While fishing for striped bass in Six Mile Creek the other day with Atlanta Braves Traveling Secretary, Bill Acree, we couldn’t help but remember an old fishin’ buddy and great ball player that we had known well. He was Chicago White Sox, Hall of Fame shortstop, Luke Appling, and until his death a few years ago, Luke had a dock in one of the deeper coves near the mouth of Six Mile Creek.
Luke fell in love with Lake Lanier even before it was full. He fished it from when the water first started rising during the mid-1950’s, until he passed away.
“Lanier is a good fishing lake,” Luke used to say. “Everybody tells me I put my dock on the best fishing hole in the lake. In fact, I’ve sat on the dock and caught a 12 pound bass. I saw another guy catch about a 40 pound and 26 pound striper one morning In front of my dock, and I used to catch a lot of 8 to 9 pound largemouth around it.”
Luke was born Lucius Benjamin Appling in North Carolina on April 2, 1907, but moved to the Atlanta area by the age of three. He grew up fascinated with hunting and fishing, but saved lots of time for baseball.
When Luke first came to Atlanta, he lived on East Avenue, just off Highland Avenue. Forest Avenue School was a couple of blocks away, and he went there until the fifth grade, then moved to a 65 acre farm in Douglas County. During those years, Luke fished in Sweetwater Creek and in some of the local lakes with cane poles and live bait, but caught lots of fish.
Luke Appling and Lanier BassAppling’s first introduction to baseball came from an Uncle, who was a policeman and worked at the Atlanta Crackers ballpark. He gave Luke the first mitt he ever owned from Sy Perkins, a Cracker catcher.
The day he got the mitt, was also the first time he saw a hard ball up close. Luke was only 6 or 7 years old when his Uncle threw that first ball at him, but it made a big impression on him when it hit him in the nose.
As a youngster, Luke played on fields in Lithia Springs, Powder Springs, Austell, and Douglasville. He was a left-handed pitcher in those days.
“My Daddy was left-handed, and I was left-handed when I was little,” Luke had told me. “In fact, I was left-handed all the way to high school. Then I switched over to right-handed cause I wanted to play shortstop.”
Luke played for a lot of teams around Atlanta. At the time, many of the mills and railroads had teams. Even the Sunday school had a team league, but the mills and railroads had all the better ball players. During the summer, Luke would always play on at least two league teams.
At Fulton High School in Atlanta, Luke played for a coach named Burt Holt, who had attended Oglethorpe College out on Peachtree Road and had been offered a contract by the Washington Senators when he was younger. He took a lot of interest in the high school team and molded them into one of the better clubs in town.
After high school, Appling also attended Oglethorpe College. They had a good ball club under Frank Anderson. In fact, all the boys on the Oglethorpe ball club signed a baseball contract when they graduated.
Young Appling had a couple of offers, including one from the Brooklyn Dodgers. Then Earl Mann got Luke a tryout with a couple of teams. He first worked out with Nashville, then was offered a contract by Atlanta. Luke Appling signed his first pro contract with the Atlanta Crackers in 1930.
Appling joined an old group of ball players that had been to the big leagues and back, and they were not nice to rookies. Luke told me about his first night with these guys.
“I never will forget when I walked out on that field for batting practice that first night, and the manager, Johnny Dobbs, told me to get in the cage to hit. I started to get in there, and one of the other players said, “Where are you going punk? Get out of there. You ain’t going to hit in front of me.”
“Later that night, I pinch hit in the 9th inning and got a base hit that won them a ball game,” recalled Appling. “You’d think the next day that it made a difference? No, I was playing, but they still didn’t want me to practice hitting. They were a good bunch of boys, but that was just the way ball players were back then. If you were part of the team, however, they’d stick by you. In fact, when were playing in Chattanooga one night, one of the guys that gave me more heck than anybody went into the stands after a spectator who was heckling me.”
Before that first year was over, Luke Appling’s contract was sold to the Chicago White Sox for around $20,000. He then played shortstop for them for twenty years from 1930 to 1950. During that time, “Old Aches and Pains”, as his teammates called him, played in 2422 games, had 2749 hits, and earned a lifetime batting average of .310. In 1964, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
Luke Appling played before the days of big salaries. In fact, after leading the American League in hitting in 1948 with a .388 batting average, he had to hold out for 12 days to get Mr. Cominsky to raise his pay to $20,000. Cominsky, however, was known for being tight with the money, and that wasn’t the first time the two men had disagreed. Bill Acree, related a story of another run-in with Mr. Cominsky.
“When Luke was playing for the White Sox,” related Acree. “He sent a kid into the club house one day to ask for a ball to autograph and give to one of his friends. Mr. Cominsky sent the kid back with a message that baseballs were too expensive to give away to ball players. So, Luke sent the young man back to Mr. Cominsky with a message that he would show him how expensive baseballs really were!”
“On his first at bat that night,” continued Acree, “he fouled fifteen balls into the stands, then turned around and looked up at the owner’s box. Luke never had trouble getting a ball after that!”
Despite his lifelong involvement with baseball, Luke Appling always found time for hunting and fishing. He loved bird hunting and owned as many as fourteen bird dogs at one time. He also hunted deer and bear, and fished all over the south.
During his last years, he was the roving hitting instructor for the Atlanta Braves. Nevertheless, Luke found time to pursue his outdoors interests. In between trips to the various minor league stadiums, he would catch bass from the comfort of his dock in Six-Mile Creek. He lived a busy and fulfilling life, but Luke Appling is one hero who took the time to “smell the roses” with his friends, and now with both the baseball and fishing seasons underway, his friends remember and miss him.