CAIRO, Ga. -- Ernest Riles remembers those hot Sunday afternoons when football didn't rule here in south Georgia. He remembers the baseball games inside the tin fence at Holder Park, the games where fans stuffed themselves into bleachers and lined the fence rails and got their money's worth over nine innings. The "chugalug lady" would take $2 a head at the gate and drop it into her tin can. If you could reach beyond the 375-foot fence with one swing, she would meet you with some bonus money for your home run. It was the mid-1970s and you could see a 14-year-old (Riles) face Melvin Ray, a man, who could throw 90 mph.
"People paid to watch, and it was some kind of crowd that came out; every little town around here had a community team," said the 52-year-old Riles, who was drafted in the third round (1981) and played nine years in the big leagues as an infielder. "I'd like to see baseball come back and be strong again here. Maybe all this today will help."
Riles, who lives in the Atlanta area, drove four hours to participate in the renaming of the Boys & Girls Club here to the Jackie Robinson Boys & Girls Club of Cairo-Grady County. The iconic Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball, was born here and the city of Cairo (pronounced kay-roe) and Grady County have continued to honor his achievement 94 years after his birth.
The renaming of the Boys & Girls Club on Saturday morning coincided with the groundbreaking of a renovated baseball field, the same field Riles played on in 1974 and 1975. The infield has been smoothed out, new dugouts and fencing have been erected, and the outfield grass has been manicured. New lights have also been installed, and there is a plaque bearing Robinson's No. 42 to welcome fans. Kids ringed the fence during the ceremony eager to run the bases.
Sharon Robinson, the daughter of Jackie Robinson, participated in the groundbreaking and ribbon cutting along with former heavyweight boxing champ Evander Holyfield and Teresa Edwards, a Cairo native and former Olympic star and All-America basketball player.
There was a tribute dinner Friday night that was attended by 600 people and raised thousands of dollars for the Boys & Girls Club.
Jeffery Brown, the unit director who oversees this Boys & Girls Club, said this summer the club will join Major League Baseball's RBI initiative, an outreach program designed to promote the game in underserved areas.
"We want to get baseball back on the map here," Brown said.
Promoting the game sounds just fine with Jerome Bryant, a local baseball coach who organizes community teams for players ages 14 to 50.
"This area use to be a hub of baseball," said Bryant, who played with Riles back in the '70s. "It died down, but we keep trying and trying. It's waves in the ocean, the interest comes then goes, then comes, then goes.
"Now that we have these lights we can come out here and practice at night and play on the weekends. The field looks like good. You have to have a facility to get the kids to give it a try."
The Jackie Robinson Boys & Girls Club will be more than a center for baseball, but also a community center for change. Charles Renaud, one of the board members for the club, told a crowd of several hundred people that Robinson's legacy was about courage and bridging a gap.
"When Mr. Robinson signed that contract it was a ribbon cutting and what he was doing was groundbreaking. It is inspiring us to see if we can put down our economic, political, and racial differences and use this as a catalyst to move forward," Renaud said.
It was the first visit Sharon Robinson had made to her father's native hometown. The house where Jackie was born Jan. 31, 1919, was burned down in a brush fire, but a 150-year-old brick chimney is still on the site and the area has been made a shrine.
Her father lived in Cairo for just a year before the family moved to Southern California, but Sharon Robinson still felt an attachment when she arrived here. She was welcomed into the arms of relatives from the Grady County area with whom she had not previously connected.
"It was very emotional for me," said Sharon Robinson, who was 22 when her father died of a heart attack at 53. "I felt very calm there. I am proud of my cousin Linda Walden for buying the land [where the home sat], keeping it beautiful, and erecting this plaque in my father's honor that did not just talk about baseball but talked about him as a man.
"It made me feel very connected. My father's heritage is here."
She will return to see for herself the impact of the Boys & Girls Club that bears her father's name.
"We're proud to have my father's name on this Boys & Girls Club," Sharon Robinson said. "They respect their young people and their facility. You know it's a good program."
Jackie Robinson had an immense historical significance. He was an inspiration to Dr. Martin Luther King, the spearhead of the civil rights movement. Robinson may not have played baseball in Cairo, but the community treasures the relationship as if he did.
"We honor it," said Kenneth Corker, a local resident. "He changed baseball for everybody and he is part of Cairo."
Ray Glier is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less