NORTH EAST — Bobby Jones has made a life for himself in Tulsa, Okla., and built a baseball family within the Texas Rangers organization, but when he returned to his native Elkton this past weekend, it was like he never left.
Jones was honored on Saturday by 100 of his closest family and friends, including several of his former high school teammates, to celebrate his 50 years in professional baseball. The party was hosted by Jones’ cousin, Betty Davis, at her home in North East.
Jones happily made the trip with his wife, Debbie, and daughter, Jill. Attendees shared countless memories and laughs, with many of the jokes being told by Jones himself. That didn’t surprise anyone.
“The best thing about him is his loving spirit,” said Davis, who grew up next door to Jones and his two siblings — sister, Rita, and brother, Curt. “There are 100 people here and they all love him.”
Jones was drafted twice as a youth; the first time by the Washington Senators, and the second by the Army, which led to a 14-month tour of duty in Vietnam. He returned to baseball after serving his country and made his major league debut with the Texas Rangers in 1974. After 12 years playing in the major leagues, minor leagues and Japan, he found his true niche in managing and coaching. He’s the winningest Minor League manager in Rangers history. One could argue he’s mentored more players and impacted more lives than anyone in the Texas organization.
“I could relate to them,” Jones said. “I played for 21 years and 17 of those were in the minor leagues. I knew what it was like to struggle and I think they could see that. I did what they did.”
Jones was born in Elkton in 1949. He grew up excelling in baseball, football and basketball, but the nation’s pastime emerged as the clear favorite when he got to high school. He and lifelong friend, Rick Marcus, were the two best players on Elkton High School’s legendary baseball team that won 26 games in a row in 1966 and 1967.
Jones’ high school coach, Sonny Tenney, was also at the celebration and fondly recalled the tools that led to his former player’s success.
“One was talent and two was his attitude and commitment to the game,” he said. “He was just a well-rounded person. I’m just so proud of him, not only because he’s been in major league baseball, but they way he’s conducted himself along the way. He’s built quite a reputation in baseball, as well as in the community.”
After graduation, Jones was drafted in the 36th round by the Senators — who would become the Rangers two years later. Marcus was also drafted by the Senators, and the two of them signed on the same day.
Jones was reunited at the party with one of his and Marcus’ teammates in Rookie ball, Melvin Lowe, whom Jones hadn’t seen since 1969.
“When [Bobby] called me, you needed a crowbar to get me off the phone,” Rowe said. “I told my wife, “you can save the arguments until later because I’m going.’”
Times were rough during those first few seasons in the minors, but Jones’ love of baseball endured.
“We got $550 a month and you had to pay for your living expenses out of that,” Marcus said. “We basically lived on the buses.”
Jones’ playing career was brought to a halt in 1969 when he and Marcus were drafted by the Army and served separately in Vietnam. Jones attained the rank of Sergeant and was section chief of a 105-millimeter howitzer group. He and his men were constantly under fire, but when Jones returned from war in February 1971, he was uninjured aside from permanent hearing loss in his right ear.
Jones earned the Bronze Star for his military service, an award that was officially presented to him at Globe Life Park during pre-game ceremonies on Sept. 11, 2014.
“They gave us the medal when we walked out, but it was never presented to me, and then Texas wanted to do it at the ballpark,” he said. “It was unbelivable in front of all the fans. It was a very special moment.”
Jones said the skills and discipline he gained as a soldier helped him become a better ballplayer. He didn’t skip a beat, returning to baseball in 1971 and moving up the ranks in the Texas farm system. He made his major league debut on October 1, 1974 and recorded his first hit the following year.
Jones played parts of nine seasons in the majors between 1974 and 1986, mainly as an outfielder and pinch-hitter. He spent 1976 and 1977 with the California Angels and another two years playing with the Chunichi Dragons in Japan before returning to the Rangers for good in 1981. He finished his career batting .221 with 20 home runs.
“Every year, I’d get called up, then sent down,” Jones said. “I wasn’t good enough to be an everyday player, but I was lucky to get up every once in a while.”
While with the Angels, Jones hit his first two major league home runs in the same game, a 5-3 win over the Boston Red Sox. He said one of his favorite memories as a player was when he got a walk-off hit that also came against Boston.
Another unforgettable event occurred during Spring Training in 1977 when Jones took on an interesting house guest, forging a friendship that lasts to this day.
“Nolan Ryan’s wife was pregnant and he was looking for a house in Anaheim,” Jones explained. “I had a three-bedroom house at the time, so I offered for them to stay with me and they did for about two months.”
Even the strikeout king was not spared from Jones’ friendly jibing.
“I told him the only reason he was successful was because he never faced me,” Jones said before bursting into his infectious laugh.
Jones played one additional year in the minors before deciding to manage in 1988. He found immediate success, guiding Class A Charlotte to a league championship in 1989. He managed at all three levels of the minors for the Rangers between 1988 and 2013, helping countless superstars along the way like Sammy Sosa, Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez and Ian Kinsler. He joined the Rangers coaching staff in 2014 after amassing an unbelievable 1,656 wins as a minor league manager. His 710 wins with Triple-A Oklahoma City is also a record.
Though Jones is retired, his baseball activities haven’t fully ceased, as he’s now a part-time scout within the organization.
“It’s like a family,” Jones said. “Even in the front office with John Daniels on down through the minor leagues. Everybody gets a long and it’s just a special organization.”
Jones is immoratlized on the Wall of Fame in Elkton High School’s lobby, and he’s earned countless other awards during his long career, but what matters to him the most are the memories he’s made and lives he’s touched. Jones said he still can’t fully grasp all he’s accomplished.
“I was a 36th-round draft pick — a 6-foot, 150-pound kid out of Elkton High School, so to stay in baseball for 50 years, it’s unbelievable,” he said. “Everything fell in to place so it had to be luck.”