Everyone Gets to Play: The Real Story About the DeSoto Beach Bums – The Tybee Times

2013 Marks the 27th Year: Congratulations to the 2013 Annual Parade Honorees: Grand Marshals – Donnie & Nancy Anderson; Beach Bum Queen – Abby Burke;  Big Kahuna – John O’Neill, as well as Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, Col. Jamie Hendrix & Francis Clark!

2012 Marks the 26th Year: Happy Anniversary to the Parade of the Bums! Rest in peace, Lloyd “Jiggs” Watson, March 25th, 2012.

* * * * * * *

Here’s the story of how it all started, unabridged and uncensored – just the way it was meant to be told!  Thanks for reading.

Portions of the original article appeared in the Apr/May 2006 issue of The South Magazine: “The Tybee Beach Bums,” by Cynthia Farr Kinkel.  It’s reprinted with permission, updates and revisions. 

(Photos courtesy of Tybee Beach Bum archives)

EVERYONE GETS TO PLAY! “How a Tybee Team Turned Their Wacky Baseball Season into a Tybee Tradition!”  By Cynthia Kinkel

In recent years Tybee Island, Georgia has become the scene of a peculiar ‘native’ ritual. Before the onslaught of the tourist season, this small Southern town by the sea designates one evening in May to allow its citizens to arm themselves with squirt guns, and buckets, and take to the streets. The afternoon sun sinks low as curious newcomers and thrill-seeking locals line the streets with eager anticipation. Then the Parade of the Beach Bums comes sloshing down the main drag, and friends, neighbors, even perfect strangers, are all gleefully ‘baptized’ into the first rites of summer.

That evening, no one outside (except maybe the police) is safe from the blast of the super soakers, as island residents engage in a community-wide water fight, though with shortages, drought restrictions and rising prices many parade participants have taken to arming themselves using less expensive sources, including rain barrels. But according to the folks who remember the very first parade, it didn’t start out that way.

The original event was actually staged, high and dry, as a mock Homecoming parade for a team of softball ‘losers.’ The story behind it is a tribute to some of Tybee’s best-known characters, and to the last days of one of the island’s most celebrated landmarks, the Old DeSoto Hotel. It was there, at the Ship Watch Lounge in early spring of 1987, that a group of drinking buddies decided that they wanted to play softball.

In those days, Tybee had eight teams in the Greater Savannah Softball League, but most of the guys in the Happy Hour crowd at the Ship Watch were in their late thirties and early forties, and were considered too old to be picked by one of the existing teams. “None of us were any good,” islander Jack Boylston admits. “League players took the game very seriously, and guys like us had a real hard time playing with them.” The ‘guys’ to whom Boylston refers were friends Lloyd ‘Jiggs’ Watson, a Savannah native, who was retired and living on Tybee; John O’Neill, also from Savannah, a local television and radio personality, and Tommy Clark, a native of Statesboro, who was just getting started as a realtor on Tybee.

One Sunday afternoon during Happy Hour, Boylston recalls sitting around in the bar listening to everyone bemoan the fact that they weren’t out playing softball, when John O’Neill remarked, “You know, they all think we’re just a bunch of old ‘beach bums’ over here.” Boylston remembers hearing Jiggs mumble, “Whatever would make them think that?” and everyone at the table laughed. But Boylston says that he’d been thinking about something for a while, and decided it was time to bring it up.

“Hey, if we really want to play, I don’t think they would stop us.” The guys stared back at him. “I mean, if we really want to play, couldn’t we just form our own team, and go over there – you know, just for fun, like Little League, or something?” Boylston emphasized, “Let’s say everyone gets to play!”

He recalls that O’Neill rolled his eyes, “Yeah, sure, and we’ll win every game, right?” O’Neill admits, “At first I thought he was just kidding. All of us did. Then I realized he was dead serious when he started laying it out in front of us.” Boylston acknowledged that they didn’t stand much of a chance winning games, “We won’t be trying to win – we’ll just have some fun, that’s all.” O’Neill recalls that Jiggs Watson was grinning ear to ear when Tommy Clark playfully raised his beer mug and chimed out, “We can be the ‘beach bum’ team!” grabbing the attention of the bystanders. Boylston recalls Bob Davenport, owner of the Old Desoto, saying from across the bar, “And I’ll be the sponsor!”

From that point on, Boylston says that he could feel the enthusiasm start to build. The group at the Ship Watch decided to call themselves the Desoto “Beach Bums.” Some of the guys were capable ballplayers, while others had never played before. No one had the time or the desire to practice, however John O’Neill says that they finally decided to at least have a ‘rehearsal’ to catch up on the rules and regulations. Boylston sorted out the League details and the recruitment began.

Of course, not everyone immediately liked with the idea. Boylston said that when he got home that night, he made a recruiting call to Colonel Jamie Hendrix, a retired Vietnam veteran and a Ship Watch regular. At first, the Colonel wasn’t impressed. Boylston admits he wasn’t sure that Hendrix would join, but the former Green Beret would later tell him that it was one of the best things he ever did. Hendrix, and Chatham County Sheriff, Walter Mitchell were two of the team’s first pitchers.

The Ship Watch Lounge crowd was like an extended family, and in no time, at least 30 ‘Bums’ had signed up. Then their wives and girlfriends wanted in on the act. Judy O’Neill, Nancy Buckley (Boylston), Carey Traeger (Watson), Nedra Hendrix, Francis Clark, Joan Sack Anderson, and others decided to be cheerleaders, and call themselves the Desoto ‘Bummettes.’

Soon it was off to Jaycee Park at the north end in Fort Screven for Sunday afternoon games, with the babes in their Bummette regalia, and the beer in the cooler. Boylston says, “When we showed up on the field, the real ball players immediately had their suspicions this wasn’t going to be a regular season by any stretch of the imagination.” The Bums adopted the slogan, “We want to play real bad… and we do!”

Boylston explains, “Right off the bat, we realized if we were going to survive the season we had to have as much fun with it as possible. The only way for our thirty players to even get to play was to rotate ten players on the field every inning, and try to last at least three. (He says they never really lost a game – they just ran out of innings!) John O’Neill laughs, “We staged fake fire drills, and set off smoke bombs in the middle of games.

One Sunday the whole team dressed in drag. Guys wore flips flops and sandals, and sometimes we’d just lay around on the field, drink beer and watch the fly balls fly.” Speaking of beer, there was always a lot at the games. According to Boylston, if the good players started drinking, they didn’t play as well. “Since we didn’t have any good players, it worked to level the field for us,” Jack laughs. “We might have even scored a run or two, just because the other guys “got wasted” and made mistakes!”

The Bummettes also did their part and took full advantage of the fact that the other teams didn’t have any cheerleaders. Nancy Boylston recalls that they would make up silly cheers to entertain the players and fans in the stands. One of her favorites went something like “U-G-L-Y, Yo mamma says you ugly! You got no alibi. You ugly, you ugly, and that’s no lie! Yo mamma says you ugly. You got no alibi!” Nancy says, “Sometimes batters would laugh so hard they’d have to walk away from the plate.”

Teammate Dr. Michael Milford became the Bum’s TV sports announcer, videotaping the games, complete with pre and post game interviews. The Bums would take the tapes back to the Ship Watch and screen them while the house band, which included teammate Ron Denning, would introduce the replay on the big screen with a chorus of “Take Me Out To The Bum’s Game.” After the show, the team would give an award for the “Most Obvious Bum of the Week” to the player who made the most mistakes on the field.

Boylston says he began writing a popular newsletter called “Bum Stuff,” and distributed it to the bars on the island – all of the teams read it. Boylston admits that some of the Bums were shameless hams. “We knew that a few of the fellows on the other teams thought we were mocking the sport. They thought we were crazy, and sometimes they would get really upset,” he relates, “Most of them were nice guys though, and good sports about it all. Besides, they were winning all the games!”

To be sure, a week before playoff time that first year, the Bums hadn’t won a single game and agreed they needed to get at least one ‘W.’ The final opportunity was going to be a face-off between the Bums and the second-worst team in the league, the “Awfshow” (Offshore) Lounge. To generate enthusiasm the Bums decided to stage their own “Homecoming Parade,” with a dance to follow at the Old Desoto, on the “Last Local’s Weekend,” before the tourist season began on Memorial Day weekend.

The parade consisted of about 20 people. They met at the South Beach Parking Lot, with hand-drawn signs, a few cold brews and swaggered up 16th Street (now Tybrisa), where they turned right onto Butler Avenue, and walked northward, all the way up to the Old Desoto Hotel. This was the very first “Beach Bum Parade.” It was May of 1987.

Inside the Ship Watch Lounge, Ron Denning, Sam Gill and Dan Arno entertained the crowd. John O’Neill says, “We crowned Jack Boylston ‘King of the Bums,’ and his future wife and Bummette, Nancy Buckley, Homecoming Queen.’  Sally Pierce was our first ‘Queen of the Parade,’ and Bob Davenport and his wife Betty Ann shared the title of first Grand Marshal.’  After that, we just partied ’til we dropped.”

The following Sunday afternoon, this team of self-proclaimed losers actually managed to win their final game with the “Awfshow’s,” 19-18. Rumor has it that the Bums brought an extra keg of beer and shared it with the other team right before the game. According to Boylston, it was the only game the original team of Bums ever won.

After softball season ended that year, most islanders forgot about the Beach Bums, but they remained a favorite topic of conversation at the Ship Watch. When the next season rolled around, the Bums were back on the field. They still couldn’t manage to win a game, but interest in the parade was starting to build. Instead of a Homecoming Parade, they had a “Royalty Coronation.”

That year an island personality by the name of “Big Larry” Philpott was bartending on Tybrisa at the Anchor Bar (now The Wind Rose Cafe). Jack Boylston recalls, “He was a big guy, a former college football player and quite a character. Most of us knew him, and so did the players on all of the other teams including the guys from ‘Pier 15,’ a south-end team sponsored by the Black Lace Lounge.”

The parade was on Saturday and everyone showed up at the South Beach Parking Lot and fell in line, ‘Tybee-style’ (first one there is the first one out of the gate). Boylston recalls a ‘pots and pans jug band’ with a Bummette kazoo section, and one ‘float,’ which was the island’s trash buggy, loaned to the Beach Bums by the city. “We all piled onto it,” he says, “and started up [Tybrisa].”

At this point, he hesitates as if to re-create the moment. “Just as we passed Doc’s Bar on the right, and neared the front of the Anchor Bar on the left, a bunch of players from Pier 15 standing next to the Anchor Bar, waved and smiled, then opened fire on us – Big Larry had organized an assault! They had a barrel full of water balloons, and started hurling them at us from every direction!” Boylston says the parade wagon was completely taken by surprise. “We all got mercilessly drenched. We had no idea that they were going to hit us like that.”

Big Larry’s gangbusters would soon be known as the notorious “16th Street Gang.” The following year, 1989, the first “Big Kahuna” arrived, bestowed on a Bum, Gordon “Batman” Varnadoe, in honor of his fiftieth birthday. The parade jug band was back with the kazoo players, in addition to a growing number of festive islanders who marched. “We still had only one ‘float’—the Bums on the trash buggy, again,” Nancy Boylston beams, “but we were armed and ready!”

As the procession neared the Anchor Bar, and the 16th Street Gang appeared, she says the Bums and Bummettes grabbed their own water balloons and “started tossing those suckers as fast as they could throw them.” Soon everyone was in retaliation mode. Water balloons filled with everything from sand and ice water, to food coloring and beer sailed back and forth. Up and down the parade route, attackers came from all sides.

Judy O’Neill says everyone got quite a pelting from the water balloons those first few years, and that escalated until, she says “someone also shot them with a pressure washer.” The City of Tybee soon outlawed water balloons and pressure hoses. They began requiring a parade permit to control the ‘festivities,’ and provided a police escort for future parades, but the water war was on, and started taking on a life of its own. Jack admits, he and Jiggs Watson found that they were spending a great deal of time and money organizing the event. Eventually, they started collecting a small fee from participants, to cover the costs of the permit, advertising, and the Royal Coronation Ceremony. Anything over and above these costs is donated to local charities.

Originally, the Big Kahuna was to come every three years but the Bums started bestowing the title every year beginning in 1995 because, Boylston says, “It finally dawned on us that many individuals deserved the honor, and some of them were running out of years.”

By 1992 most of the original Bums were no longer playing in the City League. Stories of the parade and the water war it spawned would soon replace tales of the softball team that once shared the ‘good old days’ and truly earned their title as “The Desoto Beach Bums.”  Now, the annual Beach Bum Parade is Tybee’s favorite showcase for wackiness. The rule has always been almost anything goes as long as it’s safe and legal. Judy O’Neill says, “We used to have a lady riding a horse, bareback.” Nancy Boylston claims that there’s been everything from marching dogs, to a lofty ‘Uncle Sam’ (Carl Looper) walking around on stilts. Like Mardi Gras in a downpour, Tybee’s characters strut their stuff and get really wet in the process.

They’ve been the focus of national coverage in USA Today, CNN, The Atlanta Journal, and receive annual attention from local media. Regional dignitaries are out there, too, although most now ride in vehicles with the windows rolled up. “Sometimes things can get a little raucous!” Nancy Boylston admits. She recalls one year ‘barrels of water’ poured down on spectators and floats from the second floor of what used to be the Super 8 Motel next to Doc’s Bar.  Residents aren’t safe running or bicycling out to get groceries either, as water ‘assaults’ have also been witnessed in the aisles of the IGA Market on Butler Avenue.  Parade security is somewhat tighter these days, but the deal is, if you don’t want to get wet, stay inside.

There have been some complaints in recent years, and one particularly unfortunate incident, a ‘tasing’ by Tybee police the evening following the parade in 2010 received national attention.  These past two years, the City of Tybee has taken measures to ensure a safer event. Some say it’s a waste of water, and the crowds have become too large and uncontrollable. Others say that it’s just another Tybee ‘drinking fest,‘ however, Jack Boylston is quick to point out that the parade itself is still clean family fun – an event that both the young and the old can enjoy.  Despite the onslaught of curious island visitors that arrive each year anxious to participate in the fun, the parade is still limited to a certain number of floats and is still held traditionally on the ‘last locals’ weekend – it’s a Tybee thing, you know…

Twenty-six years later, a losing softball season remains an inspiration, and although the Bums lost original co-founder Lloyd “Jiggs” Watson this spring to cancer at age 72, Boylston vows to carry on. “As long as the same spirit of excitement that was there with us in the beginning continues to surface year after year, we’ll be here for the ‘kids’ on Tybee Island – no matter how old they are.” Obviously, these Bums still know how to play.

Congratulations to this year’s 2012 Official Beach Bum Honorees:

Grand Marshal – Michael Hosti, Jr.

Big Kahuna – Carl Looper

Beach Bum Queen – ‘Flower Wanda’ Stevenson 

2012 Parade of the Bums takes place on Friday, May 18th, 6:30 PM! (Line-up at North Beach, 5:30 PM)

Beach Bum Royal Coronation is on Wednesday, May 9th, 6:30 PM (for food and fun – Official ‘Ceremony’ starts at 7:30 PM) at Marlin Monroe’s Beachside Grill.  Join the fun as we crown this year’s Honorees and the recognize other members with special awards including the recipients of the 4th Annual Beach Bum Lifetime Achievement Awards – one male and one female.  A former Bum’s ritual has also been resurrected this year in honor of “Jiggs Watson,” simply known as the “Umbrella Hat Award,” and like the old days, it will be given to the Most Obvious Bum! 

HOPE TO SEE YOU THERE!

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