CSSA PLAYER PROFILES - LES TAYLOR & HOWARD SCHOEN
We’re 89—Let’s Play Softball!
In 1932, while our country was amid the Great Depression, two infants entered this world with vastly different roots, one in New Jersey and the other in Florida. Both followed their attraction to the baseball diamonds. Each has become a softball legend, while together they have formed an eternal friendship.
In 1940, a Black minister held his eight-year-old son’s hand as they strolled through the turnstiles entering Ebbets Field. The child’s eyes opened wide as he absorbed the view of the bright lights, the dazzling white uniforms of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the sweet scent of newly manicured grass, and the buzz of nearly 32,000 fans.
At that moment, young Les Taylor pledged he would become a part of baseball. His family had survived the Great Depression, so he had a youthful understanding of hardship and some of the requirements of life ahead of him. But he promised himself he would find the time to play and improve his skills at the game he loved.
He returned to his home in Plainfield, New Jersey. Little League wasn’t yet available for America’s youth, so Les sought every opportunity to enjoy baseball in sandlot and pickup games. He was hooked, and baseball surrounded him. Through his father’s church, he got to know Joe Black, who earned National League Rookie-of-the-Year honors in 1952, then started and won a World Series game for the Brooklyn Dodgers that same year. While Les played tournament ball with the Georgia Crackers, he competed against Jake Wood, who later developed into the starting second baseman for the Detroit Tigers. Jake was the first Black player who came up through Detroit’s farm system when he began the 1961 season with the Motor City’s team.
As life often does, it interrupted his pursuit of baseball when he entered the Army. After serving his term, he attended North Carolina Central University, where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in social science. By 1959, the Dodgers had moved to Los Angeles, leaving Ebbets Field vacant. Still, he felt the tugging allure of Brooklyn. It was there he married his college sweetheart, Carnell, and the couple settled near the former home of his beloved Dodgers, where they raised their four children over the next thirty-five years. For Les, even though a big league team was no longer in town, he always sensed baseball was in the air. Perhaps the spirits of early Dodger greats, such as Dazzy Vance and Branch Rickey, or the souls of some of the initial Black Major League players like Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, found their way back to their baseball home.
During that time, Les Taylor evolved from playing baseball to softball. He perfected the Brooklyn two-step, a hitter’s maneuver to take two quick strides to meet a sinking softball at a better height to send hard line drives into the outfield. He still has the occasion to use that same swing today.
He continued to play softball as often as possible, even while he held down two jobs and helped his wife, Carnell, raise their family. Les used his college degree and innate ability to guide people as he advanced in his career in social services. He became a teacher for the New York City Board of Education. As a second job, for eighteen years he was the Director of Pink Houses Senior Center. Of course, he still carved out time for softball, and was an active player and manager in the Social Services League.
He retired in 1992, purchased a home in the northern Atlanta suburbs where he and Carnell relocated in 1995. Shortly after they moved in, his wife sent him on an errand to a hardware store and Les stopped at a Publix supermarket on his way back. It was there he spotted a bulletin board with a note seeking anyone over fifty who might be interested in playing softball, stating they should inquire at nearby Hobgood Park. Once there, he discovered a few older guys playing a pickup game on a Little League diamond, and learned their names were Jerry and Bill King, not related. They invited him to play, and those days were the beginnings of the Cherokee Senior Softball Association (CSSA), and Les became instrumental in its development. Both Bill King and Jerry King will be featured in separate stories of their own in our series soon.
As Les helped that league grow, he was also active in traveling softball, where he played for many teams. It was there he met and played with Dorman Lane, a player with outstanding baseball knowledge who taught the intricacies of softball management to Les.
During his years on those traveling teams, Les felt he was privileged to play with and with several outstanding players, including Carl Brown, who remains active in the CSSA. While Les was a member of the Georgia Crackers Softball Team for over five years, he often encountered Howard Schoen, star second baseman of the Georgia Peaches. Howard is another active player of the current CSSA who will be highlighted in our upcoming articles.
2001 was a banner year for this young-at-heart senior player. His traveling team, with Carl Brown a member, competed in the AAA level of the 65+ tournaments. That year, his team won the three separate World Series of the ASA, USA and USSSA, a Triple Crown of senior softball. In the final game of what became the team’s third championship, Les drove in six runs with a double and a triple. In addition, the CSSA recognized Les’ overall contributions and performance for their organization, and honored him with the Arnold Fowler Award.
So here we are in 2021, and one can still watch this softball legend play in two leagues of the CSSA at Hobgood Park, twenty-six years after its formation. Beyond that, think back to when Les began in organized softball, and realize he has passed his 60th year in uniform.
Following the lead of their preacher grandfather, two of Les’ four children have joined the ranks of the ministry. While three of his children live in the New York area and one in Detroit, it is a testimony to his devotion to his family that at least one of his offspring will often visit Les and Carnell here in Georgia. That sixty-three-year marriage has remained strong, with the four children adding ten grandchildren and three great grandchildren to the Taylor clan.
Throughout it all, with the occasional hiccup for human ailments, Les Taylor remains dedicated to the sport, which became part of his essence when the lights of Ebbets Fields illuminated his smiling face in 1940. Even now, at age 89, Les Taylor sits in the dugout after yet another contest and gazes out at the diamond with a wide grin. With a slight twinkle in his eye, he’ll look up at you and say, “Let’s play another one.”
Imagine signing a contract to play professional baseball, then being drafted into the Army a mere two months later. Howard Schoen took it in stride as just another life challenge.
He began his baseball dream at Miami Senior High School. As a teenager, Howard was a diminutive figure, undersized compared to most of his classmates. Still, his friend Stan encouraged him to try out for the high school baseball team.
At that time, the high school baseball team was coached by Charlie Tate, who advanced to become head football coach for the University of Miami Hurricanes, and later was an assistant coach in the National Football League. In those positions, Coach Tate had many public speaking opportunities and often shared his viewpoint how this teenager of slight build changed the way he judged players.
The coach didn’t give the kid serious consideration to make the team, so decided he would personally hit fungoes to make quick order of this distraction. Howard caught every ball hit in his direction, moving with quickness to his left and right, demonstrating incredible range. Tate reluctantly added Schoen to the roster, but didn’t expect the kid would get much playing time. He just knew this short, slender player would fail in game conditions.
That didn’t happen. The coach gradually awarded Howard more playing time, proving himself in every instance. After the sixth game, with limited game experience but exceptional performance, Howard won the starting second baseman slot. Over the next three seasons, Howard played flawless ball, and he never made an error. As a reward, wiry Howard Schoen received a baseball scholarship to the University of Miami.
Once there, he continued to perform admirably. In 1953, the team named him the captain of that Miami Hurricanes squad. He proved to Charlie Tate and other skeptics he could play second base with the best of them. He continues to amaze as the starting second baseman for his senior softball team. Howard’s now 89.
Growing up in south Florida, Howard Schoen was a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. This was partly because St. Louis got the attention of much of the fan base in the south in the 1950s, plus future Hall of Famer Red Schoendist was the second baseman for the Cardinals. Many pointed out their name similarities. Even so, Howard’s favorite player was Enos Slaughter, a Cardinal Hall of Famer known for his aggressive style of play. When Howard moved to Georgia, he changed his allegiance to the hometown Braves.
He joined his father’s furniture manufacturing company, but after graduating college, chose a career as a business representative for benefit sales to employers, selling plans for health, disability, and dental. While his military service sidetracked his baseball career, he made the best of his circumstances by playing softball and baseball for the First Army team.
Once discharged from the Army, Howard stepped into a pattern of traveling for his employer in the Southeast while managing his schedule to play baseball and softball with a bit of time set aside to help raise his family. He played on senior traveling teams for a remarkable 38 years. Besides playing, Howard was also active as a Little League Baseball manager, then became the President of the Little League branch in Maitland, Florida.
In tournament play, he competed several times against Les Taylor, particularly when Howard was a member of the Georgia Peaches, one of the perennial favorites in tournament competition. The manager of the Peaches was Charlie Blackburn, who later joined the Cherokee Senior Softball Association (CSSA) here in Woodstock.
Each year, the major softball organizations, the Softball Players of America (SPA), American Softball Association (ASA), and the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) host their World Series, with age categories. On five occasions, Howard received the Defensive Most Valuable Player (MVP) in those series. For most players, they would consider one such award a lifetime achievement.
From his new home in Georgia, he drove to Chattanooga, TN, to play second base for the JayCee Choos. It was there he met Farrell Sparks, who told Howard about the CSSA, much closer to Howard’s home. That was 19 years ago, and Howard is still going strong. For most of those years, he was fortunate that teammate Bob Witzel (who wrote the by-laws of the CSSA) became his great friend. Together, they have carpooled that forty-mile one-way trip, and the CSSA has always made accommodations to keep them on the same team. It seems fate continues to allow Howard a path to play softball.
In the CSSA, Howard played under the direction of Bill Kemp for many years, who he considers one of the best managers he ever had. During these years, Howard received the MVP award in his league on two occasions.
According to Howard, he would have quit softball years ago, but credits fellow CSSA player and umpire, Ray McClure, with inspiring him to continue.
Howard was a switch-hitter at the plate for most of his career, and is an avid golfer. Several years ago, it miffed him when his golf game deteriorated. His golf pro suggested he stop hitting right-handed. Surprisingly, his golf swing corrected and now he throws right, and bats left. Even more remarkable is the improvement in his golf swing, and Howard is now a single digit handicap player. Yes, Howard is indeed 89 years old.
As folks learn Howard is in the Senior Softball Hall of Fame in the Half-Century Association in Florida, they all conclude this is his most cherished accomplishment. But Howard disagrees. Instead, he is most honored by the fact his employer and family have accepted his on-field endeavors. He recognizes life has blessed him with the good fortune of sharing the field with so many talented players on some fantastic teams. Howard believes his accomplishments have not come from his efforts alone, and credits the guidance of his faith and beliefs.
He and wife Karen have six children and fourteen grandchildren. Great grandchildren? Coming soon.
As I sat and watched this legend on the field, a high-pitched whistle occasionally haunted me. At first, I thought the sound was coming from another field, or a spectator. After an inning was over, I focused on the sound’s origin and tracked it to the third base coach. Howard. Seems he’s been whistling his entire life, whether he’s in a game or sitting at home. It’s part of his essence. Someday, in the far distant future, Howard will retire. I plan to return to Hobgood Park and just listen. I believe I’ll hear his whistle echoing over the diamonds, and Howard will be near second base, eager to play.
Written by Marty Aftewicz