The Rams’ supporter, cheerleader, owner

Loy Gunter

Nowhere in Anniston, Alabama, is there a visual hint that the city’s Southeastern League team, the Rams, ever existed. Don’t bother looking. Not even the diamond on which they played, the still-in-use Johnston Field, honors them. No signage, no sentimental remnant. The Rams — Anniston’s longest running minor league team — have literally vanished from the city’s memory since they ingloriously played their final game in the summer of 1950.

Except, this.

North of downtown, just outside the city limits in the unincorporated community of Saks, are two bisecting residential streets speckled with a canopy of trees and two-story, middle-class homes that could be anywhere in this part of northeast Alabama. Their names: Loy Street and Gunter Street. Only the nerdiest of Anniston historians would flesh out the significance, two streets carved into farmland once owned by a man named Loy Gunter. In fact, local tax records still refer to homes in that part of Calhoun County, Alabama, as “Loy Gunter’s Subdivision.”

Gunter was the Rams’ longest-running owner, an Alabama businessman who shielded the team from its inevitable financial death and cheered not only baseball but all sorts of civic endeavors in Anniston. Without his guidance and checkbook, the Rams would have perished long before they did, perhaps even failing to return after the end of World War II.

Born in Oneonta, Alabama, Gunter moved to the city for the first time in 1923 to work for Farley’s Credit Clothing. In 1927 his next employer, Shyer’s Jewelry Co., opened an Anniston store and transferred him from Chattanooga. A year later Shyer’s sent him to Knoxville, Tennessee, and then Huntsville and Gadsden in Alabama. It wasn’t until 1937 that he returned to Anniston and opened a clothing and jewelry store, Gunter’s, on Noble Street, in the city’s main business district.

The Rams debuted a year later, in 1938, under the guidance of W.H. Deyo, the president of the local group that obtained a Southeastern League franchise for the city. Gunter added Rams baseball as one of the civic endeavors his business supported. Along with providing awards for a local tennis tournament, he sponsored a giveaway night at Johnston Field in which a female fan won a gold watch. In the mid-1940s he chipped in to buy uniforms for one of the African-American teams in Anniston.

A 1940 clipping from The Anniston Star.

By any measure, the Rams should have perished in July 1940 when poor attendance and a bare bank account caused the Southeastern League to take control of the franchise and force it to play its remaining games on the road. Only a local “Bring The Rams Back To Anniston” campaign that raised enough cash to pay the players’ salaries the rest of the season allowed the team to return to Johnston Field and survive until 1941.

Back in Anniston in early August, the Rams were essentially owned by a group of men who contributed to the team’s financial existence. A board was elected. And in February 1941 Gunter was selected as the president of the Anniston Baseball Corp. He would hold that post, become the team’s owner, and be the public face of the city’s professional baseball efforts through 1949.

A 1941 clipping from The Anniston Star.

The editorial board of The Anniston Star newspaper approved of Gunter’s election.

“Mr. Gunter has been one of the staunchest supporters of the Rams since the club was organized, and he has shown an active interest in the diamond game in many ways. His interest has encouraged the city and the club. Few people are more interested in the local promotion of sports activity than this local merchant. We feel certain that the great energy he has always displayed will go far toward bringing the city a good team this season.”

“Mr. Gunter has been one of the staunchest supporters of the Rams since the club was organized, and he has shown an active interest in the diamond game in many ways. His interest has encouraged the city and the club. Few people are more interested in the local promotion of sports activity than this local merchant. We feel certain that the great energy he has always displayed will go far toward bringing the city a good team this season.”

The Anniston Star editorial board

Gunter, who had funded a softball team the previous summer that won the Anniston city league title, was a bit more cautious.

“We may not have a pennant-winning team this year although there is every chance that, with the proper boosting spirit, we could send a team into first place and keep them there,” he told The Star.

“We will have a scrapping ball club that will be digging for Anniston every day of the campaign and with everybody’s cooperation the chances are that our team can bring a revival of baseball to this entire section.”

It was slow going. The ’41 Rams were terrible, finishing 64-76; at one point they lost 14 straight. In midsummer the team held a “Loy Gunter Appreciation Night” to thank its president for spending nearly $4,000 out of his pocket to cover gaps in the Rams’ payroll.

A 1946 clipping from The Birmingham News.

A crowd of 1,096 paying customers came out to watch the Rams and thank Gunter. In a rare good night, the Rams won, 10-6, over Selma.

“We have the finest fans on earth,” Gunter told The Star earlier that summer. “The Rams belong to them and they feel that way about it. Even when we had that long losing streak the players weren’t abused.”

The Rams were slightly better the following year — 67-76, but made the first round of the playoffs — and then the Southeastern League shut down in 1943 because of World War II. Gunter made sure the Rams were included when the league reformed in 1946, and it paid off. Anniston posted its second-best finish ever — second place in the SEL — that season and won the league title in the postseason.

“Loy Gunter realized he would have to have a winning club to compete with those representing other cities much larger than Anniston,” The Star’s editorial board wrote. “He provided such a club, and the fans, displaying loyalty to the enterprising Mr. Gunter, showed their appreciation for his efforts.

“Anniston is proud of the Rams and the guiding hand that made possible such a fine baseball club. The club, thanks to Mr. Gunter and loyal fandom, has been an asset to Anniston and it is to be hoped that next year finds another fine club here under the same management.”

If only that were the case. The 1947 team was abysmal, 54-84 and in last place. The 1948 team was much improved, 75-63, and lost in the first round of the playoffs. But the 1949 team regressed, churned through three managers, posted a 64-74 record, and signaled the end of Gunter’s reign. He had had enough. So, too, had his business’ bank account, which had continued to subsidize the Rams’ payroll.

Gunter made a hard-line decision: He wouldn’t be involved in a baseball team in Anniston in 1950, either in the SEL or any other league. The Rams thus reverted to a version of its 1941 ownership group, a move that didn’t end well the following summer.

“As the sole owner of the Rams’ organization,” The Star’s editorial board wrote, “Mr. Gunter was called upon to meet single-handedly the deficits that were incurred, and for his unselfishness in carrying on with a losing proposition, he is deserving of the deep thanks of this community.

“But he cannot, in reason, be expected to continue indefinitely in the role he has been playing. A baseball club is, after all, a civic project which, if it is approached with broad enthusiasm, can be established as a valuable civic asset.”

Fans being fans, Gunter’s departure wasn’t universally accepted with sadness.

“I think the trouble with baseball here is that we need a new club owner. Loy Gunter is not popular with the fans. You know that as well as anyone else … Anniston needs a club owner that is popular with the fans who support and the game, and who has the money he can spend freely to build a team,” Annistonian Wilson Dunn wrote in a letter to the editor in the newspaper.

“I think the trouble with baseball here is that we need a new club owner. Loy Gunter is not popular with the fans. You know that as well as anyone else … Anniston needs a club owner that is popular with the fans who support and the game, and who has the money he can spend freely to build a team.”

Annistonian Wilson Dunn

“My idea of the baseball situation in Anniston is for Mr. Gunter to either give up and let someone have the franchise who can and will give us the team we are willing to support, or make an effort to do so himself,” wrote another Anniston fan, Joseph K. Gausch.

(For what it’s worth, Gausch was highly supportive of Anniston as a baseball town — if not a bit hyperbolic. “I haven’t been in Anniston many years,” he wrote, “but I can truthfully say that I have never seen more rabid baseball fans than there are in Anniston, with the exception of Brooklyn, perhaps.”)

When the Rams succumbed in 1950, Gunter was involved in a brief grassroots effort the following spring to bring a lower-classification team to Anniston for the Georgia-Alabama League. It didn’t pan out, and Anniston’s days as a professional baseball city were over, for good.

Loy Gunter died in 1969 in Birmingham. His obituary in The Star did not mention the Rams.

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