Little League

DeHart stepping away after long Vine Ingle career

The plan was to help out for a few years.

Harry DeHart had made a family decision regarding his career and moved to Macon from Birmingham, Alabama, in the early 1970s. He latched on to Vine Ingle Little League when his son Gary played.

Soon enough, Gary moved on.

Harry didn’t.

“As time went on, I couldn’t leave,” he said. “I used to tell everybody my sons grew up, and I didn’t.”

But he is now. After 39 years, DeHart is passing the baton -- or baseball bat, as it were -- and calling it a career in Little League baseball.

His timing is mighty good.

DeHart manages the Yankees in Vine Ingle Major League, and his finale as the manager Friday was a good one, his team beating the Astros 16-1 for the Major League championship and finishing the season with the rare undefeated record, 20-0.

“It couldn’t be any better,” he said after a long postgame series of activity. “It sure couldn’t.”

Vine Ingle board member David Bethune said officials weren’t sure of the last team to end the season and win the championship with a perfect record.

“It’s been a long, long time,” he said. “The old-timers tell me it was in the ‘70s.”

DeHart said there was a group coached by Coot Veal -- who was a standout at Lanier, Auburn and Mercer before a six-year career in the big-boy Major Leagues -- that went undefeated in 1977.

DeHart’s Yankees almost matched that a few years ago, opening the season with a 6-5 loss to the Astros and winning the next 21 games.

He had a team a few decades ago that belted 34 homers, 22 by Eben Gray. This group is heavy with pitching, led by Jackson Taylor and Jackson Nebel, the latter the son of former Mercer pitching standout Jeff Nebel, the Yankees’ pitching coach.

Nebel has known DeHart for a half-dozen years, regularly hoping his son would land on DeHart’s team.

“Unbelievable person first, coach second,” said Jeff Nebel, who has spent the past two seasons with the Yankees. “He’s got a lot of patience. I’ve had 10 years of it, and I’m good.

“Thirty-nine years is amazing.”

Nebel called DeHart an icon who he never saw lose his cool.

“Thirty-nine years of 11- and 12-year-olds, different personalities, different parents,” Nebel said. “Able to deal with them always with a smile. I’ve never seen him angry.

“Even in a tight situation in a tight game, he’s always loose, and the kids feed off that.”

DeHart was born in Wil­mington, North Carolina, and began working with Dillard Paper Company there. He was transferred to Birmingham, Alabama, changed careers and joined the city’s police department and then decided he needed a job change to take better care of his family, returned to Dillard and was transferred to Macon.

He retired in 2004 after 42 years with Dillard and has owned Firearms Traders Warehouse for several years.

The 71-year-old had a strong feeling before the season started it would be his final year.

“It’s time,” said the man who has been the Yankees’ manager for 38 years. “My body’s not allowing me to do the things I used to do. I just decided it was time to go, especially after practice started, and I wasn’t able physically to do the things I like to do.”

He would still try to be hands on with instruction but admitted he ended up doing more talking.

Of course, people around the league had heard this before.

“I’ve been saying I was gonna do it for 20 years,” he said with a laugh. “Everybody said, ‘You ain’t leaving.’ ”

“I’m going to miss the interacting with the kids. Learning so many, getting to know so many. You get 12, 13 kids a year and you do it as long as I have done it, you make a lot of friends.”

Many of them hung around for postgame festivities, starting with the trophy presentation to both teams. Then, for the first time in the 61 years of the league, the game ball was presented to a coach.

Seconds later, his players got him with a bucket of water.

“Not since midget football when I coached down there,” DeHart of his last such dousing, 15 to 20 years ago. “I figured it, but I didn’t see it.”

Then he was presented with a jersey, No. 39, with his name on the back, framed and under glass and an inscription citing his record and this season’s accomplishments. The last time he saw his last name on a jersey was on his late brother Jim’s uniform.

Throughout all of that, DeHart wiped his eyes more than a few times, and it wasn’t just from the heat or the water bath.

“Actually, it got that way on the way over here,” said DeHart, who will coach the league’s 12-year-old all-star team. “I’m an emotional person. I’m a very emotional person. I cry if I see a dog get hurt.

“Just seeing them so happy. A long time ago, I used to coach for me. The last 15, 20 years, I coached for them.”