by Thad Mumau | Photography by Diana Matthews
If you drive along Horner Boulevard in downtown Sanford, there on the corner of Wicker Street you will see a mural two stories high of a baseball pitcher. He is in his follow-through, and the baseball he has just released is coming right at you.
The likeness is of Howard Auman, whose strong right arm carried the Sanford Spinners to the Tobacco State League championship in 1946, their first of three straight titles. Auman was a 22-game winner for that 1946 team.
This past spring, Auman and his wife of 68 years, Maxine, were riding around town one day when they came upon the big picture painted on the side of a building. Howard was surprised.
“It was the first time he had seen it,” she says, “and he said, ‘Why did they want to put my picture up there? I’m not a celebrity.’
“I said, ‘Well, Howard, they are doing things that are historical, and you sure are historical.’
“He just laughed and laughed.”
Auman died at the age of 93, a few weeks after he saw that mural.
The truth is, that while the painting of him pitching a baseball tells of the city’s success on the diamond, it also symbolizes the city itself and the people who worked so hard to make it grow and prosper.
He was a poster boy for the “greatest generation” described by Tom Brokaw. Tall and slender and distinguished looking, Auman was a man of honesty and integrity. His handshake was a signed contract, his nod of agreement an assurance that he would do the best he possibly could.
“Howard was my sweetheart,” Maxine says, smiling. “Almost from the time I met him.”
He was from West End, one of 10 children, and went to Wake Forest University on scholarship to play baseball and basketball. He transferred to what was then called Campbell College and after two years there, he was drafted into the Army.
Auman spent more than three years in the military and went overseas near the end of World War II.
After leaving the Army in 1946, he agreed to pitch for the Spinners.
“Howard was working in the family’s peach business,” Maxine recalls, “and he said he would play ball for the Sanford team, but only for the home games. He explained that he had to work during the day and could make it to the evening games in Sanford.”
The Spinners got considerable mileage out of Auman’s right arm. He was a workhorse, pitching 256 innings on the way to a 22-8 record and propelling Sanford to the Tobacco State League title.
In the fall, he returned to Campbell, but left school in January. As property of the Chicago Cubs, he would be heading to spring training and would not have been able to complete the semester. He and Maxine were married in March.
“It was a Saturday night, March 15,” she says. “For our honeymoon, we went to Macon, Georgia, for spring training.”
The 25-year-old righthander put together a sterling season for the Macon Peaches of the single-A Sally League. He pitched 273 innings and won 20 of 34 decisions. The next year, he moved up to double-A Shreveport, where he appeared in 38 games, working 188 innings and finishing 13-11.
In 1948, the Cubs invited Auman to their major league spring training camp and assigned him to Los Angeles of the triple-A Pacific Coast League. But he was seldom used and was sent back to Shreveport where he spent two more seasons. His career concluded at Texarkana in 1951.
“Howard really felt he was going to the majors when he went out to California,” Maxine says. “He didn’t understand why he didn’t pitch more there and was very disappointed. He sure did enjoy the time he had in professional baseball, though.
“What made him a great pitcher were his control and how fast he could throw. I loved seeing him fire that fastball of his. I went wherever he went; that was where we lived. I was in the stands for almost all of his games. I enjoyed watching him, and I grew to really like baseball. I still do.”
Auman managed a team in Robbins for one season, while working in a textile plant. Moving to Fayetteville, he bought a grocery store and ran it for five years. The family (by that time including daughters Anne and Kay) moved to Sanford in 1960.
He worked for Singer Furniture Company, where he refinished furniture, until retiring in 1982. He continued to do refinishing in his backyard shop for more than 30 years. It was something he enjoyed tremendously, but nothing ever replaced baseball.
“Howard loved the game,” Maxine says. “He wasn’t bitter about not making it to the majors, but he and I did talk sometimes about what might have been if expansion had taken place sooner.”
(There were 16 major league teams until expansion began in 1961. Today there are 30. That means there are around 360 big league pitchers. Many minor league pitchers who reached triple-A prior to expansion would likely have gotten a shot at the majors had they still been active.)
“He talked about that a lot, because teams never have enough pitching. There is a good chance he would have made it had he come along 10 or 12 years later.
“His memories, though, were good ones,” Maxine says, “of baseball and of his life.
“So are mine.”
Mumau has been a writer for more than 48 years, covering some of the sports greats, including Michael Jordan, John Wooden, Jack Nicklaus and Dean Smith. He can be reached at email@example.com.