‘He loved coaching and teaching.’ Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame member dies

James “Bubba” Ball
James “Bubba” Ball Courtesy of Debbie Ball

No coach in the South had a more fitting name.

James “Bubba” Ball, a member of the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame, has died.

He died Tuesday at home in his sleep, his wife, Debbie, also inducted into the hall, told the Ledger-Enquirer. He was 96.

Bubba coached the Baker High School boys basketball team to two state titles, winning the Georgia High School Association Class AA championship in 1954 and 1956. He also coached now-defunct Baker in football (1959-65), improving the Lions from 0-10 in 1959 to 8-1-1 in 1965. He was the first football coach at Shaw High School (1978-86), where the Raiders improved from 1-6 in 1978 to 7-4 in 1980 before losing his final 20 games in 1985-86.

“He had been getting weaker physically for a couple months but still very sharp mentally,” said Debbie, former softball coach and athletics director at Shaw and former softball and girls basketball coach at Brookstone. “. . . I knew this could happen at any time but really not expecting it (Tuesdays morning). He had been under hospice health care since last February and had really not had much pain at all until about the week before Thanksgiving. He lived strongly until the last two days and then needed meds for pain.”

Asked what she wants folks to remember most about him, Debbie said, “He loved sports. He loved coaching and teaching and was willing to teach and/or give advice freely at any time. He also loved Auburn. He always had a story. He was very blessed and lived a full life, and I guess most of all he loved Jesus, his family and teaching Dusty, Austin and Alex about sports and life.”

Dusty Perdue is Glenwood’s softball and boys basketball coach. Austin and Alex are their two younger adult sons.

After graduating from Bessemer (Ala.) High School in 1940 and serving as an aviation machinist in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Bubba earned a bachelor’s degree from Auburn University (then-Alabama Polytechnic University). In his career as a physical education teacher, coach and athletics director, he worked at Baker High School, Gainesville Junior College, Hardaway High School and Shaw High School. As an athlete, he played minor league baseball and basketball.

Bubba liked to boast that former Auburn, NFL and MLB star Bo Jackson was the “second-best” athlete to come out of Bessemer, said Jim White, the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame’s selection committee chairman.

Bubba also was a jokester.

In the 1950s, White was a batboy for the Columbus Foxes, the Class A South Atlantic League affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, while Bubba worked as the Foxes’ trainer during his summer vacation.

White recalled the 1956 road trip to Jacksonville, Fla., where the Braves had batboys for the home and road teams, so a “treat” he received as a wide-eyed 13-year-old seemed like a promotion. Bubba told him the Foxes didn’t have enough pitchers and they needed him to start warming up in the bullpen.

Well, White kept warming up in the bullpen and kept trotting back to the dugout to ask when they would call him into the game — and Bubba kept saying, “Any minute now.”

“I didn’t know any better,” White recalled with laughter. “But it was just his way to get me out of his hair.”

White added, “He knew the game like nobody else. I would sit beside him in the dugout, and he would do his best to steal the signs from the other team. And based on what I saw, he was successful in doing that.”

As a coach, Bubba was “an icon” of local sports, White said.

“I greatly admired him not only for his coaching capabilities, but also as a mentor,” White said. “Bubba was one of the greatest leaders I have ever known in the sports field.”

Just ask one of his players.

Gordon Darrah was a junior guard on Bubba’s 1956 state championship basketball team at Baker. Along with his brother, Tommy, a senior center, the Lions nipped cross-town rival Jordan 38-37 in the title game. It would have been a third straight crown for Bubba’s Lions, but they had lost to another cross-town rival, Columbus High, in the 1955 state semifinals, snapping Baker’s 55-game winning streak.

“He was just a great coach,” Darrah said. “He motivated and made the players better than they were.”

Bubba did that by striking the fine balance between being tough and tender. He was a strict disciplinarian but also a friendly father figure, especially for the players at Baker who didn’t have a dad at home.

Such as Darrah, who was 11 when his father died.

“He connected with the players,” Darrah said. “He cared about the players. He built character in us, but he didn’t let that affect his coaching. He wasn’t a father then.”

In fact, he sometimes schooled those teens on the court by playing with them during practice.

“He taught us how to play and improve our game,” Darrah said. “He knew the game and knew how to coach.”

Darrah was a bank president in Douglas, Ga., before returning to Columbus to serve as public safety director from 1975-79. Now, he is a salesman for Legal Shield. Regardless of his occupation, he uses what Coach Ball taught him.

“Just a good work ethic,” Darrah said. “That’s carried over.”

Darrah didn’t recall a memorable example of Bubba’s leadership style, but he was clear about the result.

“He just knew how to handle the students at that time,” Darrah said. “He was just able to make you feel better about yourself. … It also was in the way he lived and the example he portrayed to us, not only as a coach but as a person. He was there if we had any problems, to help us with any kind of situation. He was there to make us better people. He’s going to be missed, but he won’t be forgotten.”

The funeral will be 3 p.m. Friday at Morningside Baptist Church, 6065 Morningside Drive, in Columbus, followed by burial in Parkhill Cemetery, 4161 Macon Road. Visitation will be 5-7 p.m. Thursday at McMullen Funeral Home, 3874 Gentian Blvd.

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.