and his amazing Krystal Ball
by Russ Lancaster
During the 1950's, there were two popular newspapers in Richmond County. Hamlet had its "Hamlet News" and Rockingham had its "Richmond County Journal". During that period of time, the Hamlet News was published three times weekly (Monday, Wednesday & Friday), whereas the Journal was published once a week. The competition was minimal with the Hamlet News far and away the most popular of the two.
One of the reasons the Hamlet News was so popular was its sportswriter, Kirk Kirkley. To look at him, sportswriter would have not been at all descriptive. He was short, portly and looked nothing like an athlete as did so many sportswriters of the time. But looks are deceiving, he was good. In fact, he was very good.
He had many self inspired gimmicks that enhanced his writing and a knack of appealing to everyone with his stories. He had a special ability to write sports stories that would keep the reader coming back for more. He was often quoted, seldom criticized.
One of his best gimmicks was his amazing Krystal Ball. High school sports during the fifties were very popular in Hamlet and Rockingham with football being the king. Kirk would predict the games every Friday using his Krystal Ball. He would pick the winners andeven the scores of the games from all the area schools in the Southeastern AA, later to become AAA conference. The Hamlet News was a big seller during football season, especially on Fridays as everyone wanted to see what amazing predictions Kirk had made.
The most important game each year was the Rockingham - Hamlet football game. If ever Kirk had a flaw in his Krystal Ball it was in seeing the outcome of this game. Hamlet could not beat Rockingham during this era. The weeks leading up to the game were always filled with great anticipation, this might just be the year. The game was generally the last on each team's schedule barring playoffs. It made no difference how good either team was, you could throw away the record book when those two got together. It was almost as big in Hamlet as Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Homecoming parades would be seen on game day. The schools went all out with pep rallies, bonfires and such. School loyalty was of great importance. This was a special game in the hearts of all those Rockingham Rockets and Hamlet Red Rams.
The games were played in alternating towns each year. It made no difference, Hamlet and Rockingham were less than five miles apart back then (they practically touch each other now). Whether played in Hamlet or Rockingham, the stands were filled with equal amounts of spectators from each town. The combined population of Hamlet and Rockingham was just over 10,000 back then and on game night you would find nearly all of them packed into the bleachers screaming at each other from their opposite sides. It was a great show.
Fans would begin filling the seats on those late November games up to three hours before game time. Heavy coats, blankets and thermoses of coffee would be needed. It was always cold when these two teams met. You get the idea, it was a festive, good natured rivalry between two great schools. Kirk Kirkley helped to fire that rivalry by picking the underdog to win most of the time. As good as he was at predicting the other winners and scores, he and his Krystal Ball failed whenever he picked Hamlet to beat Rockingham. But, he sold a lot of newspapers by firing up the fans. He was good.
In 1954, organized Little League baseball was formed in Hamlet. That was a summer to remember and again Kirk Kirkley had a hand in its success which the citizens of Hamlet can be thankful for even now. The teams were given the names: Cubs, Tigers, Phillies and Yankees taken from their major league counterparts. I could be wrong but remember only those four teams being around in 1954.
Again, Kirk promoted the rivalries between those teams with his writings in the Hamlet News. He gave the teams even greater nicknames: The "Cutie Pie" Cubs, the "Terrific" Tigers, the "Pugilistic" Phillies and the "Yappy" Yankees. The eleven and twelve year old kids loved the names and their tee shirts proudly worn around town sported the Kirk Kirkley names of their teams. I know because I was one of those "Terrific" Tigers that won our "Little World Series" that year. Yes, that's what Kirk Kirkley proclaimed in the Hamlet News... the "Little World Series" and we took it to heart and believed it. Because of him, we saw ourselves as big time stars and the little town of Hamlet was the world to each of us. I told you, Kirk Kirkley was very good.
Kirk had a special way with words when describing any sporting event. He once described Hamlet High School Quarterback, George Wooten, as a "sparkplug". He made George believe it, he made us all believe it. He was good for Hamlet.
I wasn't much of an athlete looking back at those times, but I always thought I was. I remember my personal write-up of one of my better days by Kirk Kirkley. It was a little embarrassing but he knew what the readers wanted to hear. I was on the HHS J.V. baseball team, 10th grade, and we had played over in Rockingham one afternoon in early spring. I had a great day going four for five at bat. After one single, Dale Williamson lined another hit into the gap between right and center field. Coach Gene Winfree was waving me all the way home from first after the first crack of the bat. As I rounded second base and headed for third, my cap flew off. I stopped, ran back, picked it up and continued my run towards home plate. I scored, but just barely. What should have been an easy score ended up with my sliding under the glove of the Rockingham catcher. My going back for the cap had allowed the ball to beat me to home plate by just enough to make the play close.
After the game, Kirk came over to interview me. I just knew he was going to ask me about going four for five and how well I had performed. Not so. Kirk wanted to know why I backtracked for my cap between second and third base. Ohhh... I was hurt, but only for a little while. When I got the Hamlet News the next day, there I was in print. The story didn't seem so bad anymore. Kirk had written it as if I was flaunting the Rockingham team by going back for that cap. Yes, he made even me hero for a day.
I left Hamlet for the first time in 1959 for the U.S. Air Force. I left thinking Hamlet was one of the best places to live in the whole world. Kirk Kirkley had a lot to do with that thinking. Years later, when I returned, he was gone. There was no more Hamlet News... it had become the Hamlet News Messenger. It was no longer published weekly. The rival Richmond County Journal had now become a daily paper.
The Rockingham and Hamlet High School rivalries no longer exist, they along with all the county's other schools have merged into Richmond Senior High School. There are no more Rockingham - Hamlet football games to watch. There is no longer a Krystal Ball at the Hamlet News and I have no idea where Kirk Kirkley is today.
But, I remember those days, that Krystal Ball and that sportswriter who made us proud to be citizens of Hamlet. I remember Kirk Kirkley and if you lived in Hamlet in the fifties I wager you do too. You may not have thought about him for awhile but he surely gave you memories as he did me.
Yes, I remember those days, but most of all.... I remember Hamlet.
This section is to honor the works of Russ Lancaster who started the “I Remember Hamlet” web site years ago. Without his pioneering the web at that time we might not have gathered all these memories of our Hamlet, NC. We thank you Russ for what you started in 1996, may you Rest in Peace. Russ was kind enough to let me download his web site before he took it down. Thank you Russ.
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