Family, community form seam of Lowcountry Baseball League

August 6, 2010 

The core of the Port Royal Bulldogs was the Parker family, members of whom are shown here in a Bulldogs team photo. Current manager Clyde Parker says the photo was taken in 1974 or 1975. Seen here are Betty Parker, concessions manager, first from right; manager and founder John Parker, top row, third from right; current manager Clyde Parker, bottom row, third from right; and current player-coach Thomas Sterling, Clyde’s cousin, middle row, third from right.

SPECIAL TO THE ISLAND PACKET

  • The Lowcountry League's playoffs kick off Aug. 14. In the southern division, the top-seeded Port Royal Bulldogs face Scott Nationals at 5 p.m. at Burton Wells Park in Burton. The Bluffton Eagles will take on the B-Town Hawks at 5 p.m. at Bennett Field in Bluffton. The northern division's matchups will not be announced until Monday.

If a constant has run through the S.C. Lowcountry Baseball League since its inception some 40 years ago, it is family.

Take the Parkers. At the final regular-season game for the Port Royal Bulldogs last Sunday, it was hard not to bump into a member of the family.

Twins Don and Ron Parker, 22, anchor the field at shortstop and center field, respectively. They are coached by their uncle, Jack Fripp, 36, who also is a utility player. At the concession stand, Jack's sister, Betty Parker, 54, serves hot dogs and fried chicken to famished fans.

And standing along the third-base line, Clyde Parker, in his 20th year as the Bulldogs' manager, presides over the team this muggy afternoon.

Talk to him about what baseball has meant to the Parkers, and Clyde becomes nostalgic.

"All my brothers and cousins just played against guys around the community," he said. "You had a time, a moment where every weekend you get to go out there and get away from work and meet people and friends."

Players and coaches all over Beaufort County can say the same thing, although many agree the league's role as a cornerstone of Lowcountry communities has diminished as interest by younger athletes has waned.

Nonetheless, those athletes must answer to nearly a century of tradition. One account pegs the league's origins to the early 1900s, when games were played between mostly-black plantation teams. As early as 1920, The Beaufort Gazette covered games under the heading "Colored Ball."

Only in the early 1970s, though, did local teams unite in a formal league. At its peak, the Lowcountry League had between 16 and 20 teams, from the Charleston Giants to the Cuffy Cubs.

"The league used to be a haven for the community," said Henry Green, 53, a former pitcher and manager of the Bluffton Eagles. "Everyone would look forward to April -- the whole winter you couldn't come out. In the '70s, there'd be 500, 600 people easy during playoff time. Every black family, kids, mothers and grandmothers -- people would help with transportation -- everybody came out."

Given how deep baseball ran in the area, it was only a matter of time before players were noticed.

Green played three years in the Kansas City Royals' minor-league system.

Dan Driessen, a first baseman for the now-defunct Hilton Head Blue Jays, was signed in 1969 by the Cincinnati Reds and went on to start in two World Series for the Big Red Machine.

Driessen's nephew Gerald Perry, another ex-Blue Jay, played 12 seasons in Major League Baseball and was named an All-Star in 1988. During the 1970s and 1980s, Clyde Parker said, major-league scouts came through the area at least once a summer to spot talent.

The Lowcountry League was competitive, Green said, something that helped nurture talent. If you weren't strong or demonstrated poor work habits, you were cut.

Today, the league has contracted to nine teams, a product of onerous travel and lack of interest, Clyde Parker said. Thanks to players on loan from the University of South Carolina Beaufort, the average skill level of the teams remains solid. But some of those players say the competition seems less intense than what they have experienced in college.

Between innings at Sunday's game -- and sometimes during -- players grab sodas from the concession stand.The Bulldogs used to practice twice a week; nowadays, players' work schedules make it difficult just to get in a round of infield and batting practice.

Some players, like Robert Jaskiewicz, 27, a Bulldogs utility man prefer the more relaxed atmosphere.

"I think the league's gotten better," he said. "They've brought back the love of the game, and there's less trash talking. From what I heard, there was a lot back then."

Not everyone sees the decline.

For Jack Fripp, the league remains central to the community. While it may no longer be a proving ground for young talent, older Lowcountry residents still consider the games a staple of their weekend summer afternoons.

"There's nothing going on for adults," he said. "A lot of older people take in games. It's something to keep them going before football season starts."

Zeke Frazier, manager of the Bluffton Eagles, said starting next season, league organizers plan to make a push to increase awareness of the league among youth. League officials plan to form a league-sponsored Dixie youth team, as well as create a new website.

But he knows they'll have to act fast.

"If we don't get some younger guys to get it going, it may fall," he said.

"We've got to get them out there to play."

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