i first saw Snookie Hughes when i played against him in the spring of 1959. i was a freshman on the Castle Heights baseball team. The game was played on the old Smith County High School baseball field in Carthage, Tennessee.
At least, they called it a baseball field. It was in the middle of a farm. Think “Field of Dreams” with cows instead of corn in the outfield. Apparently, this farmer had allowed the Owls to construct a field on one of his lots. But the farmer didn’t allow them to move any fences.
This was not a problem in right field as after about 340 feet, there was a slope down to the Cumberland River. i’m guessing it was near McClure’s Bend in the river.
In left field, the fence was about 280 feet down the base line running out to about 400 in deep center. Since they couldn’t move the fence, there was a ground rule that any ball hit over the fence inside of the first three fence poles from the foul line was a double, no matter how hard you hit it. We considered this a bit of a problem in that several of our power hitters pulled their best hits, homers in every park we played, except in Carthage.
i don’t recall anything there but a small gravel area lot nearby where our team bus parked , wooden benches down the first and third base lines, a screen behind home plate, a few rudimentary bleachers behind the screen, and i think there was a small, breeko block building that served as an outhouse.
The mound also brought about some concern for the Heights Tigers. It seemed closer to the plate than it should be. One of our players claimed it was about 58 feet from home, not 60 feet and six inches. Carthage had some power house pitchers and this made their fast balls even quicker to the plate. One of those pitchers was drafted into the major leagues and never made it past D league. That made us swear the mound really was closer to the plate.
As mentioned, right field did not have a fence. i’m guessing the farmer didn’t bother to put one up because it sloped through a copse of trees down to the Cumberland. We knew that because and an Owl hitter smacked a long high fly in that direction. Our right fielder kept backing up and backing up. His back leg hit the downslope as the ball touched his glove. The fielder tumbled backward. The ball came out of his glove. And the fielder kept tumbling into the river.
Snookie was the first baseman. He was also fearsome looking. He was stout, 5-11, 195 pounds with a red-headed flat top. He had a small red scar running along in forehead in an arch about three inches long. Another longer, wider scare ran from his upper nose and across his cheek about four or five inches long. Another player told me when Snookie was about ten, he was running through a hole in a barbed wire fence, and didn’t see the top strand was still in place until it was too late. The barbed wire caught Snookie at his nose and cut a path down his cheek. It was before fine stitching and plastic surgery, at least in Middle Tennessee. The stitching job produced the jagged scar. The scar on his forehead was created, i was told, during a batting practice when a batter lost his bat in a swing. Snookie was standing just behind the end of the backstop vee waiting to hit . The bat hit the corner, flipped around and caught Snookie in the forehead. The scar was smaller, the stitches were finer, but the scar was still evident.
Snookie was red-headed with a pale complexion and freckles. The scars were red against his complexion.
Carthage tromped us that day, 12-4, and Snookie had several hits.
The next time i saw Snookie, he was with Gordon Max Harper, known as Gordy, but soon called “Happy” by his fellow Heightsmen. The two post-graduates had checked in for pre-season football and were already in the barracks on the second floor of Armstrong Hall, better known to the cadets as Chapel, when the other “day cadets” or “town-boys” arrived (we were called town-boys by other cadets and “goobers” by our contemporaries who went to Lebanon School: it was not a compliment).
The two Carthaginians had received football scholarships to play at Heights.
The Mid-South Conference was comprised of prep schools in Tennessee and one in Dalton, Georgia. They had an additional year of high school designated as “post-graduate.” The extra year allowed students to add to their academic status for pursuing college AND it allowed athletes to extend their playing and hopefully give them an opportunity for an athletic scholarship. A number of Southern universities like Georgia Tech, Tennessee, and North Carolina, would pay for the post-graduates year at one of these prep schools, essentially “red-shirting” before red-shirting was allowed at the college level.
Snookie and Happy were post-graduates. They would be boarding students, but their barracks had not been assigned yet. The commute to and from Carthage would have been at least two hours a day, enough to eliminate their being a “town-boy” like us.
The pre-season two-a-day practices were brutal. Heavy gear and thick cotton uniforms in Tennessee August weather, 95 degrees and 95% humidity most of the time made it those two-a-days tough. For the three years i had pre-season practice, it was that way every day except for one rain-storm. That morning, we returned to the gym basement locker room soaked and caked with mud in the morning, and we were rejoicing. But not so much when we had to don the dried, mud-caked uniforms for the afternoon practice.
In our first real practice that year, the first afternoon practice, it was established that Harper was a very good and aggressive offensive and defensive guard. Snookie’s reputation had preceded him. He validated it. i was amazed to watch him play. As he got hotter and sweatier, his face seemed even paler and those scars almost glowed red. He not only played with fierceness; he looked even more fearsome.
Gordon Harper gained his name “Happy” because he was. He was smart but looked a bit goofy to us.
They weren’t exactly the model for prep school students.
The second morning practice proved how two-a-days could be brutal, no quarter, practices ending with ten 40-yard sprints. The dressing room scale said i lost just over ten pounds. John Sweatt gathered four of the “town boys,” Jimmy Hatcher, Earl Major, Jimmy Gamble, Mike Gannaway, and me and drove out to Johnson’s Dairy where we bough the first of many half-gallon orange drinks (a predecessor to Gatorade?) each and drank them for our lunch. i can still remember sitting in the back seat, listening Brenda Lee singing “Sweet Nothin’s” as we returned to campus.
We parked, climbed the stairs, and entered en masse Snookie and Gordon’s barracks room. Snookie was in the bottom bunk and Gordon was in the top. They were passing a brown jug up and down, taking a sip, and passing it back to the other. White lightning.
It didn’t seem to affect their performance at practice.
The sophomore boys were fodder, the “T” Team, offensively and defensively against the upper class men and PG’s. I was a second team blocking back in the single wing offense, fullback in the “T” formation, and a linebacker in the 6-2/5-3/7-1 defenses we ran. Standing tall at 5-6 and weighing in at 128 pounds, i’ve never quite figured out how the coaching staff decided those should be my positions. i was also the second string but never used punter.
And it all shaped up as a football team’s preseason practice should be. And the season began. The starting lineup was established. And the little guy was not in the starting lineup. Surprise.
It worked out pretty well for the little goofy guy. The “T” team gig cemented a friendship with Larry Bucy, a post-graduate guard from Lebanon. It seemed every time i hit the line, Larry and i would try to run over each other. Being significantly larger, Larry nearly always got the best of it. Once, he became upset with me. As i was plunging through the hole off the right guard with Larry crouched awaiting for our rendezvous, i cut to the left for about a ten-yard gain. Larry came up to me as i was getting up from the tackle and laughed, “What do you mean making a cut like that; we always smack heads on that play.”
On defense, the second stringers mostly went with a “6-2” formation: six lineman, two linebackers, two defensive corners and a safety. i was the left side linebacker. i think my size helped. i was too small to be noticed or considered a threat. i’m not sure which but it seemed i didn’t get blocked much and was in on a lot of tackles.
Rather quickly, it was acknowledged Snookie was a steam roller. If someone tried to tackle him, they would either be knocked down as Snookie ran over them or they would finally bring him down with a gang tackle five to ten yards beyond the initial contact, if he hadn’t scared them to death with that visage behind the helmet…except for one second string linebacker. Me.
You see, Snookie ran bent over from the waist, moving forward at full speed. No one could get below his helmet to hit his torso or legs. He was a human tank. i was an exception. When Snookie came smoking through the line, i would meet him head on but lower than him. i would dive and hit his legs. He would roll over, hop up, help me up, and laugh.
i became a marvel with coaches and was the only sophomore to make a road trip, a 300-mile overnight bus ride with a stop in Birmingham to Marion Institute in Alabama. As we left the Birmingham hotel after breakfast, Snookie, Happy, John Sweatt, and Jimmy Byrd attempted to convince the cashier that i was used as the football.
There are numerous other memories of that season, perhaps to be told another time. It was an awakening for me.
i had always imagined i would be the next Clifton Tribble of Lebanon High School fame, Doak Walker of SMU, Johny “The Drum” Major of the Vols, or Phil “The Chief” King of Vanderbilt. It was that pre-season where i accepted that was not to be . Simultaneously, i discovered i loved being a linebacker. Playing that position at Castle Heights remains one of the most satisfying times of my life. i was a bit player in about four or five games. Didn’t matter. Practices were a joy for me. It was one of those few times in my life, i could just go for it, let it all hang out.
One more note about Snookie and Happy. They were assigned to Company C in the Heights Battalion. Even though practice got football players out of the daily afternoon drill period due to scheduling, we did have some short order drill lessons.
Snookie and Happy’s squad checked their M-1’s out of the armory and were learning commands to the squad. One of the rules of short order drill is if the squad is at right shoulder arms, no one is supposed to obey a facing movement. In short order drill, this is often tested by the squad leader. This squad was facing the squad leader in a respectable line at right shoulder arms. The only real glitch was Happy, rather than having his weapon at the prescribed angle of roughly 45 degrees, was holding his M-1 parallel to the ground. When the test order for “left face” was given, everyone remained as they should according the rules. Everybody except one. Happy, eager to please and show his expertise, whipped around to the left. Snookie, standing steadfast as he should, received the barrel of the M-1 to the back of his head.
i was told it knocked him out.
i wish i could verify this story, but it is second hand. They were a great pair, and great friends. Wish i could see them again.
But i don’t think i would try to tackle Snookie.