The "Fireball Myth:
Did "Fireball" Really Get His Name From Baseball? ...... by
You've heard it again and again. He is on
the list of NASCAR Fifty Greatest Drivers of its first
Edward Glenn "Fireball" Roberts. To many of his early
friends, he was simply Glenn. Then as in what may be a
distorted legend over the years, he acquired the nickname
"Fireball" because of his reportedly organized baseball
pitching, namely with the Zellwood Mud Hens American Legion
Trying to pin down what is the truth, Stock Car Racing
talked to a number of folks, including a daughter and
sister, state headquarters of the American Legion and an
early classmate and fellow student who encountered him again
near the University of Florida.
That latter would be Jack Hall, who attended Apopka High
briefly with Roberts, and then went on to a college coaching
career that would include stops at the Universities of
Georgia, Tennessee and Florida and a stint on the sidelines
with the New York Jets.
Admittedly, it was Hall's declaration that Glenn Roberts
didn't play organized baseball, but that he got the nickname
for his "devil-may-care" speeding on the race track that
prompted this investigation.
Roberts reportedly didn't care for the nickname, but it
wasn't long before his fellow competitors would be calling
him by a shortened version of FireBALLs. You guys will
While the Roberts family left Apopka when he was in the
tenth grade and bought a motel in Daytona Beach, Hall lost
contact with him until that encounter near the University of
Florida. Oh, did he ever resume the friendship, at over 100
miles an hour, but more on that in a minute.
Our search on the nickname continued to the NASCAR archives,
where NASCAR Hall of Fame Historian Buz McKim said Roberts
late widow told him Roberts had told her the moniker came
from baseball. And, of course, the NASCAR media guide and
other journals say the same thing, baseball, but they don't
go far enough.
Some even said he played in the Class D Florida State
League, while others insisted it was at Apopka High School
or the most popular one, with the Zellwood Mud Hens American
Hall says there was no baseball when Roberts would have
"There was no baseball at AHS 1942 - 1947 due to a U.S. Army
camp occupying an area that the WPA had built as a
playground area. We only had football and basketball and
students came from Zellwood to play those sports."
Fireball hardly had time for any organized sports, because
after leaving Seabreeze High School he went into the U.S.
Army. After a short stint, however, he was given a medical
discharge because of asthma problems and enrolled at Florida
as freshman in September of 1947. He attended for four
That was vouched for by a daughter, Pam Roberts.
"He became friends with and hung out with Marshall Teague at
his garage in Daytona and Marshall built the car in which he
won a race at Martinsville," Roberts says.
And here's the bottom line from his sister: "He never played
any organized sports except a very little football. He
picked up the nickname "Fireball" from participation in
sandlot games as a baseball pitcher. I believe they call
them pickup games, " says his sister, who didn't wish her
name used. "I don't know where the Zellwood Mud Hens story
Finally, to put the subject to rest, we contacted American
Legion State headquarters in Orlando and spoke with Larry
"There never has been an American Legion team in Zellwood,"
he says. "We didn't have a post there and to my knowlege
there was no organized baseball."
We promised a ride with Fireball, as told by Hall. Here
goes: "He kept his beach-road race car in Gainesville and
was said to set speed records to and from Daytona Beach on
weekends as there were very few police at the time. One day
I was hitch-hiking through town on my way to junior college
in Georgia," Hall recalls. "We met and Glenn offered Junior
Rogers -- another Apopka friend -- and me a ride up to Dub's
Club in northwest Gainesville. He brought his 'roaring'
racer', a Ford coupe, around and Junior and I got in.
"Glenn had on his helmet and was securely strapped in. I sat
in the front on an orange crate and Junior squeezed in
behind us among the roll bars. Glenn said he would take us
on to Alachua. He dropped the Ford coupe into high gear, the
wheels spun and we flew away.
"We pulled past a '46 Buick Roadmaster and that driver
turned green when he looked down at his speedometer. We were
probably doing 100 miles an hour. Junior got out when Glenn
stopped at Alachua and he hitchhiked back to Gainesville. I
never rode with him in that race car again."
Fireball? Is it any surprise Hall thought that was a racing
nickname. Fireball. You better believe it. In a race car or
on the sandlot. Definitely sandlot.
Back in late 1958 NASCAR founder Bill France was just
completing his new 2 1/2 mile Daytona International Speedway
and had offered a bounty of something like $10,000 for the
first driver to go 150 miles an hour on the new high-banked
Roberts, already a star, was on a good will tour for a tire
company and came by our Jacksonville Journal offices for an
interview with me, the assistant sports editor.
"One hundred and fifty miles an hour?" I asked. "Jeez,
where's it gonna stop, at 160 or 170 even, what's the
Roberts didn't hesitate.
"When the car gets airborne, that's the limit. As long as
you can keep that from happening, there's little limit."
Looking at the race cars of today, with their spoilers,
front ends barely off the track and other aero devices to
keep the cars from getting airborne, maybe we should call
him "Crystal Ball" Roberts.
Fireball & the Sport of Jai-Alai - What A Player by
Following up on his physical prowess and his
natural athletic ability, especially his knowledge of baseball, Glenn
loved to play amateur Jai Alai (hi-a-lie), and was good at it. There was
a Fronton (an opened walled arena) in Daytona Beach and many afternoons
were spent catching the pelota (ball) with the hand-made cesta (wicker
basket). Often called "the fastest game on earth", the speed and the
challenge fascinated Glenn. This is a betting sport, but Glenn preferred
playing as opposed to betting.
His daughter Pam had two of the cestas and I am the
proud owner of the one shown in the picture. It is a treasure. Also note
the photo that came with the cesta and the newspaper article.