By Al Muskewitz
Legendary JSU baseball coach passes away Wednesday morning at 81
On this day of profound sadness in the Calhoun County community — the passing of legendary Jacksonville State baseball coach Rudy Abbott — I’m reminded of a story we heard more 20 years ago.
It was at the occasion of dedicating the baseball field at JSU Rudy Abbott Field, or maybe it was the unveiling of that stretch of Alabama 204 that runs past the ballpark designated Rudy Abbott Highway. There were so many things like that after he retired as the winningest coach in the state of Alabama and JSU’s Mr. Baseball.
In concluding his remarks of the day and injecting some humor and humility to the proceedings, Bill Jones, the equally legendary JSU basketball coach, in a story I’m sure he’s shared on numerous such occasions before, told the gathering that 20 years or so after the day’s ceremonies someone is going to come into the stadium and see that name on the scoreboard and ask out loud, “Who the heck is Rudy Abbott?”
Fat chance of that. Abbott, who died overnight of COVID pneumonia at age 81, is unforgettable. He knew everybody and everybody knew him.
I had the absolute privilege of chronicling the final five years of Abbott’s 32-year Hall of Fame coaching career that ended in his retirement in 2001. He reminded me from the day former Star sports editor Ken Patterson introduced us of another 1000-win baseball coach I had just finished covering before coming to Anniston, Clemson’s Bill Wilhelm. Both were baseball men through and through. Maybe that’s why we got along so well.
It’s rare that news people will say this about their sources, but I can say genuinely Rudy Abbott was my friend.
We rarely got sideways, even in the lean times, and believe me the last couple seasons of his coaching tenure as the Gamecocks struggled to get him that 1000th win, were some tough times.
He once asked me, ‘Al, how come you never write about the games,’ like the play-by-play the way he used to during his newspaper and SID days. I told him, ‘Rudy, the people who really want to know what’s going on in your games were already here and they don’t want somebody telling them what they just saw.’ He gave a look like he understood.
He was full stories, some profound, some profane, but always entertaining whether you were hearing them for the 10th time or the first.
One of my favorites, one I can’t say I was there to witness, was the one he would share about his introduction to pro ball. The Pirates scout came to the family store after drafting him and told his dad Rudy could play for $500 and his dad replied “We can’t afford that.”
Then there was the time he got hooked at Georgia State and was banished to the bus. Always the competitor, he found a way to use the bus turn signals to send signs to the bench. That is, until the umpire finally caught on and sent someone to the bus to tell him to knock it off.
He once made his lineup with the batting order set up like the positions in the scorebook — pitcher first, catcher second, etc. Won big. He once used nine different pitchers in a nine-inning game and arbitrarily gave the win to the second pitcher because he was the ace.
He let me make the lineup once and the Gamecocks scored a gazillion runs; I thought I had a future in coaching. Turns out I was 1000 wins behind. I even got to sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch in one of his final home games and beckoned the fans, in true Harry Caray fashion, to “Let Rudy hear you.”
But Rudy Abbott was more than baseball. He was a newspaper man and got to say the three most important words in the business. He was in the newsroom the day President Kennedy was assassinated, checking the wires after the afternoon edition rolled for the day. When the news came across, he ripped the dispatch off the wire and rushed into the editor’s office yelling “Stop the presses,” and then spent the rest of the day helping get an Extra out on the streets.
After stepping away from the game he entered local politics as a county councilman, not because he wanted to be part of some machine but because he wanted to help his community. And he did with a profound sense of doing what’s right. When the local paper wanted him to dish dirt on another politician they were eager to get, he sent them to the showers.
Even after he stepped away from the game he was involved, always quick with encouragement and advice for young players and up and coming coaches, many of whom played for him at JSU. When he talked about the nuances of pitching he’d always wave his hand as if he were tracking the movement of the ball.
And he rarely missed a game anywhere in town. To that end, he was on the scene for the Calhoun County Basketball Tournament just a few days before he fell ill.
That’s what we’ll always remember about Rudy Abbott when we look at that scoreboard and see his name in the lights. He was always there. [*** read more]