Back in the 1950s and '60s, back when it was the only ballpark in town, Bonner Park, was the place to be on hot summer nights.
"It was a great place to grow up," said Ronny Simpson. "Those were simpler times."
Fans packed the stands, watching baseball, eating hotdogs and slurping on grape or cherry snow cones.
Or they parked along the road high above the outfield, watching from their cars or sitting in lawn chairs.
"To me, the baseball field there was like walking out on the Yankee Stadium field," said Franklin Council, who was thinking back to 1959, when he was 12.
Council's baseball contemporaries in the late '50s were players such as Bill Massee, Leslie Downs, Ronnie Kirkpatrick, Danny Spears and Tony Layfield.
The majordomo of Bonner Park and the Milledgeville Recreation Department in those days was Freddy Layton. No detail went unattended with Layton in charge. Especially when it came to getting the field ready for games.
"Coach Layton, and he had plenty of help, he would do everything he could to make that old ballpark look good," Council said.
They'd drag the field and get it as smooth as a glass-top table. The infield was all red dirt, and, "if you slid in hard, you were going to take some skin off," Council said.
Council, who played shortstop, said he had some speed back then, so he batted leadoff for his team. He was the first player to dig into the batter's box, which was marked by a fresh layer of white chalk.
Council would be heading to the plate when Layton would come up to him and say, "Wilkinson County (which was where Council was from), don't go up there and mess up the lines. I done spent two hours on that thing and I don't want the first batter messing it up."
Former youth baseball players all over Milledgeville have memories like that of Layton.
The Bonner Park baseball field was fittingly named for Layton, and a monument near what would have been the dugout on the first-base side was unveiled at a ceremony 10 years ago. Aug. 26, 2010, was proclaimed Freddy Layton Day, and Layton was there to take in all the accolades from former players and city officials. He passed away a couple of years later at the age of 84.
The Layton Field monument honors him "in appreciation for his work as Milledgeville's greatest recreation director and as mentor and coach to thousands of Middle Georgia youths."
Council played on several of Layton's baseball all-star teams, as did Mike Humphrey a few years later. Humphrey, a pitcher, was a part of Layton's all-star team in 1963 that won the state championship and advanced to the Dixie Youth World Series in Hueytown, Ala., finishing tied for third.
"I think we spent every day that summer with coach Layton," Humphrey said. "He was our second dad. We worshipped him; we loved him; we were afraid of him. It was all those emotions wrapped into one. I wouldn't give anything in the world for having that experience."
Humphrey said Layton's credo was that he could win the majority of the time with a team that might not have been the best physically but was better mentally.
"That man could coach," Humphrey said.
Simpson, who played for "Mr. Layton" — as he used to call him — in midget football and Dixie Youth Baseball, remembers how Layton had the ability of give pregame or halftime pep talks to fire up his team.
"He could make 12-year-olds think they could do anything," Simpson said, laughing. "I always said, if he had gone into sales, he could have made a fortune."
After heading the recreation department for many years, Layton turned to a career in education, coaching or serving as an administrator at schools such as Georgia Military College, Brentwood Academy and Gatewood School.
Humphrey recalled running into Layton years later when Layton was the headmaster at Thomas Jefferson Academy.
His son's middle school basketball team at John Milledge Academy was playing host to a tournament that included Thomas Jefferson. Humphrey wondered if Layton would be there.
"My son was amazed at how much I spoke about coach Layton, and how well I spoke of him," Humphrey said.
So when Humphrey opened the JMA gym doors, the first person he saw was Layton.
"Coach Layton comes over and gives me a big hug," Humphrey said. "I introduce him to my son, Brian. He said, 'Son, come take a walk with me.' I still get so emotional talking about playing for coach Layton, some 50-plus years later."
When his son returned, he was star struck, Humphrey said. "He said, Dad, it was amazing. Coach Layton told me: 'I don't know how many points you are going to score, and I don't know how many rebounds you are going to get. But I'll tell you one thing. I know how you are going to play. You are going to hustle — you got that honestly from your dad."
Humphrey said, "I thought, 'Wow!' It made me feel good. The thing my son has is what coach Layton instilled in me. He will live on in my life forever.
"He was a special man.”
Reach Rick Millians at 803-331-4290 or email@example.com