The Most They Ever Had

The Most They Ever Had by Rick Bragg

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Authors: Rick Bragg
There wasn’t no jobs and there wasn’t no money, no place but one. In 1911, Momma and Daddy and my brothers and sisters went to work there at the mill. That was it, or else. I was born in the village, the tenth child of eleven, and the seventh son. I grew up with the constant machine racket, a roar. I could hear it from my bed, them big electric motors. We had a house, though. That’s one good thing I can say. Ever’ Chrismas the mill gave us all a ham. That’s another good thing I can say. But we was still poor. The other boys I run ‘round with already worked, my brother, Buddy Williams, Bert Bragg an’ ’em—them Bragg boys, I tell you, they’d kill you over their dogs. Back then, people didn’t think school, like they do now. I was in sixth grade when I quit. I told my Daddy, ‘I got to go get me a job.’”
    The mill was called Profile then, named for a rock face in faraway New England, William Ivan Greenleaf’s way of moving a little piece of his homeland down here among these people. Greenleaf would, in time, banish what he called the shame of child labor, but a fourteen-year-old boy was, apparently, man enough to take his place at the machines.
    Clay cannot really remember when his first day was, just remembers being told by a boss man to pick the compacted cotton lint from the machines. But he can still recall the way the jarring and shaking of the machines made the floor ripple, as if it were liquid beneath his toes, as he reached inside.
    And that would have been all there was, just that mill whistle, that treadmill of work, if someone had not noticed him playing with his friends on the diamond, had not seen a teenage boy who routinely hit the ball so far they had to send a troop of smaller boys into the pines to fetch it. Old man Greenleaf, the mill boss, gave him a scratchy, baggy uniform with the words PROFILE stitched on the front and a scuffed-up pair of spikes and told him there might be a little something extra for him, a dollar or two, if he put some runs on the board.
    He joined a team of men he already knew, some of them young men in their twenties, some graybeards who had fought in WWI and went about their baseball pretty much the same way as war. There was Bailey McClellan, Albert Slaght, Otto “Hook” Burroughs, Sam Hill, Guy “Boss” Hammett, Van Hamilton, Jud “Jutt” Harrelson, Elk Hamilton, Leonard Little, Homer Wilkerson, Jess Duke, and, towering over everyone, Bartow Hughes.
    Their legends were born here, in the foothills of the Appalachians, and never traveled much farther. But the boys dreamed about being discovered, like a thirteen-year-old lint-sweeper named Shoeless Joe Jackson who made it all the way from a Greenville mill to the Chicago White Sox, and then down, down in the infamous 1919 World Series.
    Old men here say Clay Hammett might have done it, his limbs and mind still young, his lungs still clean, but Clay just shakes his head when asked if his dreams were so big.
    It was enough, he said, to be a part of the Profile Nine. With it, he finally found a sound strong enough, sweet enough, to drown out the roar of the machines that chased him every step of his childhood, even into his dreams.
    ___
    Before the opening game, usually with the Blue Mountain mill, they hauled the whole team to Greenleaf’s mansion to have their picture made. Greenleaf did not invite them inside, but it was something, even from the yard.
    The photos show rows of rail-thin, jug-eared men in harsh Depression haircuts, unsmiling, swallowed up by their uniforms. Management—Greenleaf, and the mill superintendents—poses with them, in three-piece suits. Nine bats, knicked, splintered, and taped, fan out before them. But for men who learned to hit with sawmill slabs, they would do just fine.
    They were not always the product of the mill, these men. Greenleaf was not above bringing in a ringer. But the people never respected them, never yelled for them like they did their own boys, the boys

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