Hall of Fame

George Stone

Most of his early ball fields are gone now. Like the first one, in Doyline, where the railroad tracks ran parallel to the first base line. And later the city field in Ruston where church leagues played softball. Then the one that had the fairly new backstop, over behind the elementary school. And later, Fulton County Stadium and Shea.

Time changes things. Even the big parks turn to dust.

But that's OK now and, even back then, the park didn't matter so much to George Stone, a Class of 2013 inductee into Louisiana Tech's Athletics Hall of Fame Nov. 9. Stone grew up here, played ball for the local public high school and for the university, carved out a career in education here, and in between all those things, pitched for nine seasons with the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets.

"We played in back yards, in all kinds of places," said Curtis Barham, who's probably caught more Stone pitches than anyone else if you count Little League, high school, American Legion, college baseball at Tech and all those afternoons after school and summertime pickup games.

"We just needed a flat place," Barham said, "and at least 60 feet."

It's 60 feet, six inches to be exact, and exact is what baseball is all about. More often than not, Stone could make a baseball do exactly what he wanted over that unforgiving span of space between the mound and the plate, baseball's most demanding distance.

"Stoney" was a good enough athlete to attend Tech on a basketball scholarship, start as a sophomore in 1966 and average 14 points a game under legendary Tech coach Scotty Robertson, with future Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Leon Barmore as a teammate.

But athletically, the future for the 6-3, 205-pound lefthander was in baseball. His career ERA of 1.49 is second only to the 1.39 career ERA of fellow pitcher and Tech Athletics Hall of Famer George Woodson.

After 45 years, Stone is still prominent in the Tech record book:

Fewest hits allowed in a season: 1st with 23

Season ERA: 5th, 1.02

Strikeouts per 9 innings: 4th, 11.41

Fewest hits per 9 innings: 4th, 5.04

He also pitched a no-hitter as a sophomore in 1966 and was a two-time All-Gulf States Conference selection.

So it came as little surprise when the Braves picked him in the fifth round of the '66 MLB Draft, the first Tech player ever drafted. He made a couple of big-league appearances late in the '67 season, then began his eight-year run in the majors that included appearances in the 1973 World Series for the Mets against the Oakland A's.

"Those of us who saw Stoney pitch and play for Ruston, the T. L. James Contractors in American Legion baseball (state finalists in '63 and '64), and then at Tech could sense he had major-league talent," wrote retired sportswriter and Tech graduate Nico Van Thyn after a recent conversation with is old friend. "He just had that look about him.

"And he first made it (to the big leagues) before expansion, when MLB was still the Original 16 franchises, and talent wasn't as diluted. It was much tougher to make it to The Show in those days."

"He was good enough to win without having to strike everybody on the team out," said Randy Fallin, Stone's teammate and left fielder at Tech and earlier his Monroe Contractors American Legion opponent. "He had great control, and he didn't get rattled. You know how you always try to get on the pitcher? I don't think when we played them and George pitched that he even knew we were there. He was a cool-headed guy. When he got to the pros, it was the same ol' George: they saw he could throw it where he wanted to, when he wanted to."

"He was easy to catch because he knew what he was doing, all the time," Barham said. "He probably threw in the mid- to upper-80s; he wasn't a 95 miles-per-hour guy. Control and placement were his best assets. And focus when performing. I mean, back then, you never think of someone playing pro ball. But by the time we got to high school, I knew he was something special."

It was that mastery of the other most crucial of baseball distances, that No Man's Land between a ballplayer's ears, which gave Stone the edge he needed.

"He did what it took to be prepared," Barham said. "The mechanics, the fundamental parts of pitching. He could feel the smallest thing wrong, and he'd work until he got it fixed."

"He was patient," said Dianna Sumlin Stone, a Lincoln Parish schoolteacher when the couple married in winter before the 1972 baseball season and today the parish's Registrar of Voters. "He studied his opponents. He knew what their weaknesses were; that's what he pitched to."

Behind the poker face, he had another secret weapon.

"I guess I changed personalities, really, when I was on the mound," Stone said. "I'm a laid-back guy but on the mound, something happened. For some reason, I'd step up there and things would just change for me. Like in basketball, with the ball in my hands, I didn't think anybody could keep me from scoring. If you don't have that, if nothing changes when you get on the mound, I don't know if you can be successful. You've got to have a certain amount of competitiveness."

He still remembers a ball against the Monroe Contractors that should have been a home run but was ruled a ground-rule double because it hit a blocking dummy in deep right field where there was no fence, then bounced back to the fielder. "I was already crossing home plate when the guy picked the ball up," Stone remembers. "I hit one home run in the big leagues, but I think that ball I hit against that blocking dummy - I mean, you could hardly SEE the thing! - was the farthest ball I ever hit."

His T. L. James team lost that American Legion game in extra innings. He remembers.

And there was the big-league fight with Don Wilson, the hard-throwing righthander from Monroe, in the Astrodome in the summer of '69. When Stone felt Wilson, the starter for Houston against Stone and the Braves, tagged Stone a bit too hard on a bunt down the first-base line, Stone came up swinging. Wilson came in first in the fight, something Stone admitted to his old friend Van Thyn when the two talked about it recently.

"He won the battle," said Stone, who got the win in the 5-1 Braves victory, "but I won the war."

Stone was 60-57 in his career with 590 strikeouts and a 3.89 ERA. He was handy with the bat: he hit .212 with 72 hits, a homer, four doubles and 39 RBI in his career.

But a couple of seasons were pure magic for Stone. He was 13-10 in 1969 when the Braves won their division. For the Mets in 1973 after an off-season trade, he was 12-3 and won his final eight decisions as New York came from 12.5 games back to win the National League East. The Mets beat Cincinnati in the National League Championship Series - Stone started Game 4 but didn't get the decision - then New York lost to the A's in the World Series. Stone pitched out of the bullpen in Games 2 and 7, and longtime Mets fans still wonder whether or not Yogi Berra should have started Stone in Game 6 instead of Tom Seaver, who would lose the game on short rest. In relief, Stone pitched the Mets' final two half innings of the season the next day, both scoreless, as Stone, New York and Mets' starter Jon Matlack lost Game 7.

A partial rotator cuff tear the next year was the beginning of the end of his baseball career. He retired in the spring of 1976, coached and taught in his hometown, raised two daughters with Dianna, and today is learning the art of grandparenting. Four grandsons are teaching him all about it.

In the rearview mirror is a pro sports career that includes some household names in teammates Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, plus north Louisiana buddies Cecil Upshaw and Ralph Garr. A lot of his old friends have called since they heard he'd been elected to Tech's most prestigious athletic group.

"I'm elated," said Stone, who was friends with a future Tech basketball coach, the late Tommy Joe Eagles, when they two were elementary-school age in Doyline before Stone's family moved to Ruston. "Hearing from guys and teammates you don't get to see on a regular basis anymore, I've really enjoyed that part of it.

"I felt like I might get in if the time was right," he said about his induction. "But in reality, I only gave Tech two years, athletically. So I wasn't in a hurry about it. I've tried not to think about it a lot. I just felt if it was supposed to happen, it would. And it did. And I'm very happy about it."