By Mike London
SALISBURY — The golden year of 1955 was a time of winning in Salisbury.
You could buy a license plate in those days that read — Salisbury: Home of Champions.
Boyden High’s Alvin Gray Smith, a stocky wingback/outfielder, won more than most. He was in the starting lineup for baseball and football state-title winners in the spring, summer and fall of 1955. Smith was also a reserve guard on the 1955-56 Boyden basketball team that winter. That team rolled to a conference championship and came reasonably close to making it four state championships in 10 months for Smith.
Smith passed away at 80 on Tuesday of this week. His funeral service was held Friday.
He was born on Nov. 7, 1937, so he turned 18 a few weeks before Boyden won that football state championship. That was a grand time to be a teenager at Boyden, as legends Joe Ferebee, Bill Ludwig and Derwood Huneycutt were piloting the Yellow Jacket athletic teams.
Smith said in an interview years ago that he considered himself an average athlete who was lucky to play with great ones, but he more than held his own on legendary teams. He was the lead-off man and center fielder for the Salisbury American Legion Post 14 club that reached the World Series, and no one has ever doubted Ferebee as a judge of talent.
Smith was part a huge family. His idols were the Boyden athletes who came a few years before him — Jerry Barger, who would quarterback the Duke Blue Devils, and Ken Owen, a great fullback at Georgia Tech. Boys in Salisbury worked hard and they played sports when they had free time on their hands. That’s about all they did.
The championship parade began in the spring of 1955 when Smith was a junior outfielder at Boyden.
One of Smith’s classmates was a small, but totally overpowering lefty named Tom Eaton. Eaton weighed 98 pounds as a sophomore, but he was throwing tireless bullets for Ferebee by his junior season.
The NCHSAA only had three classifications then, and there were only two 3A conferences in the state — Western and Eastern. Boyden played in the Western Conference for decades against Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Charlotte Central, High Point, Burlington, Gastonia and Asheville.
Gastonia usually dominated baseball, but behind Eaton, Boyden won a showdown with Gastonia, 1-0 in extra innings, to take the conference, and then swept Wilmington in a best-of-three series for the 3A state championship.
Just days after the epic triumph against Wilmington, nine Boyden players, including Eaton, Smith, Jerry Hillard, Paul Roberts and Milt Clement, joined forces with stars such as Granite Quarry catcher Virgil Bernhardt, China Grove slugger Richard Snider and Statesville shortstop Deems “Butch” Allie (Allie would captain Duke’s football team in the 1961 Cotton Bowl) on Ferebee’s Post 14 Salisbury Legion team.
Smith played center field with a glove that Gene Auten had given him before he departed for military service. Smith was known for his hustle and he would score 44 runs in the summer of 1955.
That 15-man Salisbury team finished second in its division in the regular season but staged dramatic victories in elimination games against Mocksville and Winston-Salem early in the playoffs. That’s when the crowds started pouring into Newman Park to watch the show. Eaton hurled lightning bolts, including a no-hitter against North Charleston, S.C.
That team would popularize Legion baseball in Rowan County, setting the bar high for all those that followed by winning area, state, regional and sectional championships along the way to the World Series in St.Paul, Minnesota.
Snider batted .356 with 50 RBIs. Bernhardt batted .359. Those two, along with Roberts, would enjoy strong seasons in professional baseball.
Salisbury’s boys headed north by train and opened that World Series against Lincoln, Nebraska. Salisbury was the visitor, so Smith was the first batter of the World Series. That was a moment he always cherished. The first pitch to him was a called strike. Smith turned around to stare at the umpire, and he said, “Don’t do it, son. You’re in the big time now.” Smith remembered those words the rest of his life.
Eaton was injured, collapsing with a muscle spasm in his chest, during that opening victory against Lincoln, and Salisbury dropped its next two games in the double-elimination tournament by a single run.
It appeared Smith had come through with one of the bigger hits in local Legion history when his two-run double in the top of the 10th inning gave Salisbury a 5-2 lead, but Cincinnati scored four runs in the bottom of the 10th to eliminate Smith and his teammates. Cincinnati went on to take the championship game against Washington, D.C., the other team that edged Salisbury. Against D.C., Salisbury had two runners thrown out at the plate and finally lost on a wild pitch.
The Boyden players, who were also involved with football, didn’t have long to dwell on those heartbreaking Legion losses. Because of their Legion commitment, they’d already missed Ludwig’s rigorous, three-a-day boot camps in South Carolina, and they were behind.
The Legion team made a tourist stop in Chicago before returning, and Smith got back from St. Paul on a Sunday. Boyden was opening the football season that Friday. Smith had to earn his spot in a hurry, but he was on the field opening night. Most Boyden players went both ways. Smith was a wingback on offense. His role was to block for the team’s star, Roberts, in Ludwig’s single-wing offense, and he performed that thankless task with toughness and tenacity. He was also a defensive halfback, a position now called cornerback.
Ludwig emphasized blocking and tackling. It was a disciplined, no-frills, run-the-ball approach that physically trampled Boyden’s opponents.
Boyden’s offense practiced against 13 reserves some days and against 15 on others. Smith swore he counted 20 defenders during one practice, but the offense always kept churning. Smith, who weighed 160 pounds, made up for his lack of size with sheer ferocity. He pancaked some 200-pounders.
Boyden lost to Eastern Conference opponent Rocky Mount, 18-0, the second week of the season, but that was the last loss the Yellow Jackets experienced. Linemen Larry Pring, who went to Notre Dame, and Ron Bostian, a Shrine Bowler who played for Duke, opened a lot of holes for Roberts.
Winston-Salem’s R.J. Reynolds High was a frequent stumbling block for Boyden, but this time Boyden whipped the Demons, setting up a showdown with unbeaten Gastonia in the final week of the regular season. Boyden tied Gastonia, sharing its first conference championship in 22 years.
Then Boyden and Gastonia squared off again to settle the championship a week later at a neutral site — Charlotte Memorial Stadium. This time Boyden prevailed, 21-7. Roberts ran a punt back 70 yards for a touchdown on the key play.
That resounding victory was followed by taking the 3A state championship game at home, 13-6, against Durham, on a cold, wet Thanksgiving weekend. Durham was well-prepared for the run. The fans who paid the $1 admission charge saw Ludwig stun Durham with passes. Roberts twice hit Tom Page for touchdowns.
That made it three state titles in a matter of months for Smith and a couple of his teammates.
That winter they went for a fourth title on the hardwood. Eddie Goodnight and Tam Shuford were the stars for Huneycutt’s Boyden squad that won 13 in a row at one point and grabbed the Western Conference crown. Smith didn’t score a lot, but he played tough defense off the bench
When the top four finishers in each conference collided in Greensboro to decide the state title, Boyden was upset in the first round by the Capitals of Raleigh’s Broughton High, who had finished fourth in the Eastern Conference.
Boyden bounced back to beat High Point and Asheville in consolation games and officially finished fifth in the state.
Smith’s athletic career continued with his senior baseball season in the spring of 1956. He had another fine season, but R.J. Reynolds crushed Boyden’s dreams of a repeat championship. Whitey Baker, a former teammate, had moved to Winston-Salem and he beat Smith and Eaton in their final high school game.
Smith married Joyce Austin. They had three daughters.
He spent most of his working life as a press operator at the Salisbury Post. That was a job he performed with the same determination he brought to baseball diamonds, basketball courts and football fields.
He worked at the Post for 42 years, retiring in 2014.
Coach Jim Gantt and the Legion team (Salisbury’s Legion program at Newman Park became Rowan County in 1961) were always important to Smith.
He was asked to throw out a ceremonial first pitch for the 2015 state tournament at Newman Park— the 60th anniversary of the great 1955 team — and it thrilled him to be remembered.
But most nights, he just sat quietly and anonymously in the crowd at Newman Park, loving baseball, loving Salisbury, living the life of a champion.