Three years ago I sat down with some of Apex’s best athletes (from the 1920s and 30s) and asked them what sports were like in the old days. Marguerite Crowder Stogner, who was born in 1910, told me she played on one of Apex High School’s first basketball teams. The school didn’t have a gym, so they played in the Jackson tobacco warehouse (223-225 North Salem).
The uniforms were interesting: “We wore black hose, bloomers, a midi blouse (with a collar like a sailor), and a tie.” In those days, she said, girls only played on one side of the court. “I was a forward: I played on the offensive end. After each basket, you returned to center court for a jump ball. I was pretty tall, so I did the jump.”
Marguerite remembered when Apex fielded its first football team. “There were no bleachers or anything—just an old field behind the school. My boyfriend played; his name was ‘Bully’ Cash.”
Rev. William Davis, born in 1920, recalled the popularity of baseball among black teenagers and young adults during the Great Depression. He said that Holly Springs, Fuquay, Pittsboro, and Morrisville each had their own teams, and that Friendship and New Hill combined to make a team. “We started on Easter Monday and went until after Labor Day. We’d play every Saturday and every Sunday after church, and every holiday. For away games somebody would borrow a truck, and we loaded up on it. They charged a nickel a person, if you had it.”
Rev. Davis said that players enjoyed “trash talking” then just as much as they do now. “If we were beating them, we’d talk to them. If they were beating us, they’d talk to us.” But it was all in good fun. “Fans would fellowship together before and after the game… . We all knew each other—we’d go to the same dance halls—so it was a friendly rivalry.”
Baseball was wildly popular in the white communities of western Wake County as well. After starring in practically every sport at Apex High School, brothers Jim and Joe Mills played baseball at N.C. State before moving to minor league baseball. Most everyone I spoke to agreed that they would have made it to the major leagues had their careers not been interrupted by World War II.
Jim and Joe’s older brothers Ernie and Billy were also talented athletes. In fact, most agree that Billy was the most gifted of all. Unfortunately, “he drank liquor, and he kept getting in trouble with the law,” comments Roy Cooke, who knew all the Mills brothers and saw them play. “He could hit a baseball further than anybody I’ve ever seen. If he had stayed sober, he could have played in the major leagues. Instead, he hauled lumber for a saw mill.”
Many legends surround Billy, who was as close to “The Natural” as any Apex boy ever got. Roy Cooke remembers how, back in the 1930s, when Apex, Green Level, Holly Springs, and other communities all had baseball teams, Billy’s team would go to great lengths to get him to the ball park. Often Billy was in jail, so his teammates would ask the county jailor, “Could you let him out to play?” They’d let him out, and the jail would send a guard. After the game ended, Billy returned to jail. Later, Bill graduated to the state penitentiary, where he had the dubious distinction of blasting the longest home run ever hit in Central Prison.
Back in the 1930s Apex High School had a boxing team, and Roy Cooke was on it. “I was 120 pounds wet.” He said he enjoyed the sport until one day he had to fight a left-handed boxer. “I didn’t know what to do with him. I did not stay in the ring five minutes! He hit me in the solar plexus, knocked the breath out of me, I went down, and the fight was over.” Afterwards the coach, Kenneth Stephens (who had been a heavyweight boxer at N.C. State) tried to console Roy by saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll show you how to fight left handers.” But Roy said “No thank you. I’m not getting in the ring with any left-handers again!”
Ben Jones, born in 1919, also boxed for Apex High School, and he recalled a similar experience of being pummeled in the ring. “My first match was against a fellow named Britt, from Cary, who was a champion boxer at the time. You boxed three rounds, three minutes each. In the first round, I worked hard and got the better of him. I thought I was doing well. The second round was a draw. Then came the third round: He just beat the heck outta me!”
Ben played all five sports offered for boys of that era: football, basketball, baseball, track, and boxing. He lived five miles from town, in the Fairview community, so practicing and playing presented a number of logistical hurdles. “After practice, I’d be tired, but I still had to walk or run five more miles (to get home). After away basketball games, the activity bus would drop us off at Holland’s Drug Store (downtown) late at night. I was scared, so I didn’t walk home: I ran.”
Another challenge, that extended into my own high school era (the 1960s and early 70s) was that many, perhaps most, students worked on tobacco farms. This involved getting up as early as 4 a.m. to move cured tobacco from the barn to the pack house before beginning work in the field at sunrise. It also involved working until dark. It wasn’t easy to practice football after those long work-days. And it wasn’t any easier when school started—students would do farm work before and after school.
Back in the Depression, many dropped out of school because their families needed them on the farm. Or, they attended only part of the year. Football was so popular among the boys that many were sure to attend during football season. Ben Jones told me that “a lot of boys would go to school just to play football. They attended in the fall, then dropped out in the spring. Several didn’t graduate until they were twenty-one. But they got to play a lot of football!”
Ben told me his team used an innovative offensive strategy that the rules no longer permit: “We ran from the wing formation and used the Notre Dame shift. So, we were already moving when the ball was snapped.”
I asked Ben if he remembered the names of any of his teammates, and without skipping a beat he rattled off the entire starting football team from his senior year, 1936:
- LE-Jim Mills
- LT-Michael Lineau
- LG- A.V. Wilson
- C- George Thompson
- RG- Van Womble
- RT- “Big Robert” Wilson
- RE- Joe Mills
- QB- Ben Jones
- Wing Backs- William Carroll, Woody Maynard, Leyburn Allen
One other sport that at least some citizens played in old Apex was “lawn” tennis. I learned this from Jessie Ruth Cunningham, who grew up Apex and taught sixth grade here for probably 50 years. Back in 1972, when I was in high school, my mother and I visited with Ms. Cunningham in her home near Apex United Methodist Church. This was the same house where she was raised. She took us to her backyard and showed us the remnants of her family’s lawn tennis court, which she enjoyed in her youth in the 1910s and 1920s.
A few years ago I learned from Steve Roundy and Loretta Roundy Young that a century ago there was also a grass tennis court at the John Bright home in New Hill. The Brights were the wealthiest family in New Hill in the late 19th and early 20th century. Steve and Loretta told me another interesting tennis anecdote involving Bill Tilden, winner of six consecutive U.S. Open championships and arguably the best tennis player who ever lived.
Back in the 1920s Tilden, like many celebrities of that era, traveled down U.S.1 and stopped at Troy’s Motor Court and Tea Room. While he was there, he took a moment to autograph a tennis ball for a boy named W.T.—Steve and Loretta’s father. By the way, another famous athlete also stopped twice a year at Troy’s as he traveled to Florida for spring training. It seems that he liked the fried chicken that Steve and Loretta’s grandmother always cooked for him. You may have heard of this man. His name was George Herman Ruth, Jr., but you probably know him simply as “Babe.”
Warren Holleman and his brother Toby are authors of Pluck, Perseverance, and Paint: Apex, North Carolina: Beginnings to 1941. Copies are available from The Rusty Bucket in historic downtown Apex.