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James 'Babe Ruth' Taylor and his wife, Emma Louise, had 17 children. They sharecropped most of their lives in Oakville.
Courtesy photo
James "Babe Ruth" Taylor and his wife, Emma Louise, had 17 children. They sharecropped most of their lives in Oakville.

Oakville's 'Babe Ruth'
Family, friends say Taylor is Lawrence's best athlete

By Deangelo McDaniel
dmcdaniel@decaturdaily.com 340-2469

OAKVILLE — It's understandable why you would say Olympic great Jesse Owens is the greatest athlete born in Oakville.

But, after visiting this sparsely populated hamlet and talking with its residents — old and young, white and black — you start to form a different opinion.

The majority will tell you without a doubt that James "Babe Ruth" Taylor is not only Oakville's finest athlete, but is perhaps the greatest athlete ever born in Lawrence County.

"You don't get the nickname Babe Ruth by accident, especially if you're black," said his son, Paul Miller Taylor.

As a tribute to the man who played, coached or officiated baseball and softball for more than 60 years, former players and players who played against Babe Ruth's Oakville teams gathered for the first James "Babe Ruth" Taylor Softball Classic.

"Everybody knows about Jesse Owens because his winnings were on a national stage," said James McDaniel of Louisville, Ky.

McDaniel, an Oakville native who organized the event, remembers the influence Taylor had on children in the community.

"I had an opportunity to meet him at an early age and play a game in front of him," McDaniel recalled. "After the game, he told me I had a future in athletics. That's still in my mind."

Before he was coaching and officiating, Babe Ruth was playing. The grandson of former Lawrence County slaves was born Jan. 15, 1909, the first son to Andrew and Cora Taylor. What little education he received came in a one-room log cabin, the same cabin that educated Owens' sisters and brothers.

The family isn't sure when Babe Ruth started playing baseball "because we always remember him playing," his daughter, Josephine Brackin, 64, said.

He married the former Emma Louise Williams. Struggling to make a living as a sharecropper and with three of their 17 children born, the couple went to Cleveland in search of a better life.

After work, Babe Ruth watched the Negro League baseball teams practice. Not expecting an affirmative response, he sought and received a tryout with the Cleveland team.

He was capable of playing any position, but focused primarily on pitcher and catcher.

"He gave up pitching after he accidentally hit a batter so hard that the man later died," retired teacher Rosalie Clark wrote in 1996.

Family members confirmed the story.

Uneasy with the culture of professional baseball, Taylor returned his family to Oakville and the sharecropping lifestyle that was so difficult during the Depression.

"Big Daddy didn't like you cussing," granddaughter Gwen Brackin explained of why Babe Ruth left professional baseball. "He always said he came back to Oakville because he had to take care of his family."

He didn't, however, leave baseball behind. Between sharecropping and harvesting timber, he pieced together a community team.

One of the stories that just about everybody has heard in Oakville involves a runner who tried to steal second base while Taylor was catching.

Without leaving his squatting position, Taylor threw the ball to second base. Caught between first and second, the runner gave up.

Taylor turned to some of the spectators, winked and said: "I thought he was fast."

His greatest impact on Oakville came after he stopped playing. Using baseball and later softball as the foundation, he became the father of Oakville.

He coached, served as umpire, but most importantly, he gave children hope, a chance to see life beyond the boundaries of Oakville. His teams played games in North Alabama and South Tennessee.

Angenette Williams played on one of Taylor's softball teams.

"I couldn't play, but I loved to play so he had me out there," she said. "He told me to go out there and just get a base hit. I had to ask him what a base hit was. He could have taken me out, but he kept encouraging me. Years later when I played on a team in Decatur, he came to see me play."

Babe Ruth's children were always part of his teams.

"On Saturday, we picked cotton to lunch and played baseball to dark," son, Wyman Taylor, said. "Daddy loved baseball and he loved helping kids."

Jewel Taylor married one of Taylor's eight sons. She played softball about 10 years.

"He gave us something to do on Saturday," she said, noting that Babe Ruth provided financially for the children who couldn't afford uniforms.

Before his teams started playing near the Baptist church, Babe Ruth had them in a cow pasture across the street.

"The first thing we had to do was clean up the field, if you know what I mean," son, Wyman Taylor said. "If the cows came up, we just shooed them away."

Paul Miller Taylor said his father didn't keep records of his wins and didn't elaborate on individual accomplishments.

"He was a great teacher," the son said. "He always told us to go for the base hit. Don't worry about the home run."

Babe Ruth listened to the radio and watched baseball religiously on television, his son said.

"Anything relating to baseball, Daddy wanted to be around it," Paul Taylor said. "He could pitch with both hands and was strict as a coach."

At 6-2 and 220 pounds, Babe Ruth was the perfect athlete, his family said. But the rigors of sharecropping ended his playing career when he was 50, and lung cancer stopped him from traveling with his teams in the late 1980s.

Unlike Owens, Oakville's other athlete didn't garner worldwide fame. But, in some parts of the South he is known.

Paul Taylor recalled checking into hotels in Florida and Atlanta.

"When the people saw I was from Oakville, they wanted to know if I knew Babe Ruth and they gave me a discount," he said.

In many ways, Owens and Babe Ruth are similar. Both are sons of sharecroppers and grandsons of former slaves. Both were born in log cabins in Oakville and both went to Cleveland searching for better opportunities.

Owens' mother was named Emma and Babe Ruth's wife was named Emma. Both are remembered for their athletic accomplishments and the impact they had on children. Both were lifelong smokers and both died of lung cancer, Owens in 1980 and Babe Ruth in 1990.

But there are the glaring differences, most notably how they dressed. After the 1936 Olympics, you rarely find a picture of Owens when he's not neatly dressed.

Babe Ruth preferred his coveralls, the ones with dirt stains and holes in the knees.

They reflected who he was, family members said.

"Big Daddy always said work hard, but don't spend everything you make," Gwen Brackin said. "He grew up during some hard times and he knew you had to be prepared for them."

In an ironic twist, Babe Ruth lived in and died in the home that was the image of so much resentment for the Owens family.

Before moving to Cleveland, the Owens family lived in a shanty and sharecropped for Lawrence County Sheriff Jim Cannon.

In 1919, the crop was good for the Owens family, but when Cannon added up everything on the back porch, the Owens family barely had enough to make it through the winter.

Babe Ruth spent the final months of his life on the same porch, talking to his grandchildren, who numbered almost 200, about sports.

"You can bet when you get to heaven," Paul Taylor said, "Daddy will be trying to coach and talk about baseball."

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