Back in the early 1960s in Ashland, Little League baseball was one of the best games in town.
It was fun because that’s what it was supposed to be.
It was a learning experience not only about baseball but how to go about your business after the last pitch was thrown.
It turned boys into men, setting them on a path where success was at their fingertips if they applied these life fundamentals in everything they did.
Lessons learned from those days still reverberate today among some of those little boys who grew up here and did everything they could to please their coaches. Nobody cried over playing time and parents mostly kept their distance. Playing time was earned. Period.
They were taught a culture of respect, of discipline, of doing what you were told. The authority figures in life — your parents and grandparents, policeman, your coaches — were to be the guide. You learned quickly that there would be no back-talk, no whining, or you wouldn’t be playing. What these young boys learned extended beyond the baselines. It made them the men they would become later in life.
There were life lessons of the importance of loving your brother, no matter what his color, of doing the best at whatever you did, of understanding it wasn’t always winning but how you played the game.
Follow these guidelines though and winning would take care of itself. It did. In spades.
Ashland was the state champion in Little League in 1961, 1963 and 1964. They darn near made it to the Little League World Series in ’63, falling a game short with a 6-3 loss to Texas in the championship game in Norfolk, Va.
Some of Ashland’s coaches from that day were fathers who had sons playing and some were men who simply loved the game. One of those men was the late Jim Stewart, whose memory remains in high esteem. He will be remembered in a special way on Saturday afternoon when the CP-1 Reunion commences in Central Park.
Several of Stewart’s “boys” from the 1960s are coming together to honor the memory of their beloved coach. Jim Stewart did have a boy of his own, Jamie, and two daughters, Beverly Vice and Chere Hallahan, that he raised with wife Fanny, who is expected to be the park on Saturday.
Among these 1960s players, Jim Stewart’s name still takes on an air of reverence.
This is what the great coaches do — they leave their mark. Jim Stewart may not be here in person but, if he were, he’d surely be smiling at how these young boys were transformed into great men. Today, these “boys” are more than 60 years old yet they can turn back the clock and recall a younger day. They have raised their own families, coached their own sons, maybe impacting even more lives through the philosophies of Jim Stewart.
Stewart was the father figure for some of these men. He was a hard-nosed, old school, disciplined coach who taught his players how to play baseball the right way — and with everything you’ve got. He harped on the fundamentals, how to catch a ground ball, where to put your feet in the batter’s box, how to a wooden bat so it wouldn’t crack (label on the outside).
His Tigers teams from the Ashland American Little League are legendary for being some of the most competitive (Jim Stewart knew how to draft as well). One of the stars from the ’63 Tigers and the ’63 state champions was Rick Dixon. He caught fire at the right time that summer after not even starting as an 11-year-old. Joe Mantle was another one and one who considered Mr. Stewart a father figure in his life.
Stewart provided a lot for Mantle that extended beyond baseball without anybody else knowing it and Mantle has never forgotten those good deeds.
It was Jim Stewart who took his team with two black players to the state tournament in Lexington. The team was planning on taking a pool day before playing but the two black players — Mike Johnson and Charlie Jackson — wouldn’t be allowed to swim.
Stewart didn’t cause a scene, but he instead took the players to a miniature golf course where again racism reared its ugly head again. He walked away from that with the team behind him. Nobody was going to be left out and that included Johnson and Jackson.
They eventually found something that everybody could do together, as a team.
That was Jim Stewart, who had fought with men of a different color during World War II where he was awarded the Purple Heart and once had to kill a German in hand-to-hand combat. He was also in the famous Battle of the Bulge.
But there was no place for racism in his world and he wasn’t going to allow it to affect his Little League team in any way.
They won the state championship that season, by the way.
Johnny Mullins, Tim Huff, Don Lentz, David Cox, Mantle and Bo Carter were among some of the Little League players who cut their teeth on Jim Stewart baseball either via playing on one of his Tiger teams or one of his All-Star teams. They will all be there Saturday to tip their cap to Jim Stewart.
That was one thing Jim Stewart did better than anybody. He won. He won in Little League, in Babe Ruth, as an American Legion coach and he won in life. He and Fanny reared a wonderful family and Jim Stewart coached baseball as long as he could. When he turned over the reins to younger men, he remained involved in Little League as this area’s district administrator.
Few gave more to Ashland baseball than Jim Stewart and for that we should all be thankful.
There was only one Jim Stewart and Saturday his name will be called out in a place he liked to call home. There is no better place for this honor to take place than in Central Park, Ashland’s ultimate baseball paradise and playhouse.
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2648.