Stories from the front porch  in Hatton

James Franklin Beck attended Hatton High School. After graduating on May 11, 1959, Beck signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Hatton, Alabama is a sleepy little crossroads in the west-central part of Lawrence County.  According to the 2010 census Hatton’s population was 261.  

The heart of Hatton has been and probably always will be its community schools. The public schools in Hatton are exceptional. Grads from this small but well loved alma mater will tell you quickly that some of the best people in the world have come through its doors, gone out into the world and made Hatton proud. Others have stayed right here on property that has been in their family for generations. Names like Landers, Rutherford, Roberts and Smith are synonymous with the history of this place where everyone knows one another and are proud to call Hatton home.

Like other stories in this series, our focus is on hometown history, folklore, and the human element which makes a place either a real home or just a place to hang your hat. Hatton is well loved and time tested and if you ask a Hatton resident to tell you about their hometown, the subject of sports will be one of the first things most of them mention.

 Hatton High School is classified as a 2A School by the Alabama High School Athletic Association.  As of 2018–19, the Hatton Hornet Athletic Program has won 20 State Championships: three in slow-pitch softball (1992, 1993, 1996); five in fast-pitch softball (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2017); four in women’s volleyball (1990, 1991, 1992, 1993); two in women’s basketball (2002, 2004); one in men’s basketball (1964); and five in men’s cross country (2003, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012). Additionally, the school has finished state runners-up on many occasions.

The first touchdown in the first Hatton game for its first football team was scored by James Franklin Beck. He recalls it as if it were yesterday.

Principal Vernon Lang had gotten the ball rolling to form a team. The county had given money for the royal blue and white uniforms. A booster club was formed to raise additional funds for the fledgling team. Although the school had no football field of their own at the time, arrangements were made for Hatton’s first game to be played on a Thursday night on Moulton’s original football field behind what is now Moulton Middle School. Fans endured heat and cold, hard concrete bleachers and blazing sun to watch games there. This one, in August, was a scorcher, but in spite of that, the bleachers were filled with people from all over the county as Hatton went up against Ardmore for their first game. The smell of hot dogs hung in the late summer evening air. To say there was a current of electrified excitement would have been putting it mildly. Beck thinks that the announcer was Malcomb Walker.

 “We really didn’t know what to expect,” says Beck. “We’d only had three weeks to practice and there was so much we didn’t know.”  Some members of the team had never even watched a football game, much less played in one.

In the first quarter Beck got called for a safety violation. He had no idea what a safety violation was, much less what he’d done to get one. The official had to explain it to the young athlete. He’d been flagged for safety in the end zone.  Ardmore was given two points for that. Forced to punt, they had to ask the official to help them again. “We didn’t even know how to line up,” he laughed.

Then, at the top of the final quarter, Beck intercepted a pass on the 20 yard line. He just stood there with the ball under his arm. “Run!” shouted the nearest official. And run he did. James Franklin Beck made history right then and there, running like the devil was at his back he crossed the goal line and heard the roaring of the crowd behind him. Exhilarated, he turned to see his teammates rushing toward him, yelling and screaming as if the rapture was occurring there on the goal line.

The boy on the score stand flipped the number over. Although Ardmore beat the Hornets  36-6, it was one of the most memorable moments in what would become thousands in Hatton’s football history. Not many people can say that they scored the first touchdown of the first game of the first team since 1944, back when there was a six-man team.

He was the quarterback for that first team, and was the first Hornet to be honored as all-county and all–area in all three sports in his senior year. It earned him a place in the LC Hall of Fame in 1996.

The morning following that first game, he was up before sunrise heading for the cotton field. He recalls being so sore that he could barely bend over, but he picked all day long. During the week he picked all day, then practiced until the team couldn’t see for darkness. Many times he hitchhiked to practice and back. “You really had to want to play back then,” he said recently.

Not only was Beck a first class football player, but after trying out for the team in Sheffield with 91 other hopefuls, and being the only player chosen, he was picked up by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1959. He signed on as pitcher for the famous baseball team soon after graduation. “I graduated on May 11,” Beck recalled recently, “And by July 3, I was traveling on a Grayhound bus bound for Panama City, Florida.”

When he arrived, tired, hungry and sleepy, all he had was a man’s name and number. When he got there the man in charge took him to a restaurant, told him where to go to stow his clothes, and that he should be ready for his first game that afternoon and a make-up game that night. Right after the game they would leave to go on the road. “From then on for four days we went from one city to another, playing ball, then getting back on the bus and heading to another ballgame. It was about five days before I finally got to sleep in my room,” he laughed.

He played his first professional games with the Panama City Fliers, one of the Dodger’s farm leagues in Florida. He also pitched for teams in Orlando and Tampa.

His roommate and fellow pitcher from Martinez, California, was a guy by the name of Tug McGraw. You might not recognize that name, but you’ve probably heard of his son, Tim. Beck was the right handed pitcher and McGraw was the leftie. The two became great friends over the following years.  

It was almost like being a movie star, crowds followed the Dodgers everywhere and the stadiums were always packed. Beck did well with the team. His future seemed limitless. But even the best laid plans go awry and after playing ball for the Los Angeles Dodgers for four years, he was injured while on the mound in 1962. At the time he was pitching for the Western Carolina League. He got his foot hung on the mound and it pulled all the muscles in his lower back. The injury never really healed to the extent that he could play again. His speed was 96 mph, and he had the records to prove it, but he no longer had a career in the game he so loved.

While playing with the Dodgers’ organization he had the opportunity to share the field with Don Zimmer, Sandy Koufax, Ted Williams, Willie Mayes and Mickey Mantle.  

His career was cut short but what an achievement for a farm boy who had never wanted to do anything but play ball. Considering that Hatton had no baseball team during the time he was in high school, and that previous to starting with the Dodgers, Beck only played sandlot ball for the most part, it was an amazing ride for the Hatton native who also excelled in basketball. A Decatur Daily newspaper article once described him as a dead-eye shooter after the 6’1” senior sank six straight longshots, four of them coming in the crucial second quarter that helped the Hornets surge ahead of the Moulton Red Devils. The final score was 67-63. Flavious and Jimmy Randolph also scored big in that game, earning 12 points each.

Back in Hatton, he was the talk of Bertie’s Café. Since 1954, when Billy and Azina Green opened a café on Hatton’s main street, which is actually Al. Hwy. 101, it had become the place to see and be seen in Hatton. As soon as school let out in the afternoons, on weekends and during the lunch hour, Bertie’s was the place to be. Named for the second owner, who started there as a cook for the Green’s, Bertie Newton was famous for her culinary abilities. Most of her food was traditional Southern fare, but kids and adults alike were partial to her hamburgers, hot dogs and other lunch counter-type sandwiches. Hamburgers were 20 cents, hot dogs were fifteen cents and Coke’s were a nickel.

After ballgames and on Saturday nights the place filled up with Hatton fans who were hungry and excited, and ready to dance. They kept that ol’ jukebox humming until midnight on weekends.

Melissa Harrison recalls Hatton in the ‘60s when her grandparents, R.M. and Kathleen Landers lived just off of Hwy. 101, right smack in the middle of Hatton. “My grandfather owned the gin and my grandmother owned a fabric store,” said Melissa. “On Saturdays people would come to Hatton and the women would shop for fabric or get their hair done at Jewel Newton’s Beauty Shop, while the men would visit the gin.”

The men also visited Mr. Anderton’s store or Haygood’s or NeSmith’s stores or the Co-Op, the service station or get a haircut at the barber shop in town.

(2) comments

PRO1stAmendment

[smile] Wonderful article! Love to read about local folks' lives back in the day.

pappy778

Excellent article. I haven't seen Franklin Beck in forever, but, I knew who the picture was immediately. I graduated from Hatton in 1957. Long time ago. I rally enjoyed this story, especially about picking the cotton.

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