Joe Reliford, a seemingly common, elderly man, sat in a back room of the Laurens County Library and watched his two grandchildren anxiously patrol the room. His grandson played a heavy drum beat on a table and smiled up at his grandfather.
Reliford, who makes his home in Douglas, was visiting the library Friday as his wife was in a class for an after school program. He is a family man, proud of a life that has been full of many years of public service.
But 55 years ago this past Thursday, Relifords life would change forever. On that day he made history. Relifords claim to fame includes being one of the first African-Americans to play professional baseball. However, he is also the youngest person to ever play in a professional baseball game, which turned out to be the only game he would play in.
Joe Louis Reliford Sr. was born on November 29, 1939, the ninth of 10 children to a pair of sharecroppers in Ben Hill County in rural South Georgia. Relifords father passed away when he was four, and the family moved to Fitzgerald.
My father had died, and my mother was sick, so I wanted to do something to help her out. I wanted to get a job and make some money, Reliford said.
Reliford,67, had an early passion for baseball and liked to play games with his neighborhood friends. He went often to go watch both the Fitzgerald Lucky Stars, a farm team for the Negro League and the Fitzgerald Pioneers of the Class D Georgia State League play. The pioneers were a farm team in the Kansas City Athletics (currently the Oakland Athletics) system. Because African-Americans were not allowed in the stadium due to segregation laws, Reliford would watch the games for a nearby tree in a neighbors yard.
When he was 10, Joe wanted to become a bat boy with the Pioneers. Ace Adams, then the teams manager, agreed and signed Reliford to a salary where he earned $68 every two weeks.
At the time, that was more than an average grown man would be making, said Reliford. There were 28 players on the team, so I had to keep up with all of their bats and balls, and then I had to shine all of their shoes before every game.
After his work was done, Reliford got to go out on the field with the players.
I got out there and played catch with all of them, and they threw it pretty hard at me. Thats how I learned to catch, said Reliford. If you keep on practicing and learning something consistently, you soon become pretty good at it. Before too long, I could catch groundballs and catch pop flies, and then I could hit the ball too.
The day was July 19, 1952. The location: Statesboro. Reliford was 12 and in his third year as the bat boy for the Pioneers. It was a promotional night for the Elks Club at the ballpark in Statesboro, and the Pioneers trailed 13-0 in the top of the 8th inning. The game was out of reach, and the capacity crowd chanted for the Pioneers to put the bat boy in.
Pioneers manager Charlie Ridgeway, who had previously managed the Dublin Green Sox , decided to put Reliford in the game as a pinch hitter with the approval of umpire Ed Kubik.
The 12 year old Reliford, who was 411 and 68 pounds, stood into the batters box.
I thought that since I was a boy, that they wouldnt pitch to me like the other players, but they did, said Reliford. I got mad, so I decided that I was going to hit the next pitch over the fence. I didnt hit it out, but I hit the ball in the hole at third base, and they threw me out by a step.
The groundout would be Relifords only at bat, but in the bottom of the inning, Ridgeway inserted the youngster in right field. With a runner on first base and one out, the Statesboro batter got a hit to right field. With a boy in right field, the base runner kept on running from first base to third base, only to find the ball waiting on him.
I guess he never thought I would throw him out since I was a kid playing against grown men, so he kept on going, but I threw him out at third anyway, said Reliford.
With two outs in the inning, the next Statesboro batter hit a towering fly ball to the right field fence in Relifords direction. Reliford jumped up and made a spectacular catch, robbing the Statesboro batter of a home run in front of many loud and noisy fans in the right field bleachers.
It was the only professional inning Reliford would play, but after the game he was an immediate star in the eyes of the fans who came up to congratulate him.
A lot of them had been drinking, so I thought that maybe they were coming to beat me up, so I was yelling. They were just patting me on the back though, said Reliford.
After the game, the umpire was eventually fired and the manager suspended indefinitely for letting Reliford play. Reliford went on his usual duties as bat boys, but his story quickly became famous and appeared weeks later in newspapers throughout the state.
Reliford was soon dismissed as the team bat boy, but his athletic career was not over. He lettered in four sports in high school for Monitor High in Fitzgerald and eventually played college football for Florida A&M University before suffering an injury which ended his career.
Reliford then began a long career of public service. He was a teacher and then took jobs in law enforcement.
Im a sports man, but Im also a law man. I never wanted to be one initially, but thats what I wound up doing, and I fell in love with it, said Reliford. So many people here dont realize that we are here to help people and not just put them in jail. We like to talk to people and protect people and give them counseling because thats what people need.
Still, what Reliford did back as a 12-year old boy remains a significant event. He was one of the first black players to play professional baseball, the first in the Georgia State League. A year later, future Hall of Famer Willie McCovey would come up through the same league. Because of the attention that the game received, Reliford said he was one of the ones who helped open the door for baseball greats such as McCovey, Willy Mays, and Hank Aaron.
Reliford was featured in a Sports Illustrated article and has been the subject of or mentioned in several books and magazines. There was even a book written specifically for him and Jackie Robinson, the first black professional baseball player who debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
Reliford even authored his own book From Bat Boy to the Hall of Fame. In 1991, the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. contacted Reliford.
Pictures, a baseball card of him and many other items can now be seen in the minor league exhibit at the Hall of Fame. Reliford has also been put into the Guiness Book of World Records as well as Ripleys Believe It Or Not. The museam in Douglas also contains materials of Reliford.
Most recently Reliford learned after an interview with the Los Angeles Times that his story will be coming to the movie screen. The movie will be based on his autobiography