Pictou Advocate sports

A popular old Albion passes away in U.S.

Sports

Those of us ancient enough to remember the Stellarton Albions and their nine seasons in the Halifax and District Baseball League during the 1950s have been given another reason to mourn.

Joe Fulghum, one of the finest talents ever to play baseball for a Pictou County team, passed away last week at his home in Newark, Delaware. He was two weeks shy of his 95th birthday.

Not only did he star for the Albions, he married a Stellarton girl in what was a summer love story that could have become a movie theme.

So let’s recall his personal side first.

Joe, with his very southern drawl, met Helen Murray, who lived across the street from the Stellarton ball park, during the 1951 season. Like those tear-jerking movie scripts, they quickly fell in love and, before the playoffs ended, they married.

If their wedding day schedule had been written by Hollywood types, nobody would have believed what happened afterwards.

This is how it transpired: The wedding ceremony was in the afternoon, launching a marriage that would keep them together for 64 years — until Helen’s death in 2015.

It wasn’t a case of the bride and groom going to the reception, then leaving in a decorated car for the honeymoon. There was the matter of a baseball game. An important game at the Stellarton park.

So two hours after the reception, Fulghum and the Albions were dressing for the game against the Truro Bearcats. A victory would carry Stellarton into the finals.

What did the groom do? He pounded a grandslam that placed the Pictou County team against the Halifax Capitals. History, of course, shows that the Als captured their first league title in those finals.

According to the obituary, a story Joe told for the rest of his life went like this: “I hit two grandslams that day. Marrying Helen was the big one.”

Maybe it was because of Fulghum’s presence, but 1951 was arguably the best of all the Albions teams. Repeat championships in 1952 and ‘53 gave Stellarton the distinction of being the only franchise in league annals to win three consecutive crowns.

Only four players were on all three winning rosters: player-coach Bill Brooks, second baseman Kent (Baby) Rogers, Stellarton’s own Harry Reekie and — no surprise — Fulghum.

What else did Joe achieve in his wedding year?

He won the league batting title, his first of two in succession, and provided the leadership that Brooks knew about when he recruited the outfielder to the H&D team.

Anyone who might want to debate my suggestion that the ‘51 Albions were the best club ever in this part of Nova Scotia should consider the personnel on that roster. It was awesome.

The only locals were Reekie in the outfield, Sid Roy on the pitching staff, and John (Brother) MacDonald backing up Brooks at first base.

What an infield — Rogers at second, future major leaguer Gair Allie at shortstop and Huck Keaney on third. The catcher was another star — Leroy Sires.

Reekie, Fulghum and Art Hoch was an outstanding outfield while Roy shared pitching duties with guys like Preacher Mustain, Don Woodlief and Joe Pazdan.

And, wow, how the Als dominated everything. Maybe the most amazing achievement was the club’s consistency — spending every single day from Victoria Day to Labour Day in first place, finishing with a 45-16 record.

Fulghum’s batting championship was the result of a .413 average. Stellarton had the top four home run leaders — Allie, Sires, Keaney and Fulghum.

But back to Joe.

He was born in Wilson, North Carolina in 1925. His real name was Francis Fulghum. The “Joe” was a gift from his high school baseball coach — and it stuck.

In high school, Fulghum was considered to be “a scholar athlete,” playing for the varsity teams in baseball, basketball and football. His leadership was there — captaining the hoops and baseball teams.

Fulghum enlisted in the United States Naval Air Corps and attended flight school at Duke University. He was a navigator for the U.S. Navy during the Second World War.

Following war duty, he was given a baseball scholarship to Wake Forest University where he received a business degree in 1950 and a masters a year later.

A portion of Joe’s obituary illustrates what made the man so important to so many people. I thought it worthy of repeating.

“Joe’s ability to teach and inspire others defined his life work,” it said. “His math students and his ball players speak of how he patiently encouraged and coached them through the steps of a math problem or game plays and practice drills in his slow southern drawl until they got it.”

There was another key comment, by an assistant coach: “He made the game fun to play.”

His coaching was explained this way: “He had an unusual ability to recognize talent and to put the right people in the right positions to make the whole team successful without showing favouritism. He was a kind gentleman who never had a bad word to say about anyone.”

He showed his coaching prowess with the Newark Yellow Jackets, where he was head coach for the basketball team for five years and head coach of the baseball program for 21 years.

Stellarton fans, you’ll recall, also got a chance to see Fulghum coaching. After his championship years under Brooks, he returned to coach the 1956 Albions.

Joe and Helen had five children, nine grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

Due to COVID-19, there was a drive-thru visitation at Joe Fulghum Baseball Field at the Delaware high school.

His name won’t be forgotten there — or in Pictou County where he was truly popular with fans.

Thanks to his niece, Karen Murray, for letting us know another old Albion has gone to the big ball park in the sky — where he’ll be just as popular.