Billy Irwin was one of the most talented baseball players to ever come out of Unadilla, Georgia. He didn’t play high school ball, but travelled two counties eastward to Cochran and made the Middle Georgia College team. He may be the only member in that club.
He played on a Class D farm team in Cordele for the Cleveland Indians. Billy quickly advanced to Oklahoma City, hoping that he was headed to Cleveland. His next call, however, came from Uncle Sam. In 1950, the Army gave Billy an olive drab uniform, new teammates, and a ticket to Korea. He traded his glove for a gun and served in a mortar outfit. Dreams of playing under the big lights quickly faded.
Billy made it home, raised a family, and faithfully served in his church for 57 years. He retired from civil service at Robins Air Force Base. His August 5, 2017, obituary noted that he was awarded three bronze stars for his service in Korea. His brother, James Ray Irwin, said Billy didn’t talk about his medals or how he earned them. Quiet humility seems to be a common trait among heroes.
Cecil Irwin was 17 when Billy was drafted. His bat wasn’t as sure as Billy’s, but he was an excellent fielder. Cecil, though, felt his brother could use his help in Korea. His mother signed so that he could join the Navy, her pride no doubt tempered by the sobering risks of war. He spent four years in the Navy, including 13 months in Korea. It was a long way from the baseball diamonds of childhood.
Cecil returned and joined Billy at Robins AFB, but God had other plans. Cecil quit a good job and answered God’s call to preach. He went to Mercer University, pastoring Georgia churches and raising a family while he studied. In 1968, he graduated from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He served churches in Indiana, Kentucky, and Virginia, and was a chaplain at the VA Medical Center in Salem, Virginia, for 25 years. Cecil was an exceptional speaker, and led five revivals at Unadilla First Baptist. It’s rare to be invited back anywhere that many times. Cecil died September 25, 2009.
James Ray Irwin was a few years younger than Billy and Cecil. He was another outstanding ballplayer. In 1947, the Dooly County Athletic League was formed for adult baseball. There were six teams of young men from Vienna, Byromville, Dooling, Pinehurst, Dooly High, and Unadilla. James Ray was only in the eighth grade, but was invited to play ball with the grownups.
In 1952, he was a senior on the Unadilla High School team. They played the Unadilla Athletic Team, a test of youth against experience. World War II Veteran Charles Speight was among the talented young men on the adult roster. James Ray now privately confides that he doesn’t remember who won the game. But he laughs and says no one else does either, so he asserts victory for the school.
His graduating class was the first one having twelve grades instead of eleven. He and his classmate, Major Brannen, went to see Mrs. Sarah Woodruff at the local Draft Board. She told them their numbers were coming up shortly. Billy didn’t recommend the Army, and Cecil didn’t recommend the Navy. So, James Ray and Major enlisted in the Air Force.
James Ray entered the service on April 3, 1953. The war was thankfully winding down. He was the crew chief on a B36 Peacemaker, a ten-engine plane designed for high altitude missions. He saw Korea from 42,000 feet, taking pictures with sophisticated equipment to monitor a welcome but uncertain peace. On the baseball field, James Ray was a good man to have batting in the cleanup spot. It’s seems quite fitting that his role in Korea was also one of helping to get others home.
James Ray made it back in 1957. He married Brenda Herring and they raised two sons. He lost Brenda to health issues on August 2, 2017. After retiring from Robins AFB, he served as the first City Manager for Unadilla. James Ray is now 83 and very active in his church and community. He looks like he would still be pretty solid at the plate, or could even command a crew on a Peacemaker if needed.
Those three Irwin boys grew up loving baseball, but they rested their bats and became soldiers. Three brothers came home from Korea, standing somewhat taller than before. I’m too young to remember when Billy, Cecil, and James Ray left Unadilla, or to remember the celebrations when they returned. But I know, without asking, that touching home plate had never felt quite that sweet.