Forty years ago this month, in May 1973, some local high school students might have been seen limping around town with sore muscles, or sporting a few cuts and bruises — even a ruptured eardrum.
But there was good reason for this — they had just completed a softball game then billed as the “world’s longest,” a continuous contest that spanned three days, 46 hours and a whopping 340 innings. The two teams participating scored a total of 1,686 runs between them.
Played between the Key Clubs of Mount Airy and North Surry high schools, the marathon game involved a fundraiser to help underprivileged children, and probably less importantly a sense of pride that comes with setting a record. It generated $3,200, the equivalent of $16,759 in today’s dollars.
“It was tough,” Jack Wilson Jr., a former Mount Airy resident who now lives in Hickory, said of his participation in the game as a senior at MAHS, where he had been elected president of its fledgling Key Club. “Yes, people did get hurt — people were hurting after the game, extremely sore and extremely tired.”
Along with those scored in the game itself, “We made five runs to the emergency room,” recalled Bud Cameron, a local reverend and former Surry County register of deeds who then was a teacher at North Surry and faculty adviser for its Key Club.
Those on the injury list included Benny Stamper, who wasn’t even playing at the time he was hurt.
“I got hit in the side of the head with a line-drive — I was actually keeping score and it busted my right eardrum,” explained Stamper, now associated with V&S Septic Service on West Pine Street. He can laugh about the injury today, even though his hearing in that ear is still affected somewhat.
“It may have done me good to get hit in the head,” Stamper joked.
Kids Sent To Camp
Cameron also has vivid memories of that 1973 encounter, played at the old Mount Airy Optimist Field, which no longer exists, but then was located near the present site of the local Red Cross headquarters.
“I didn’t play, but I was there almost continuously,” he said of the game that started at 6 p.m. on Friday, May 4, and didn’t end until 4 p.m. two days later. A yellowed front-page newspaper clipping kept in a scrapbook of Cameron’s includes a black-and-white photograph of then-North Surry Principal R.O. Poplin tossing out the ceremonial first ball to start the game with longtime rival Mount Airy.
It was organized to help the community, with the Key Club — part of Kiwanis International — the oldest and largest service program for high school students.
“Both clubs had 30 members and we were raising money to send handicapped children to Camp Easter in the Pines,” Cameron said of a facility near Pinehurst.
The idea was to get the public to pledge so much money per inning played. The goal was $2,000, but the clubs ended up with $3,200, counting pledges and gate receipts.
Coupled with that was the goal of trying to break a record of a 320-inning game which had been set out West.
Cameron said an attempt was made at the time to have the game certified as a Guinness world record. “But they responded that there was so many different softball rules around the world that they do not recognize any record in softball.”
“You played in shifts,” Greg Smith, then a senior at North Surry who now works for Discount Builders & Supply Co. Inc. in Pilot Mountain, said of how the young men managed the ordeal.
“So many would start and what extra guys you had, they would come in and play so many hours,” Smith added. “You just kept rotating all day and all night.”
“I don’t remember us taking any breaks at all,” Cameron said.
The sheer length of the game is what stands out in the minds of Smith, Wilson and others who took part, and just the strangeness of playing in such an event.
“In my mind, I felt like it would go faster than it did,” Wilson said.
Morris Samet, a local accountant, who played on the Mount Airy Key Club team while being just shy of his 16th birthday, appreciated the novelty of the experience.
“I just loved softball and I loved baseball,” Samet said. “It was great to be able to play under the lights and to play well into the night.”
Samet also was one of those who were injured during the game.
“It was about 1:30 in the morning and somebody hit a high fly ball,” he said of the freak accident. “It hit the index finger on my right hand, the hand without the glove.” The cracked finger required Samet to go to the hospital to have a splint put on, but he rejoined the game about 6 a.m. that day, due to the Mount Airy team being short on players.
As injuries mounted, some boys played two four-hour stretches back to back.
Other injuries included torn ligaments, along with the usual scraped knees and other minor issues.
“It was pretty rough on young guys to stay there for three days, you know,” Stamper said.
Smith also remembered having to cope with adverse atmospheric conditions. “It got chilly during the night,” he said. This led to wood being placed in barrels at the park and set afire to provide warmth. Smith thinks it might have rained as well.
“We just kept going right through it all.”
Wilson said everyone seemed to keep the game’s mission in mind.
“We just kept playing for the kids and we weren’t going to quit, and we were going to try to set the record.”
Willie “Bill” Wilborn, a retired trooper with the N.C. Highway Patrol, who was on the North Surry team, said that in a way, being young helped the players withstand the ordeal.
“We were all 11th- and 12th-graders then,” he said. “When you’re 17, it’s not going to slow you down — it’s just a weekend.”
Interest Ran High
There also was much activity on the sidelines during the 46-hour game. A steady stream of spectators poured in, even during early morning hours, peaking at between 1,500 and 2,000 for its Sunday-afternoon conclusion.
“I remember it was a big deal,” Samet said. “There were a lot of people there.”
“It was a big thing back then,” Smith agreed.
In addition to the players on the field was a support group of others who volunteered for various tasks associated with the game.
“I can’t say enough about the people I went to school with, who really stepped up and said, ‘we’ll keep score at two or three o’clock in the morning,’” Wilson remembered.
In the end, North Surry had outscored Mount Airy 1,031 to 655. They averaged about seven innings per hour, with North Surry getting 18 runs in the 101st inning, the most of any frame. Twenty-four scoreless innings were recorded.
“They were the athletes,” Samet joked regarding the North Surry team. “We were the geeks.”
However, the final score was not the important thing, as longtime foes Mount Airy and North Surry temporarily set aside their differences for a common cause.
“I remember it was generally good sportsmanship on both sides,” Samet said.
The participants of that memorable 1973 game who were interviewed said they had never taken part in anything similar, either before or since. Cameron added that the two Key Clubs did take the field against each other the next year. “Just a regular game,” he said.
The former club adviser remembers attending a state conference where accolades were received by the local representatives for their achievement, but where it also was stated that “we would never do it again.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.