Picking a winner for the Sam Narron Baseball Award was tougher this year than it has ever been. I say that having been a part of the selection committee since the award’s inception and as one known for trying not to play in the land of hyperbole.
This was the first year that every high school in Johnston County nominated a player for the annual award, which goes to a senior baseball player who best typifies the baseball values of hard work, determination and sacrifice to achieve in the game. The family of the Johnston County native who spent decades in the major leagues as a player and coach sponsors the award. It is accompanied by a scholarship presented annually by Sam’s son, Rooster Narron.
There is great reverence for the award in the county. Coaches know what it means to nominate a player for the honor and I’ve always been impressed as much by their nominees over the years as their honesty when they elect not to nominate a player.
This year featured eight nominees, all very worthy of the award, which made selecting one winner all but impossible. Hence our decision to go with two winners for the second time in the history of the award: North Johnston’s Michael Stott and West Johnston’s Sterling Atkinson.
The quality and quantity of the field are great examples of what baseball is across Johnston County: a sport where individuals (some really talented, others talented to varying degrees) come together to form a team and achieve great things – on and off the field – under the leadership of talented, inspiring coaches.
I’m sure they’re just two of this group of eight ball players from the Class of 2015 who have set themselves up for success at the college level on and off the field with the help of baseball. The same sport that took Sam Narron from Highway 39 to the World Series and back.
The year Sam Narron hit .400: The stories Rooster Narron tells about his dad are always a big part of the annual Sam Narron Award presentation. They’re great every year and I don’t think I’ve heard the same one twice.
As Johnston County Schools official Ross Renfrow said Wednesday: “You could run into Rooster 100 times and he’d tell you 100 different stories about Sam Narron. And you’d enjoy them all.”
This year, Rooster talked about how his dad hit .400 in the Major Leagues in 1942 with the St. Louis Cardinals. You know, .400, that elusive milestone for every pro player since 1941.
Well, Sam Narron did hit .400 that year. But he was 4-for-10, not quite enough to qualify for the official batting rankings. The next year, he had 11 at bats, but registered just one hit. It was his final year as a MLB player.
He played in the minors after that and at one point during World War II the Red Sox wanted to buy out his contract for his minor league team but the offer wasn’t enough. He left that club and played with the Smithfield Leafs (a now defunct minor league team).
Once he realized his playing days were over he showed up at spring training in the Dodgers’ camp. Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey, recognizing his old spot catcher with the Cardinals, asked Narron what he was doing there.
“I’m here to help warm up pitchers, catch in the bullpen and throw batting practice,” Narron replied.
“That’s not something we’ve had anybody do before,” Rickey said.
“Well, I’ll be the first I guess,” Narron countered.
Thus, the first bullpen catcher was hired. Narron would go onto coach through the mid-1960s, winning World Series with the Dodgers and the Pirates, following Rickey through all of his stops.
He came back to Johnston County shortly thereafter. And made a habit of showing up at baseball games of all ages with those World Series rings flashing, making more lasting memories for more and more young players.