By Calvin Cooley
For the Decatur Daily

It's been more than 50 years since William Vaughn occupied his seat on the bus that carried the Indianapolis Clowns, Negro League baseball's version of the Harlem Globetrotters, around the country for a grueling schedule that ran from early April until Labor Day.

Even now, years and miles removed from those two-lane highways and the packed buses that served as rolling hotels, Vaughn remembers vividly a career that allowed him to play in world-famous venues against top-level talent and afforded him an opportunity to meet one of his sports idols, baseball legend Willie Mayes.

"I can recall those days like they happened yesterday," Vaughn said. "I haven't done a lot of traveling since my last season with the Clowns, but when I hear people talk about Chicago or New England or Texas or Canada I can imagine those places in my mind. It's been a while, but the memories are very real."

And while the car ride won't be as cramped and bumpy and the dinner promises to be a bit more appetizing than the bologna and cheese that sustained the appetites of he and his teammates on the road, when Vaughn takes the stage on June 13 to accept his induction into the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame, another memory will be forever burned into the local hero's mind.

"You never think of something like this happening," Vaughn said. "I once heard that if you love your job you'll never work a day in your life. That's how life's been for me. I've loved every bit of and am blessed to be here."

After graduating from Decatur's Lakeside High School where he starred as a running back on the football team in 1961, Vaughn, affectionately known as Junior, accepted an invitation to hit the road with the Indianapolis Clowns, a traveling baseball squad that fielded a talented, competitive team that mixed in some wild antics to liven up the game.

At just under five-feet, what Vaughn lacked in size he made up for in ability. He credits those skills to tough games against much bigger competition growing up in Decatur.

"I took my licks growing up," he said. "I've been hit so hard I couldn't remember my name or where I was from. But those times make you tough, they help you grow. Those experiences really helped me in the long run."

It was during those younger years that Vaughn developed his baseball talent.

"I learned pretty early on that I could hit, catch and run," he said. "From that point I just wanted to do everything I could to make myself a better player."

With help from the community in the form of monetary donations, Vaughn and his friends formed their own team in Decatur. Leo Gray, one of Vaughn's Decatur teammates, went on to play for the Clowns, ultimately bringing him along in July of 1961 after Vaughn's graduation.

"Our travel schedule was harsh," Vaughn said. "In one scheduled season we'd travel all over the country. Sometimes we'd go into Canada and Mexico. The bus rides were fun, though. Our driver knew all the greats like Ernie Banks and Willie Mays. One day in Chicago he introduced me to Willie Mays. I could hardly look up at him. He seemed about as shy as me, though. He was a quiet guy."

A devastating ankle injury ended Vaughn's baseball career in 1967, sending him home to Decatur where he finished out his athletic career with the Decatur Rough Riders, the city's semi-professional football team.

"Those were some good days," Vaughn said. "I'd come home from barnstorming with the Clowns in the spring and summer and have enough money to get through the winter, but most of the guys had jobs and families. It was a weekend thing for them and they made it work. I loved it."

It was those games and practice sessions where Vaughn began to absorb the knowledge and learning tools he would parlay into his true calling as a coach and youth mentor.

"I learned so much in those years with the Rough Riders," he said. "I really loved the game and wanted to stay involved after my playing days. That's what got me into coaching in 1974."

While the accomplishments he garnered on the field as a player were plentiful, what Vaughn has been able to accomplish in a hands-on coaching capacity since his playing days ended is what has shaped his image in the community.

From 1981 through 2003 Vaughn coached six local Pop Warner teams to championships and was named Pop Warner Coach of the Year five times. In 1994 he was named the North Alabama Pop Warner Sportsman of the Year and received the City of Decatur Humanitarian Award in 2007.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find a better man that Junior Vaughn," longtime friend James Sharpley said. "What he's done for the kids in this community will never be forgotten. Not only has he taught them sports, he's taught them to be good people. He's one of the few people out there that would rather lose with class than win without it."

Fellow Hall of Fame inductee Charles Riley echoed the sentiment.

"Junior exemplifies what you want out of a youth coach and mentor," he said. "For him, it's all about the kids. He's devoted his life to teaching, to making sure the young people in our community are learning to play and present themselves the right way. Every community needs a man like Junior Vaughn."

It's that selflessness, according to everyone who knows him, that makes Vaughn the special man he is today.

"Looking back, I would have done this all for free," he said. "The accolades and mentions are nice, but that's not what this is all about. It's bigger than me, one man. It's about everyone else."

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