This is a story about two guys, an African-American child and a 20-year-old baseball prospect. One set a record that will probably never be broken, while the other one’s promising career ended tragically on a bloody plot of land in Korea. Their paths crossed, then diverged sharply. It would be fair to say that they were temporary associates rather than friends, sharing a mutual fondness and respect. It was the typical kind of relationship a batboy has with the star outfielder for the local minor league ball club, except for that one inning when they were actually teammates.
It also would be fair to say, if not for the grace and good humor of one of these two individuals, the other would not have been immortalized in baseball history.
Basically, this is a reconsideration (in places, a rewriting) of a piece I published about one of these guys – the batboy – 10 years ago in The National Pastime, an annual publication of The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). That story told of the day when Joe Reliford, the bat boy, became the youngest player to appear in a professional (albeit Class D) baseball game, or what they used to call, “organized ball.”
Joe Louis Reliford, named for the boxer, grew up in Fitzgerald, a city of about 8,000 in south Georgia during the heart of the Jim Crow era. Fitzgerald is a small city with a few baseball distinctions. In addition to Joe’s feat while working for the Fitzgerald Pioneers, the city was also once home of a Baltimore Orioles farm team (1957), directed by a 27-year-old player/manager named Earl Weaver.
In 1950, when he was 10 years old, Joe talked the manager of the Pioneers of the Class D Georgia State League – former Major League All-Star pitcher Ace Adams – into hiring him as the team’s batboy. Adams did everything he could to discourage the kid, but Joe, one of Luronie Gillis Reliford’s 10 children (her husband and their father, Roscoe, died when Joe was a toddler), wanted to make a few bucks to help his family.
He loved baseball and was a fan of both the Pioneers and the Lucky Stars, an all-black semipro team from Fitzgerald. “But they weren’t hiring,” said Joe. “The Pioneers were.”
Joe got the gig and served as the team’s batboy (attending to most of the team’s in-game equipment details), shined the players’ shoes, traveled with the club. It was hard work and he was a seasoned veteran by July 19, 1952 when, four months shy of his 13th birthday, he pinch hit for Ray Nichting – the outfielder, and the second man this story is about – in the top of the eighth inning of a night game at Statesboro, becoming the youngest professional player of all time, and breaking the racial barrier in the still-segregated Georgia State League. Joe’s story has interested me since I first read about it 45 or so years ago in one of those “strange but true” sports story collections.
But I became really interested in Ray’s story after first interviewing him more than 10 years ago. He quit playing baseball because he’d been wounded badly in Korea, and had spent years coaching Little League ball. I’d never dug much deeper, but came upon a few cool items, including a great story written by Pete Conrad of the Journal-News in Butler County, Ohio (Nichting’s hometown newspaper). A subscription to Newspapers.com helped find a few other things that I didn’t use directly, but helped me understand a little more of who Ray is and was. Basically, he’s a guy that I’d like to know.
But the fulcrum of the Joe and Ray story is an inning in a pretty meaningless game on a summer night in Statesboro (a two and a half hour bus ride from Fitzgerald), where the gnats and the hometown Pilots were clobbering the visiting Pioneers, 13-0. This was the lowest rung of the minors, a sweaty eight-team league that was then in the middle of its nine-year existence, two teams playing below .500 ball battling for fifth place. But It was also the height of what appeared, at the time, to be a promising career for Nichting, 20-years-old at the time and in his second season with Fitzgerald.
He’d been a star athlete on the sandlots around Cincinnati and in high school, where he was a touchdown threat as a halfback on the football team, and the best hitter on the baseball team. He was a right-fielder with a powerful arm, the best hitter in the Fitzgerald lineup, batting .330 as the team rolled into Statesboro, and leading the Pioneers in runs batted in. He’d finish the year with a .309 average, finishing second in the league in triples, and second in outfield assists. His dream of one day playing in the big leagues didn’t seem so farfetched, and he was sure to be promoted up the minor league ladder.
Pilots Field was packed on Elks Night, special ticket prices bringing them in from the sticks, “5,000, maybe 6,000 people,” Reliford recalled to me 10 or so years ago, the numbers undoubtedly having grown like proverbial fish in the decades since that game. “The ballpark was full,” Reliford said. “And every time they saw me grab a bat, they’d yell.”
The crowd was rubbing salt on the wound of the visiting Pioneers. They chanted, “put in the bat boy!” After several innings of this, Fitzgerald’s manager at the time, Charlie Ridgeway, figured, “what the hell?” He asked Nichting, first. The young right-fielder, having a great season, was feeling magnanimous. Plus, he liked the kid. “I was having a good year, but we’re getting killed and Charlie asks me, ‘Do you care if I let Joe bat for you?’ I didn’t have a problem with it,” Nichting told me 10 years ago, recalling the scrawny kid, barely 90 pounds soaking wet, who was actually a fine ballplayer.
“Joe would take batting practice [with us], pitch batting practice, warm up pitchers, shag fly balls, stuff like that,” Ray said. “He was a real good kid, and he worked his butt off for us, a great athlete. But this was a different time, down in South Georgia.”
Nichting recalled years later in the Journal-News what it was like just to try and get a meal in those days. “We’d go to a restaurant, we’d take him in with us, they wouldn’t serve him, they wouldn’t serve us,” he said. So he was glad to give Joe a break in a time and place when breaks usually didn’t present themselves to 12-year-old black kids.
With his leading hitter’s blessing, Ridgeway told the home plate umpire, Ed Kusick, he was inserting Reliford, who wasn’t on the Fitzgerald roster, into the game – with the understanding that if Joe got a base hit, the Pioneers would probably have to forfeit the game. Joe protested. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He told the webzine Jockbio.com in 2011, “Ray Nichting wasn’t some ordinary ballplayer. He was our Mickey Mantle.”
But Ray was having too fine a time watching this all go down, and Ridgeway was insistent. “So I grabbed a bat and went out there to hit, and that really revved up the crowd,” Reliford said. “I’ll never forget it, like this was yesterday. Their pitcher was Curtis White. I figured he was gonna throw the ball to me like I was a child. I was a child.”
White, working on a two-hitter, was Statesboro’s ace, with an ERA of 2.63 with a 16–11 record. He was just as surprised to see the batboy step into the batter’s box as Reliford was to see a fastball zip past him. “He threw it hard, and I got angry,” Joe said. So he tried to hit the next pitch out of the park, but was proud to have just made contact. The third baseman backhanded the grounder and threw young Reliford out by a step. But Joe’s professional debut wasn’t over.
In the bottom of the eighth, after White had retired Fitzgerald, Ridgeway told Reliford to go to right field. “I thought he was kidding,” Reliford said. “I told him, ‘Mr. Ridgeway, we can’t do this!’ But he just said, ‘Go ahead, get out there.’”
With one out in the bottom of the eighth, Statesboro had a man on first, “and the next man hit a grounder to right, a base hit,” Joe recalled. “The man on first tore around second and went for third. He must have figured I was just some little kid. Well, I had a rifle arm, and that ball was waiting for him at third.”
You can imagine Nichting, who not only led the league in putouts by right fielder that year but errors as well, shaking his head and smiling on the bench while the kid put on a clinic in the outfield.
With two outs, up came Pilots’ slugger Harold Shuster, who was working on a 21-game hitting streak but had gone ironically hitless in Statesboro’s offensive onslaught that night. He would knock in 100 runs that season and bat .339. A right-handed hitter, Shuster sliced a drive to deep right, but Reliford flagged it down at the fence. “That kid picked it off like a champion,” Nichting exclaimed almost 60 years later.
That’s when the place went nuts. Statesboro fans came pouring out of the stands toward Reliford, even though there was another inning left to play. Consider the scene: it’s 1952 in segregated South Georgia, and this 12-year-old black kid, still numb after playing an inning of baseball with and against hardened professionals, white professionals, sees a mob of white people – fans of the opposing team, no less – running right at him.
“I was so scared I shut my eyes and expected the worst,” Reliford says. “I didn’t know they just wanted to congratulate me.”
The fans clapped him on the back and stuffed his pockets full of money. The game was forfeited to Statesboro, the league suspended Ridgeway, fined him $50, and fired Kusick, the umpire. But history had been made. At the end of the season, the club dismissed Reliford, whose greatest moments on a professional ball field were now behind him. The same could also be said for Nichting, as a player anyway.
Joe joined the Lucky Stars for a while and the team tried to capitalize on his new-found fame as baseball’s youngest professional. He got into a few games for the all-black team but his career didn’t last. He went on to become a four-star athlete at Monitor High School and played football at Florida A&M, but a broken collarbone ended his athletic career.
Except for a few months in New York, where he tried to live after college, Reliford has spent his entire life in South Georgia, mostly in the town of Douglas, where he worked as a jukebox repairman for many years, coached football and basketball at a local high school for African American students before Georgia integrated its schools, and served a term as city commissioner.
His achievement that hot July in South Georgia has been recognized in the Guinness Book of World Records and on the Ripley’s Believe It or Not television program. In 1991, his record also earned him inclusion in the National Baseball Museum, which erected a display honoring his accomplishment, and he spun the growing awareness of his record into an 80-page book, From Batboy to the Hall of Fame.
The poor kid who loved baseball and only wanted to make a few bucks to help his family unwittingly became famous and put his name on a record that probably won’t be broken. “That one inning of ball made me a celebrity,” Reliford said. “They put me in as kind of a joke, and that joke got turned around and became a blessing for me.”
That one inning is also the thing Ray Nichting is most famous for in his professional career, which seems tragic considering what would happen to him not very long after. Well maybe it just seems tragic to everyone except Ray Nichting.
Following the 1952 season he was sold to the Tampa Smokers of the Class B Florida International League – a promotion. And he also received his draft notice – a war was raging in Korea. He was given a choice: try out for an armed services baseball team, like so many players have done during war time.; or go into battle and have a shorter stay overseas. Eager to get through service and get back to baseball, he chose the second option. In 2011 he told the Journal-News, “It was a bad choice, I guess.” But he also said, “I figured if you want to live in this country, you have to do your job for your country.”
Sadly for Nichting, any chance of doing the job he was seemingly born to do – play baseball – would be dashed the summer of 1953 on Pork Chop Hill, less than a year after that hot night in Statesboro. July 7, 1953 would be significantly hotter. Facing a mass of Chinese soldiers, Ray was a squad leader in a company of 244 men. Six got out of the battle alive.
“One walked off, five of us were carried off,” Nichting told the Journal-News. He was one of the five, losing his right leg and suffering other wounds in a grenade explosion. “I got hit at 10 o’clock. I didn’t get off the hill until 3 or 4 o’clock the next afternoon. I thought I’d lost both of my legs.” He dragged himself most of the way down the hill by himself, crawling over dead bodies all the way. Nichting came home from Korea with a chest full of medals, but left his career as a baseball player behind.
The never-say-die Nichting went to barber school under the G.I. Bill and spent the next five decades cutting hair, while perfecting his bowling game. But he and baseball were not finished with each other. Ray became a youth baseball coach, taking a number of Little League teams from Hamilton, Ohio, deep into postseason play, including several Little League World Series.
Not surprisingly, the man who showed patience and respect for a 12-year-old bat boy in 1950s south Georgia, got along famously with the 10, 11, and 12-year-olds he coached or managed for decades. “He always knew how to communicate with kids, no matter where they came from,” Ray’s son, Tim Nichting, told the Journal-News in the 2011 story about his father.
His players said that Ray Nichting had a gift for teaching kids how to play like champions while allowing them to remain kids. He made practices and games fun, defying the stereotype of the win-at-all-costs big fish in a Little League pond. He was never a screamer, not an intimidator, letting the kids — who, of course, were always fascinated with his artificial leg — do their own thinking, bucking them up when they needed it, never lambasting a child for making a mistake in a child’s game. Why, it’s almost as if Ray Nichting has something called perspective.
At this writing, both Joe Reliford and Ray Nichting are still alive, both in their 80s (Joe will be 81 this year, and Ray will be 88). Their lives went in completely different directions since that strange inning in July 1952. Reliford has tried his best to capitalize on his one inning of fame, and rightly so – it is a singular achievement, being the youngest person, and first person of color, to do what he did. It may have been a lark to the fans and the managers, but it has proven itself, over time, to be a very big deal personally to Joe Reliford, a point of pride. That one inning in organized ball got him recognized in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, after all.
Ray Nichting, on the other hand, who played two seasons of Class D baseball and seemed destined for plenty more before the horror of war interfered, will never be enshrined in Cooperstown. Both he and his son are members of their local sports hall of fame, for having guided hundreds of young ball players for almost 60 years. Tim’s son, Ray’s grandson, T.J. Nichting is carrying on the family baseball tradition — he plays in the Baltimore Orioles’ minor league system (or, he did when there was such a thing as professional baseball). And Ray, once voted Hamilton’s ‘Citizen of the Year,’ is a local legend for his contributions on baseball diamonds, in his community, and on a foreign battlefield. who remains a local legend for his contributions.
Alas, hall of fame qualities as a citizen and human being do not equate to National Baseball Hall of Fame enshrinement. It isn’t anyone’s fault, really. Them are the rules. Guys whose pro baseball careers begin and end in the bush leagues, no matter how many bowling trophies they win and how many children’s lives they impact positively, are never considered for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Nonetheless, it is Cooperstown’s loss because throughout his life Ray Nichting has proven one thing over and over again: he’s a guy you really want on your team.
This story was written based on interviews I conducted with Joe Reliford and Ray Nichting about 10, 11 years ago, plus these other sources: Georgia Trend magazine (a story that I wrote), Minorleaguebaseball.com, Associated Press (May 1995), JockBio.com, the Journal-News of Butler County (Ohio), and BaseballReference.com, and The National Pastime (2010, another story I wrote).