This is the second of three interviews that were completed with Coach Billy Henderson.
THE FOLLOWING IS A TELEVISION INTERVIEW THAT AUBREY HAMMACK HAD WITH BILLY HENDERSON IN APRIL OF 1996. THIS IS THE SECOND OF THREE WITH THE THIRD FOLLOWING IN 1998.
KEEPING IN TOUCH
WITH AUBREY HAMMACK
Out of the accomplishments that are too numerous to mention, what has been the most significant to you?
As far as player, coach, what are we referring to now?
For your entire accomplishments over your career.
Well, I guess you might say some people might think it has to do with winning and loosing on Friday nites or the baseball game itself and it's very important and very stimulating but the day by day cotact is probably the most rewarding experience when your are working with young people teaching and coaching. To work with these youngsters and watch over a period of time as their attitudes improve and as well as their self esteem, it is rewarding. Of course it's easy to teach and coach the fast and beautiful. Like this dear friend in Athens commented not to long ago, some people are born on third base and think they hit a triple. That's easy to work with these people but the demanding and the challenge is to work with these youngsters who are not beautiful, who are not as gifted as others and see them make their mark in life. My most treasured moment was in 1977. Clark Central was preparing to play for the state football championship there in Athens, Georgia. It was on Thanksgiving Day, 1977. We were in our weight room and by the way the way in our weight room, we've got it modeled after Lanier High School where I went to school and got my start in atheletics. We lead and it can be done is in broad letters on that weight room wall. And our chaplain was there and as we prayed right before we went to practice on this Thanksgiving Day and we had mothers, daddies, friends, girlfriends and just a wall of humanity in our weight room and the chaplain said his prayer and everybody held hands and I could literally see the hands shaking and vibrating and just tension and every head bowed and I didn't close my eyes. I just watched and at that moment was a beautiful moment. I said if every body in this world would do this and by the way there were black hands, white hands, there were rich hands and poor hands and every walk of life was holding hands for a common purpose. I wish to God that everybody in this world could come together for a common purpose. I wish that every body in this world had common purpose so we could all work together and have no problems.
You've spent your life working with young people. Why do you think that has come to be?
Why have I spent 43 years that's a good question. Again I was blessed to grow up in Macon, Georgia a very progressive town. I was blessed that I wandered into a boy's club when I was 11 years old and I was influenced by that great organization and when I make my first million a lot of it is going to go to the Macon Boy's Club and of course the YMCA with all the leaders there. But it was when I was 13 years old, I knew exactly what I wanted to do in life. Blessed by having some great teachers and coaches at Lanier. Weeda Poe, who was my English teacher and taught me priorities that academics do come first. And Tom Porter, Cotton Harrison and Lem Clark. These were my role models. Well, there's no question about it, my dad had died when I was 8 and my mother prayed for these people every night because she was grateful that her son had somewhere to go every afternoon to practice. John Stooge Davis was another coach that influenced me and was a near father to me, but when I was 13 years old as a result of these great men and great teachers and leaders at Lanier. I wanted to play major league baseball and it's obvious I didn't reach that goal because when I was 22 years old I had a poor attitude. I was impatient. I thought I should have been there then but thank God I had a mother who insisted that I get a degree so that I could have another profession. But I knew when I was 13 years that I wanted to coach and I've been very blessed to be at some fine places to do that.
You mentioned your mother and I know that you wanted to share the sacrifices your mom made for you.
I've already mentioned the fact that my dad had died when I was 8. I have two older sisters who live here in Macon, Doris and Catherine. I call Catherine sister and I have a brother by the name of Red whose read name is James but everybody calls him Red, who was a professional fighter and that's a story within itself of what he has achieved. But after my Dad died, my mother had to go to work and she walked to and from work every day to save a nickel bus fare and that's how much buses did cost at that time so Billy cold play the sports and she would not think of me getting a job because she valued that education. I mentioned the fact that I played in an All American Boys Baseball game in New York in 1945. I believe it was 45, the summer before my senior year at Lanier. I had an opportunity to sign a baseball contract with a sizable bonus. At that time my mother wouldn't have any word of it because she wanted me to get my degree in college. That was one of the best things that ever happened. She sacrificed and taught me values. There is no question about it, she's the dominant influence in my life in a positive way.
Billy, I know you have a story and I would like for you to share it again about being in the baseball game in New York and Babe Ruth being your coach and something that transpired between you and Babe Ruth.
That is an interested story and I remember some of my teammates like Red Wilson, Claude Lewis and there's so many people I could mention. But I got on a train with a sports writer from the Atlanta Journal. His name was O B Keeler and I'd never been out of Macon, Georgia much less to New York and some of my buddies said when I got to New York I was looking up at those tall buildings and got my tonsils sunburned but the very first night there we go in this hotel in New York and we sit at this table at a banquet and I'm sitting next to this guy that has on a pen stripe suite and he is dressed to the hilt and he is a real articulate gentlemen. I mean a gentlemen in the true st sense and because I was from Georgia, he took and interest in me and we talked and we talked and I'm still shy today but when I was 17 eyars old, I was very shy. But he brought out the conversation in me and we talked about Macon and this and that and the other and when the banquet is over, I asked one of my teammates who that fellow was. He said that was Ty Cobb. Ty Cobb was coaching the West and in my mind through out my little boy days Ty Cobb was the ruthless, vicious, dirty baseball player but here I'm sitting next to a gentlemen. Now he is like Pete Rose on the field. I mean he is a competitor, he wants to win. Babe Ruth in my mind was pictured as a guy you wanted to ideolize and follow. It was just the opposite. I had a coach at Georgia who was suppposly mean but Babe Ruth passed him in every way and I believe you wanted me to tell you about the incident on the baseball field. There were 25,000 people in the stands and in the 6th inning Kurt Simmons, who later played for the Cardinals was on the mound. The count was 3 and 2 on the batter and there were two outs and I knew better but I got caught in the moment and the baserunners were running with the pitch because they have two outs, the ball was thrown. I don't hear the umpire say ball 4 and I got that ball and my coach H P Bell and Lem Clark said when you throw one away, throw it away good and son I threw it away and the ball hit the left field fence and the left fielder got it and hit the back stop with it. The guy who walked scored and later I told my friends I made the most valuable player for the East. But the very next inning, I'm warming up the pitcher and I throw to second and I hear the loudest, meaness, vicious voice I've ever heard from Babe Ruth saying give me another (some kind of catcher) we can't say it on the air. So at that moment and this had a lasting effect on my entire coaching career but I kneel down to take off the shin guards and chest protector off and I can still see tears,( it makes me want to cry a little bit right )now falling in the dirt in the Polo Grounds in New York. I defy any of my coaches to hollowor shout at my players for making physical errors. No body wants to fummel, no body wants to throw an interception and no one wants to hit the left field wall from the catchers spot in baseball. It's okay to hollow when they make mental errors when they don't give 100% but I thought that's very interesting in how we perceive people. Babe Ruth being the idol and Tye Cobb being vicious. It's just reverse.
Taking a little bit of a different slant here for a moment, guns, violence with teenagers is a nationwide epidemic. What do you think the problem is here?
At one time in my life, I used to think there was an answer here or an answer there. It was black or white or this way or that way, but I think one of the major reasons of course and I think it's been pointed out by many authorities in your field, the failure of the home to teach the proper values. I know in the 40s when we went to school and to work that I used to see more trust and faith. I don't have the solutions, all of them, but I do know that people especially young people involved in positive, wholesome creative activities like I've already mentioned the boy's club, the Y, atheletic programs, the band and any program after school that teaches values certainly will help but until our home situations and family situations improve in America, it's not going to get better.
Do you think people in sports owe anything back to the youngsters, who idealize them and make it possible for them to make some of the big bucks they make?
We have talked about a book you and I are going to write together one day and you're going to help me write it, but I've seen a lot of changes in these 43 years even before that 50 years of course going back when I was a player. All I can speak from are my own convictions and I love baseball and sports so much that I couldn't imagine anyone getting paid to play them and I really felt some guilt the first time I got paid to play baseball because I love it so much. Then you read about contracts of people getting all the money just to play something. Of course their rich and their careers are very short. I do think it is out of balacne and there is no doubt about it because it is out of balance and because they do get paid even in the college ranks. That's the reason I love high school so much because these kids at that level play through choice. They want to play. They don't have to play. They are not on a scholarship. They come out by choice and that's the purest form of sportsmanship in America today but paying atheletics and demanding all those prices, I started to say probably did make those fans in New Orleans boo their own quarterback when he got hurt and that was sad.
We have like a minute to go before we break but will you tell us some of the things you do to take care of your own mental health?
Man I have to work at that. I really do but that's a simple answer. I recommend to every living human being everywhere I go every time I speak to a youth group, church group or wherever it might be to do some form of exercise every day and there again I have to trace it back to Lanier High School in Macon where I got my start to coach there especially John Stooge Davis. He was a physical fitness nut. He was 75 years ahead of the game by lifting weights. At one time I used to play hand ball with people like Tommy Huelett, who was a tremendous athlete and Hubert Howell and there were others. As an adult, I played handball. I started running and then when my knees as a result of some of the licks I took in football, started acting up, I took up swimming. In fact this morning I was in the pool at 5:30 and there were about 30 other people exercising then because anybody who wants to exercise can do it. It's just a matter of making the time for it and ther's all sorts of opportunities. There's no question about it after a vigorous workout even before you start and your tired and fatigued and depressed and you exercise and we've talked about this chemistry maybe you an explain it. You feel a whole lot better and your better to do a day's work.
I know we've got to break and we will be right back and talk about your days at Willingham after this break.
Billy what are some of the greatest memories and biggest disappointments while coaching at Willingham?
There's no doubt about it we can spend all day, all night and all week and all month talking about the joy and great experiences not only that I had but my entire family had at Willingham High School those 12 years. But certainly something that stands out in my mind very vididly was the day I left the University of South Carolina campus. I was an assistant coach there and came back home to Macon to help open a new school, A R Willingham Senior High School. It was February of 1958 and Dave Hill, whose living here now and Bob McKinney, whose coaching still coaching and Johnny Stallings and others and I could go on and on with the coaches. We talked to every elementary school, we talked to Lanier High School where these students would be coming to our school and I'll never forget what a thrill it was in Porter Stadium in mid February of 1958. We ahd 175 future Rams to sign up for football and that was a great thrill. And that great thrill was that first team that we fielded and I was the head coach. But people say, Billy you didn't win a game but you've got to understand when I came from Columbia, South Carolina we were going to win every game because I knew everything. We got pounded 0-7-3 and of the most frustrating moments I've had and it had to do with Moultrie toward the end of the season and we hadn't won a game and they were pilling our little boys up out of bounds and I'm preducided hollowing at the official but this time they hit Bobby Mathews not only a fine football player but he played basketball and an outstanding pitcher , he was one of my pitchers but they rolled him up on the sidelines in Porter Stadium and the official was right there picking up the football and I'm in his ear hollowing call it, call it, call it and he didn't call it and I say Goll lee. All of a sudden I see a red flag, I get his flag and throw it on the ground and I get in his face and say call it. Now the official should have thrown me out of the stadium. Of course by now the players were laughing. I'm 30 years old. they laughted. They thought it was funny but sure enough the official got the football and marched 15 yards against Moultrie. Of course after the game I have to tell them that wasn't the thing to do and it is the dumbest thing I've ever done in my life and haven't done it since but that's one of the frustrating things I remember. Of course one of the joys was the first time we beat Lanier. Willingham versus Lanier in 1960. It was 13-7. No way that Willingham could have won the ball game. We ran 6 plays the 1st half alone and 3 of them were quarterback sneakson my own goal line. But Lathrop Holder and Jimmy Hammond came up for a blocked punt and we managed to win the ball game. There's so many memories 3 straight over Valdosta 6 straight over La Grange. All because you had a group of young men who were committed and dedicated and pay the price to be the very best they can be. And of course, there were some other moments that we will talk about later I guess.
Loyality. You're from Lanier. You were Mr. Everything at Lanier. How could you won't to beat your old school so bad? Did you have problems with that?
Whatever I accomplished at Lanier as an athelete or anything else was a result of people around me. Great teammates. Listen, within your own family you have more of a desire to whip them than anybody else and it was a great feeling to line up against one of my old teammates, Jim Nolan whose no longer with us. He was a hall of famer, geat athlete. No it wasn't any problem at all in fact our Willingham Rams in the early going used that game as a measuring stick you might say. Later it was Valdosta but we picked out the very best in the United States and tried to achieve that level of competition.
Any special memories of Jim Nolan and Goot Steiner?
Jim Nolan of course I've already mentioned the fact that he was a great athelete, great teammate, highly intelligent and of course he was the first young man that dated my wife Foskey years ago. Goot Steiner probably was one of the fierst of competitors I ever competed against. I love it everytime we played whether it was football or baseball and we were part of forming what is now known as the Lem Clark Baseball Tournament. At that particular time Goot was coaching at Dudley Hughes and for some reason or another they didn't have spring football practice. So I said Goot how about you being the chairman of the Lem Clark Tournament because I'll be involved at Willingham during spring football. He said sure I'll be glad to. Well, the tournament came around and Dudley Hughes and Willingham reached the final game. We got our boys to the baseball field ready to play. We took infield. We took batting practice and ready to play the game and no Goot and no Dudley Hughes and I said I can't imagine Goot Steiner forfeiting any kind of contest. He's such competitor. By the way we used to argue 30 minutes before a game just on ground rules alone. So I'm about ready to pack the boys up and carry them back home and say we won the Lem Clark Tournament. I forget which year this was but here comes Goot. Where in the world have you been. I can't imagine you forfeiting a game. I was ready to call the Georgia High School Association Sam Burke and tell him about it. He said no, were going to play tomorrow. He said the field is to wet. I kicked the dirt and I said Goot it's dusty. What is it? He said I say were going to play tomorrow. This is what you get for making me the chairman. He made the decision it was to wet to play and Sam Burke always backs up the chairman. We played the next nite and I'm happy to say that Charles Asbell pitched a one hitter and we won the ball game 1 to nothing.
One thing I would like for you to do very briefly if you could is tell us about one young man you sort of took under you wings at Willingham and I think he even moved in with your family. Could you tell us very briefly about that?
That's right Robert Ogburn is a life long friend. He's an outstanding football player. I think I abused him one night against Lanier. He carried the ball maybe 22 straight times but he was one of those old timey bruising fullbacks who could get you 3 or 4 yards off tackle anytime. Of course the fullbacks at Willingham spoiled me through the years because they could do this sort of thing. Not only could they run the football but like Robert could block that end or the linebacker or whatever you needed them to do. But he was an outstanding young man, very bright outstanding student and we did have the priviledge of him living with us for sometime.
Billy, thank you very much for being on this program.
Thank you, I enjoyed it very much.