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Former Gordon baseball coach Hank Small remembered

Former Gordon College baseball coach Hank Small died last month after a fall in his Griffin home. He was 56. Small was a legendary high school slugger in Atlanta and starred at the University of South Carolina. He was also quite a character. This story about his death appeared in The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina. It was written by Ron Morris: Childhood friends were there. So, too, were many former South Carolina and minor-league teammates. Family members came from all over to pay their final respects to Hammerin’ Hank Small. The funeral service turned into a celebration of Small’s life, one he lived to the fullest. ”I loved Hank Small,” said Jeff Grantz, a teammate of Small’s at USC, who stood in a pew to address the gathering of about 300 at Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church. “He was a great friend and an awesome teammate. He was the greatest hitter I’ve ever seen.” Small, the first true home run hitter in USC baseball annals, died last Wednesday at age 56 after a freak fall at his new home in Griffin, Ga. He left behind his mother, three brothers, an ex-wife, two daughters and countless admirers. They all had stories to tell about the affable Small, whose 48 career home runs stood as a USC record until two seasons ago. The baseball stories were mostly about his towering home runs. Small and his three brothers grew up on the outskirts of Atlanta in a neighborhood they affectionately called the “Golden Ghetto” because of its toughness within middle-class surroundings. Many games were played at nearby Chastain Park, where longtime patrons still talk about the home run Small once hit for Dykes High School, a shot that cleared the left field fence and the large mound beyond and landed across the adjacent street. ”It was like Babe Ruth’s called shot,” said David Michaelson, a childhood friend. Thomas Porter, another neighbor and friend, estimated the home run at close to 500 feet. About that same year, when Bobby Richardson spoke at an Atlanta Dugout Club meeting, a sports writer for The Atlanta Constitution tipped off the USC coach that he might want to recruit Small to Columbia. Once the ballplayer arrived on campus, Richardson realized he had something special in Small. ”He reminded me so much of Mickey Mantle,” said Richardson, a teammate of Mantle’s with the New York Yankees. “He had the power. He could run. … The only difference was Mantle was a switch-hitter. But Hank didn’t need to be (a switch-hitter) because he could hit to all fields.” Small batted a robust .379 as a freshman in 1972 and gained star status as a junior when he batted .360 with 17 home runs. In April of 1974, USC hosted an exhibition game at Sarge Frye Field between the New York Yankees and New York Mets. Prior to the game, a home run hitting contest included Thurman Munson of the Yankees, Duffy Dyer of the Mets and Small, who won with a decisive home run over the left field fence. Small saved his best for last at USC when he batted .390 with 19 home runs as a senior, leading the Gamecocks to their first appearance in the College World Series. Following a 4-3 victory over N.C. State to win the Atlantic Region Tournament and clinch a berth in the College World Series, Small led his teammates to a party at the Tavern Inn, then located across from the athletics department’s Roundhouse on Rosewood Drive. Around midnight, the bar’s owner announced he had turned the club over to the baseball team and everyone else “could stay at your own risk,” according to Grantz. As the celebration continued, Small conducted the party from atop the bar – in his underwear. Later that morning, several team members took to the darkened Sarge Frye Field and ran the bases in their skivvies. ”He was one of the easiest, happy-going guys you would ever want to be around,” said Earl Bass, a pitcher and teammate of Small’s at USC, who attended the funeral from Boynton Beach, Fla. Bass said he formed a bond with Small, Grantz and Greg Ward during their USC days through Sunday brunches served by Bass’ mother, Dorothy, at her Cayce home. Bass said Small was as prodigious an eater as he was a home run hitter. After his teammates finished eating each Sunday, Small made certain there were no leftovers. Small’s brother, Martin, told Monday of the time Hank participated in an Atlanta Braves off-season caravan when he was playing in the team’s minor-league system. At one stop in Georgia, Hank was seated next to Lillian Carter, the mother of then-President Jimmy Carter. Hank’s teammates were impressed that he could carry on a high-level conversation with the president’s mother. Then, toward the end of the meal, Hank pressed Lillian Carter for one more question, and Martin was certain it would be about her son, the president. Instead, Small leaned close to Mrs. Carter and asked, “Are you going to eat that chicken?” Small made it to the major leagues for a late-season call-up by the Braves and played in one game, going hitless in four at-bats. Less than a year later, after asking for his release from the Braves, Small was finished with baseball. Atlanta’s decision to go with free-agent first baseman Mike Lum at the expense of Small weighed on Small for years. Some say Small never sorted out all the questions and never found answers to why Atlanta ultimately shunned a hometown hero. Small had other struggles in his life. A few years ago he divorced his childhood friend and high school sweetheart, Peggy, after many years of marriage. He returned to Atlanta and found work as a groundskeeper at the same field, Chastain Park, where he was a star growing up. He recently became engaged to Jennifer Strauss. A week ago Sunday the couple moved into what Strauss described as Small’s “dream house.” Two days later, Small fell on the front steps to the house, and he never regained consciousness. Richardson, who gave the eulogy at Mantle’s funeral in 1995, said the ending for the Yankees’ superstar was eerily similar to that of USC’s baseball superstar. Both Mantle and Small experienced difficult times after their playing careers, Richardson said. Both, according to Richardson, also found inner peace late in their lives. On his desk in Sumter, Richardson has a note from Small that he received a couple of years ago. Small wrote to say he had come back to the Lord and was happy about his decision. This tribute appeared on the Gordon College website: Gordon College joined many in the area who mourned the passing of Hank Small on March 3. Standing at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, the former Gordon Junior College head coach was an intimidating baseball player on the field and an easy going, well-liked individual off the field. Small was born in Atlanta during the early fifties and would soon discover a passion for baseball. By the time he reached high school, it was apparent Small had the skills to develop into a solid player. During his senior year at W.F. Dykes High School, he was voted the top baseball player in the metropolitan Atlanta area and was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles. Even with the offer to play major league baseball, he decided to continue his education and accepted a baseball scholarship to the University of South Carolina in 1971. It would not take long for Small to make his impact on the Gamecocks! As a freshman, he batted .379 with four home runs. The Atlanta native went on to letter all four years at USC and set the career home run mark at 48. A record that stood for more than three decades! His name is still found today in seven categories among the top 10 career leaders in South Carolina history. Small also won the team’s triple crown his last two seasons leading USC in batting average, home runs and runs batted in. His impressive numbers were recognized nationally as he earned All-America honors his junior and senior seasons. The Gamecocks were 155 ‘“ 45 ‘“ 2 in his four-year career while the 1975 team dominated the southeast with a 51 ‘“ 6 ‘“ 1 record. That same squad qualified for the College World Series and played in the national championship game before falling to Texas 5 ‘“ 1. Small hit safely in each of the Gamecocks’ six games and batted .346 while in Omaha for the series. He was then selected in the fourth round of the 1975 Major League Draft and spent five years in the Atlanta Braves organization. After being released by the Braves, Small was quickly picked up by the Detroit Tigers but a shoulder injury ended his career before the start of spring training in 1979. Having decided to return to South Carolina, he accepted a coaching position at Chapin High School. In July of 1981, Small would make his collegiate head coaching debut in Barnesville at then Gordon Junior College. Former GJC Athletic Director and Dean of Students Marvin Thomas was thrilled with the hire. ‘It was obvious Hank was very knowledgeable about the game of baseball,’ said Thomas. ‘However, his personality and ability to relate to players made him the right choice to build a strong baseball program.’ Before he began his first season, Small looked for an assistant to help with the team and he remembered Gene Dews. He had met Dews during his career with the Atlanta Braves and believed it would be a good match for the program. Ironically, Dews had applied for the same head coaching position at Gordon but there was never any animosity because of the decision. ’Hank was such a genuine person and he loved the kids,’ recalled Dews. ‘He created a great environment and really wanted his players to succeed outside of baseball. Coach always reminded them to use baseball and not let it use them.’ Small’s high expectations for his team soon were reflected on the field and the ‘Generals’ went on to post an impressive 40 ‘“ 19 record his first year. The 1981 ‘“ 82 squad also won the North Georgia division title and earned a spot in the playoffs. GJC would defeat ABAC in the first round but were eliminated after two straight losses. With a strong nucleus of players returning for the 1982 ‘“ 83 season, the campus and community were excited about the new season. The pitching staff of Mike Rosenburg, Scott Camp, Curtis Carey, and Tim Ward proved to be the key as the Generals had three no-hitters along with four shutouts in just the first 12 games. Hitting was also another strength of Small’s squad. Chris Johnson and Jim McBrayer were always a threat at the plate. With the combination of these talents, Gordon Junior College went on to win their second straight North Georgia title with a 10 ‘“ 2 conference record and earned the right to host the state NJCAA tournament. Johnson ended up being the top junior college baseball player in the state and was an All-Region, All Conference selection as well as McBrayer who finished the season with a .413 batting average. Both players would earn baseball scholarships as Johnson went to Troy State and McBrayer signed at West Georgia. McBrayer credits Small for much of his success today. ‘I didn’t know that much about him when he was hired at Gordon,’ said McBrayer. ‘I had already signed to play before he accepted the job but it wouldn’t take me long to find out how fortunate I would be to have two years under Coach Small.’ McBrayer’s statistics his sophomore year would prove just that as he would lead the state in triples as well as the team in runs scored, walks and stolen bases. Small once said McBrayer was one of the most consistent players he had in his two-year tenure and considered him to be one of the top defensive outfielders in the state of Georgia. The Generals would persevere through their three-day double elimination post-season tournament but fell in the 1983 championship game to Middle Georgia College. It would also be the end of coaching for Small as he resigned after the season with an overall record of 73 ‘“ 28 to begin work in the insurance business. The mark he left on Gordon’s baseball program and the numerous lives he touched are best summed up by McBrayer’s final thought. ‘We all have people along life’s journey that had a tremendous, positive impact on us. We don’t believe that they realize how they shaped us and we would dearly want them to know,’ stated McBrayer. ‘For me, Hank Small was one of those people in my life.’ For Gordon College, he was more than a baseball coach. He was a person that found time to give back and be a part of a community like Barnesville that will dearly miss him.

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