Cliffside’s Little League: The Godfather
By Reno Bailey
There was no organized youth baseball in lower Rutherford in the early 1950’s. Forest City had a Little League franchise; and Shelby had a “Pony league,” in which a Cliffside team (the Dodgers) played, for at least one year (1955).
Enter a man named Willie Lee “Winky” Pearson, who had lived and worked in Cliffside for many years, and had spent several seasons umpiring the local school games in Cliffside and Henrietta.
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Little League team photos in the Galleries section.
In about 1954, Winky and a couple of other Cliffside men with young sons, signed their kids up to play in the Forest City league. Winky’s son, Ronald; George Hawkins’ sons, Mike and Danny; and Frank Mashburn’s son, Jerry, all tried out and made the teams. For every practice and game, the fathers ferried the boys the 10 miles to Forest City.
Soon Winky began to umpire some of the games. One day Ronald said to his Dad, “I wish Coach wouldn’t ask you to umpire my games.” And the coach said, “Why not? Winky’s a good umpire. He knows what’s going on.” “Well, he makes it hard on me,” said Ronald.
Before long Winky was offered the opportunity to become president of the Forest City league. He declined, saying, “If I’m gonna get into this thing, I need to do it in my own community. There are a lot of boys down there who have nothing to do in the summertime but roam the streets.”
And get into “this thing” he did. Winky wrote the Little League district office requesting an application to start a franchise. He filed the application, paying the $40 fee out of his own pocket. (In those days, $40 was nearly a week’s pay.)
The pending charter was for six teams, one each from Cliffside, Avondale, Caroleen, Henrietta, Harris and No. 1 Township (in Cleveland County).
Although the charter stipulated that the franchisee must have one designated field on which to play all its practices and games, it was given some time to acquire that field. So, for the first couple of seasons (1957 and ’58) the teams played on several fields: at Henrietta school, in Harris, and on the school field at Cliffside.
By 1959 the Tri-Community League was in full effect and the teams, which had been town-specific (Cliffside Braves, Caroleen Cards, etc.), were reformed, with the coaches “signing” their players by a bidding process, like the major leagues, regardless of the boys home town or prior team.
Winky had his eye on the perfect spot for a location for the league: the old ball ground out Hwy 120, a quarter mile from Cliffside School. The site had been used for years, prior to the 1940’s, by school and town teams, but had lain fallow for over a decade.
He approached Bill McNabb, an official of Cliffside Mill, and asked permission to use the old ball field. McNabb contacted the parent company, Cone Mills in Greensboro. They agreed to lease the field to the league for $1 per year, and granted Winky permission to do to the property whatever it took to make it a suitable site for league activity.
The ‘field’ was a mess of waist-high pine saplings, blackberry briars and honeysuckle vines. Winky hired a Mr. Harmon to come down from Alexander to grade and level what would become the infield. Harmon gave the league a year to pay his $500 fee.
Volunteers of all ages pitched in to clear the grounds of vines, weeds and rocks. The league (actually Winky) furnished materials for John Compton to build a concession stand, and Forrest Jones to build dugouts. He bought a backstop fence from Sears-Roebuck. The site was aptly named Honeysuckle Park.
Many businesses bought sponsorships to the teams, paying for uniforms and gear. Many supporters contributed their time and effort in maintaining the field, selling concessions, transporting players and coaching. Winky recalled that, after the first couple of years, he saw a pattern developing. Fathers would coach as long as their sons were on the teams, but then would “retire.” But several did not fit the pattern. George Haynes coached the Cubs for 13 years. Buddy Weathers stayed with the Lions for a decade (and was also league president for a time). Winky singled out Bill Rollins, the league’s treasurer and player agent who served for years, and another man who stayed “from the first day,” throughout Winky’s long tenure and beyond. That was Frank Holtzclaw, who began assisting Winky in managing the Rockets, then took over the team when Winky became league president. Frank himself was president for a time.
It was Winky’s and the league’s integrity that made his fundraising efforts so successfull. Whether it was to build an outfield fence, or to pay for a championship team’s travel to Florida for a playoff game, the money would somehow come. The county’s United Way was always generous in its allotments to the league.
During the Cone years (while there was still a Cone presence in the county), the company paid a man named Ray Henson to maintain the park. He was paid to work only 10 hours a week, but he always put in many more hours than that. His dedication so impressed the community that the site was renamed from Honeysuckle to Ray Henson Park. And, eventually, the baseball area within the park was named Frank Holtzclaw field.
The end of Winky Pearson’s tenure with the league was gradual. In the 1970’s he stopped coaching and, from time to time, would umpire games. Opening day of the 1989 season was “Winky Pearson Day,” at which County Manager Joe Swing, whose three sons had played on the league’s teams, told the assembled crowd of Winky’s legacy. “Time and again,” he said, “the league’s state headquarters has singled out the Tri-Community organization as being the best run in the state of North Carolina.”
Winky died on October 20, 2000 in a nursing home. He was 84.