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Refusing to quit

Cancer can’t stop William Booth’s coaching career

Nothing speaks more highly of the competitive ability of Hartselle High School’s baseball program and the iconic stature of its head coach than the words of the late Vestavia head baseball coach Sammy Dunn, as written in a book celebrating his team’s 1998 national championship season.

Dunn recalled how his team rolled into Reuben Sims Field to battle Coach William Booth’s Tigers only to suffer its first loss of the season in the ninth inning. “I’ll never forget it,” he wrote. “We had just gotten word that we had moved to number one in the National Baseball Coaches Association rankings. We were third in the USA Today poll.

“They hit a grand slam to beat us. We thought we had the hitter out before the guy who hit the grand slam. The umpire called the pitch ball four and we walked him. That would have won the game for us.

“Then, their next batter (Joe Clark) hit a two-out, two-strike grand slam off our reliever to tie the game at 7-7and send it into extra innings. They beat us 8-7 in the bottom of the ninth.”

Hartselle also handed Vestavia their second loss, 14-4, in the second game of the state championship playoffs, ending the season with a 42-6 record.

The success Booth’s teams have achieved in his 33 years as head coach is mind-boggling. His teams have claimed eight state titles and finished second three times. His record stands at 1,025 wins to 431 losses.

His tenure in the Morgan County and Hartselle school systems spans 52 years. He taught math in the Morgan County system for eight years, was a math teacher in Hartselle for four years and was a math teacher and assistant principal for five years. He held the positions of Chapter I/II coordinator math teacher for one year, Chapter I/II coordinator math teacher and baseball coach for one year then chapter I/II AP coordinator, AP calculus teacher and baseball coach for seven years.

In conjunction with his continuing math and baseball careers, he has also been transportation coordinator, director of school operations, interim superintendent and assistant superintendent.

Booth first accepted the position of baseball coach in 1987 at the request of the late Hartselle High School Principal J. P Cain.

“It was not something I wanted,” he recalled. “I was happy in the classroom teaching math, but it was an offer I didn’t feel like I could turn down. I had coached a Little League baseball team for several years, and several of the kids were the same age as my son Mason.”

The coaching change was an immediate success. The Tigers improved their record from 23-10 to 27-4 in two years and captured their first state championship trophy in their third year with an overall record of 35-5. Booth’s teams went on to win back-to-back state titles the next two years and won their fourth in 1994 after picking up a runner-up title in 1993.

The team’s fast rise to excellence came despite of Booth’s lack of experience playing baseball in high school himself. “I was too little,” Booth said. “I was 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighed 104 pounds when I graduated from high school.

“My knowledge of the game was limited,” he added, “so I spent a lot of time picking up helpful information from my fellow coaches and friends as well as players who excelled in the sport.”

Booth said his best source of help was the late Coach Dunn, who coached at Vestavia. “He was a personal friend who possessed a wealth of information about the game of baseball,” Booth said. “I think I attended every clinic he conducted on the subject.”

The way Booth sees it, his program’s success boils down to two major factors: “Good kids and a school system that backs them up are what make our baseball program successful,” he said.

“I taught math and coached baseball the same way,” he pointed out. “Students are expected to be prepared to do their class work, and baseball players have to be motivated to work hard to improve their skills.”

The contributions made by parents and other team supporters have also made it possible for Hartselle’s baseball program to rise to the top in the state, Booth said.

“We don’t look to the school system for money,” he said. “When we have a need, it’s met through the generosity of individuals or fundraisers. One of our supporters has purchased new uniforms for eight years.”

Booth, who was inducted in the 2018 AHSAA Hall of Fame, and his wife, Peggy, have four children and six grandchildren. Four of them have benefited directly from their father and grandfather’s expertise in the classroom: Mason Booth, Andy Vest and Lori Vest Cline are practicing engineers, and Katherine Cline, a junior at Tennessee Tech University, is following their example.

What does the future hold for Booth, who is recuperating from stomach cancer at age 77? He said he wants to stay in education, coaching baseball for another five or six years.

The outlook for Hartselle baseball in 2022 is bright to say the least. Five members of the team have already made commitments to play for major college teams following their graduation.