BAMBERG — - WHEN DAVID Horton walks into Frye’s Drive-In restaurant off U.S. 301 just outside Bamberg, all heads turn. Gov. Nikki Haley might attract the same attention in her hometown, but not likely. Horton glad hands a couple of old heads and quickly hurries off to a back room as a voice resonates from a table deep in the main dining area.
“Coach, you don’t need to retire,” the patron shouts.
There is no turning back now. Word spread last week through this community of 3,700 residents that the greatest coach in the history of South Carolina baseball has seated himself in the Bamberg-Ehrhardt High dugout for the final time.
David Horton retired at age 74, leaving behind 14 state championships, 889 wins, two national coach of the year honors and a legacy that might never again be matched in this state. He did not do it alone, though. Susan Horton, David’s wife and the woman who sat beside him in the dugout for 44 years as the team’s scorekeeper and “general manager,” also turned in her pencil.
“We’ve always been a baseball family,” David said this past week while he and Susan ushered guests around the garage-turned-museum of their North Street home. In this room, the visitor better understands how the Hortons’ baseball family extended to include their daughter, Jennifer, and every one of the 300 or so athletes lucky enough to wear a uniform for Horton.
To join the family meant making a commitment to undivided love of the game of baseball. How does that work? Consider that Jennifer, 42 and now living in Atlanta, was married in 1993 to Joe Baweja in the Brooks Robinson Suite at Baltimore’s Camden Yards.
For the players, that meant strict adherence to all rules set forth by Horton, from hair length to punctuality to a belief that being a student of the game was equally as important as knowing how to swing a bat or throw a strike. Fielding errors were permitted. Mental mistakes were not tolerated.
The rewards to family members were a revered status in the Bamberg and Ehrhardt communities, a chance nearly every season to compete for championships, and a few lessons to carry with them for the rest of their lives.
“If you grew up in Bamberg and you were fortunate enough to be a boy, the dads would groom you to be underneath (Horton), not just as a baseball coach,” said Mark McMillan, who played for Horton from 1979 to 1982 and now operates a real-estate business in Lexington.
“My love for that guy is about having a coach for life, doing the right things, conducting yourself in the right manner,” McMillan said. “You conduct yourself like a winner, and you’ll be a winner.”
Horton’s youth was typical for a boy in the late 1940s and early ’50s in Bishopville. He got his baseball fix by listening on the radio to Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees games. He rode his bicycle daily by the home of his idol, Doc Blanchard, the great Army running back who won the Heisman Trophy in 1945 when Horton was 11.
Horton’s father, Lawson, made ends meet as a postal carrier while tending cotton on the family’s 30-acre farm. His young life was not without tragedy. When Horton was 9, his 4-year-old brother Wayne died from complications following surgery for tonsillitis.
Horton eventually played some baseball at Newberry, coached the game at a technical school in Columbia and earned a teacher’s certificate in physical education at Applachian State University, where he met and soon married Susan.
Then Horton stumbled upon an announcement in The State newspaper seeking a coach and physical education teacher at Bamberg High. Susan, herself a “gym” teacher, followed along with her husband and their co-coaching and teaching careers were off the ground.
After two seasons as an assistant football coach and girls’ basketball coach, Horton inherited the baseball position for the 1968-69 school year. The pristine infield, covered batting cages and locker room facilities of today are a far cry from what Horton inherited when he counted a few wood bats and a handful of baseballs as his equipment supply. The park also was not named “David Horton Field” as it is today.
The one constant from the days of bell-bottom jeans through those of rap music was Horton’s teaching of the game and his compulsion for fundamentals. At the first day of practice each spring, Horton distributed a booklet of baseball situations. Each player was required to study it as if he were preparing for a final exam in a chemistry class.
“You went over the situations and they were absolutely beat into your brain for that (first) week to the point you could not forget them when the game was on,” said Clint Collins, who played for Bamberg-Ehrhardt from 1993 through 1997 and remains in the Bamberg area.
The booklet, a copy of which Collins still keeps in his home, covered every imaginable situation and where every player needed to be on the field: Single to right field with runner on first base, double to the gap with runners on first and second, single to left field with a runner at second, on and on ...
Collins once tested Horton’s rules, swinging without permission at a three-ball, no-strike count. Horton immediately emerged from the dugout, pulled Collins from the batters’ box and — loud enough for everyone in the park to hear — told the youngster that baseball was not played that way at Bamberg- Ehrhardt.
Year-in and year-out, every member of the team was well-versed in how to properly play the game. That faithfulness to Horton’s Law created a belief that when a game’s outcome swung in the balance, Bamberg-Ehrhardt would win. David Horton would make certain of that, sometimes in the most improbable of ways.
McMillan tells with great delight of how Bamberg-Ehrhardt was locked in a tie game against Hampton for the 1982 region championship. Stephen Hicks was on third base representing the potential winning run when McMillan came to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning.
Hampton elected to intentionally walk McMillan. On the third ball thrown by the Hampton pitcher, McMillan looked to Horton sitting on his customary upturned bucket at the far end of the Bamberg-Ehrhardt dugout while smoking his trademark pipe.
You have to understand that Horton seldom left the dugout. He was granted an exception from the South Carolina High School League and never wore a uniform, instead opting to be the Connie Mack of prep baseball. Like Mack, who for 53 seasons in the major leagues managed in a shirt and tie, Horton wore khaki pants and a gray shirt.
So, without saying a word, Horton played with his pipe and tipped his hat to McMillan, a signal that a play was on. This was no trick play because, like most, the team practiced its execution endlessly.
As soon as the fourth ball was thrown, McMillan tossed his bat aside and sprinted to first base as if he had stroked a ball to the outfield. McMillan rounded first base and took out for second. Then, suddenly, he stopped between first and second base.
“I looked at that pitcher and his eyes were as big as a baseball, each one,” McMillan said.
The pitcher wheeled and threw the ball to second base as Hicks bolted for home with the winning run, sending Bamberg-Ehrhardt to the Lower State final and eventually to one of four state runner-up finishes under Horton.
The McMillan boys — Mark, Corley and Bob — and the Wilson boys — Richard, Stevie, Mookie, Daniel, Collis, John and Phillip — provided Horton with enough talent to carry Bamberg-Ehrhardt to eight consecutive Class 2A championships from 1974 to 1981. That matched the national record set by Tucson (Ariz.) High from 1939-46, a mark that has since been broken.
Typical of the players of those days, the McMillans grew up on a farm outside Bamberg. During the summer months, they loaded watermelons on the back of trucks all day, showered beneath irrigation pipes and dressed in the car on the way to baseball games at night. The Wilsons — there were five girls in addition to the seven boys — grew up in Ehrhardt dividing family members into teams for sandlot games.
Mookie Wilson, who played at USC before enjoying a 12-year major-league career, said this past week that Horton was his first — and most influential — coach in organized baseball.
Wilson eventually would pay Horton the ultimate compliment when he was playing for the Toronto Blue Jays and living in New Jersey. Wanting his stepson, Preston Wilson, to play high school baseball for Horton, the family moved to Bamberg. Preston might have been the best and most talented of all the Wilsons, blasting a national-record seven grand slams for Bamberg-Ehrhardt in 1992, a mark that still stands.
To hear Horton tell it, setting records and winning championships was mostly about directing superior talent.
“All those wins, it’s not the result of me,” Horton said. “It takes talent. Granted, talent’s not everything. You’ve got to have some other things that go along with talent. You’ve got to be competitive. You’ve got to have the right attitude. Players win games. Coaches don’t win games.”
Most would beg to differ. Eddie Folk is one of those. He played on one of Horton’s first Bamberg High teams, then returned to serve as an assistant coach beginning in 1983.
“He says that, but that’s just how modest David is,” Folk said. “He did have some good talented players, I’ll admit that. But he also had some average players that he molded into good players and he should take credit for that as well.”
Horton, instead, insists on passing the credit around, mostly to his coaches who joined the program early on and became longtime friends and golfing partners. Folk coached third base, Roland Deaton coached first base and Jimmy Wilson oversaw the junior varsity program.
Even with that loyal stable of assistants, no one had more input with Horton than his wife, Susan, who sat religiously next to him in the dugout for every game and served as the team’s official scorekeeper and statistician. If Horton sang the program’s lyrics, then Susan surely was the one who wrote them.
“If you tossed him from a game, she had to go to. They were in it together,” said Dennis O’Keefe, a long-time umpire in the state.
At the asking, Susan can still pull scorebooks, statistic sheets and scrapbooks from her belongings at home. She can recall, sometimes better than her husband, events and circumstances from games more than four decades ago.
She tells of the first state championship in 1974 and a final game played at Blue Ridge High deep in the South Carolina mountains. The highway the team took to Blue Ridge dead ended at the school, where a plywood sign “welcomed” visitors with the words: “Trespassers will be shot.”
She remembers the bus rides home on road trips when her husband concluded trips by ordering the driver to floor it over the many speed bumps in the junior high parking lot. She and her husband would howl in laughter as the boys in the back of the bus bounced from their seats to the ceiling.
Mark McMillan recalls getting scouting reports on opposing pitchers from Susan in the dugout. Students in her physical education classes were required to learn how to keep score. While her husband dragged the infield, she edged the grass. She was in charge of stocking and managing the concession stand.
None of the former players has forgotten Susan’s insistence that uniforms be worn properly. She sometimes stood in the locker room to make certain stirrups and sanitary socks met her inspection. She was known to yank the hat off a player if he cocked it on his head or — God, forbid — wore it backward in public.
Susan washed the team’s uniforms, both for games and practices. Every day during the season, the practice uniform would be clean, folded neatly and sitting in front of each player’s locker. The same was true before games, with the uniform placed next to a player’s travel bag for road trips.
“I don’t think any Momma has ever washed a Bamberg uniform,” said Randy Sandifer, who played on the 1981 state championship team, then watched his sons, Don and Randon, play for the 2008 and 2009 title teams.
Sandifer’s sons continue to play small-college baseball. Before they return to school after visits home, they find a care box from Susan with her now-famous “chewies.” The blonde brownies with pecans were a staple, along with sandwiches, Susan prepared for the team on road trips. Older players referred to the “chewies” as “rocket fuel.” Not a single player’s birthday passed without a cake made by Susan for the celebration.
Many players such as McMillan still have the cross-stitched “plaque” she produced for them upon graduation. She also makes certain that every graduate of the program signs one of the two home plates that sit against one wall in their den/museum at home.
David Horton seldom carried as many as 15 players on his roster, so to have your signature on one of the home plates confirmed your position in Bamberg-Erhardt’s select baseball family. The 1978 state championship club — Horton’s only unbeaten squad with a 19-0 record — was reduced to 10 players for the title game when reserve Donald Kearse broke his toe.
No matter the contribution, whether from a backup such as Kearse or from one of the stars such as Mookie and Preston Wilson, all former players long recall their days under Horton as among the most enjoyable of their lives. All have a special place in Horton’s memory as well.
Horton said this week that he retired so he can watch his two grandsons in Atlanta, ages 13 and 6, play baseball. He also will have more time in retirement to host friends in his den.
Pictures and plaques adorn every inch of the walls in the room. There is one photo with Horton standing between Mookie Wilson in his New York Mets uniform and Preston Wilson as a member of the Florida Marlins. Then there is the bat from the 2003 Major League All-Star Game that hangs on an adjacent wall and is worth noting more for the inscription than the bat itself.
“To Coach Horton,” it reads. “Thanks for giving me the great baseball foundation. I love you.”
It is signed by Preston Wilson, but could just as easily carry the signature of every player in Horton’s 44 seasons at Bamberg-Ehrhardt.
Watch commentaries by Morris Mondays at 6 and 11 p.m. on ABC Columbia News (WOLO-TV)