Legion Baseball: Rowan Nhonors crown jewels
By Mike London
In a ceremony that was both solemn and celebratory, plaques were dedicated to Banks Barringer, Dwight Fraley and the late Theo Heilig on Saturday afternoon.
The monuments were unveiled behind Newman Park and will occupy a permanent resting place beneath the flags of the United States, North Carolina and American Legion that swirl whenever the wind whispers above the towering outfield walls.
Barringer, Fraley and Heilig aren’t household names to some, but they were as important as any legendary coach or player in making Rowan County American Legion baseball the model for every program in the state.
When Heilig, a Legion Hall of Famer, passed away in May, he had combined with Barringer and Fraley for 160 years of American Legion service.
Barringer, Fraley and Heilig shared naval backgrounds, a love for baseball and young people, a willingness to speak their minds and a dislike for beating around the bush. They laid the foundation for a program that has stood the test of time. Rowan has done things the right way while producing a long run of league, area and state championships.
“Those three people exemplify the word dedication, and without those three none of this exists,” said coach Jim Gantt, who wore a Rowan Legion cap and a Catawba shirt to represent both teams that share Newman Park. “Now every time we look at those flagpoles, we can think about the dedication of these men.”
It was symbolic that the plaques were dedicated behind the stadium rather than the entrance. All three honorees preferred for someone else get the attention.
“We’re not trying to hide ’em back here,” Gantt explained with a smile. “But the things they did were always behind the scenes, so it’s appropriate.”
The engraving on the plaques reads “Dedicated for his love of God, country, family and outstanding service to Rowan County American Legion Baseball.”
Cecil Whitley, who directed the event, cracked jokes and spun tall tales, but there was also a serious side to the program. He asked Rowan and Catawba assistant coach Steven Sawyer to explain to the gathering what baseball’s Triple Crown entails.
Then Whitley described Heilig, Barringer and Fraley as “the three crown jewels” of the Rowan Legion program.
Soloist Renee Coates Scheidt sang “Amazing Grace” and led a crowd that included current Rowan players Tanner Brown, Justin Mock, Trey Holmes, Noah Holmes and Russ Michalec, in “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” a few minutes later.
That may be the first time in history that “peanuts and crackerjacks” followed “Amazing Grace,” but it felt right. Those selections covered a wide span of feelings, but the old park that Whitley called “the heart and soul of baseball in Rowan County” is an emotional place for many.
“Playing here is a unique experience for the kids and it doesn’t cost them a dime,” Gantt said. “These monuments should remind us that these three men helped start a great tradition. A long time before I was born, they built a program that everyone else still envies. They started a program that no one has ever been able to beat ó not on a consistent basis.”
Heilig’s widow, Joyce, joined Barringer and Fraley up front as the plaques were uncovered.
There were no speeches, just quiet nods, hugs and handshakes from people who always preferred to get things done behind the scenes.