By David Elwell
The Decatur Daily

Jack Mooneyham starred in baseball and basketball at Cotaco

Kenneth Roberts had his baseball heroes growing up in Morgan County back in the 1950s. "They were people like Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Willie Mays, who lived in a world far away from Cotaco. If he wanted to see baseball heroes a little closer to home, Roberts and his friends would sneak away from the school playground during recess to watch Cotaco's high school team practice. "I was in the fourth grade, and I was in awe of these guys," Roberts said. "I watched them practice from the best vantage point I could find. The other kids roamed the playground. I watched the big boys play baseball."

Until Brewer came along in the 1970s, Cotaco School had 12 grades. The small school had two sports — basketball and baseball. It was a big deal in 1966 when the basketball team won the school's only Morgan County Tournament championship. Eleven years earlier, the school's baseball team won the Morgan County Tournament on the strength of two players destined to have pro baseball careers. "When you are one of the smallest schools in the county, it's hard to compete for the county championship," Roberts said. "It was rare when Cotaco did. It was pretty special to win one."

It took some special players for Cotaco to pull it off. One of those players was Jack Mooneyham. He teamed with Hubbell Winton to give Cotaco a powerful pitching tandem and a fierce one-two power combination at the plate. "Everybody in Cotaco looked up to them," Ronald Grantland said. "They were star baseball and basketball players. When you watched them practice, you felt like you were watching somebody famous."

There's not an abundance of information available from 1955. Grantland has copies of two stories that give a glimpse. In a game where Cotaco beat Falkville 16-2, Mooneyham matched his team's number of runs with 16 strikeouts. He also hit a home run. In a 10-1 win over Austinville, Mooneyham struck out 15.

"There's no way to know how hard Jack threw, but I know he threw hard and he had a great curveball," Roberts said. "The same was true for Hubbell. I can remember doubleheaders where Jack would pitch and Hubbell would be the catcher. Then in the next game, they would swap. Hubbell would pitch and Jack would catch."

Mooneyham's baseball talent drew the interest of pro scouts before he even graduated from high school. The Birmingham Barons gave him a tryout during his junior year. Mooneyham ended up going to Snead College to play basketball and baseball. He averaged 16 points a game in his two years with the Parsons in 1957 and 1958. He was an all-region selection. Snead won the Dixie College Athletic Conference championship in both seasons. Snead finished 10th in the country in 1958. Later in 1958, Mooneyham signed with the St. Louis Cardinals after throwing a one-hitter in an independent league game. "We weren't surprised," Roberts said. "We all thought it was just a matter of time before he was playing in St. Louis."

Winton signed with the Chicago White Sox that same year. Another player from Cotaco, Kendal Jones, signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1961.

"It was so unusual for a small place like Cotaco to have three guys sign pro baseball contracts," Grantland said. "Baseball was always so big in Morgan County and it was amazing to think we had three from here with a chance to someday play in the major leagues."

Mooneyham's career got off to a promising start in Wytheville, Virginia. He went 3-0 with a 2.00 ERA before being promoted to Daytona, Florida, where he went 6-3 with a 1.83 ERA. In 1959, he was a combined 7-7 while pitching at Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Billings, Montana. "Jack would tell us stories about people he saw at spring training," Roberts said. "The Cardinals and Yankees trained in St. Petersburg. Jack would tell us about seeing Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial. He talked about having lunch with Whitey Ford one day. It was amazing."

Mooneyham opened the 1960 season in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Class AA team was just two steps from the majors. Unfortunately, Mooneyham injured his shoulder. He shuttled between Memphis, Winston-Salem and Dothan. In April 1961, the Cardinals released him. In those days, sports medicine had not progressed to the point where surgery could save a promising career. An elbow injury ended Winton's pro career in 1962. Jones gave up pro baseball in 1967.

"Jack came home to work in his father's lumber yard," Roberts said, "but he kept playing baseball. He couldn't pitch, but he could hit. He could only throw the ball underhanded, so he would have to play first base." Mooneyham is retired and lives near Blountsville. Friends from Cotaco like to visit and hear his baseball stories. When I was growing up, everybody my age wanted to be like Jack because he was such a great athlete," Grantland said. "I really believed he would have made it to the majors if not for his shoulder injury.

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