1,022 and counting: Unicoi County's Baxter piling up victories

Douglas Fritz • Apr 5, 2014 at 9:49 PM

Some people work for a living, but Charlie Baxter has been fortunate enough to get paid for something he greatly enjoys.

"I was asked one time if I had any hobbies, and I think baseball is my hobby," said the Unicoi County head coach. "It has never been a job, and I never considered it work. I guess that's the reason I've done it so long."

Baxter, 63, took over the Blue Devils' program during Christmas break of 1974. Since then, Baxter has totaled 1,022 career victories in baseball and softball, surpassing late Dobyns-Bennett basketball coach Walter "Buck" Van Huss as the state's all-time leader in wins for those involved with boys' sports.

"I never really personally knew (Van Huss)," said Baxter. "I just read about him and his accomplishments, and knew about how he got his teams to always play well. I admired him at a distance."

From ground zero for Baxter, it took 10 years to build the foundation for what became a baseball dynasty — and it wasn't as easy as Baxter perhaps imagined.

Winter of 1974

There was no doubt in Baxter's mind what career path he wanted to explore.

"The only thing I ever wanted to do was coach baseball," he said.

Hired by the Unicoi County school system in the summer, it took about four months for a major door to swing wide open. Head coach Gene Lively left to coach at Chattanooga Central, and Baxter — who was already the freshman football coach and assistant baseball coach — was handed the keys to a shiny new toy.

But things aren't always as easy as they may seem.

"I was overwhelmed," said Baxter. "The team had two guys returning with any varsity experience. And I guess I thought I knew more than I really did. In the first year or two I found out how much I didn't know. I guess I was blessed to be in a situation where I didn't get fired before I knew what I was doing."

Fall of 1969

East Tennessee State University and Milligan College had their eye on Baxter, a senior at Unicoi County.

They saw a pitcher with a bright future. Baxter had other ideas, centering on football. With ETSU about to embark on its greatest season in football history, Baxter didn't fit their plans for football.

So the tall strong-armed quarterback headed to Mars Hill College to play football and baseball.

Fall of 1971

During his sophomore year at Mars Hill, Baxter took a helmet to the side of his knee during a football game. A doctor at a hospital in Asheville, who was affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds' organization, told Baxter the meniscus tear was serious enough for him to give up football.

"Back then they didn't have arthroscopic surgery," said Baxter. "I was in the hospital for a week, and on crutches for a month. It wasn't any fun. I had never been through that, and had never been hurt."

Baxter had plenty of baseball success at Mars Hill. His only two losses as a sophomore were 1-0 decisions in 10 innings, and he was voted by teammates as the most valuable player.

But staying at Mars Hill didn't seem right, Baxter said, without playing football.

The knee injury would lead him to Johnson City. Baxter talked to Buccaneers' head baseball coach Joe Shipley and asked if he could transfer. The answer was yes.

In Baxter's first game for ETSU, he picked up the win in a 4-2 decision against Mercer in the second game of a doubleheader. In game one, David "Chopper" Campbell took the loss despite throwing a no-hitter. Campbell would later go on to pitch for the Atlanta Braves.

"I remember him being upset that I won and he lost despite him throwing a no-hitter," Baxter recalled with a laugh.

The late 1960s

Baxter was already honing his coaching skills as a high school athlete. He played football, basketball and baseball for Erwin High School, but spent time coaching in the summer.

He worked with the Little League, and later coached Babe Ruth teams. His ability to mold and lead young men was already beginning to form into quite a gift.

The mid-to-late 1970s

Baxter watched the other high school coaches from a distance, gleaning information in bits and pieces. And there were some good ones in those days, including guys like Daniel Boone's Clarence Mabe and David Crockett's Sonny Miller.

None of them were approached for advice by Baxter, but he did seek out legendary Dobyns-Bennett coach John Whited.

"He's the only one I called," said Baxter, who had thrown a no-hitter against Whited's Indians back in high school. "I said, 'Coach, your teams are always really good. What is your philosophy and what do you do?'

"He was very nice. He gave me one piece of advice: Do what fits your team, and coach to the talent you have. I've followed that forever. Every team is different with strengths and weaknesses, and the kids are different. I've changed year in and year out with different strategies."

After two losing seasons, Baxter's teams would finish above .500 every year since.

Spring of 1984

Unicoi County had finished as Big Ten Conference co-champions with Sullivan South in the 1983 regular season, but the Rebels won the best-of-three playoff series thanks to a walk-off double steal in game three.

Carrying the momentum of that season, the Blue Devils moved to Class AA and became an immediate monster. They won 35 games, lost two, and earned their first state championship.

Along the way, the Blue Devils sent notice that no task was too big. Arriving on a chartered bus for a semifinal showdown against Chattanooga Central, Baxter was greeted the minute he stepped off the bus by some professional scouts.

"They said, 'Coach, how do you expect to beat this team? They have a right-hander who throws in the 90s, and a left-hander who throws in the 90s.' " said Baxter. "That caught me off guard. I said, 'We will just have to play and do our best, and enjoy it.' I didn't know what else to say."

Baxter climbed back on the bus, and said to his players, "I guess we might as well go back home. They've already said we can't win."

A fired-up bunch of Blue Devils got off the bus, and rolled to a victory over Central.

"I remember so vividly their pitcher threw at Will Edwards' head," said Baxter. "Gary (Chandler) was on deck, and hollered at Will, 'Make him pay!' On the next pitch, Will hit one over the light poles, and it disappeared into the night."

Baxter said his team played flawless on defense, and he was so proud of its focus.

Unicoi traveled to Union City and won the best-of-three state championship series in two games.

In the first game, Calvin Hoilman pitched and Unicoi led 3-2 in the seventh inning. Union City loaded the bases with two outs, and Baxter brought Chandler to the mound and put Hoilman in center field. The Union City batter hit a bloop behind shortstop, and Hoilman made a diving catch.

"He comes off the mound, goes to center, lays out on his belly, and saves the game," said Baxter.

Later that year, Hoilman was injured in a car wreck and died after years in a coma.

"All these guys out there playing baseball, and you want them to be successful in life," said Baxter. "But that was it for Calvin. It was so sad."

From 1984-1998, Unicoi County won four state championships and finished runner-up a staggering six times.

"Even the runner-up teams were special," said Baxter.

Summer of 1998

After stepping out of baseball for year, Baxter was asked to take over the softball program. He said no, and moved on.

One day his younger daughter, Katie, asked him to take her to see the Olympic softball team play in Chattanooga. Baxter said OK, and was stunned by what he saw.

"They did everything the way we did it in baseball," said Baxter. "When we got back, I told them I would do it if they let me do it my way."

Grady Lingerfelt came on board to help Baxter. Lingerfelt already had experience with softball, and knew how the really good teams played.

Building a winner wasn't as hard as baseball, said Baxter.

"Softball was easier because of my age," he said. "I had experiences I could fall back on."

In his fourth season, Baxter led the Lady Blue Devils to the Class AA state championship, 50 wins, and a national ranking. He had already experienced the thrill of coaching his son, Andy, to a state baseball title, and now he did the same thing with his daughter.

"Looking back on it, I realize how neat that was," said Baxter. "You can't plan things out like that. It was real special, and just remarkable."

Family ties

Baxter said there's no doubt the tremendous impact his wife, Phyllis, has made through the years.

"Other than coaching, the only other thing important to me is having family," said Baxter. "We're not only husband and wife, but we are partners. She's always been there for me, and hopefully I've been there enough for her. I was at the field so many hours — time I should have been with the family — but she made all the difference in the world. I can't imagine life without her. She's everything to me.

"She not only took care of me, but she was a very successful teacher. She has played piano in the church, and been choir director for years — and she passed on music talents to our oldest daughter, Carrie.

"We've been rewarded with three wonderful children and four grandchildren, two boys and two girls. I'm proud of our children and the people they are."

1,022 wins

Baxter said the staggering total came about in part because of good assistants like Gary Howard, Mickey Jackson, Mickey Hatcher, Nick Lingerfelt, Chris Bogart, Wes Morris, Andy Baxter and Keith Greer.

"I'm really blessed to work with Andy as my assistant coach," said Baxter. "I appreciate all he does. He sees a lot of things that I might miss."

The 2014 Blue Devils

With a record of 12-1 heading into Saturday's game, Unicoi County is once again one of the area's best teams. And the community still supports its proud tradition.

"The support we've received over the years from communities, parents and businesses has just been phenomenal."

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