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Successful, all right, as city's favorite character

Tennessee Slim, close to his bicycle, (for years) his booze and Doc Webb, fulfilled his desire to be a "town character."

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- James Clifford Beavers once got kicked out of jail for drunkenness.

"And that's why I was put there in the first place," said Beavers, better known as Tennessee Slim.

The volatile Tennessean also punched a priest -- twice. "He stole some fishing tackle from me," Slim explained.

Slim, a city bad boy and local favorite from 1927 to 1984, kept many on their guard with his raw eccentricity. "I'm considered to be a town character," he said. "I believe a person can be a success in that respect."

At age 16, Slim fled his Knoxville home. "Stepmother didn't care whether I stayed around or not," he said.

He traveled Tennessee, enhancing his eighth-grade education at libraries and surviving "on what seemed nothing more than air," the St. Petersburg Times reported.

In Chattanooga, Slim was an exhibition-game guest of baseball's Pie Traynor. After the game, Slim headed for baseball in St. Petersburg -- on his bicycle. He arrived in 1927, after hopping a freight train in Jacksonville.

Slim helped out teams and met such stars as Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby. "Hornsby promised he'd take me to St. Louis," Slim said. "He never did nothin'."

Postmaster Roy Hanna gave Slim use of an attic room. Slim also slept at beaches and the Municipal Pier. Fish houses there purchased his catches, and Slim peddled sea horses to tourists on Central Avenue.

"Sold out every day," he said. "The sea horses would die after two hours."

Most of Slim's time, however, was spent inside saloons and jails. He "was just plain mean," the Evening Independent wrote. Slim "wopped" a boy for holding up traffic one day, the Times reported.

"I was drinking and wopping people who looked at me cross-eyed," Slim said.

Slim stopped drinking in 1944. "God, if you'll just let (Clarence) live, I'll quit drinking," he said before diving from The Pier to save his brother from suicide.

Clarence went to the hospital, and Slim went to jail for fighting afterward. He had two beers before his subsequent court appearance but never drank again.

"(Clarence) sucked the drunk right out of me," Slim said.

That year, Slim opened a tackle shop at First Avenue and Third Street S and began befriending police officers. "I used to dodge those guys," said Slim, who owned a vast police record for boozing and brawling.

Former Times photographer George Trabant, 83, said Slim lived at the store, "eating sardines and cooking on an electric stove."

Slim biked the city, selling fishing gear with his white fox terrier, Sammy, perched in the handlebar basket. The duo colored Festival of States Parades in the 1950s, after Doc Webb financed decorations for the bike.

To needle his friend Webb, Slim would say he "Undersells Doc by millions."

Sammy the fox terrier received a police burial in 1953 and the city mourned. Webb gave Slim another terrier, Little Doc. And there would be a third dog, Little Doc II.

In 1969, at age 71, Slim closed his shop. "A new generation ... wanted modern stuff," he said. "I couldn't keep up." The building was demolished the next year.

Sometime later, former Deputy Chief Terry Hensley and other officers gave Slim a room at the police pistol range on Verdon Way NE and made him a watchman. "He took his job seriously," said Hensley, 53.

Slim wrote poetry, collected coins (called himself a connoisseur) and frequently biked the 10-mile round trip to visit police. In 1973, his bike, which often sported the sign "George Washington rode this," was stolen.

"I've had the bike 20 years," said Slim, then 75. "I'm wrecked now."

Slim busied himself by training a wild fox at the range and becoming a pen pal to an unrelated New Yorker named Lorraine Beavers. But loneliness ate at him.

"No family," said former police Officer Dick Sauer, 65. "It was the twilight of his life. Not a happy period."

Through his sadness, Slim had one desire: "I would like ... before death ... to see Doc Webb," whom he hadn't seen in 10 years. Journalist Dick Bothwell reunited them in 1980, and Slim was "moved to tears."

After nearly a decade at the range, Slim moved to Ninth Street's Graham Park apartments. He died in 1984 at age 86.

The explosive, reformed alcoholic, cantankerous until the end, was "as much a part of the city's history as trolley cars and green benches," the Independent wrote.

* * *

I'm a junior senior citizen
I do not have a whim
To be called sir or mister
Just Tennessee or Slim.
poetry by Tennessee Slim

* * *

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