Hartselle baseball coach William Booth accepts congratulations from dozens of well-wishers in April 2017, when he won the 1,000th game of his career. Booth died Wednesday morning. He was 79. Photo by William T. Martin

Hartselle baseball legend dies

By David Elwell
For the Enquirer

Mason Booth remembers last winter when an ice storm had shut down much of Morgan County.

Booth’s father, William Booth, was going stir crazy at his home in Hartselle.

“I told him that we could go to Waffle House and get something to eat because they are always open,” Mason said. “We were holding on to each other as we walked across the driveway to my vehicle.
“He said, ‘You have to take care of me because I’m an endangered species.’ I laughed at what he said, but the more I thought about it the more I realized he was right. They don’t make them like him anymore.”

Hall of Fame baseball coach William Booth died early Wednesday morning surrounded by family members following a long battle with cancer. He was 79.
A graveside service is planned for Saturday at 2 p.m. at Hartselle Memory Gardens. A reception will follow at Hartselle High School.

Booth coached Hartselle baseball to nine state championships in 36 years. His last team will be looking to add a 10th to his legacy when they compete in the Class 6A state championship series starting Thursday in Oxford.

Booth owns the state record for baseball wins at 1,217. He’s a member of the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame, the Alabama High School Sports Hall of Fame, the Alabama Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame and the Hartselle Educator Hall of Fame.

 

William Booth, who died Wednesday, has been the baseball coach at Hartselle since 1988. He coached the Tigers to state championships in 1990, 1991, 1992, 1994, 1999, 2000, 2009, 2013 and 2022. Photo by Jeronimo Nisa.

The inaugural Alabama Baseball Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Booth in January.
The Hartselle native graduated from what was then Morgan County High in 1962. He returned to the school as a math teacher in 1966. Booth worked for the school system in several roles for 57 years before retiring last summer to a coaching emeritus role.

“I think that I would want my dad to be remembered as a winner, educator and then as a coach,” Mason said. “Dad always wanted to be a winner in everything he did. Even though he is mostly thought of as a coach, he was always an educator at heart.

“He always believed in hard work in whatever you were doing. It didn’t matter if it was a math problem or something to do with baseball. One of his favorite sayings was that the ‘cream always rises to the top.’”
The irony of Booth’s death during the state baseball championship week is not lost on those who knew him.

“This week is what he looked forward to every year,” former longtime Hartselle assistant coach Jerry Childers said. “It breaks my heart that he won’t be with his team.”

Hartselle plays Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa on Thursday at 11 a.m. in Oxford. The teams continue the best 2-out-of-3 series on Friday at Jacksonville State at 10 a.m.

“I know he was so proud of this team,” Hartselle coach Jake Miles said. “He would tell them to play as hard as you can, always compete and never give up.”

Mason Booth had made plans to take his father to Jacksonville on Friday to hopefully see Hartselle claim another state championship.

“I know that he would not want anybody to feel sorry for him,” Mason said. “He would want them to go support his baseball team.”

The story of how Booth got the opportunity to become a baseball coaching legend is almost as amazing as his program’s success.
During his days as a high school student, Booth stood just 5-foot-4 and didn’t play any sports. When he returned as a teacher he had grown to 6-foot-1. Basketball was his first love. He along with other faculty members would meet for nights of pick-up games at school.

“My dad could actually dunk a basketball,” Mason Booth said.
Baseball got Booth’s interest in 1988 when Hartselle was looking for a new leader for its program. Booth had an interest because Mason and his friends had recently won two youth baseball state championships with his father serving as head coach.

It was Hartselle principal J.P. Cain who convinced Booth to be the next baseball coach.
“I said I would try it for two years,” Booth said in 2022. “I wanted a way to get out, if it didn’t work. But I knew it would work out. There was just too much talent for us not to be good. When we went 27-4 in our second season, I was hooked.”

The late Clif Knight covered every happening in Hartselle for many years with the Hartselle Enquirer. He was there when Booth’s classroom expanded to include the baseball field. In 2022 when Booth was inducted into the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame, he shared his memories.

“Coach Booth was already well established as a math teacher,” Knight said. “When he took over the baseball program, I don’t think anyone doubted he would be a success.
“It’s just that no one could see far enough down the road to see just how successful the baseball program would become. He’s always been ahead of the curve when it comes to coaching baseball in Alabama.”
Booth’s coaching method was much like his math teaching method. It was practice, practice, practice until the problem can be solved correctly every time. It’s the same method for an algebra problem and a ground ball to an infielder. Practice until you can just about do it in your sleep.
It can be demanding and time consuming, but the success speaks for itself.
“Coach Booth really developed the ‘process for success’ long before Coach (Nick) Saban ever came to Alabama,” Knight said. “It starts with the youth camps. He can measure talent in kids when they are young. The program’s success has attracted a lot of talent. He’s rode a good horse for a long time.”

Booth’s first team in 1988 went 23-10 but missed the playoffs. Only one team from each area advanced to the playoffs in those days. Four losses to Athens that season denied the Tigers a playoff berth.
The next year the Tigers made their first playoff appearance under Booth with a 27-3 record, but lost in the first round to Haleyville.

“A week earlier, we had beat Grissom, the defending 6A state champions,” Mason Booth said. “We were cocky going to Haleyville and got beat 8-3. That’s when the first-round playoffs were just one game.
“That loss motivated us for the next year, and we won our first state championship. That’s what got it started.”

Between 1990 and 2000, Hartselle won six state championships and finished second twice. After the 2013 state championship, there was an eight-year streak of no appearances in the state championship round.
In 2000, Booth added Jerry Childers to his coaching staff. Childers had been the head coach at Brewer for six years.

“Coach told me that he thought he had maybe three more years in him to coach and wanted me to be there to replace him,” Childers said. “Twenty years later, I retired and he was still going strong.”
Hartselle’s 2022 state championship team was one of its most dominant teams. The Tigers swept through all five playoff rounds without a loss.

Longtime Hartselle head baseball coach William Booth died Wednesday morning. He was 79.  Photo by Gary Cosby Jr.

The push for excellence has set a standard for Hartselle City Schools in athletics and academics. Before Booth’s baseball program won its first state championship in 1990, Hartselle had three state championships. They were from boys basketball in 1971 and girls basketball in 1984 and 1985.

Since the baseball program’s first three state championships, Hartselle has won 15 other state championships in seven sports.
“People used to call Hartselle a football town or maybe even a basketball town,” Knight said. “Coach Booth changed that with baseball. Hartselle is now known as a sports town that loves to win state championships.”

Lee Hall played on Hartselle’s 1999 state championship team. He has been a Hartselle baseball assistant coach for 19 years.
“Coach was a super motivator. He just wanted the best version of you each day,” Hall said. “He taught a lot of people how to work hard.”

The hard work produced a lot of baseball players who moved on to play in college and even on the professional level. The hard work also worked in academics with Hartselle producing wave after wave of young engineers.

“Dad was ahead of his time in pushing students to go into STEM programs,” Mason Booth said. “He really encouraged females to enter the different fields. They were successful because he prepared them well.”
A lot of those engineers returned to settle in Hartselle, which has now lost one of its top cheerleaders.

“Dad loved Hartselle and he was always selling it as a great place to live,” Mason Booth said. “To him it was a special place with special people.”

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