By Alan Richardson
This week’s athlete honoree was nominated by two former Bulldog performers, Andy Ainslie and Richard Walters. Walters was featured a few weeks ago and mentioned Jane Phelps in the interview while Ainslie made this claim, “Jane is the best overall athlete of our time. She deserves consideration based on her abilities in both basketball and softball.” At the time Phelps graduated (1970) female athletes had only two opportunities to participate in high school athletics; tennis and basketball. She mentioned the effect that Title IX had on the next generation and beyond with the addition of other sports like track, cross-country, cheer, softball, and volleyball. There’s no doubt that she would have excelled in any of these had she been given the opportunity.
Phelps was raised on a farm by her parents, Rosalie and Newt Phelps, in Social Circle before moving to Morgan County as a third grader. She attended Rutledge Elementary before attending Morgan County High School from the eighth through 12th grades. She was recognized immediately for the athlete she was by Principal Tom Riden and girls’ basketball Coach Kenneth Cloud. Jane became a four-year member of the varsity squad and lettered three of those years as a guard and rover (before the girls played full court 5-on-5). She played her final two years for Coach James Hagin.
Her softball career began at the age of 17 when Coach Bill Wood started a women’s traveling softball team (Rutledge/Madison Lakers) that played around the southeast and country in tournaments against the best competition there was to offer. She played for the Lakers for 18 seasons (every season the Lakers were playing) and was inducted into the Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame for her stellar career as a player and as a long-time umpire in the sport. She joins locals Bill Wood, Kathy Greenway Wood, Roxie Garrett (Social Circle), and Sally Wade Stephens as former Lakers who have been named to the Hall.
Phelps was asked about her love of sports and natural ability. She said, “I just loved sports from an early age. When I got the opportunity, I made the most of it during practice and getting after it during games. We had a brick set of steps going up to the porch and I would throw the ball against those porch steps for hours catching it from all angles. I don’t remember playing much basketball until I got to high school.” Whether it was a part of her DNA or just plain old hard work, the multi-talented star had what it took to put her name on the map.
Those that saw her play hoops in high school remember her as an aggressive defender and a slasher on offense that liked taking it to the hole or using her patented pull up jumper. She laughed, “I wasn’t remembered for my free throw shooting, that’s for sure.” She reminisced about being a freshman member of the varsity team in 1966-67, “I really looked up to Glenda Darnell Worley and Lynn Hood Goodman. They took me under their wing and looked after me that first year.” During her senior year, the Lady Dogs took home the coveted Dairyland Tournament Championship played at Oconee by defeating Greene County in the finals. Phelps was a captain of that team that featured her friends Benita Morris Watkins and Marjorie Colley Ross.
After graduation Jane attended Athens Technical College to study computer programming. She said, “We learned how to use punch cards and languages like Cobol and Fortran. They aren’t even used anymore. It led me into a Federal Government position as a computer programmer where I worked in the Athens Federal Building for the next 38 years where I retired. Now I do whatever strikes my fancy. If I change my mind about what I’m going to do today, I just do something else. It’s nice.”
The softball career of Jane Phelps is known the best by her Coach, Bill Wood. He’s been coaching so long that rumor has it he once coached a softball team made up of Jesus and his 12 disciples. The old ball coach said, “She is one fine lady and athlete. Jane led our team over 18 years with a lifetime batting average over .500. She also led us in batting average every season we played. It didn’t matter where she played. In fact, she played and started at every defensive position except pitcher at some point in her career and played when she was hurt. She was so competitive that even when Jane could hardly move with a bad knee, I played her at shortstop inside the baseline so she didn’t have to move. If they hit it one step to her left or right, she made the play.
She played hurt, was hard-nosed, and a leader on and off the field. That team she played on played for five state championships and won it twice going to the Nationals in Detroit and York, Pennsylvania. We played in the highest class at the time (Class A) and won the District Tournament 18 times. Jane was name All-State three times at three different positions. That tells you a lot about her versatility. Her longevity is something else that needs to be mentioned. She played in over 1200 games winning over 900 of those. A 75 percent winning percentage isn’t too shabby in anybody’s book.”
Wood shared one funny story about her, “We were playing the Miami Dots and they were the defending National Champion. Jane slid into second on their All-American shortstop and took her out on a double play. The shortstop kicked her when she was down on the ground after the play. She crawled up that girl like a grapevine and took care of her business. Both benches emptied and there was some serious fisticuffs going on. I never left the bench and the umpire came over asking me to get my ladies under control. I told him there wasn’t a lady amonst ‘em and he could break it up himself, but he didn’t have the guts to throw her out of the game. I wasn’t about to get in there. She was highly competitive and would back it up.” Jane mentioned that the team won the sportsmanship trophy in a Jacksonville Tournament so it wasn’t always like this particular game.
Why did you play the game for so long, she was asked. “It was just fun and my teammates were the best. I loved getting together with friends and riding to games like the RV we took to Nationals.” She mentioned several more locals that played on those fine teams including Mary Lou Morris, Brenda Peters, Jean Morris, and Edna Massey.
The athlete has turned fan these days and still follows the basketball teams to most games. She also attends a few softball games and said, “These kids today are just bigger, faster, and stronger.” They may be, but most believe that she could have competed in any era.
The interview ended with Jane thanking her parents, her teammates, and her coach. “I owe a lot to Bill Wood who gave me the opportunity to play beyond high school for many years. He started up traveling teams in women’s’ softball, men’s fastpitch softball, church leagues, and other teams in Rutledge.”
Without question Jane Phelps has earned the distinction as one of Morgan’s Finest Athletes with her many athletic successes and her outstanding character. Without question.