Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 22

May 30-June 5, 2002

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Rememberin’ Slammin’ Sammy Snead

After 40, it’s patch, patch, patch.
—Samuel Jackson Snead, 1912-2002

I’m vulnerable. After poring over a score of research volumes, I still can’t attest that Samuel Jackson Snead said that. But wife Lois says she remembers it was attributed to him. And my managing editor at the Evening Sun, the late Phil Heisler, used those words to describe the woes of old age, mentioning they originated from the lips of Slammin’ Sammy Snead.

It sure sounds like Sammy, who had this simplistic, country-boy way of assessing things, usually with a bit of humor involved. Last week, the patch, patch, patching no longer worked for Sammy. He died May 23, at his home in Hot Springs, Va., at 89 following a series of strokes.

The death of one of golf’s greatest legends — if not the greatest — brought back old memories. Our paths crossed not on a golf course, but on the water. None of the obituaries mentioned it, but the Slammer was also a fisherman. For years he held a world record for bonefish, which have such a reputation for elusiveness and power that a record catch is akin to a hole in one at the Masters.

We were pretty close buddies for a week. When I heard of his passing, once again I realized that I had not followed through when I said to myself ‘I’ll look Sammy up one day; he’ll teach me golf, and I’ll teach him to make those short casts.’ Not that I wanted to learn golf, but as well as a priceless lesson on the turf, I would have enjoyed more of Sammy Snead.

Somewhere in the voluminous crates of notes, journals and collectibles at my home is a picture of Sammy and me, he peering over my shoulder as I frantically work on his malfunctioning Orvis Pelican reel. I always intended to have him autograph it for me, but it was just one of so many things I intended to do before it was too late, which it now is.

Brought Together by a Pelican
That’s how we met. It was shortly after daybreak, and Sammy wanted to go fishing. His Orvis reel was kicking up, and back then many fishermen didn’t go out on the chase with a bundle of rods and reels. His Orvis Pelican was the only one of its kind he had in his meager tackle collection. And back then, the rugged Orvis Pelican was a must when bonefishing.

Someone at breakfast suggested he look me up, seeing that I was from Arlington, Vt., not more than a 10-minute drive from the home of Orvis, and Orvis had given me three Pelicans for the event. Therefore, it was assumed, I was an authority on those reels so highly prized at the time.

It was opening morning of the first in a planned annual World Series of Sports Fishing, a competition promoted by Hy Peskin, then the ace photographer of Sports Illustrated. The idea was that the 50 best fishermen in the world would be invited to fish seven consecutive days at various Florida angling hot spots for various species of fish, from marlin and snook to bass and bonefish.

All other sports had their world championships, so why not fishing? I must admit I wasn’t in the Top 50. But when fly-fishing master Ted Williams turned down an invite and Early Wynn, Cleveland’s to-be Hall of Fame pitcher, withdrew, I was high enough in the rankings (also outdoor editor of the Baltimore Sunpapers) to get the 50th slot.

So there I was 40 years ago, rigging a Pelican, when came a tap on my shoulder. It was a grim-faced hero in the sports world with his wounded Pelican. He didn’t need to introduce himself. We had rubbed elbows at a kickoff party the night before, so he got right to the point.

“I hear you can fix this,” he said. “It’s more complicated than a club.”

I nodded in agreement. “If I can’t, I can loan you another one,” I said.

It didn’t take long, though on tournament mornings, minutes are like years, there’s so much to do in so little time. Everything goes on a tight schedule, and a late start can cost the winning cast.

On his Pelican it was only a bail problem, which I quickly corrected with a pair of fishermen’s pliers. “Thanks, good luck,” he said. “I’ll see you at the party.”

I don’t know what those who fix reels get paid — I usually fix my own or get a new one — but I consider I was paid more for that brief repair job than about anyone else who ever tinkered with a single reel kicking up a fuss.

The World Series of Sports Fishing
The tournament schedule was grueling. Competitors traveled by charter bus, sat down at a banquet every night upon arrival at the new site, met local dignitaries, partied late and got little sleep. Then, up for a big breakfast ceremony, meet more people, fish all day, stop by a cocktail party, give a press conference, shake more hands, then board a bus and be off to a distant fishing site where a late banquet was waiting — with more people to meet.

Buses were slow, and it took time to get all the luggage and tackle stowed before they even started, but Sammy had that figured. He’d rent a Cadillac limo and driver and go direct, spare aching joints, get a nap, and be refreshed enough to shake more hands. Who was to be invited as his companion but me?

I had fixed his reel, possibly the one that he used to set that previous IGFA world bonefish record.

Incidentally, of all the many things that irked Ted Williams was that Sammy held that record.

"He doesn’t know anything about fishing. He just made a long cast and was lucky,” Williams had griped to me in Baltimore a year before. The Kid wanted a bonefish record, and he never was one to accept that anyone could do better than he — on the sports field or on the water.

We got to know each other fairly well, Sammy and I. I was his instant repairman if needed, and we talked of my going to the Homestead in Hot Springs, where he was the resident pro. He’d teach me golf. I’d teach him to make the short, precise casts under tree overhangs necessary for catching bass and snook.

He could cast a mile as he could tee off in golf. It was the short stuff that was his weakness — on the course and on the water. We were both poor country boys who had worn shoes only in cold weather (he started as a barefoot caddie), and we liked to swap stories of life on the farm during the Great Depression.

Too Late, But Not too Little
I carried his card with his private number scribbled on it for years. But I never made the call. And somewhere among all my collectibles is that still un-autographed picture of Sammy in his Panama hat and me in a fishing cap working on his reel.

We both finished in the middle of the field in that fishing tournament. As Slammin’ Sammy said, “The sun doesn’t shine on the same dog’s tail all the time.” But spending a week with the man who won more golf tournaments than anyone — and covering six decades — is satisfaction enough for me.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly