Bernice Historical Society
People and Places
Bernice and Baseball
It was in June of 1933 that a baseball league became a serious thought in the mines of promoters and players. It was expected from the start that Ruston, Winnfield, Farmerville, Homer, Haynesville, Bernice, Dubach and Simsboro would seek admission to the league. The problem lay with a few players as to which team they would choose to play for. Several players in Union Parish played on both the Bernice team and the Farmerville team. With the formation of a repetitive game league schedule this would be impossible. But with Sport Grafton one of those players and baseball coach at Bernice High it was no question which uniform he would choose in a contest of Bernice vs. Farmerville. (As a side note, Grafton was also coach of the BHS Marble team in 1935 and played in a tournament with other North Louisiana teams.)
The Ruston Daily Leader ran an article on Wick Laurence in the summer of 1935 that came out due to his stellar play in the baseball Big Six. “Laurence can be classed as an old timer, as he has played in fast semi-pro ball for the past 8 years, yet he is only 23. So, you see, Wick was a great player at 15 when he first started playing with the Bernice Town Team. He is considered by many to be the best fielding third baseman in amateur baseball. Wick has a great throwing arm, can pitch in an emergency and faces the batter on the right side. Scouts from the big leagues have had their eyes on Wick for many years, but his Daddy also has had his eyes on him, which accounts for him studying dentistry at the Atlanta Dental College at the present.”
Apparently there was little baseball played in Bernice during the height of the Depression for a 1937 news account describes a contest between two “old rivals” – Bernice Town Team vs. Ruston Volunteers. The article continued “the two teams have met very infrequently during the past two years, due to the lapse of baseball interest in the Union Parish town, however with the return of Sport Grafton and a few others a team has been organized and is being headed by Grafton.”
It would be the summer of 1939 before the official organization of The Big Six league. Larry Fox organized the league around teams from Ansley, Chatham, Bernice, Farmerville, Huttig and a team known as the Farmerville CCC camp. Shortly after the organization of the league another team from Marion took over the spot held by the CCC team. It was hoped that both Sterlington and Dubach would come into the league and then there would be an 8 club circuit.
That summer of 1939 Bernice had several stars on their squad: Laurence, Albritton, O’Bannon, Fitzgerald, Hollis, Otts and Farrar propelled their team into first place in the Big Six League. The Bernice team was known as the Bernice Arcadian Nitraters. By September the Bernice Nitraters were in a tie with The Farmerville Farmers and went into a five game playoff with the Farmerville nine only to lose to Farmerville in the last game by a score of 10 to 2.
With the approach of the 1940 season league officials invited all teams to a meeting at which both Dubach and Sterlington were invited. However the schedule for the 1940 Big Six League revealed the participation of only five teams – Ansley, Bernice, Chatham, Jonesboro and Marion. The year of 1940 revealed the return of several players with the addition of Thaxton, Heard, Sterling and Taylor.
A picture of the Bernice Acadian Nitraters circa 1940 is in the Bernice Archives and shows team members: Dan Otts, Sam Willis O’Bannon, Barham “Butler” Sterling, John Caldwell Jr., Lyle Gresham, Troy Shackleford, J.L. Grafton, C.L. Fitzgerald, “Lefty” Albritton, Jim Hollis and Victor Albritton.
Baseball action was slow during the years of World War II but by the summer of 1946 the Big Six was back in action with teams from Ruston, Farmerville, Bernice, Marion, Dubach and Simsboro. Clifford McIntosh represented Bernice at this meeting. Games were important but could be canceled for legitimate reasons. Once such game that Bernice was to play against Ruston was canceled due to the inability of several of the Bernice players to get off from work.
The Big Eight came to life in the summer of 1947 with teams from Bernice, Farmerville, Hodge, Ruston, Dubach, Marion and Sterlington competing. The Big Eight was touted as “an enlarged edition of the old Big Six and plans to play games on Sundays and Wednesday or Thursday dependent on the weekly business holiday in the respective town. Larry Fox was President of the Big Eight and Bernice Mayor, Don Lomax was Vice President. That year a Bernice player, Dixie Madonna won the leading hitter trophy with a .472 average.
Bernice began making improvements on their park and perfecting their organization and by June of 1948 Bernice had night baseball in the newly built three section grandstand, complete with box seats, a crow’s nest, metal roof, dug outs and a scoreboard.
The Big Eight was off and running and the Bernice Lions would be a large part of life in Bernice until 1959. That last summer the Alexandria Town Talk ran an article on the Big Eight League and touted it as “one of the classier semi-pro baseball leagues in operation”. The league had only four teams that last summer, Bernice Lions, Minden Red Birds, Homer Oilers and the Ruston Ramblers and the paper noted not one of those towns had a population over 15,000 people. It was also noted the league had been the spawning place of many professional players.
The Big Eight was not a big money maker at this time but it was one of only two leagues in the country that was recognized by the NCAA and gave a host of college boys a chance to play throughout the summer and still maintain their amateur status.
The success of the Big Eight was due mainly to geography and all of the teams that participated were located a sizable distance from the larger towns in North Louisiana. Baseball was practically the only recreational outlet and the spirit for the game was evident in these four towns. None of them liked to lose!
The Bernice team prided itself in having a “Home Grown” ball club in comparison with the other teams. It was said of Bernice that they took more interest in the youngsters, even “down to the diaper stage when they first fall out the cradle . . . they encourage them, arrange for facilities so that they can play and then ten years later when one of them poles one over the fence they can say that’s Old Man Smith’s boy and not, we got him from California”.
One year the team was made up of all locals with the exception of two players who would be considered foreigners by others but Bernice said they “were only two wagon greasing” across the Union Parish line! In the glory days of the Big Eight it was said that if you shake a bush in Bernice instead of a rabbit jumping out it will be a ball player.
It might be said that baseball was the glue that helped hold our community together. From spring through summer to fall there was a baseball game to attend and then talk about for days and in the winter the men, women and children in Bernice might have agreed with this quote: “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” ( Rogers Hornsby)
In 1960 a Tri County League was formed in which Bernice participated playing against teams from Spearsville, Magnolia, Wesson, El Dorado, Old Union, Lisbon, and Strong. Games were played on Sunday afternoons.
Cathy Buckley is a native of Union Parish and lifelong citizen of Shiloh. She served as Principal of Spearsville High School for many years until her retirement. Cathy is now the director of the Bernice Depot Museum and a active member of the Bernice Historical Society.