FROM HAMLET TO MEGALOPOLIS : Dodgers' Franklin Stubbs Seems to Have Arrived to Stay

Times Staff Writer

The ghost of Hamlet, N.C., is not a Shakespearean invention, but equal parts iron and diesel, flesh and blood.

It had names like the Orange Blossom Special and the Silver Comet, trains that connected New York to the north with Miami to the south.

Now, the switching yard that once made Hamlet a hub of the old Seaboard Coastline Railroad lies all but unused, and the whistles that once pierced the Carolina sandhills are seldom heard now.

Progress is hard on old railroad towns, and Hamlet, 70 miles east of Charlotte, is no exception.

"When I came here in 1967 the town was flourishing," George Whitfield said. "It's slowed down some. And if the railroad ever leaves here, the town will dry up."

The town, 6,400 people strong, survives. And in some ways, it has remained a way station. Just check the names on the cornerstone at Hamlet Memorial Park, where George Whitfield has watched and coached the children of Hamlet.

Louis Breeden, cornerback, Cincinnati Bengals. Mike Quick, wide receiver, Philadelphia Eagles. Perry Williams, cornerback, New York Giants. Franklin Stubbs, outfielder, Los Angeles Dodgers. Hamlet gave life to all four of these professional athletes and these native sons, in turn, have offered a sense of regeneration.

"The Pride of Hamlet--The Fantastic Four." That's what the folks in Hamlet called it last February, when they held a night to honor their three NFL performers and their promising big league baseball player.

"That's home," Franklin Stubbs says, though he now performs in the employ of a team in a city 2,500 miles and light years away from Hamlet.

"And it will always be home. My job takes me out here and I'll probably get a place of my own, but I'll always go back."

Those who have stayed behind, like Whitfield, coach of Stubbs' state champion high school and American Legion teams, are watching his every move as the Dodgers' first baseman, the way his grandmother, Katherine Davis, who essentially brought him up, used to watch him as a child.

"The people here are so excited, they don't know what to do," said Whitfield, now the athletic director at Richmond Senior High, the school that draws its students from Hamlet and Rockingham, the county seat.

"We're happy for him and proud of him. And he always remembers the people in Hamlet when he comes back."

The trains didn't bring the Dodgers to Hamlet. Jim Garland did.

Garland is 70 now. But in his Honda Accord, his wife Edna often along for the ride, he still crisscrosses the tobacco roads of Virginia and the Carolinas, the mountain passes of West Virginia and the city blocks of Washington as a full-time scout for the Dodgers.

One morning in Durham, N.C., he and Edna walked into a motel restaurant, which was almost completely occupied by a high school baseball team. Richmond's team. Garland remembers Whitfield calling him over.

"The coach said to me, 'I've got a real good boy you better follow,' " Garland said. " 'His name is Franklin Stubbs.' "

At the time, Stubbs was a sophomore.

"I don't know if Franklin remembers, but I had him fill out a card," Garland said.

Wilbur Snipes, who coached Stubbs in a kids' league, first took notice of him when Stubbs was about 11.

"That's when he started making his move," Snipes said.

"And I'll never forget, we took an All-Star team to Springfield, Mass., and if we won there, we were going to Mexico City. And his grandmother said to me, 'If y'all go to Mexico, I want you to get a lot of insurance for my boy.' "

Katherine Davis watched out for Stubbs. She was the one who decided he wasn't going to play football.

Whitfield didn't protest. He knew he had something special in Stubbs as a baseball player, and often he would drive Stubbs down North Carolina 38 the eight miles or so from school to the small farm in which Stubbs and his grandmother lived, about 100 yards or so from the South Carolina border.

"I played ball and worked in the fields," Stubbs said. "We had a plow mule and we grew most of our own food--peas and watermelon and cantaloupes, you name it.

"We didn't have a whole lot of money, but my mother and grandmother kept clothes on our back, food to eat, and a place to sleep."

After practice, Whitfield said, Katherine Davis frequently would invite him in for a plate of fresh green beans from her garden.

Katherine Davis died last year, but Whitfield had not taken her words lightly. With quiet pride, Whitfield mentions that Stubbs asked him to deliver his grandmother's eulogy in a church filled with 500 people.

"The most influential person in my life is George Whitfield," Stubbs said. "He has been a father figure to me. When we go to Atlanta and he brings his family down, I say, 'That's my family.' "

By Stubbs' senior year, the scouts had started showing up in greater numbers. He played first base and the outfield, but he also pitched, and in the American Legion state championship he set a record that still stands. He won all four games in the state tournament, two as a starter and two as a reliever.

But Whitfield had a reputation for sending his players to college and Stubbs--even though his grades were borderline--was no exception.

"The coach put a big price tag on him--he wanted Franklin to go to college," said Dodger scout Garland, whose interest never wavered, even after Stubbs had decided to go to Virginia Tech.

"He wanted $50 or $60 thousand. Later on, he was worth it. Even more."

Stubbs went to Virginia Tech, was named an All-American as a sophomore, and hit 59 home runs in three years. In June, 1982, after his junior year, the Dodgers made him their No. 1 draft choice.

Four years later, Stubbs is in the big leagues, apparently to stay this time. The Dodgers nearly short-circuited his career by exposing him to the majors too soon in 1984.

Then, he batted .194 and struck out 63 times in 217 at-bats.

Going into Tuesday night's game in Atlanta, he was hitting .248, and his 11 home runs and 26 RBIs were second only to Mike Marshall on the Dodgers.

Stubbs is back in school, too, as a star pupil at TLU--Tom Lasorda University. The Dodger manager, as he has done with dozens of players in the past, has been counseling Stubbs and rookie Reggie Williams during extra batting sessions. If Lasorda isn't out there with them, batting coach Manny Mota and instructor Ben Hines are.

"How much does it cost to go to Harvard?" Lasorda says. "Sixty thousand dollars, right?

"To go to Lasorda University, it doesn't cost a cent. Just energy, time and effort. But when you graduate from my university, you can make a ton of money.

"Look at Bill Russell. He's got his Ph.D."

Stubbs appears to be learning his lessons well. With Cesar Cedeno released, he is now playing every day, and holding his own against left-handers.

"I tell him what Charlie Gehringer and Dixie Walker used to tell me," Lasorda said. "As a left-hander against a left-hander, as soon as they saw the spin of the ball and saw that it was a breaking pitch, they would think of going to the opposite field. That's what we want Franklin to do, and with his power, he could be a left-handed Dale Murphy."

Mota said that Stubbs also has learned to lay off the high fastball, with which pitchers frequently used to strike him out.

"Now he knows it's a ball," Mota said. "Look how relaxed he is at the plate."

And look how excited they are in Hamlet. Glenn Sumpter, editor of the Richmond Daily Journal, said that his paper runs a box charting Stubbs' progress with the Dodgers.

When Stubbs was just a year old, his father, Lee Stubbs, was killed in an automobile accident. His mother, Betty Livingston, remarried and has had eight children in all, six of them girls.

Betty Livingston told her son that his father had been a pretty good baseball player, and always wanted a son who would play ball.

"I'm kind of living his dream," Franklin Stubbs said of the father he never knew.

George Whitfield, the surrogate father, figures the dream is within reach.

"I think he can't miss," Whitfield said. "The Man Upstairs is looking after him."

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