For Oates, AL East just another mountain


June 01, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

If only it were a lot bigger, Glenville, N.C., circa 1950, could have been considered a small country town.

"Stoplights?" echoed Orioles manager Johnny Oates, Glenville's most famous hometown boy. "Why would we need stoplights? There weren't any intersections."

A Gulf station, a Shell station, an Esso station and, he thinks, a Phillips 66, "up on the top of the hill."

"Anything you needed, you got at one of the filling stations," he said. "That's where we got all of our groceries. My dad would bring the corn in and have it ground into cornmeal."

To hear Oates tell it, fictional Mayberry was Manhattan-sophisticated by comparison.

All the homes had names, and the first one Oates remembers living in was called The Jenkins Place.

No radio, no television, no telephone. In fact, no plumbing, no electricity. They did have a horse named Dan, and a cow, and a little wooden box with stream water running through it, which served as the refrigerator.

From The Jenkins Place it was onto Pete's Place, "a shack on the side of the mountain a mile from the nearest gravel road," Oates said. He doesn't remember where the outhouse was, only that there was an outhouse.

The third house in the mountains had gaps in the walls large enough to let the light in, not to mention the cold.

The fourth house in the mountains had electricity.

"I remember it had four rooms," Oates said. "A front porch, a tin roof, a wood-burning stove in the kitchen, a cot to sit on in the middle of the living room and an outhouse on the side of the hill."

Born in 1946 in Sylva, N.C., the closest hospital to Glenville, Oates moved with his family to Fayetteville when he was 8.

Shortly before moving, Oates' father brought the first family radio in for repair, discovered it would cost as much to fix as it would to buy a new television, so he opted for the TV.

"I remember the first show I saw was 'The Life of Riley' with William Bendix," Oates said. "The picture was so snowy, you couldn't make anything out."

On the same day the TV was bought, Johnny and his younger brother Eddy were given their first baseball bats, Johnny's big and light, Eddy's small and heavy.

After the family moved to Fayetteville, Oates' father tried to get him into Little League, but the effort was thwarted by the league president.

"He was nasty," Oates said of the league official. "Told my dad, 'Don't you know the league started two weeks ago? Forget it. You can't play this year.' My dad argued with him, but I can remember being so happy I couldn't get in. I didn't want to play. I was too embarrassed, too shy."

Two years after being rebuffed in Fayetteville, Oates played his first organized baseball, for Royal Ambassadors Baptist Church. He was 11.

"In the bottom of the first inning of the first game, the other team kept scoring and scoring," he said. "I was playing center field and the coach asked me if I could catch. I said no. My dad was standing right behind me and he said, 'Oh, yes you can.' I was a catcher from that day on."

Oates sees a positive side to his humble beginnings.

"I think I appreciate what I have because of it," Oates said. "Sometimes, it makes me feel bad when I think of the money I make for signing autographs for one hour, then I think of how long it would take mom and dad to work for that money. Mom would be out there in the fields cutting cabbage with dad 12 hours a day, toting 50-pound bags of cabbage, thinking nothing of it. Sometimes, I think about how I wish there was a way I could go back [in time] and give some of the money I make now to them so they didn't have to work so hard."

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