Joe Louis Reliford, at age 10, sought employment in the rural area of Fitzgerald, Georgia, to support his mother, who suffered from arthritis. He and his friend crossed the railroad tracks after watching an all white minor league team from afar for nearly two weeks. The manager for the Fitzgerald Pioneers, Charley Ridgeway, noticed the two young black boys approaching him. Practice immediately came to a halt as Joe asked the manager for a job.
Ridgeway drove Joe and his friend to the Reliford’s home. Upon entering, Joe introduced the manager to his mother who sat on the couch soaking her hands in warm water. Ridgeway explained clearly that he could use Joe as the Batboy with permission. Mrs. Reliford approved of the arrangement and Joe earned $68 per week for monitoring 50 bats and balls and shining 28 pairs of cleats. Two years later, in Statesboro, the Pioneers, then a farm team for the Kansas City A’s, now called the Oakland A’s, played the Statesboro Pilots – farm team for the
Pittsburgh Pirates. Losing 13-0 in the last inning the opposing crowd began to chant,” Put the Batboy in the game!” They wanted some entertainment. Manager Ridgeway approached home plate and asked the umpire if Joe could play. The umpire allowed the 12 year old batboy to pinch hit, throw out a runner and rob a batter from a home run, all in one inning. In doing so, Joe Louis Reliford, unintentionally made history and fame. He then became the youngest pro baseball player to ever participate in a pro game. Joe’s last inning catch is presently in Cooperstown, New York. He was mobbed in jubilation after making that heroic catch and the crowd poured money into his pockets.
The Douglas, Georgia native is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as “The World’s Youngest Pro Baseball Player” – Author of, From Batboy To The Hall of Fame. He received a resolution from the Georgia State Senate in 1991 for making American Baseball History, unplanned. He paved the way for Hall of Famers- Willie McCovey and Frank Robinson in the Georgia State Baseball League, among others. In 2006, the trendsetter met over 2500 kids in Cooperstown- Major League Baseball Hall of Fame Museum. Thanks to veteran Sportscaster James Brown, Reliford threw out the first pitch at Washington Nationals Stadium – June 25, 2008. In high school, Reliford was a superb student athlete and received a scholarship for football at Florida A&M University. He accomplished a fantastic career in law enforcement and as a commissioner in the City of Douglas.
Another notable ball player from Statesboro’s history is Geneie Smith. Eugene F. “Genie” Smith was an American pitcher who played for several Negro league baseball teams between 1938 and 1951. Listed at 6′ 1″ and weighing 185 lb., Smith was a switch-hitter and threw right-handed. Smith was known as a hard-throwing pitcher during a solid career that saw him play for nine different Negro league clubs. In addition, he pitched for teams in Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Minor league baseball, taking a three-year break to serve in the US Army during World War II.
Smith entered the Negro Leagues in 1938 with the Atlanta Black Crackers, playing for them one year before joining the Ethiopian Clowns (1939), New Orleans-St. Louis Stars (1940–1941), Kansas City Monarchs (1941) and New York Black Yankees (1942). Following military discharge, he played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords (1946), Homestead Grays (1946–1947), Cleveland Buckeyes (1946–1950) and Chicago American Giants (1951).
In 1938, while pitching for the Black Crackers, Smith threw two no-hitters in one day, and in 1941 with the Stars hurled another against the Black Yankees. He also started Games 3 and 6 of the 1947 Negro League World Series against the New York Cubans. Like many Negro Leaguers, Gene Smith was never allowed in Major League Baseball. By the time Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Smith was nearing the end of his own career, with an arm unable to cope with the demands of pitching due to assorted injuries. Smith ended his career in 1953, dividing his playing time with the Statesboro Pilots of the Georgia State League and the Fond du Lac Panthers of the Wisconsin State League. Following his baseball career, Smith worked as a packer for National Lead Co., retiring in 1977. He also coached baseball for the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club. Then, in 1983 he gained induction into the St. Louis Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1997, Smith and other Negro League veterans were honored during a St. Louis Cardinals home game for their work in paving the way for Robinson to make his jump from the Negro Leagues to the Brooklyn Dodgers.