Special to the Tribune-Star
I got to Nashville in the early ’70s, hired by John Patton, who had been a DJ for WBOW earlier in his career. Then, he was managing WMAK in Nashville and I was promised a top sales list and received the yellow pages (many a promise like this has happened to people in this business). I also did sports commentary for the morning man and would ultimately do a season of play-by-play and a short TV schedule for Tennessee State.
It was a strong learning experience. Tennessee State is a predominantly black school and one time we were going through a cafeteria line with a game later at Kentucky Wesleyan. The girl waiting on us kept looking up at these tall black athletes and finally uttered the question, “Who are you guys?” One of the tallest of the bunch said, “Sweetheart, we’re the Harlem Globetrotters.”
She looked at me, I looked at him, and he said, “Why that’s Abe Sapperstien.” Then all of them broke up laughing. I could have gotten a very unpopular nickname out of that situation, but I didn’t.
I was fortunate to meet a lot of famous people in the Nashville music business. Porter Waggoner and I went to the same barber … a lady by the name of Jackie who could chew gum, smile and talk at the same time. Truly, not an easy task. She was the barber who took Conway Twitty out of his rock ’n’ roll DA haircut and managed to put him in a curly-headed top.
I suppose my two famous encounters happened on the softball diamond. During what was the Fanfare Softball Tournament. I played for WMAK’s all-star team. (I was the only member of the radio station staff who played except for the owner’s son, and because of him we had tremendously savvy uniforms.) I was not a softball player. I had only played baseball during my earliest years of high school, but had remarked one day at lunch I was a champion yard-dart player. The owner’s son heard the remark and invited me to play with the team.
Their original pitcher had been injured badly in an automobile accident and would be out for most of what would be our season. So, I became pitcher for the WMAK All Americans.
In the Fanfare Tournament, I faced Barbara Mandrell, who drew a lot of fans. And it probably had something to do with how good she looked in white shorts. I just slowly lobbed the ball to her and she flied out to the shortstop every time she batted.
George Jones and his crew I would get to face and they were not hitting well that day. In fact, I struck George Jones out three times. (Remember, it was slow pitch.) After the third time, I was walking across the field and I yelled at one of my teammates, “Hey, shake the hand of the man who struck out George Jones three times in a row.” His third base coach was walking across the diamond to their dugout and as he approached me he said, “Hell, Ronn, that boy is so drunk he can’t even see you, much less that softball!”
It rather deflated the moment and I learned about George Jones’ major problem … too much alcohol, and way too often.
The people who followed George Jones in the singing and recording business often used George as a guide on. As Barbara Mandrell would sing later, George was really “country” when “country” wasn’t really cool. But it wasn’t his singing ability, or lack of it, that caused the majority of his problems. It was addiction to the alcohol and to pills, and to other stuff.
In spite of that, he kept plugging along. He would have a Top Ten country hit in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and the ’90s. Almost no one could make that claim except George Jones.
I didn’t get a chance to talk to George after that softball game, but we were a happy lot going into the finals of the Fanfare Tournament. (We lost.) And George Jones, after an almost deathly truck accident, would get sober in his later years. During those years he lived in a bottle, he missed about 90 percent of his personal appearances and, of course, missed the money as well. He was one of a kind, and his tenure was long.
As you probably know, George Jones died last week.
George, we will miss you, and I know your fans will. And, even though you were blind drunk the day I struck you out, it is a great story and I thank you for it.
Ronn Mott, a longtime radio personality in Terre Haute, writes commentaries for the Tribune-Star. His pieces are published online Tuesday and Thursday on Tribstar.com, and in the print and online editions on Saturday.