The last time Ronald Dean’s killer fastball left Kermit Anderson’s hand red and swollen beneath his catcher’s mitt, it was 1951.
That was back when Little League was such a big deal that Don Womble, just 8 years old, hitch-hiked clear up from Jones Franklin Road for the privilege of playing with Dean and Anderson on Finch’s baseball team at the Optimists ball field on Peace Street.
Six decades have passed, but one thing hasn’t changed: The boys from Finch’s still pile into the old restaurant on Peace Street regularly for a celebratory meal together.
“We sit here discussing things that happened 60 years ago that I remember clear as a bell, and I can’t remember things that happened yesterday,” said Dean, now 73.
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Two years ago, Dean tracked down his old teammates one by one for a reunion. They had such a good time that they’ve been meeting every other month ever since. The restaurant looks pretty much the same as it did then, the men agree, a cozy clutter of tables and dark wood walls and clanking dishes. The faces looking up from the black and white team photo on the menu, snapped by the catcher’s kid sister on a 50-cent camera, have changed a bit.
Lives shaped by baseball
When the men were just boys and playing together in 1949 Raleigh, they say, Little League ball was the pinnacle of organized sports. It was more organized than sandlot baseball, their alternative, which tended toward chaos and often ended in fights.
It was also harder to get accepted – there were tryouts, and if you were no good, you rarely got off the bench. Playing on a Raleigh team was a privilege.
“You had to hustle all the time – you didn’t get a chance to play just because you were there,” said catcher Kermit Anderson, 73.
The men can recall losing only a handful of games in the three to five years they played together. Restaurant owner Howard Finch sponsored the team, providing them with new uniforms, new balls, new bats to play with. Every time they won, Finch would pile them into the back of his Jeep Willis and take them to his restaurant for milkshakes.
Many of the players were Pilot Mill kids, living in shotgun mill houses just outside of downtown, parents working long hours in the textile mill. Finch helped out the kids with less money, the men recall, giving them jobs at his restaurant, taking the team on trips to the beach. Dean considers Finch a father figure. He kept in touch with some of his players, like Dean, until he died.
Then, one by one, the boys turned 13 and aged out of Little League. Many worked for Finch at the restaurant through high school, washing dishes or waiting tables. Then they graduated and moved on, most to college and successful careers, happy families. Pitcher and shortstop Butch Mills was the only one to play baseball professionally, making it to the minor leagues to play with the White Sox. The rest grew up to be firemen, businessmen, bankers and U.S. Marines, but in the process, they lost touch.
Then Dean got a call from a high school friend who saw the team photo on a menu at Finch’s restaurant in 2010. Dean had had a brain tumor the year before that “sharpened my sense of thankfulness of being alive,” he said. The photo brought back the good times, wins, losses, milkshakes and all.
So Dean decided to get the team back together. The first meeting was just four of them at a corner table in the small side room of Finch’s. As word spread, the room filled up. It took Dean two years to track Don Womble down in Wilmington.
They all were surprised when Dean got back in touch – and eager to see what everybody was up to.
“I was in awe that everybody was still alive, including me,” Mills said.
“I said, these guys are old,” said Womble, now 70. The men chuckle.
The meetings are now held every other month. The team’s third baseman, M.C. Bishop, wears a dark-colored Finch’s baseball cap he had made special to look like his old one. Only one of Finch’s ball players, Larry Beck, has passed away. And there’s just one team member unaccounted for, a kid named Jimmy Coats.
The men meet again in August.