Come See The Azaleas
The Durham Bulls staged Lollygaggers Night a month ago, renaming the Bulls for the derisive term their manager applied to them in the 1988 movie “Bull Durham.” (This made former St. Johns River State College standout Nate Lowe – back up with the Tampa Bay Rays as of last week – a Lollygagger for one night.)
This weekend the Syracuse Mets are staging Butter Sculptures Night. And we’re two weeks away from Florida Man Night with none other than your Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp.
Anything to keep the fans coming in minor league baseball.
Palatka was no different while it had a team in the Florida State League for all but a handful of years between 1936 and ’62. Known primarily as the Azaleas during this time, Palatka also went by Redlegs and Cubs, nods to major-league parent clubs.
They were the Cubs in that final ’62 season when they had these promotions for a doubleheader with Daytona Beach, as duly noted by the legendary Fred P. Green in the Palatka Daily News:
“Between the games, there will be a short, snappy ‘Field Night’ affair which will include the usual long ball hitting contest, catchers accuracy throw, the always popular shoe race, the wheelbarrow race between Manager Hal Jeffcoat and the Islets manager Robbie Robertson, the egg-throwing contest and possibly other events.”
No word on who won the wheelbarrow race. John Raymond Theobold lost the egg-throwing contest on another night.
“You start out throwing two feet apart, then three feet, then four, then 10… By the time you got to 25 feet, it was tricky,” said Theobold, whose father Johnny Theobold played for the Azaleas during his multifaceted athletic career and whose grandmother saved the scorecards that she kept for every game. “I got to 30 feet and got the bad end of it. You try to give with your hands and it just splattered all over my hands and it got on my pants and shirt.”
Long the Azaleas’ business manager and a scout from the time the FSL left town until his passing in 1975, Harry Nilsson did what he could to keep the fans coming, even in the dreary final season in ’62. He used to go around town on game days with son Gary (yes an older son, Harry, was the singer-songwriter who collaborated with the Beatles, among others) and place signs up and down Lemon Street (now St. Johns Avenue) advertising the game. They made a point of placing one near the Hotel James, where many players lived.
There was nothing like Butter Sculptures Night in Palatka, but plenty of things geared toward kids.
“Any time the kids came in with their baseball uniform on, (admission) was a dollar. A dollar was a dollar back then,” Gary Nilsson said. “Sometimes, players would come in as a team, like the (Florida National Guard-sponsored) Flangs, and line up for the national anthem.
“They catered to the kids. Foul balls were 25 cents or a soda. Someone would hit a foul ball, 25 kids would go after it.”
Theobold among them, amazed by what he saw one day while trying to get one that had gone under the fence along the first-base side of the Azalea Bowl.
“There must have been 500 holes. The kids would bury them and come back on the weekend and retrieve them,” he said. “They didn’t want the 10 cents or the Coke. They wanted the ball. A baseball – especially a professional baseball – was a big deal.
“The big deal was if somebody broke a bat, they’d give it to somebody. You could take it and tack it up and tape it up and play with it. That was huge.”
Nilsson has balls autographed by Azaleas who made the majors, such as Tommy Helms, Vic Davalillo and Mel Queen, as well as Dave Bristol, who managed in the bigs.
These weren’t perks for the son of the team’s business manager. Nilsson worked for what he got.
“My dad gave me a choice – whether I wanted to chase foul balls or be a batboy and usually I picked batboy,” he said. “I remember the night Vada Pinson hit two balls to the flagpole in center field and he wasn’t more than 150, 160 pounds. We got to know Pete (Rose, who played for the rival Tampa Tarpons) well. We made good friends with Vic.”
And the crowds came out.
“The place was packed,” Nilsson said. “Of course, there was no major league baseball on television back then. People came to the games.”
There was work to be done while the fans were there – his mother Lois operated the concession stand with help from his sisters – and after they went home.
“We had to sweep the wooden stands with our push brooms and clean the locker rooms, which were filthy dirty,” he said.
After all, this was Palatka, not Durham.