An uncut blue ribbon hung on the gate’s iron bars with the sweltering sun at its peak as a few dozen people gathered on the Louisburg College campus Saturday afternoon.
They had come to dedicate this gate to their long-time baseball coach, Russ Frazier, but to those in the crowd, it was as much a gate to the college itself as it was to the baseball field that already bore Frazier’s name.
The gate, held in its place by two brick columns with an arch reading “Frazier Field,” is the only signage besides the slanted script on the old scoreboard. Before the gate was built, there was merely a chain-link fence that opened up to a narrow sidewalk, an underwhelming main entrance into what Frazier called the Methodist two-year college’s “flagship” institution.
Paul Wilson — the president of the Golden Anniversary Club, the organization that selected and funded this project — said that his group pledged $15,000 to build the gate. The club is comprised of Louisburg alumni who graduated at least 50 years ago.
“The council decided that the baseball program had been neglected for a while,” Wilson said. “We used to have a big baseball program and a big basketball program, and then they sort of were put in the background for football, but now we want to bring baseball and basketball back, you know, like it was.”
In his 40-year tenure at the helm of the program (1959-99), Frazier put up staggering numbers: 1,034 wins, a .726 winning percentage, 22 conference titles, nine district titles and nine trips to the Junior College World Series.
“There are so many great, young student athletes that attend this school, and it develops their foundation so that they too can leave here and become achievers,” said Don Fish, the director of the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
He turned to Frazier who was standing in the crowd, sunglasses on: “So you have developed so many achievers … But more importantly, and I know this from talking to hundreds of them, you meant more to them in helping them grow into great people.”
At the ceremony, Russ Frazier and his wife Clara both shared remarks, which were mostly stories from their 40 years at Louisburg together. Clara met Russ when she tutored the eventual N.C. State and minor-league infielder in college algebra, and later became a chemistry professor at Louisburg.
As a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, Russ Frazier received a call from John York, Louisburg’s athletic director in 1959, asking if the alumnus had any interest in coaching the baseball team.
At the ceremony, Russ told the crowd about the motley crew of a team he inherited: “They were playing about 10 games a year,” Russ said. “They had 12 players on the team, 10 of them I think were pastors ...so I wondered, ‘What in the world am I getting into?’”
He continued, with a shrug and a laugh: “The next spring, we started playing, and whenever we ran into trouble — usually it was the first inning — I would call time and go out and call them in. And I’d say, ‘Hey, we’re going to have a prayer.’”
Soon, though, he’d start to win. Recruiting became an unrelenting task for Frazier, who sold Louisburg prospects on his connections with scouts from his playing days in the minor leagues, and on the idea that his players could enter the major league draft at any time, as opposed to those who went to four-year colleges and weren’t eligible for the draft until after their junior season.
When Clara met Russ, she said she “knew a baseball from a tennis ball,” but she hadn’t been fully acquainted with the sport. Because Russ had no assistant coach, she became a connoisseur and analyst of the game herself — known among local umpires to be a regular voice coming from her seat in the bleachers along the first base line: “Russell Wayne! Why did you do that?”
“I will tell you one thing: I’ve watched a lot of major league games,” Clara said. “I have seen the decisions that managers make. I’ve been to a lot of college games. I’ve been to a lot of high school games.”
She pointed to her husband: “The best coach — game coach — is sitting right there. And every time I criticize somebody, (my son) Rusty will look at me and say, ‘Mom, that’s not fair. You’re judging them by Dad. That’s not fair.’”
Before long, the program garnered national acclaim. The field was named after him in 1977, and he was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 2007.
Russ got offers to be the coach for several Division I baseball programs, but several things about Louisburg made him stay: his parents, who passed away in 1983, lived close by and owned an 100-acre farm that he wanted to be able to help with; the weather was ideal for baseball; and his family had made a home there.
“He was given all these offers, and if he would’ve gone, like our friends tell him, he would have probably ended up at Arizona State or California or Florida, where they win the College World Series every year,” Clara said.
“But he chose to stay here. He’s happy, and I’m happy. We’re not rich, but we’re rich in a lot of ways.”
After a long day of reminiscence and reward, Russ and Clara sat by the field in their folding chairs. The sun was beginning to set as they accepted the goodbyes of departing friends, not ready yet to leave themselves.