Nelson Best and the Leland Hot Stove League: Rooting for the Home Team
What do you call a man who has for the last 54 years dedicated himself to bettering the lives of students and athletes? A man whose childhood passion for baseball led him to play semi-pro ball until he was 37? A man who coached countless high school athletes (including ones who went on to careers in the Majors); who helped develop his son into a career in Major League Baseball (MLB), first as a player and now was a scout?
A man who started a scholarship for North Brunswick High School seniors who’ve played baseball for the school? The man for whom the scholarship is named?
You call him Nelson Best.
Best, now 79, spry and silver-haired, lives with his wife of 58 years, Helen, in Magnolia Greens, but settled in Leland when Magnolia Greens was a pasture. He’s seen a lot of change in Leland since he arrived in 1958, but one thing has remained constant for him — baseball.
“I grew up in Goldsboro,” Best says. “There wasn’t much to do there but play baseball, so that’s what the kids did. We didn’t have a proper field, so we just played where we could. There was a field for the community’s semi-pro team and all of us kids really looked up to those men and counted the days until we were old enough, and good enough, to play with them.”
It’s no surprise that when Best hit high school, he played baseball. He went on to play in college, both for Louisburg College and East Carolina University (ECU), but an injury stopped all hopes of a professional career in their tracks. Two years later, he returned to baseball. Out of college and a licensed teacher (in history, science, physical education and health), he made his way back to his longtime passion. Through coaching high school baseball and playing semi-pro baseball, he found a connection to the sport he loved and the people who love it.
“There was never any doubt I’d find a way to make baseball a part of my life,” Best says. “I just never knew I’d be able to change the lives of other people because of it.”
Best coached through his entire teaching career, keeping baseball — and all high school athletics, really — close to his heart. After he retired from teaching, he became the Athletic Director for Brunswick County, where he continued to stay in touch with the athletes and schools in his community.
In 2003 Best discovered the perfect confluence of his passions for baseball and education when he started the Leland Hot Stove League. In this endeavor, he and other members established a scholarship to help a student athlete from North Brunswick High offset some of their college expenses.
“I bet you’re wondering about the name,” Best says with a grin. “Well the term ‘hot stove league’ is kind of an insider’s name for all the off-season chatter that goes on. You know, when a bunch of guys would get around a hot pot-bellied stove and talk baseball.”
The Leland Hot Stove League gave out its first scholarship in 2005. It was a $1,000 gift, and Best says they had little trouble raising that much money from members and donations. Membership was low those first few years, consisting mostly of Best and his baseball buddies, but as the member base grew, so did the scholarship. Now the Leland Hot Stove League has grown to more than 30 members and the scholarship is up to $2,500.
“When we started, we had three goals,” says Best. “One, to have fun with baseball. We were all too old to play, but not too old to enjoy the game. Two, to support the kids in our community who have that love for baseball we all had at their age. Three, to help improve the identity of Leland as a community.”
Improving the identity of Leland as a community is important to Best, who believes that community pride has a big impact on the people who grow up here. He saw it in his students as a teacher and a principal. He saw it in his athletes as a coach.
“We felt that the Hot Stove League should help instill some pride in the youth of Leland,” he says. “Baseball was just a platform.”
Every year on the second Saturday in January, the members of the Leland Hot Stove League transform the North Brunswick High School cafeteria into as elegant a dining room as they can and hold their annual banquet. Each banquet features speakers whose lives have been changed by baseball. Many of the speakers are North Carolina natives. Some are from right here on either side of the banks of the Cape Fear.
Between Best and his son Billy, they know almost every one of the speakers personally. From Joe West, MLB Umpire (who Best coached in high school in Greenville), to Landon Powell, catcher for the Oakland Athletics, the speakers are young and old, retired and active, and every year they draw a crowd. Past speakers have included Gaylord Perry, Bobby Richardson, Tommy John, Bucky Dent, Mike Torrez, Jerry Narron, Joe West, Landon Powell and a variety of college coaches, scouts and players.
The 2012 8th Annual Hot Stove League Banquet brought more than 275 people to North Brunswick High to hear the speakers, enjoy dinner and an autograph session with the baseball stars, and, of course, give to the scholarship fund. They did that with their $20 banquet tickets, $10 baseballs and good, old-fashioned charity.
“I don’t think there’s any way we could pull this off without some great help,” Best says. “Middle of the Island Catering keeps our food costs low, many of our speakers waive their speaking fees, and our members and their spouses pitch in to pull it all together.”
The executive board that works with Best on the banquet and on making a positive impact on some young athlete’s life includes Gordon Powell (who serves as chairman of the Hot Stove League), Joe Best, John Cook, William Cook, Gordon King, Gordon Powell, Carter Rabon, Dale Rabon, Gary Rabon, Donald Sellers, Frankie Thomas, Dale Williams and Bill Housand.
Best is quick to point out that the honorary board, former board members and general members of the Leland Hot Stove League get in on the action to help bring in corporate sponsorships (there were 25 this year, the most ever), speakers, donations, decorations or whatever is required.
“See, baseball is in my blood,” Best says. “I played, my son played and my granddaughter, well, we got her involved in the Hot Stove League this year, putting her graphic design skills to work on a logo and banquet program.”
You could call Best Mr. October, taking the title away from Reggie Jackson and replacing his three consecutive home runs (off three different pitchers and in the World Series no less) with Best’s decades of dedication to a sport he loves. You could call him an all-star or a hometown hero, but the accolades don’t mean much to him.
“I’m a humble man and to have the Hot Stove League name their scholarship after me, well, that’s about all the recognition I need, I guess,” says Best.