THOMASVILLE -- About fifty-five miles from the Gulf of Mexico, fifteen miles into Georgia, surrounded by pine forest, plantations, magnolia and rose gardens, lies this charming little town with old brick streets and storefronts that are dated back to the 1880's.
The old buildings have been maintained since that time when Thomasville was a famous resort.
Tourists came by rail to this lovely little village playground built on a ridge amongst the pines. It was as far south as the railroad went.
The pine tree aroma was believed to be good for your health.
Because of the warm climate, the good drainage because of its slightly higher elevation and its natural beauty, Thomasville quickly grew into being known as "the original winter resort of the South."
With huge hotels being built, the business prospered. The largest was the Piney Woods Hotel, a huge frame structure with a large veranda where tourists sat and got a famous "Thomasville suntan."
The hotel was adjacent to the "Yankee Paradise Park" called this because of the guests who strolled in the park.
Today, this beautiful Victorian park is merely called Paradise Park. Wealthy Northern industrialists poured into the little town, seeking a warmer climate, recreation and amusement.
In this period, prior to the temperance and anti-gambling movements, there was dancing at the hotels, two harness racetracks, several saloons, chicken fights on the local plantations and a local semi-pro baseball team that called themselves the Thomasville Turks.
About the time the town was growing into a popular resort, the grand old game of baseball continued to grow in popularity.
In 1857 in an article in a New York newspaper, baseball was first called the national pastime.
On Christmas Day, 1861 during the Civil War, a baseball game at Fort Sumter between two Union teams drew 40,000 spectators.
Baseball spread into the South during the Civil War and became a game of the masses. It had previously been a gentlemen's game, played mostly in private clubs.
When the American League was first formed in 1901, Thomasville was the Spring Training site of one of these major-league teams. The town has a history linking resorts, baseball and heroes.
A former Thomasville resident who operated a service station on the Monticello Road talked of the time that he came out to service a car and in the front seat sat Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Two of the greatest baseball players who ever lived had been playing golf over at Glen Arven Country Club. The Babe came to Thomasville to play golf and hunt quail.
"Bird" McBride, a longtime resident, once recalled the time that his father brought him to the old Plaza Cafe to let Babe Ruth hold him. Just so he could say that the greatest player who ever lived held him in his arms.
Thomasville attorney Chip Watt recalled his grandfather presenting him with a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth in the old Plaza Cafe.
Later, he had that same baseball autographed by the man who would eventually break Ruth's home run record, Hank Aaron. The ball is now in a safety deposit box in a local bank.
ONE LOCAL HERO
Driving down Pine Tree Boulevard, the road wraps around the Glen Arven Country Club Golf Course, the second-oldest golf course in the South.
This course was once on the pro tour and was called "The Little Masters." President Dwight Eisenhower visited Thomasville and played golf here several times.
When he came to town, all the children got out of school and stood by the street, waiting to wave as he rode by in a black limousine. Ike had a connection to baseball,too.
"When I was a small boy in Kansas, a friend of mine and I went fishing," Ike once wrote.
"As we sat there in the warmth of the summer afternoon on a river bank, we talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I told him I wanted to be a real major-league baseball player. My friend said he'd like to be President of the United States. Neither of us got our wish."
One local boy who did get that wish.
Charlie Letchas was a small-town hero, an ex-major-leaguer, the son of Greek immigrants who started his professional baseball career as an All-Star second baseman, batting .325 and leading the Thomasville local team to the Georgia-Florida League Championship in 1935.
Thomasville opened the season playing Tallahassee in Tallahassee and there was a parade before the game and the Governors of each state attended the game.
The old Georgia-Florida League was a very good Class D minor league which developed many major-league players.
In 1935, there were 472 minor-league teams and only 18 major-league teams. Players like Letchas would start at the bottom, Class D, and work their way up.
Letchas moved up from Thomasville to Spartanburg, S.C., then up to Chattanooga, Tenn. In Tennessee, he had a sensational season, breaking a Southern Association's record by turning 98 double plays and batting .320, earning a spot on the All-Star team. He also led his team to the Southern Association title.
From there, Letchas moved up to the Atlanta Crackers, where he played for former Baltimore Orioles' manager Paul Richards.
He later said Richards taught him more about baseball than anybody.
From Atlanta, he was called up to the major league by the Philadelphia Phillies, who put the 23-year-old at second base for 12 games late in the 1939 season. He also hit his only major-league home run that season.
In 1941, Letchas returned to the majors, this time with the Washington Senators, for only two games.
Three years later, he was back for his only full season in the majors, with the Phillies again. He played in 116 games and batted .237, driving in 33 runs.
He was back with the Phillies in 1946 for the final six games of his big-league career, batting .231.
In those days, baseball players had nicknames like Harry "The Hat" Walker or Leo "The Lip" Durocher or "Dizzy" Dean or "Pepper" Martin.
Letchas' nickname was more unusual: "Cat Eyes." When you met Charlie, the thing you noticed about him was his eyes.
One Thomasville resident whose husband played football with Letchas said "he had the bluest eyes I've ever seen."
Charlie was a little guy (5-foot-10, 150 pounds) but he was one of the strongest men around.
He once went hunting with my father, Louie Mathes, and he shot a big buck a long ways from the car.
Please see BASEBALL, Page 3B father asked, "How are we going to get him to the car?" Charlie handed over his gun, slung the deer over his shoulder and carried him back to the car."
The name Letchas is still remembered around Thomasville.
A couple came in my restaurant the other day and as I was taking their order, a lady asked me if I was related to Charlie Letchas.
"My husband played ball with him and said he was the best athlete to ever come out of Thomasville High School."
The husband interrupted her.
"That's not what I said, honey," he gently corrected her. "I said he was the best athlete I ever saw anywhere."
THE PEANUT MAN
When I was a boy, my parents would give me a quarter to go to the movies.
I would walk from the restaurant down Broad Street. The restaurants and shops and stores were crowds. Shoe shine boys were shining shoes on the sidewalks, drug store delivery boys were making deliveries on their bicycles and newspaper boys were selling papers on Broad Street.
Inman's Drug Store would always have youngsters sitting at the marble-top soda fountain drinking cherry Cokes.
Down the block at Terry's Drug Store, teenagers would be sitting at the counter or in wooden booths listening to Bill Haley and the Comets, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Fats Domino or Little Richard on the jukebox.
About the time you reached the Commercial Bank on the corner, you would be able to smell Andrew Zalumas' peanuts.
"Peanut Andy" with his terrific smile would always wave from behind his peanut cart. It was amazing to me how the man could brighten the corner with just a smile.
Andrew Zalumas was a Greek immigrant from Sparta who first settled in Pennsylvania.
He started working in the coal mines and developed black lung. He was sent South to a warmer climate and settled in Thomasville and started selling his peanuts.
He had a big pot in his back yard and would get up every morning at 4 and make fresh parched peanuts, boiled peanuts and peanut brittle.
If you lived here then, you must remember his sugar-coated peanut brittle.
He lived on Madison Street where Flowers Park is today and would push his peanut cart down to the corner of Broad and Jackson Street next to Neels Department store where he sold his peanuts.
Any sports fan who attended a sporting event in Thomasville between the turn of the century and the end of the 1950s would know Zalumas and his peanuts.
The ballpark wouldn't have been the same without the smell (and taste) of his peanuts.
Zalumas raised seven children, six sons and a daughter by selling peanuts and he put several of them through college.
This kind and generous man became a philanthropist and leader in the community.
When he died, a plaque was placed by the city at his spot on the corner, next to Neels Department Store. "This corner was brightened by a beloved Thomasville citizen, Andrew Zalumas."
They are presently doing construction on the building and have temporarily removed the plaque. It will be returned when the work is completed.
The Veterans' Administration Dormicilary was on Pine Tree Boulevard where Southwestern State Hospital is today.
Pine Tree Boulevard is one of the oldest perimeter roads in the country.
The town was famous for its carriage rides and the road was cut through the pine forest as a tourist attraction in the 1880's for a carriage ride around the city.
Today, Pine Tree Boulevard is the city limits, winding around ol' Thomasville.
There is one section of the road on Greenwood Plantation that is still unpaved and looks as it did in the horse and buggy days.
Some Thomasville residents may remember the Baltimore Orioles having their minor-league training camp at the V.A.
All the Orioles' minor-league teams trained there. There were four ballparks at the facility, often three or four ballgames going on at one time.
Former Oriole Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer once quipped "Thomasville was a great place for baseball because there was nothing else to do but play baseball."
They would eat meals in the dining hall and sleep in the barracks of the old facility. The VA was originally built as Finny General Army Hospital during WWII.
It was like a little town of its own, with a bowling alley, a gymnasium, auditorium, huge dining hall and a chapel.
My father, stationed there during the war, had a contract to feed the players during spring training.
He would take me with him to watch the players practice and play basketball in the gymnasium.
One of the ballparks on the back right side of the gymnasium had natural banks on the sides of the park with seats on the bank like an outdoor theatre.
The old veterans would always be watching. From this old ballpark, we would drive across a road alongside a pond to get to another ballpark.
It was beautiful there in the spring time. Varnedoe Stadium was on the other side of Pine Tree Boulevard.
There was a practice field right beside Varnedoe which is used today by the Lady Night Hawks' softball team.
When I drive by Southwestern State Hospital along Pine Tree Boulevard, I think of Spring Training and these beautiful spring days.
The pine trees are still there and a concrete walkway along the road is a reminder.
But inside the gate, the only things remaining of the old facility are the old guard houses at the entrance which have been bricked up and the old chapel.
Unless, of course, you count my memories. Maybe yours, too.
This Week's Circulars
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- Ochlocknee man dies in Gwinnett County crash
- Residents charged with fireworks violations
- Stolen gun recovered in traffic stop
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- Fake city checks caught up in scam
- City schools to push start date back
- 19 new COVID-19 cases in Thomas County
- PBS documentary tells story of Thomasville’s first Black woman doctor
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