As a young Rocky Mount couple looking for a little extra pocket change, the late W.A. “Willie” Denson and his wife, Betty, welcomed the chance to house a couple of minor league baseball players in the 1960s.
Little did the Densons know how accomplished their guests would be years later. They certainly didn’t expect to be watching both of them in a dugout on baseball’s biggest stage.
Detroit manager Jim Leyland and his third base coach, Gene Lamont, were roomates at the Densons’ home well before they led the Tigers into this season’s World Series against the San Francisco Giants.
“They were our children more or less, but we were young, too,” Denson said. “It was kind of like home to them. It was like one happy family. They were normal kids at that time, but everybody enjoyed them.
For $8 a week, the Densons housed Leyland and Lamont, both catchers, at their two-story home on 533 Avent Street in Rocky Mount. The Densons never missed a Leafs home game when Leyland and Lamont played. They would walk up to Municipal Stadium and give their names, which were on the players’ guest list, and watch a summer full of baseball.
Nearly 50 years later, Betty Denson has kept close tabs on their careers.
Leyland did not advance past Double A ball in the minors, while Lamont played two short stints in the Majors with Detroit (1970-72, 1974-75).
Lamont managed the Chicago White Sox from 1992-1995 and the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1997-2000.
He was the American League Manager of the Year in 1993.
Leyland has enjoyed tremendous success as a manager.
He has 21 years of managerial experience, nearly 1,700 wins, three pennants and a 1997 World Series championship with the Florida Marlins.
Denson said she noticed how close Leyland and Lamont were as young men.
“I knew Gene was Jim’s best friend, and he was going to take care of his best friend,” Denson said. “He has taken Gene to the big times with him. I’m sure they are still best buddies. They have stayed best friends, and I wouldn’t have thought any different.”
In the 1980s while a manager for Pittsburgh, Leyland stopped by to see the Densons during a scouting trip, and Lamont has visited in the past, too.
Betty Denson said she has not spoken to Leyland in roughly 10 years, but she has and will be watching the duration of the playoffs on her television.
Her prediction for the Tigers is firm.
“I predict that they have such great pitchers, they almost surely have to win,” Denson said. “Don’t you think?”
Jessie H. Nunery can be reached at 407-9959 or email@example.com