South Charlotte

Softball tradition: 40 years and still going

Myers Park resident Carl McPhail, 53, says not too many men his age have 40-year traditions.

But he and a couple dozen graduates of Alexander Graham Junior High (now middle school) do.

It started the second Saturday in June 1972.

It was hot, muggy, sluggish.

"School had just let out and everybody is sitting at home without anything to do, looking for something to do," said McPhail, owner of McPhail Mortgage. It was the "days before computers ... back when kids used to look for stuff to do outside."

All it took was a few quick phone calls to rally more than 20 shaggy-haired, cutoff-jeans-wearing boys for a pickup game of softball at Freedom Park.

The guys were 14 and 15 years old. Their transportation of choice was a Schwinn three-speed bicycle.

Those who had them brought their gloves to share, and a couple of guys brought equipment.

Jim Raby brought softballs in his red Alexander Graham Bulldogs gym bag, and the boys hit around all afternoon.

"It was the only time we played softball all year," said Raby, now 54 and a mortgage banker with First Citizens.

The following year, Raby initiated a second game.

"And after a couple of years, we realized we had a tradition," said McPhail.

It didn't take long for the young men to outgrow the Little League ball field at Freedom Park. Too many of the guys were able to hit over the fence.

For the fourth year, they met at the Alexander Graham field.

They've been there ever since.

The annual game started out pretty competitive. They even gave out an MVP trophy.

But as the players grew from teens to adults, the game became less about athletic prowess and more about fellowship.

"We're just old enough (now) that none of us can hit it to Colony Road," said McPhail. "Finally, we've conceded that the home run is very challenging."

Desegregating schools

The softball players were in seventh grade in 1969, when Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was desegregated. Their class was the first to go through junior high desegregated.

Player Mike Poe's father, Bill, was a school board member during those tumultuous years.

Because the district lines were constantly in flux, the original class of players went to four different high schools.

The 21 guys went on to 11 colleges and eight graduate schools.

They now live in seven states and span two countries.

"We're all normal guys who've all gone off and made a living and raised families," said McPhail.

Over the years, some of them have come together for one another's weddings, for their children's weddings and for some of their parents' funerals.

But if it weren't for the annual game, many of the men would have lost touch.

"Years go on, your parents are gone and you lose a reason to come back to Charlotte," said McPhail. "It's been a big factor in a bunch of us staying friends. ... The game itself is beside the point anymore."

40 years of softball

The 40th annual "Softball Classic" starts noon June 4 at the Alexander Graham Middle School.

The after-party will be 6:30 p.m. at Dandelion Market, a restaurant uptown.

Raby remembers hanging out with the guys after five years of games.

"Someone jokingly said that we needed to play the 40th annual at Yankee Stadium," Raby laughed. "We've got the 40th, and it's still at AG."

On June 3, the night before the game, all Alexander Graham graduates are invited to a "come one, come all" gathering at 8 p.m. at Providence Road Sundries.

The double-header will begin with an "original players only" game.

This year, a record number of guys are coming back - 18 of the original 21 players.

The second game is for old-timers, their children, newcomers and friends.

"It was never intended to be a 40-year thing, but it will be a 50-year thing and a 60-year (one), I imagine," said Raby, who plans to be there for all of them, his faded red Alexander Graham Bulldogs gym bad in hand. "It sort of took a life of its own, and we're thankful for that. It's mighty nice for you to have your old friends you're still connected to." Charlotte Latin graduating senior Anda Totoreanu contributed to this story.