Former minor-league baseball star Paul Eames came to Albany in 1950 from Massachusetts and never went back. He played nine seasons of pro ball, then became a coach, all while heading up Albany’s Parks and Rec Department and mentoring countless young athletes.
Glenn Eames always regrets never getting a chance to see his father and local baseball legend Paul play the game they shared a love for, so several years ago Glenn took a trip to the library to look up as many old articles written about dear old dad's career as he could find.
"I came across two stories from his first two games he ever played (for the one-time minor-league team the Albany Cardinals), and I read that he started off the season his first night going 5-for-5 with two home runs and his second game he was 3-for-3 with another home run," Glenn recalled Tuesday. "And I went home that night, I said, 'Dad, I read about your first two games tonight and I can't wait to go back tomorrow and read some more.' And he just laughed and said, 'You might as well just stay away and not even bother -- 'cause that was as good as it gets.' "
But anyone who knew Paul Eames -- the legendary player, manager, coach and mentor in Southwest Georgia for more than 60 years -- knows his story, his history, his far-reaching impact and his career as a whole is so much richer than most could ever even hope for.
And that's why Tuesday's news that Paul Eames, at age 84, had finally lost his long battle with failing health -- dying late Monday night at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital -- hit home so hard.
"It's a real shame when you lose someone like Paul Eames," said Lee County baseball's Rob Williams, Southwest Georgia's longest tenured high school coach. "He was an outstanding ambassador for the game -- and not just in Southwest Georgia, but through the entire state.
"He will certainly be missed."
Eames, the namesake for the famed Paul Eames Sports Complex located off Blaylock Street in Albany that was opened in the summer of 1989, is survived by his wife, Dot Eames, his son, Glenn, his daughter, Stacey, and a grandson, Andrew Paul Eames.
Glenn, the founder and former head coach of the Darton College baseball program who retired after 15 years on the job last season, and Dot, the longtime cafeteria coordinator at Deerfield-Windsor who retired after 42 years earlier this year, still live in Albany and were making funeral arrangements for their beloved husband and father Tuesday, while Stacey currently resides in Atlanta, where she owns a nationally renowned bakery, Highland Bakery and Andrew lives in Reston, Va.
His memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Friday at Byne Memorial Baptist Church. Eames' remains were cremated and will be interred at Crown Hill Cemetery immediately following the service. The family will receive friends at Kimbrell-Stern funeral home on Thursday from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m.
'He was a treasure'
For Glenn, who began helping take care of his ailing father during the last several years as Paul's health began to give out, losing his dad still came far too soon.
"He had been going downhill for awhile, and I think in the last year he had only been out of the house maybe three times -- and all those times were to go to the doctor," a somber Glenn recalled Tuesday. "In fact, I took him to (an appointment) last Tuesday, and they discovered some fluid in his lungs and they told him he needed to get to the hospital right away. After we got him there, he had a couple of liters of the fluid drained and that seemed to make him feel a lot better, and we all really thought he had gotten a lot better in the last couple of days."
So much so, Glenn said, that he even left town over the weekend for a college baseball showcase in Puerto Rico to help the coach who succeed him at Darton, Scot Hemmings, "get acclimated and show him around."
Just two days after arriving, Glenn said he got the call.
"I just remember telling him (before I left) to keep getting better and I would see him as soon as I got back," Glenn said. "But looking back, when I left I had a sense that something wasn't quite right. He was being quiet the last couple of days -- and anyone who knows him, knows that's just not how he was."
Current Cairo High School head baseball coach Ron Best, who played for Paul Eames in 1978 and '79 on one of the many American Legion Post 30 teams Eames coached over the years, knows that to be true.
"Oh, man ... he was quite the character. I ran into him four of five years ago over at Eames Park during summer legion ball, and he was just the same old coach Eames I remember: hollering at me, ragging me but still showing (me love) -- all the stuff that made him special and unique," Best said, before adding with a laugh: "He'd mellowed out some in his older years -- but not much.
"He was a treasure for Southwest Georgia, especially Albany. He was so influential in the community and he's a guy we'll talk about and pass down stories about -- and lessons we learned from him -- for the rest of our lives."
And rightfully so.
Eames may have been born in Worcester, Mass., but it wasn't long after that he made Albany his home. After graduating from Uxbridge High School in the early 1940s -- lettering in baseball, football and basketball -- Eames entered the U.S. Army and was later honorably discharged. After several years playing for minor-league teams up north, he moved to Albany in 1950 when he was assigned to the Albany Cardinals of the Class D Georgia-Florida League. He played for the Cardinals for five years, but it was a chance encounter with a woman he met during his time in the South which would change the entire baseball landscape in Southwest Georgia.
"It just kind of happened (him moving to Albany) after he met my mother," said Glenn, 54. "He asked her to marry him, and they got married right at home plate at Cardinal Park in 1951. And he's been here ever since."
Glenn even recalled a funny story Tuesday that his mother and father used to tell him about how Paul went from being a rising baseball star in the minors to giving it up for something that didn't require as much travel.
"Well," Glenn began, "my mother went briefly with him to Texas after they were married, where he played for a season before coming back and playing in Tifton and Thomasville. And after they got back (to Southwest Georgia) she was instrumental in getting him to give (professional) baseball up. She always jokes that she got him to give up the meager salary of a minor league baseball player for the meager salary of working for the rec department."
Before Paul quit baseball as a player in 1953 and began what turned into a 28-year tenure with the Albany Recreation and Parks Department, his last season was with the Tifton Blue Sox. According to www.baseball-reference.com, Eames, a catcher, played a total of nine seasons in the minors -- earning all-star honors in seven of them -- while sporting a lifetime batting average of .278 with 38 home runs.
"His best season, from what I've read, was a year when he hit (.317 with 12 home runs in 1952 with Thomasville). When I asked him once why that year was so good, he told me the year before, he was approached by (Major League Baseball legend and Hall of Famer Stan Musial), who asked him if he was having trouble with the high pitches," Glenn recalled. "And Dad said, 'Yeah, I am. I always strike out chasing those high pitches.' So that summer (in 1951), Stan worked with him and the next season he was hitting those high pitches out of the park."
Paul didn't give up baseball entirely, however, when he became the City of Albany Athletic Director in 1953. He went on to become a player-manager for two years after that in 1954-55 for the Georgia-Florida League teams in Waycross (1954) and Tifton (1955).
And by then, the legend of Paul Eames was already growing.
"He was the draw at whatever game he played or coached in -- everyone came to see what he was going to do because he was a fighter and always in the middle of everything -- and people always knew something was going to happen when Paul Eames came to town," Glenn said. "I've read a lot of old stories about him, and they called him the 'Spark Plug' for a reason."
Williams can remember hearing about Paul as a young ball player himself long before he ever got a job coaching in Lee County.
"As a small kid, I can remember going to games and hearing people talk about him in the stands," said Williams, who came to Leesburg in 1984 first as an assistant football and baseball coach before taking over the baseball program in 1988. "I'll always remember meeting him for the first time around the time I got here. I never had the honor of coaching with him or against him in all the time I knew him, but from the stories I heard, if you were playing a Paul Eames team, you had to be on your toes and defend the whole game; defend first, defend second, defend third, defend home -- or he would squeeze you.
"He knew how to play the game, and he knew how to play it the right way."
Christmas trees for sale
Paul Eames was about more than just baseball. He was a businessman -- most famously for his Christmas tree stand he ran for 47 years off Slappey Boulevard.
"That was such a great thing he did with the Christmas trees because he hired a lot of local kids -- many of them baseball players -- to come work for him, and he mentored them that way, too," Williams said.
Paul also opened the appropriately-named "Hit and Run" family-style restaurant where the Hot Dog King now resides on Pine Avenue, and even got into the used car business and sold insurance at one point.
But Glenn most fondly recalls his days helping out his dad at the Hit and Run.
"It was probably the top lunch spot in Albany for the entire (five years we owned it)," Glenn said. "The Hit and Run back then is like the way "Pearly's" restaurant (on Slappey Boulevard) is today. Everyone eats there now, and back then, everyone ate at the Hit and Run."
Paul eventually closed the restaurant and turned his focus back to his job as the City of Albany's Athletic Director, while also umpiring local baseball games, as well as refereeing high school football and basketball games. He went on to develop a proud association with the Walter Burt American Legion Post 30 baseball team, coaching the group for nine years, winning two state championships from 1961-62. He later took the head coaching job at Deerfield from 1983-87, leading the Knights to a state crown in his first season.
But it was the summer of 1989 when Best remembers tears welling up in his eyes as his mentor was introduced on the field during the grand opening of the Paul Eames Park Sports Complex.
"The city wanted to build a county-wide facility where local baseball teams could go and play, as well as collegiate programs, with the hopes of attracting minor league teams, which they did with the Albany Polecats, Albany Alligators (and most recently in 2007 with the South Georgia Peanuts)," Best said Tuesday. "But when they started to make plans to build that facility, they needed someone to name it after, and from what I understand, he was the first -- and only -- choice. And I was there coaching the American Legion Post 30 team in the summer of 1989 when they played the very first game on those fields, and it was quite the tribute.
"To me, there wasn't anyone they could've named it after who was more deserving."
Not even former major league players Harold Breeden, the one-time Lee County Sheriff, or Ray Knight, the 1986 World Series MVP for the New York Mets -- both of whom played for Paul Eames at one point or another during their youth baseball careers in Southwest Georgia before going onto success at the next level.
Although, Glenn is the first to admit that his father's coaching techniques were "unconventional," to say the least.
"I'll put it this way: When I was coaching, if I had taken a bat and thrown it at someone, I'd have parents coming down ready to hang me and want me to be fired. But just ask Harold Breeden about my dad -- and getting a bat or two thrown his way during their time together -- and he'll tell you he loved him for it because it made him into the intense competitor he became (when Harold went to the majors)," Glenn said. "(My dad) could be mean and jump on someone without even thinking about it, but he did it out of love. And while they might want to kill him after it happened for a few seconds, by the time they walked away and understood why he did what he did, they loved him all the more for it. Because he was the first guy who -- if you ever needed anything (on the field or off it) -- he would do it for you.
"We would always say that everything he said, he 'barked it,' but he softened that tone as soon as someone needed something. And he would always be there to help them."
Breeden, when reached Tuesday, agreed with Glenn's assessment of his father's generosity, saying, "I owe everything in my baseball career to Paul Eames."
And, of course, he also remembers the bat-throwing incident quite well.
"I'm pretty sure I was the only one he ever threw a bat at," Breeden, who played 17 years in the majors with the Milwaukee Braves, the Chicago Cubs, the Montreal Expos and several years in Japan, said with a chuckle. "But I'll never forget the day it happened. We were at practice, and in that Yankee accent he had, he told me to move over closer to the line. He said, 'Harold, you need to get closer to that line. Guard that line!' And I said back, 'Coach Eames, I am guarding the line and if I step any further over, I'll be in foul territory. You're not gonna get it by me. Just hit it.'
"And before I knew it, he hit it -- and it went right past me. When I looked up, here comes this bat flying right at me. He yelled out, 'I told you to guard that line!' "
Breeden said it was moments like that which allowed him to learn how to be a fundamentally sound baseball player and enjoy a successful major league career that many only dream of.
And he said it's all -- every bit of it -- thanks to Eames.
"His death is such a big loss. Everybody who ever played baseball in Albany, and even the surrounding counties who went off to college or the pros, owes it all to Paul Eames," Breeden said. "He had everything to do with my baseball career; showing me the fundamentals and teaching me to give it 100-percent -- and then some. He's going to be missed big time by me, by Ray, by (former Southwest Georgia pro ball player) Gene Martin, by everyone."
Before Eames died, Breeden said he had a chance to discuss the bat-throwing incident with his mentor -- and on more than one occasion.
Hilarity, of course, ensued.
"After a couple years of playing pro ball, I came back to Albany and went to his Christmas tree stand and I remember sitting there talking to him," Breeden recalled before adding with a laugh: "And I said, 'Paul, you remember a couple of years ago when you threw that bat at me?' And he said, 'Yup ... I sure do.' And I said, 'Well, I got to thinking about it these last couple of years, and I (came to the conclusion) that if that bat had hit me, I would've kicked your butt.'
"Paul just looked at me and said, 'Hmph ... in your dreams!' "
A couple decades later, Breeden said it came up again.
"This time he came to me and said, 'So, you still think you can kick my butt?' And this time it was my turn to mess with him, and I said, 'Well, I don't know ... I'm sure if I tried the first thing you'd do is grab a bat."
In 1991, Paul was part of one of the first classes inducted into the Albany Sports Hall of Fame, and two years later he went back to the sideline to help further Glenn's coaching career as he watched his son take over the American Legion program Paul helped build. Then in 1995, Glenn was tapped to begin the baseball program at Darton, where a familiar face could once again be found lurking around the dugout.
"We didn't really have any money for the program (at the outset) but he did whatever he could to help us build it and mentor the players -- even if his methods were unconventional," Glenn said, before recalling one of those instances. "I can remember my first year, we went to Tallahassee to play a game and it was a darn cold night. There I was at third base and in the middle of the game, I looked over and there was this small fire burning in our dugout. Sure enough, he had gotten together some paper, balled it up and had a fire going right there in the actual dugout during a game to help keep him and the players warm. I couldn't believe it.
"He was just the kind of guy that if he wanted to do something, by God it didn't matter how unconventional it was, he was going to do it."
As for what wisdom Paul left behind and imparted on those who had the honor of playing for, or working with, him, Best said he learned two valuable lessons from the elder Eames he still preaches to every player on every team he coaches to this very day.
"Number one, how to treat the kids you coach right, and number two, never give up in a game -- no matter how bad things got," Best said. "One thing he would always tell us is that even if you're behind or having a bad day, it's gonna get better -- it has to. He would walk through the dugout saying, 'It's gonna be OK, boys. It's gonna be OK. It may look bad now, but you better believe that sun's gonna come up tomorrow -- and everything's gonna be all right.
"I'll never forget that, and I'll never forget coach Eames. He may be gone, but his legacy will forever carry on."