Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 23, 2013
SALISBURY — Jim DeHart experienced his first tussle with arthritis when he was a 14-year-old second baseman.
When DeHart was a high school senior in Wilmington, he spent nine months in traction and had to have his neck fused.
He was fighting an unpronounceable and unforgiving disease of the spine — ankylosing spondylitis — and even the most optimistic physicians told him to forget about athletics. Medical pessimists feared he’d be an invalid when he reached his 30s.
Life had DeHart behind in the count 0-and-2 early, but he fouled off a lot of tough pitches, and his story became an inspiring one.
When he died Sunday morning at age 76, DeHart left behind a deep imprint on Rowan baseball, as a Salisbury High coach, a Catawba coach, and mostly as an American Legion coach.
When Joe Ferebee stepped down as Rowan County coach in 1989 after 30 seasons (1950-56 and 1967-89), a state-record victory total, four state titles and a dozen Area III championships, DeHart, who was 53 then, was the fellow called on to follow him.
That was like being told to pinch hit for Mickey Mantle.
“There’s no pressure on me,” DeHart told the Post’s Steve Phillips in 1989. “I’m not Joe Ferebee. I’m Jim DeHart. I’m going to do some things right, and I’m going to do some things wrong.”
Mostly he did them right.
Ferebee-coached Salisbury and Rowan teams enjoyed 25 straight winning seasons, and the legend constructed one of the state’s finest Legion programs.
The remarkable thing about DeHart is that not only did he not let a dynasty crumble, he actually added to the Rowan mystique in 11 seasons at the helm. His state-championship 1993 team (47-18) and regional-champion 1996 team (41-8) are the remembered ones, but all 11 were good. His squads averaged 33.5 wins per season. His final record of 368-120-1 means Rowan County won 75 percent of the time on his watch.
DeHart came to Rowan County in 1972 as an insurance man — area manager for Life of Virginia.
He’d coached youth baseball in Wilmington and Tampa, Fla., and that’s how he got started here.
First it was the Milford Hills Baptist team in the West Rowan Little League. Then Babe Ruth and Pony leagues. Word spread that he was a genius at tutoring pitchers, and he served as pitching coach for Mike Carter and Tom Sexton at Salisbury High in the early 1980s, some of the best seasons in school history.
That led to a volunteer stint at Catawba, and he became the Indians’ head coach in 1986. He was 77-54 in four years, including 27-8 and a league title in 1988.
His Legion service came next, a journey honored by induction into the N.C. American Legion and Salisbury-Rowan halls of fame.
North Rowan coach Aaron Rimer played for DeHart, while East Rowan coach Brian High-tower was recruited for Catawba by DeHart. Rowan County American Legion coach Jim Gantt assisted DeHart for many years and also played for him at Catawba.
DeHart’s legacy will continue every spring and every summer when their teams take the field.