Betty Stone: Laurels for an athlete

August 8, 2009 9:23:00 PM

Betty Stone -

 

Some people become legends in their own time. One of the neat things about going to a water exercise class for non-athletes like me is being among people who are athletes, some of them legendary. Jake Propst is one of those from Columbus. 

 

Because I used to play a little tennis, never very well, I knew Jake was a tennis legend. It seems the man was also a baseball star. People like that seem to be almost a different species from people like me. I covet their skill. 

 

I was reading something recently that reported an interesting finding. It seems people with great athletic endurance have more mitochondria in their muscle cells. I don''t know whether that is cause or effect, but the difference is impressive. 

 

I''ll bet Jake Propst has a whole lot of mitochondria. He just seems to enjoy all sports.  

 

 

 

All around sports 

 

His baseball experience started like that of many little Columbus boys, playing sandlot ball on the Barrow School grounds.  

 

"We played with a ball that was so old, we had to tape the leather back on it," he said. 

 

His Uncle James also liked tennis. He built a clay court which family and friends enjoyed. The backstop was too short, because that was all the space they could use, but that was no problem to the youngsters.  

 

Jake''s Uncle Fred often used him to caddy for him when he played golf, so that introduced Jake to the golf course. His father, the oldest of the three Propst men, was former Columbus mayor, Bill Propst. He, too, played professional baseball. 

 

With that background, Jake, not surprisingly, went on to letter in five sports in high school. By the time he graduated from Lee High in 1938, he had received letters in baseball, football, basketball, tennis and track -- and a medal from C.E. Farmer. 

 

 

 

Batter up  

 

Jake attended the University of Alabama as a freshman on a baseball scholarship. After one year he transferred to Ole Miss, where for three years he played baseball and tennis; he was captain of the baseball team. He said, "Sometimes I''d go straight from one sport to the other, if that was the way the schedule worked." 

 

When he graduated from One Miss in 1942, he had a batting average of 340 and signed with the Memphis Chicks, knowing he would soon be going into the service for World War II. He went to Camp Walker, Texas, where he continued to play baseball, but transferred to the Air Force and went overseas as a pilot. (In fact, he kept an airplane for about 10 years after the war.) 

 

Jake came back to Memphis and, for several years, played with Memphis; the Texas League; Hollywood, California; Meridian in the Southeast League; Colorado; and some small teams. Players would be sold to other teams if scouts saw them and wanted them enough.  

 

"They just owned you," he said. "You were property, like a car, or any other possession, and you went with whoever bought you. Of course, you could always quit if you didn''t like it." 

 

Jake retired from the Western League in Colorado in 1951 because of bone spurs.  

 

"Just like Joe DeMaggio," he laughed. "Same year, same reason." His lifetime batting average was 318. 

 

 

 

Home again 

 

Jake came home then. After about a year at home, he got better. He managed the semi-pro Columbus Redbirds for two or three years. During that time he always carried a tennis racquet with him.  

 

"I was sort of like, ''Have racquet; will travel,''" he said. He began playing competitive tennis when he was 45, in the senior category. Now he is in the 85-and-over category. There is even a 90-and-over category; he is aiming for that. 

 

Jake has not played in tournaments in about a year and a half, but he and Ed Self, of Birmingham, Ala., made it as far as the national doubles semi-finals. He still plays locally every Tuesday with about a dozen other players, and he plays golf occasionally. He has been honored by membership in the Mississippi Tennis Hall of Fame and the Athletic Hall of Fame at Ole Miss. 

 

He says he has won a "bunch of tourneys" with Laney Berry from New Hebron and with Dr. Lou Farber from Jackson. Once, when playing with Dr. Farber, who is about 6 feet 8 inches tall, they were swapping courts with their opponents. One of them asked Farber, "Hey, what kind of a doctor are you?" 

 

Farber looked down at the fellow sideways and said, "Just fair." 

 

Self-deprecating, perhaps, but something you could never say about their tennis game. Or about the athleticism of Jake Propst, who, incidentally, just celebrated his 89th birthday. 

 

Way to go, Jake! 

 

Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.

Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.