Each day when Columbus Cottonmouths coach and general manager Jerome Bechard walks out of his office, he has a brush with greatness.
He sees exhibits dedicated to former major league baseball executives, professional golfers and college football stars in the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame’s display cases as he walks through the Columbus Civic Center.
After Saturday, when the latest class is inducted, Bechard and other visitors will pass by a homage to Jim White, the man who quietly picked up responsibility — and sometimes the tab — for the hall of fame and several Columbus professional sports teams after the death of hall founder and RedStixx and Cottonmouths owner Charlie Morrow.
“Every time I walk out of my office, the first thing I see is Charlie Morrow and Spec. His hard work and dedication have boosted local sports culture. Richardson in the hall of fame,” Bechard said. “Those guys started this whole tradition around here, and Jim is a part of all that — a big, big part of it.”
White’s sports career has been far reaching, especially considering most of it has played out in one town. The Columbus native took in his first baseball game at Golden Park. He won his own version of the World Series when he played for a Columbus team in a Little League district championship. He spent more than 25 years working for local businesses. And he takes pride in being able to share his love of sports with his hometown.
“Jim has been involved here all his life,” said Bubba Ball, who was a trainer for the Columbus Cardinals andFoxes minor league baseball teams when he met a teenage White.
“From playing high school sports to being a bat boy to being the guy helping run things, he has had a big scope,” Ball said.
White remembers going to a minor league game at Golden Park when he was 6 or 7. He instantly fell in love with what he called the innocence and purity of the game.
He became a bat boy in 1955 and served through the 1957 season. During that time, the club was an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals and later, as the Foxes, the Baltimore Orioles. He played pitcher and shortstop and was a punter for the state runner-up football team at Columbus High, where he met the girl who became his wife, Ann.
White finished high school in 1960 and graduated with an accounting degree from the University of Alabama in 1965. He returned to Columbus and spent the next quarter century working in different financial positions for two local companies: Tom’s Foods Inc. and Synovus.
He became a Columbus minor league season-ticket holder in 1972 and was content as a fan until 1994, when he met Morrow, the owner of the Columbus RedStixx.
‘Loved that game’
White said he considered himself an organized person, and those who know him used words like intuitive, savvy and attentive to describe him.
Morrow saw all those things in the baseball fan when they first met and quickly made his pitch.
“Charlie was a very good salesman, and he convinced me we could have a real good time at the ballpark,” White said. “He hooked me immediately. But, really, it didn’t take much selling to make me think I could have a lot of fun running a ball club.” White joined the team in 1995 as vice president of finance and became the secretary treasurer for the hall of fame, another one of Morrow’s projects.
While it was work, White said running a baseball team was a rewarding experience — and it came with some perks.
One afternoon in 1997, Morrow talked the field manager into allowing him and White to take batting practice with the team. White, ecstatic just to get on the field and smell the grass, grabbed his glove off his desk and ran to the outfield. Morrow’s entrance was a bit more grand, like his ever-evolving plans.
He stepped onto the field wearing a St. Louis Cardinals uniform he had from attending a fantasy camp, swaggered to the plate and pointed to deep center field before setting up his stance.
He hit a dribbler to third base.
“That was the kind of fun we had running a baseball team,” White said. “We really weren’t in it for the money; we were in it because we loved that game and wanted to share it with everyone. We weren’t interested in it if wasn’t going to be fun for everyone.”
White’s friends noted his reserved personality, but it was clear he enjoyed being involved in the game.
“He was always such a laid-back kind of guy, not someone who jumped up and down and got excited,” said Martha Paull, Morrow’s widow. “When he’d watch a game, you’d just see him get a big grin.”
Adventure on ice
White’s only experience with ice hockey came from attending a few Atlanta Flames games. Watching the team, which played in Atlanta from 1972-80 and is now the Calgary Flames, gave him a passing knowledge of the game but did not prepare him for Morrow’s next proposed adventure into professional sports.
White was asked to take a look at an operations manual for a hockey team. After reading through it, the pair decided to take a chance and bring a minor league team to Columbus.
“I really took a look at that book, and I told Charlie that I didn’t know anything about hockey, but I didn’t see a single thing in there that we couldn’t do or didn’t already do running a baseball team,” White said.
In 1996, with the use of the new Columbus Civic Center, the Columbus Cottonmouths began play in the Central Hockey League with White serving as the team’s vice president.
“I never thought ice hockey would go over in Columbus,” said hall of fame committee member and former Ledger-Enquirer sports editor Cecil Darby. “Jim helped find a way to get it here and make it work, and people enjoyed it.”
While neither Morrow nor White seemed to know much about running a hockey team at first, their personalities combined to bring together unbridled enthusiasm and unwavering attention to detail.
“It was like Charlie was the guy with the money and Jim was the conscience of the organization,” said Bechard, who has been a player or coach for the Cottonmouths since their inception. “Jim was always the little guy on the shoulder giving Charlie the good advice and making sure everything was running behind the scenes.”
White made a business trip to visit the Macon Whoopie, another CHL team, and came back with a sales pitch of his own for Morrow. The pair acquired 80 percent ownership of the Macon franchise and built up Columbus’ first hockey rivalry.
“Nobody knew what hockey was, but they came out to see Columbus and Macon,” White said.
“We were very pro-military, and those people were from all over the country and like to come to games. But even people who didn’t know the game seemed to like coming out. We had a few sellouts — 8,000 or 9,000 people — and people liked watching Jerome drop the gloves.”
‘Kept things together’
On March 11, 1998, Morrow died after an 18-month battle with cancer. He was 43. There was only one person qualified to manage the teams and take over the hall of fame, according to hall member and vice chairman Spec Richardson.
“Jim was the only person who could have done what he’s done after Charlie Morrow died,” said Richardson, former general manager of the Houston Astros and San Francisco Giants, who now serves as a consultant to the Cottonmouths. “Taking over everything and taking the hall of fame, that was a job nobody wanted and nobody could do. But Jim kept things together.”
In 2000, all of Morrow’s teams were sold. The RedStixx left Columbus before the 2003 season and are now the Lake County Captains in the Cleveland, Ohio, suburb of East Lake. The Cottonmouths have remained in town, and Bechard has made the transition from player to coach and general manager under owner Wanda Amos.
White took over the hall of fame, helping raise $250,000 for it. And while he downplays his role in keeping it together, he has gone into his pockets to keep it afloat.
As a result of his efforts, the hall has blossomed into one of the community’s biggest assets, Bechard said.
“You really get an appreciation for this town and all the athletes and the people behind the scenes that ran everything when you see it,” Bechard said. “It does a good job of honoring all of those people in it.”
Back to work
With his days as a team executive seemingly behind him, White began spending his time playing golf and collecting so much sports memorabilia that he joked it might be easier to replace the walls in his home office than fill in all the nail holes if he were to move. In 2003, it was back to work. He was asked to help keep a baseball team alive when the South Georgia Waves, then playing in Albany, had a falling out with their host city and their absentee owner needed someone to keep the franchise rolling.
White took over as general manager, and the team moved to Columbus just in time for the season. He did not want to come out of retirement, but he also did not want to see a team have to take a season off, so he thought Columbus would enjoy professional baseball again. “Two weeks before the baseball season started, I got a phone call asking me to come out of retirement,” White said. “I enjoyed doing it for five months, but I told the owner he needed to find someone else for the next season.”
The team eventually became the Columbus Catfish and played here through 2008. The franchise’s owner moved the team to Bowling Green, Ky., where it is preparing to open its first season as the Bowling Green Hot Rods.
Now trying retirement again, White has more time to spend with his wife, two sons and three grandchildren. But that does not mean he is living life without work.
The hall of fame is a labor of love that has allowed him to work with local athletes he looked up to as a child as well as longtime friends, making sure each is properly honored in the 3,500-square-foot exhibit.
But his love of community sports, baseball in particular, makes it difficult for him to say with total certainty that there may not be just one more official retirement in his future. When asked if he would ever consider working for a team in Columbus again, he takes a second, leans back in his chair and flashes a nostalgic smile.
“We’d have to see about that,” he said. “We’d just have to see.”