An entire generation would say Jim Rice was the finest baseball player Anderson County had ever seen. An equal number would say Larry Nance’s basketball feats made him the undisputed king of the Anderson County court.
Rice and Nance are two of county’s finest, no argument.
But they have nothing on Sneaky. The Mystic Marvel. Mr. Automatic. The Blonde Blizzard, The Pelzer Pistol, The Man of a Hundred Shots, Shotgun.
Don Roper simply calls his childhood hero turned lifelong friend, “The Earl.”
Earl Wooten died in 2006, but his exploits on the baseball field and basketball court live on among those in the Upstate who witnessed his excellence.
“Rootin’ Tootin’ Wooten,” Roper said, rattling off another nickname. “He was just so much quicker than everybody else. The reflexes, the eyes.”
Born Jan. 16, 1924 in Pelzer, Wooten grew up during the golden age of Textile Mill baseball and basketball. From a young age, it was apparent Wooten’s gift for baseball could take him to the Major Leagues.
As a 20-year-old, the 5-10, 152-pound Wooten threw a no-hitter during the annual Fourth of July game between the Piedmont and Pelzer mill teams.
Not long after that, he was signed by the Washington Senators. Three years after that in 1947, Wooten made his big-league debut during a brief call-up.
It was 1948 when fate would determine Wooten’s future. He showed promise that season for the Senators as a super-utility player capable of playing any position. He batted .256, flashed a good glove and quick feet.
Team owner Clark Griffith wanted Wooten to spend the offseason bulking up. Wooten didn’t want to, for it would interfere with his offseason job — playing basketball.
Wooten led Pelzer High to consecutive state basketball titles in 1941 and 1942. During the 1948 season, the NBA’s Washington Capitols had attempted to lure Wooten away from the Senators.
In those days, most baseball players didn’t earn enough money to simply vacation during the offseason. For Wooten, that meant playing semi-pro basketball for the area mill teams.
“I told him I had to play basketball because basketball was what I did for my livelihood,” Wooten told The State in 2003. “I had just gotten married and I played basketball for a living during the offseason.”
Griffith and Wooten reached a compromise — Wooten would be paid $300 a month to not play basketball.
It was a great deal ... but not one Wooten would honor.
“After I got home, they started dribbling the ball and I just joined in,” he said.
Wooten played basketball that winter just as he had every other offseason, playing under his brother’s name or some other alias.
Unfortunately for Wooten, Griffith had spies trailing him. Once Griffith heard of Wooten’s duplicity, his contract was torn up and he was banished to Chattanooga, a Double-A team. He would never play in the big leagues again.
Wooten continued to play baseball and basketball throughout the 1950s and his exploits led to sold-out gymnasiums throughout the Upstate. He is the only player ever to amass 1,000 career points in the Upstate’s legendary Southern Textile League basketball tournament.
Wooten’s weapons of choice on the basketball court were a driving left-handed layup and an odd two-handed overhead set shot he could hit from virtually anywhere on the court.
But it was his quickness that truly set him apart.
Roper grew up in Piedmont and like many mill town kids, came to know of Wooten. One of Roper’s first basketball games as a member of the Piedmont Mill team pitted him against Wooten, nearly two decades his elder.
“We were playing at the old Palmetto High School and I remember coming down with a rebound. I look around and I see Earl had the ball and laid it in,” Roper said. “Then I get the ball back and look around and see Earl was laying it in again. He was that quick.”
Wooten was elected to the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame in 1962. He continued to work in the textile industry until his retirement in 1976.
For most of those final years, Wooten worked alongside Roper and the two became good friends.
On Roper’s 60th birthday, he was presented with a baseball that had a unique, almost mythical story that any old-time Textile League fan could recite.
As the story goes, during an important Textile League game some time during the 1950s, Wooten was playing center field when a ball went through his legs.
Wooten chased the ball to the fence, then yelled to the umpire the ball had gone under it, pointing to a batting practice ball in the creek behind the wall. While the umpires sorted it out, Wooten surreptitiously buried the real ball in some high grass.
The umpires declared the play a ground-rule double. A potential tying run was sent back to third base and Wooten’s team prevailed by a run.
Years later, Wooten signed that ball for Roper on his 60th birthday.
Wooten lived with his wife, Thelma, in Pelzer until his death on Aug. 12, 2006. In that 2003 interview, Wooten said he often wondered what would have happened if he honored Griffith’s contract in 1948, but had no regrets.
“I think about the pros and cons, but I don’t regret what happened. You just don’t know what would have happened,” he said. “With baseball, I did a lot of traveling, and that’s a pretty good thing for a little ol’ Pelzer boy.”