By Karen Campbell
As the 2019 District 13AA baseball tournament begins today (Thursday) with Westview as host, some former players recall a time when the school didn’t have a field, a coach or a team.
In the 1971-72 school year, the consolidation of Martin and Sharon was still fresh. Coach Harry Ferguson, who concluded his professional career as part of the ABA’s New Orleans Jazz with a return to West Tennessee and a coaching job in Sharon, discovered the location of the new school, he says, when he drove to the Sharon site to discover the building had burned. Eventually, he was part of the naming of the new entity and is thankful that Westview won out over the perhaps ill-conceived “Shamar” but, with a chuckle adds, that “Chargers” as a team name proved to be tough to live out as it is rather difficult to coax a horse inside a gym.
Phil Dane, who would become athletic director for the University of Tennessee at Martin, was in his senior year 48 years ago and president of the Westview Student Council.
“This allowed me to hang out in the administrative offices one period a day and handle important executive matters,” he explains with a wink. “During a slow winter day, I suggested to our unofficial athletics director, the late Coach Jimmy Dunn, our football coach, that we should create a baseball team.”
Under Dunn’s leadership, the school already had a champion football team, breaking records. And they technically had a track team, but only participated in one or two track meets a year. So, Dane suggested that the track resources be redirected toward baseball. As Dane recalls, when Coach Dunn asked who would coach the team, Coach Ferguson, was in one of the back offices listening to the conversation.
“Coach Ferguson asked, ‘What does it pay?’” recounted Dane. “Coach Dunn answered, ‘$700.’ And Coach Ferguson said, ‘I’ll do it.’”
At 6 feet 9 inches, Coach Ferguson had earned the nickname “Big Harry” in his college years at Bethel and on the professional court. Ultimately, his basketball career as player and 37 years as a teacher and coach would be honored in the Halls of Fame at his alma mater, Union City, Trenton and Gibson County, but as for baseball, he had no coaching experience.
“However, he cared about young people and he helped us begin the program,” notes Dane.
“If you coach long enough, they will put you in the hall of fame,” Ferguson shared, characteristically deflecting the praise.
As he remembers it, $700 was a great deal of money in the 70s and, not much older than the boys he was coaching, he had fun on the court and the field.
That is when they actually had a field.
As a new team and a new school, Westview had to use UTM’s baseball diamond, and they practiced behind the school in an open lot.
“The problem with high school baseball is it is still cold, and it rains every other day,” Ferguson recalled. “I remember we would have to go out after the rain and pour gasoline in the puddles, strike a match and run … to get the water to evaporate. We had to create uniforms. We had to do everything that first year.”
No one remembers if the team had a winning season, but Dane shared a clipping from the Weakley County Press chronicling the fact that the opening game was a 6-3 win over Trenton. Dane was on the mound with Jack Bell, David Dunn, Steve Greenup, Mike Teal, David Maness, Terry Brockwell, Terry Thomas, Randy Damron, Dennis Simpson, Lee Dortch, Dennis Watson, and Karl Warren rounding out the team.
“I’m sure we had a winning season,” Ferguson suggests. “We had some good players.”
They also had a coach, who would eventually help start Martin’s Babe Ruth League with UTM’s assistant chancellor Ed Neal White, felt that overall, “baseball is not that hard.”
“The key is having talent,” he says. “If you have players that like to play the game and are strong enough to hit and throw the ball, you’ve got a team.”
That teamwork was reignited last fall when Dane was asked to help Westview’s current champions of the diamond to raise funds to cover a pitching machine. Charley Deal, a former UTM colleague, remembered Dane saying he was a member of the first Westview baseball team, and tapped the now-retired Dane to spearhead the fundraising. Deal’s son, Alex, is a current senior on the Westview team.
“I told him I would and requested that the pitching machine be named in honor of Coach Ferguson,” Dane said. With approval from the now coach, Danny Giles, and the generous contributions of Mike Teal, David Maness, Karl Warren, Terry Thomas, Lee Dortch, David Dunn, Terry Brockwell and Dane, the side of the pitching machine facing batters makes sure “Big Harry” is remembered as a baseball pioneer.
“Certainly, all of us will remember Coach Ferguson for taking his time to help us enjoy a sport we loved. We still have contact with him, and he spoke at our 40-year class reunion. We’re expecting him back for the 50th in three years,” Dane said.
After the new equipment was unveiled in April, several players and Ferguson reunited. Ferguson brought along his 9-year-old grandson.
“It was a great honor, and I took my grandson with me,” he said. “I wanted him to know that old grandpa had done something early in his life.”
According to a few Halls of Fame and a Westview pitching machine, that “something” was rather stellar.
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