WARNER ROBINS -- Claude Lewis has had plenty of experience with birthday parties.
His 88th is fast approaching next week.
Since he became an octogenarian eight years ago, folks have gathered to make a fuss over Claude, who is certainly fuss-worthy.
He is among this community’s most admired citizens. He put Warner Robins on the map in his 30 years as recreation director and is widely acknowledged as the “father of T-ball” in the U.S.
This year’s birthday party will be held Aug. 15 at the Houston County State Court (202 Carl Vinson Parkway), where Claude has worked part time as a bailiff since he retired from the rec department in 1986.
The event is open to anyone who wants to drop by with birthday wishes. And nobody will mind if you hug him a little tighter or shake his hand a little longer.
After all, Claude took a nasty fall on his back porch a few weeks ago. It left him bloodied and bruised. Not surprisingly, if you ask him what he hurt, he will say his pride.
Although his legs aren’t as nimble as they once were, a lifetime of being around athletics has taught him how to pick himself up every time he stumbles.
“I’ve got good bones,’’ he said, laughing. His only broken bone was his shoulder back in 1949, in a collision at home plate during a baseball game. Warner Robins didn’t have a hospital, so the doctor sent him on to Macon, where he had surgery to put a pin in it.
It is impossible to ride past a ball field in this town without offering a measure of gratitude to Claude Lewis. He organized and coached the city’s first girls softball team. The Warner Robins American Little League named a field after him in 2006. The following year, Warner Robins American won the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
He also was among the community leaders instrumental in luring the Little League Southeastern Region Headquarters from St. Petersburg, Florida, to Warner Robins. The championship game of this year’s Southeast Regional Tournament is being played at the complex tonight.
And, of course, millions of youngsters across the country have been introduced to baseball and softball because of his vision. He is the Thomas Edison of T-ball. In 2007, at the invitation of former President George W. Bush, he attended the final T-ball game played on the White House lawn.
One day, somebody needs to make a movie about this man’s life.
The opening scene would be filmed in Macon, where Claude was born on Aug. 14, 1926. He grew up in a neighborhood near the old Porter Stadium. He and his friends started calling it Cow’s Head Hill after they found a dead cow in the middle of the street.
As a boy, he sold Cokes for a nickel in the bleachers at Luther Williams Field. A center fielder for the Macon Peaches named Johnny Ostrowski once stayed in the Lewis home. Ostrowski, who went on to play 216 games in the major leagues, gave Claude a bat, ball and glove. In young Claude’s eyes, he was a hero.
Another person who changed his life was Wilma Beggs, a widow who ran the city’s recreation department. When he was 9, Claude had a paper route for The Macon Telegraph. Instead of a bicycle, he delivered his papers in a wagon pulled by a billy goat named Bill.
Beggs knew Claude had a difficult home life. On Sunday mornings, she would invite him in from his paper route and feed him breakfast. She began taking him to Sunday School at Tattnall Square Baptist. When he was 15, she put him in charge of the city’s sandlot program. It would chart the course for a lifetime in sports.
In 1957, he was named recreation director in Warner Robins. The population was only about 14,000. And Watson Boulevard, the town’s main drag, had been paved so recently you could still smell the asphalt.
A year later, several mothers asked if he would offer a baseball league for the younger children participating in the department’s Mother’s Morning Out summer program.
Claude remembered H.P. “Hot Papa” Bell, his high school baseball coach at Lanier. “At Christmas, he gave us a tee and a half dozen balls and said he wanted us to go home and knock out all the windows,’’ he said.
Bell came up with the idea of using a tee from baseball great Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters who ever lived. Bell went to an automobile junkyard and got rubber hoses. He mounted them on top of a horseshoe stake.
Claude borrowed the idea, taking radiator hoses and sliding them up and down to adjust to the level of the batter’s swing. For the safety of the youngsters, he used tennis balls before rubber baseballs were manufactured.
He developed a loose set of rules. Scores were not kept and every batter came to the plate each inning. The game spread across the U.S. and Europe. He traveled to France, Germany and Spain to help organize leagues. Golda Meir, the prime minister of Israel, summoned him there to start a T-ball program in her country.
When Claude went to the T-ball game at the White House, President Bush showed him a picture of himself playing T-ball as a 6-year-old.
The past two years have been extra special. Claude’s grandson, Cody Heller, coached at the T-ball field named after his grandfather. (Claude has his own reserved parking space at the field.)
He said he plans to keep driving and he wants to continue working, as long as they will allow him. Mary, his wife of 55 years, died in 2001. He spends his summers working in his garden, watching the Atlanta Braves (he’s not real happy with them right now) and hanging out with his dog, Sam, named after Samson, his favorite character in the Bible.
Birthdays are about receiving gifts.
Claude Lewis has been a gift to those who know him and countless others who may never know his name but will play his game.
Contact Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org