Hank Small: Hundreds mourn home run hero

03/09/2010 12:00 AM

03/09/2010 6:31 AM

ATLANTA - 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.

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