greatest three years of my life.’ Buddy Gray’s time as a Jacksonville Suns bat boy

Buddy Gray (second from right) and the Jacksonville Suns bat boys in 1971. (photo courtesy of Buddy Gray) (photo courtesy of Buddy Gray)
November 10, 2020

This story was originally published on the Jumbo Shrimp's Shrimp & Grits blog on Medium. Joe Pepitone was rounding the bases after clubbing a home run and Buddy Gray looked on with awe. The 13-year-old had been watching Pepitone on NBC’s Game of the Week for years when Pepitone had

This story was originally published on the Jumbo Shrimp's Shrimp & Grits blog on Medium.

Joe Pepitone was rounding the bases after clubbing a home run and Buddy Gray looked on with awe. The 13-year-old had been watching Pepitone on NBC’s Game of the Week for years when Pepitone had played for the New York Yankees. Now, the three-time All-Star and Gold Glove Award winner was a member of the Houston Astros and he was at Wolfson Park in Jacksonville, helping Houston during one final tune-up for the 1970 season in an exhibition game against the Montreal Expos.

Fifty years later, Gray still has not forgotten Pepitone’s home run trot. His view, though, did not come from either the red or blue seats in the stands behind home plate or even the uncomfortable metal bleachers down the right field line. Instead, he took everything in from the visitors’ dugout. It was his first contest as a Jacksonville Suns bat boy.

“They all knew it was my first game as a bat boy, and I remembered Joe Pepitone from the Game of the Week when he was with the Yankees,” Gray said. “He was famous for his long hair. He came around and I gave him five. I put my hand out and he slapped my hand.

“We came back to the dugout, and I was putting his bat up and he sat down and goes, ‘Hey, kid.’ And I go, ‘Yeah, yes sir.’ And he goes, ‘Don’t ever wash that hand.’ I was like, okay, I’ll never wash this hand again.”

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So much from that memory has simply been erased. Wolfson Park was torn down in 2002 when the city built the pristine Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, now known as 121 Financial Ballpark. The Montreal Expos don’t exist. The Jacksonville Suns have become the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. Even some of the lust from an All-Star like Pepitone has been washed away, some of it by scandals off the field and other parts simply by the way baseball has changed; in his day, Pepitone was considered an All-Star caliber first baseman because of his home run and RBI numbers. Nobody cared about a career .294 on-base percentage or a chronically-low 9.8 bWAR for 12 big league seasons. One wonders if Pepitone, had he come along 30 or 40 years later, would have gotten the chance to register more than a decade in The Show.

Though so much has changed from that first game, Buddy Gray’s memory of the summer job he logged for three years has not.

“I was 13 when I got the job,” said Gray. “The guy that lived behind me in our neighborhood was a guy named Bill Johnson, and he was a sportswriter for the _Jacksonville Journal_, which was the afternoon paper at that time. Bill’s beat was the Suns.

“We were out playing catch one day and he goes, ‘You know what you need to do? You need to be a bat boy for the Suns.’ So he went in to talk to my parents, took me down and I met the general manager and was hired. Then for three years – ’70, ’71 and ’72 - that’s what I did during the summers. I’m 64 years old now and I still say it’s the greatest three years of my life.”

Wolfson Park opened on March 16, 1955 (photo taken at an unknown date).

He earned $3 per game with a pay bump to $10 for the Southern League All-Star Game. Gray helped set up players’ bats and helmets in the dugout and get out the baseballs for batting practice. During batting practice, he remembers running around on Wolfson Field, shagging balls and helping to pick everything up once that ended, typically about an hour before first pitch.

“We’d get to the park about 3:30 for a 7 o’clock game, get everything ready, get everything out in the dugout,” Gray said. “And then a lot of times we’d just play catch or whatever we wanted to do. As the players straggled in and got ready, we’d play catch with them or we’d play pepper.

“It was three years that I’ll never, ever forget. During the midst of all that, the book Ball Four came out by Jim Bouton. I read that book, and it was like, wow, I’m living this book, just on a minor league level.”

The perks of the job offered plenty of time just simply being around the Suns’ players. Gray learned what made players tick, how they got ready for games and even how they got their cherished nicknames. No one seemed to have a more apt moniker than John “Spider” Gaylord, a left-handed starting pitcher on the 1972 Suns.

The team photo for the 1972 Jacksonville Suns. photo courtesy of Buddy Gray

“His nickname was Spider because he loved spiders,” said Gray. “He would get on his hands and knees in the clubhouse and look in corners and the dark, dreary places of the ballpark, and look for these spiders.”

Jacksonville never spun a winning season during the three years Gray worked as a bat boy, but he built relationships with several outstanding future major leaguers. Perhaps no player made as large an impression as future Kansas City Royals legend Frank White, particularly on the one road trip per season the bat boys would go on.

“Frank White was almost like a surrogate dad to me,” Gray said. “He would always tell my dad, he goes, ‘Look, I’ve got him, I’ll take care of him, I’ll make sure he eats.’ He was not only a hell of a baseball player, he was a great person too.

“Especially in ’80 and ’85 when they were in the American League Championship Series and ultimately in the World Series, it was just incredible to think that I’d sit beside him on a bench in Jacksonville, Florida, and (now) here he is. I think of all of them, Frank was the one I probably remember the most, and that, of all the players, I was probably the closest (to).”

An autographed photo from Frank White given to Buddy Gray. photo courtesy of Buddy Gray

Road trips also offered Gray the little glimpses into the personality quirks of the Suns players. For example, there were overpackers, players who seemed to pack just the right amount of stuff and a fair amount of underpackers. And then there was infielder Tommy Joyce, who played for the Suns in 1972 and 1973. Joyce, who reached as high as Triple-A with Omaha (Royals) and Pawtucket (Red Sox), could sometimes make manager Billy Gardner incredulous.

“We’re all getting ready to go and get on the bus and Billy goes, ‘Where’s your suitcase?’ Tommy was carrying a paper bag in his hand with his toothbrush and his deodorant and another pair of underwear,” said Gray. “He goes, ‘This is all I need. I wear my uniform, I sleep all day, I go to the ballpark and I got the clothes on my back. This is all I need.’ He was just one of those guys.”

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In an odd way, it’s all the time outside the games that Gray really remembers. It’s easy to remember the player who spent his time looking for spiders or the only who packed for a trip with a paper bag.

It’s the eccentricities that stand out in the clubhouse or on the bus. But on the diamond, in the midst of a game, one thing about the characters in Gray’s memories: dedication.

The team photo of the 1970 Jacksonville Suns. photo courtesy of Buddy Gray

Minor League Baseball is filled with lifers, people who seem to be physically incapable of leaving behind the long bus rides, shabby hotel rooms and quirky promotions. They either never made it to The Show themselves or spent their time in the big leagues scrapping for every single inning they could play on a major league diamond. Their playing career over, they just can’t quit the game. They’ll do anything to help the eager kid with eye black under his eyes realize his dream of being a major leaguer.

Take, for example, Clint Courtney. Nicknamed “Scrap Iron” for his gritty play, Courtney eked out an 11-year career in the major leagues from 1951-61, bouncing from the Yankees to the St. Louis Browns, Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Sox, Washington Senators and Kansas City Athletics.

Courtney signed with the Houston Colt .45s in February 1962, but never made the big-league club that year. He was sent to Triple-A Oklahoma City, where he played in three games, before joining the Class B Durham Bulls. He relished three final seasons playing in the minor leagues with Durham in the role of player-coach before becoming a full-time instructor. By 1970, he was a manager, and in 1972 he came to Jacksonville on road trips as the skipper of the Double-A Savannah Braves.

Clint Courtney (left) holds a big catcher’s mitt while teammate Bobby Thompson looks on in 1960.

Gray’s assignments as a bat boy also included the road team, and he was in the Braves’ dugout for a game in which Savannah was up 9-1 in the sixth inning. Even with the huge margin, Courtney continued having the Braves steal bases, something that riled up Suns manager Billy Gardner so much that he began yelling at Courtney from the Jacksonville dugout.

“And Courtney put his hand on my knee and he goes, ‘Son, I’m going to tell you something. Learn what you want from this, but I was ahead one time 10-1, and I called the dogs off. I ended up losing 11-10. I’ll never lose another game like that,’” Gray said. “He was another one who I learned a lot about baseball (from), just sitting with him and listening to him.

“He was a hell of a tactician when it came to baseball.”

The next season, the Braves moved Courtney up to manage Triple-A Richmond. In July 1974, Atlanta fired Eddie Mathews as skipper and narrowed choices for a successor down to Courtney and special assistant to the general manager Clyde King. The job went to King and Courtney stayed in Richmond.

On Sunday, June 15, 1975, Richmond traveled to Rochester for a series. That night, Courtney was playing table tennis with several players. He got through one game and took a rest. While talking with player Al Gallagher, Courtney just keeled over and hit the floor, stricken by a heart attack. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital early on Monday morning.

The baseball lifer’s life ended at just 48 years old.

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The baseball world is an insulated one, the home base of the clubhouse almost representing some sort of bunker. Inside that world is where one can find out about a player’s obsession for spiders or another’s frugal packing techniques. Deck of cards are scattered around. A schedule for where to be and when helps keep the time in this underground world.

If they are anything, teenagers are impressionable, and these characters that seem to dot every little town with a Minor League Baseball team over the last half-century certainly made their mark on Gray. He laughs in retelling so many of these stories, taking him, even for just a moment, into some of his happiest days.

But, like anything, all good things come to an end. Nothing is forever. Wolfson Park is gone and so are the Expos. And now, unfortunately, some members of the 1970-72 Suns are succumbing as well.

One of those is Cal Meier. Though he never made the major leagues, his baseball life was a full one. He led the USC Trojans to the College World Series title in 1969 and 1970. The latter title, in particular, was memorable; Meier tripled home the go-ahead run in the 14th inning to help USC beat Texas just to advance to the championship game. In the title game itself, Meier went 3-for-6 and scored the winning run in the 15th inning to beat Florida State.

Cal Meier was an All-American for the USC Trojans and was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the second round of the 1970 draft. (USCTrojans.com)

When Meier was assigned to Jacksonville for the 1972 season, he quickly became friendly with Gray. The two would fish together at Pottsburg Creek, and soon, Meier was welcomed into the Gray family.

“Cal was my big brother,” Gray said. “When we were on road trips, he would always make sure we were okay. He had gotten to know my parents and he would always assure them, ‘Hey, he’s going to be fine. We’ll take care of him and we won’t let him get in any trouble.’ We’d go fishing together but we’d kind of lost touch over the years. And then when Facebook came along, I think I found him, but anyway, we became friends on Facebook. And every birthday, I’d get a message from him: ‘Enjoy your last birthday.’ He’d always say the same thing: ‘Enjoy your last birthday.’

“Last year, I saw something, and he died of a stroke (on September 9, 2019). He was 71. And it really, really hit me. I go back in time and I relive these things and it’s part of my youth and it keeps me young. I think it keeps me young. And then I see this, and it hit me. We’re not all here forever, but I felt like a part of my youth left me. When Cal passed away, I felt like I lost someone I grew up admiring, but in the recent years, I lost a friend.”

Gray is 64 now and still lives in Jacksonville. Like anyone, the losses have not been easy to stomach, but the memories still keep him going. He knows he can never go back and play in that world of 50 years ago, to all those happy days at Wolfson Park. Instead, he does the next-best thing: Every time he takes in a Jumbo Shrimp game, sitting in the stands, he’s no longer drawn to the player who maybe is a future All-Star or Gold Glover. Almost by nature, his eyes seem to always drift right towards the bat boys. It reminds him not of the player who tells him to never wash that hand after a five, but of his baseball friends.

“When I’m at a ballpark, it’s funny, because I do watch them, I watch the bat boys to see what they’re doing now. They just seem so much older and bigger than we were,” said Gray. “I think now, you have to be a certain age, but we were 13, 14. My last year, I was 15 when the season started and I would have turned 16 in September after the season was over. The Houston Astros had just signed this phenom out of high school by the name of Greg Gross. He was 18 years old, and it kind of hit me: Here I am chasing this guy’s stuff around, his bats and getting him whatever he needed, and he’s only two years older than I am. I said, I think it’s time for me to hang this up.

“Back then, the age difference seemed so huge. But now, it’s like we’re friends.”