I grew up in Arab, played youth baseball then later men’s softball in Arab and I covered sports for The Arab Tribune for many months beginning in 1976 before leaving town for good in 1983.
So, when I was told about a colorful local sports figure who died last week, I was surprised I didn’t remem-ber him.
Fitz-hugh Artis of Lacey’s Spring died on July 24. He was 83. His was laid to rest yesterday (Friday) at Beech Spring Cemetery in Parches Cove.
Artis was a longtime youth baseball and softball umpire in this area. He also was, apparently, quite the character.
“He was a character if there ever was one,” said Terry “Gobbler” Robinson.
That’s saying something coming from Gobbler, who’s quite a character himself.
Gobbler, Ronny Shumate and Steve Hallman – among others – worked with Artis for many years as part of local youth sports. Artis called men’s baseball, then later youth baseball and softball. Near the end of his career, he called T-Ball games.
He called games for many, many years. He often said, “I’ve been umpiring games for 60 years.”
Problem was, he was 62 when he first said it.
That’s just one of many anecdotes that became known fondly as “Fitzhugh stories.”
“He was a funny boy,” Robinson said. “He could say some funny things.”
Now, before anyone gets the idea the folks I spoke to about Artis are talking bad about him, let me set the record straight. Shumate, Robinson, Hallman and others really liked the guy and had nice things to say about hum.
Hallman said he “had as big a heart as anyone,” and all of them talked about his dependability and willingness to help out.
“It was hard to get people to umpire sometimes,” said Hallman, who worked with Artis for years in his role as director of the Arab Park and Recreation Department. “With him, he’d be there anytime you called.
“There’s no telling how many games he umpired.”
“I never remember scheduling him for a game when he wasn’t there before I got there,” said Robinson, assistant director of Arab Park and Rec for many years.
“Also, if you were shorthanded, it didn’t matter that he lived out past Morgan City, he’d be there in 10-15 minutes. He was very dependable.”
Shumate, once a police officer in Huntsville and now a member of the Marshall County Commision, knew Artis very well dating back to his days when he was president of the Arab Youth Baseball Association.
“Fitzhugh was a very likable guy,” Shumate said. “But he had a temper.”
That caused many arguments with players, coaches and parents. And that was just on the field.
Shumate remembers a night when Artis called him at 11:30 p.m. He wanted to know the number of the FBI.
“I asked him why and he said somebody was threatening to shoot him,” Shumate recalled. “I told him he should call the sheriff.”
“That’s who’s threatened to shoot me,” Artis replied.
One day, Shumate was at the ballfields and someone came to him and told him that Artis had a pistol at the 9-10-year baseball game he was umpiring.
“Fitzhugh wore a big bubble (chest protector). I went over there and saw it near the backstop. I moved it and sure enough, there was a .38 caliber pistol laying on the ground.
“I said, ‘Fitzhugh, why do you have a pistol on the field with 9 and 10-year-old kids?’
“He said, ‘I’ve got a permit.’ I said that doesn’t matter.
“I was still a policeman in Huntsville at the time, so I picked it up and locked it in my truck.
“Before I did, I asked him again, ‘Why do you have a pistol on the field with 9 and 10-year-old kids?’
“He said, ‘Well, there’s some mean parents back there behind that fence.’”
Robinson recalled a Saturday night years ago when Arab was hosting a big men’s softball tournament.
It was actually after midnight, about 1 a.m. on Sunday, and two of the teams still playing got into a big fuss on the field.
“I warned them they better stop it, and I was no more back at the concession stand and they were going at it again,” Robinson recalled. “I went back out there and told them if it happened again, the game was over.”
About an inning later, Robinson was standing along the fence near third base.
“A guy slid into third base and knocked the third baseman slap into the fence, right in front of me,” Robinson said. “I took off to the end of the field and turned the lights off.
“It was dark and I heard someone coming toward me. It was Fitzhugh.”
That turned out to be a fortunate thing for Robinson. Three players from the Decatur team began walking toward Robinson and Artis. They demanded the lights be turned back on. Robinson said no.
The three men continued coming toward Robinson and Artist.
“Fitzhugh reached down in his shoe and pulled out a pistol,” Robinson said. “He said, ‘Gentlemen, y’all take one more step, there’s going to be some bad trouble.’
“Those guys left the field.”
Most of the memories of Artis aren’t quite that serious. In fact, most are funny.
He once said as an umpire, he had the right to change a call he made. He also said you weren’t a good umpire unless you threw out at least one coach a game.
He himself once was thrown out of a game by the other umpire, the late Alan Putnam. Before that, he was “always going at it” with Alan’s father and umpire, Milan, according to Robinson.
One time he told an arguing coach, “If I missed it, I didn’t miss it by much.”
And then there was his famous “90-degree rule,” which he shared with other umpires.
He’d tell them if the weather was blistering hot, they should tell both coaches he was implementing the 90-degree rule.
What was that? It meant that the batters better go up to the plate swinging, because anything close was going to be called a strike.
A lot of Fitzhugh stories were told this week.
But with every chuckle, there was an undercurrent of love for a man who did things his way and carved a unique path in his life.
“I was thinking about Fitzhugh after I heard he’d died,” Hallman said. “I remembered every now and then, he’d just call me to see how I was doing.
“He had a good heart and he’d help anybody. He was a character but he always had good intentions.
“He had a lot of good intentions.”