I don’t recall anyone in my lifetime who did more for baseball in Pictou County than the late Webb Cunningham.
When the Stellarton Albions were in the Halifax and District Baseball League in the 1950s, Webb was one of the key people involved with the club that won three consecutive league championships. Years later, he was still smiling every time the Albions were mentioned in a conversation.
When I first got involved with the Albions in 1954, as scorekeeper and statistician for sportscaster John (Brother) MacDonald, it was Cunningham — along with Clary Semple — who bent over backwards to help a young reporter in any way they could. It was Semple, in fact, who taught Brother and I how to properly score ball games.
When the Albions folded after the 1958 season, it was Webb, more than anyone else, who burned the midnight oil in an attempt to get the team back onto the field, a move that would have helped save the league from complete collapse a year later.
Cunningham, a commercial traveller, was in his early 30s when I first met him. It didn’t take long to understand how proud he was of the team, how much he loved baseball and, in particular, how much he loved the Albions. If he had his way, the Stellarton club and the league itself would have survived for many more seasons.
After the H&D era ended, Webb was a key person in the establishment of the Twilight Senior Baseball League. At the outset, he and I were both on the league executive. I learned a great deal about the game during that association and, since his death in the year 2000, I think of him often when I reminisce about the Albions and the H&D league.
The Twilight league arose from the ashes of the import-laden H&D, concentrating on local talent instead of the young Americans, some on their way to the Majors.
The local league featured a Stellarton franchise that retained the Albions nameplate at the beginning, later becoming the Keith’s. Other first-year clubs were the Westville Miners, New Glasgow Bombers, North End Cardinals and Antigonish Bulldogs.
Again, it was Cunningham who came up with a novel idea to improve the fortunes of the players and teams in the Twilight loop. It was Webb who proposed the hiring of a “floating coach” for the new circuit. The idea was welcomed by all of the franchises. It was Webb who found a former H&D player and coach to fill the role that summer.
Enter Jack Stallings.
At the time, Stallings was head baseball coach at Wake Forest University, but he was already well known to Pictou County and Nova Scotia fans.
Jack had first arrived in the province in 1952 with the H&D’s Truro Bearcats. He was a polio victim who was unable to continue in professional baseball. So after being in Nova Scotia, he attended graduate school at the University of North Carolina, and served as an assistant coach with that university’s team.
He didn’t come back to Nova Scotia until 1956 as an infielder with — you guessed it — the Stellarton Albions, then coached by Joe Fulgham. When Fulgham didn’t return for the 1957 campaign — he was studying for a masters degree at a college in Delaware — Stallings took on the dual capacity of player-coach.
Cunningham kept in touch with Stallings, the connection that brought him back as the floating coach in the new senior league. The mandate for Stallings was to help all the county teams in the Twilight group and assist little league teams in the various towns.
It worked out well, even though it turned out to be a one-year position. Stallings was a personable guy, enjoying the chance to assist players from the senior league and the kids’ leagues.
How good was Stallings?
Good enough to hold the Wake Forest job for nine years, followed by six years as head coach at Florida State University, and a 24-year stay with Georgia Southern University. He also helped manage the United States national team in 1970 and 1973, and was an administrator for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team.
Get this: Stallings won more than 1,200 games as a head coach.
Jack retired after 1999 and was later inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
He’s been described as “one of the most respected names in college baseball.” As well, his contributions of “teaching the game” were lauded at national and international levels. He authored more than 100 articles that were published in coaching magazines, and he produced manuals and textbooks on coaching.
So that was a pretty knowledgeable coach who served the Twilight league.
Through the years since he taught me how to score, Webb Cunningham became a good friend. Our time together on the Twilight executive clearly showed me how baseball was his passion. Next to his family, it must have been his next best interest.
Later on, Webb got involved for a time with hockey’s New Glasgow Rangers. I think he enjoyed that, too. But it wasn’t baseball. He slowly slipped away from that experience.
It wasn’t until his death at the age of 79 — I learned about his passing when I was reading the obituary page — I realized how long it had been since I had last seen him. All I knew, it was far too long. I always savoured our chats at meetings, at ball fields and hockey rinks, at coffee stops. The conversations would always go back to the Albions and the H&D days.
Jack Stallings? I knew he lived in North Carolina after he retired, and it was soon after that when my wife and I began going to Raleigh twice a year to visit our son and daughter-in-law. I tried tracking Jack down, but I never located him. It would have been fun.