Earl Nidiffer, right, and Jack Seaton
The first Johnson City Press sports editor wasn’t around long, but Earl Nidiffer is happy to report on sports memories he’s made for more than 100 years.
Nidiffer, who turned 103 Thursday, saw Babe Ruth at the Kentucky Derby and watched Stuart “Plowboy” Farmer turn Science Hill football players into studs in the 1930s.
He attended what Grantland Rice described as the “Game of the Century” at Dallas in 1935 when SMU clinched a Rose Bowl berth with a 20-14 victory over Sammy Baugh and TCU in a Nos. 1-2 matchup, and he saw East Tennessee State lose to Ohio State in the Sweet 16 in 1968 in Lexington, Ky.
Eleven days after ETSU lost to the Buckeyes, former major-league pitcher Clyde “Hardrock” Shoun died in Johnson City at Mountain Home. Shoun, a Mountain City native, once hit Nidiffer in the elbow with a pitch when Nidiffer was a fill-in center fielder for the semipro Johnson City Soldiers in a game at Mountain Home.
Nidiffer’s sharp memory and relatively youthful face produce a timeless aura, something akin to Dustin Hoffman’s Jack Crabb character narrating the 1970 western “Little Big Man” – minus the made-up wrinkles and croaky voice, of course. Indeed, there are moments while visiting with Nidiffer when one of Crabb’s “That is a true historical fact” lines is almost anticipated, a vibe enhanced when Nidiffer mentioned his great, great grandmother most likely being Cherokee.
Nidiffer’s 95-year-old roommate/distant relative, Lizetta Pierce, looks considerably younger too, and Nidiffer says she’s probably the reason he’s still alive.
Nidiffer, who worked 35 years for the Post Office, played baseball and basketball at Science Hill and East Tennessee State. He was a senior at ETSC in 1933-34 and helped compile a school-record for victories while going 13-5 for coach Gene McMurray.
“He was just a wonderful person,” Nidiffer said. “He graduated from Maryville College when he was about 20 years old. He’d coached at Erwin and he was coaching out at Milligan and … the (ETSU) football players didn’t like (Jack) Batey, and they got Batey fired and Gene got the job. …
“He was my coach for three years. Well, one year I didn’t get to play, because I had an appendectomy.”
Nidiffer nearly had another season interrupted. McMurray wrecked around Limestone while driving six basketball players back from a game at Lincoln Memorial in January or February of ’34.
“That thing got up in the air, turned around and fell over in a field,” Nidiffer said. “Tore his car all to pieces and only one of us got a bruise. That was John Oakes. … It didn’t even make the paper. We didn’t tell anybody.”
Nidiffer began at the Press in June of that year. He said the Press moved to its current location in January of ‘35, when Johnson City Chronicle (morning newspaper) and Staff News (afternoon) owner Guy Smith went broke.
“I went to the Press when it was founded between McClure Street and Boone in an old storehouse,” Nidiffer said.
Carl Jones Sr., had made a lot of money with Coca-Cola and in banking, according to Nidiffer, and bought the store for his son, Carl, who had recently graduated from Ohio State. Despite his short stint reporting for newspapers (1934-36), Nidiffer remained friends with the younger Jones throughout his life. He said Jones got his late wife, Lucille, a job at Stratton Elementary School when she was principal at Austin Springs.
It was Jones’ partner, Charlie Harkrader, with whom Nidiffer didn’t bond. When Nidiffer played basketball at ETSU – then the “Normal School” with a Teachers nickname – he said Emory & Henry coach Pedie Jackson wouldn’t play ETSU because of players such as talented Washington College Academy product Dean Bailey. Jackson resumed the rivalry the season after Bailey and Nidiffer were seniors with a pair of lopsided victories.
“They wouldn’t play us until the three of us had graduated – Bailey and Jake Seaton and myself,” Nidiffer said. “Not that I was that good myself, but I did play pretty good for several years. … Jackson said Dean Bailey was the best basketball player he’d ever seen.”
While at the Press, Nidiffer mentioned Jackson’s Wasps dodging ETSC during his career, and the Emory & Henry dig didn’t sit well with a Bristol man such as Harkrader.
“We graduated and Jackson had recruited a 6-foot-2 wiz,” Nidiffer said. “Boys, he was good. He (Jackson) played everybody from Washington to Atlanta. But he wouldn’t play East Tennessee State for three years. …
“I said something about it and stepped on Charlie Harkrader’s toes. He came in, and he bawled me out about that. Well, I saw there was no future for me in the newspaper business.”
Nidiffer’s fleeting Press career had its moments. He often manned the teletype machine.
“I think I’m the first person in Johnson City to know that Amelia Earhart and Will Rogers were (missing),” he said.
The SMU-TCU clash, especially seeing Sammy Baugh, was unforgettable. Nidiffer was even mentioned in the Fort Worth Press special edition.
Nidiffer, Swan and their traveling companions, Isa Lee Sherrod and Helen Hodges, were noted among those in attendance immediately after Governor James V. Allred and state representative W.A. Shofner. Former governors W.A. Holloway and Jack Walton and “movie stars” weren’t mentioned until after Nidiffer and his friends, which still makes Nidiffer chuckle with a hint of pride.
Swan was with Nidiffer when they saw Ruth at the Kentucky Derby in 1935. They were with buddies Bert McCormick and Cecil Kinkead, and wide-eyed in an unruly scene.
“They’re getting ready to start – they let the people go running up there and the National Guard – they started hitting those people with little baseball bats, little clubs, you know,” Nidiffer said. “There was a lot of lawsuits and things over it, and I said, ‘Well, that’s not for me. I’ll never go back again.’ We stayed until the main race was over. There was about nine races that day. Eighth race was the Derby. I don’t remember the horses or anything about it.
“But as we went out … there’s a big ole fellow pushing a car around trying to get his car out. And I looked up and it was Babe Ruth. We helped him get his car out. Never spoke – never asked for an autograph or anything. Just, that’s all. And he got in his car and left and we went on to ours.”
Baseball was Nidiffer’s first love, though he said he never was the batter he could’ve been after seeing Mallie Martin fatally beaned by a Harmon Lowry pitch in the spring of 1924.
“Harmon Lowry was pitching for Elizabethton … and an errant pitch hit Mallie in the head and he died that night,” Nidiffer said. “And from then on, I loved to play baseball but I didn’t want to bat. … It was in my subconscious mind every time I went to the plate. … I ran across his (Martin’s) grave out at the cemetery one day. … His dad was a barber there in downtown Johnson City. …
“I have heard that it worried (Lowry) so that he wound up in the insane asylum. Now, that’s not authentic; I’ve just heard that.”
The beaning triggered Nidiffer’s impressive recall. He proceeded with a detailed summary of big leaguer Jeff Francoeur’s descent after getting hit by a pitch.
“Jeff got beaned in Spring Training of 2008 and from then on he went downhill,” Nidiffer said. “He was very promising when he came up with the catcher, (Bryan) McCann. They traded Jeff to New York for a fellow, and then New York traded him to the Texas Rangers, and the Rangers traded him to Kansas City, and Kansas City … traded him to San Francisco.”
Again, Nidiffer was nearly 98 when Francoeur was first beaned, and he was a month shy of 103 when he detailed his career stops with rapid-fire accuracy. This is a man who was in his 20s when the Great Depression hit, “and now that was a Depression.”
Nidiffer’s been evaluating major-league players since Limestone’s Tillie Walker was playing against the Soldiers at Mountain Home.
“I saw him come in the gate,” Nidiffer said. “And that was way back there, well over 300 feet, maybe 350 or 400, for all I know. And he walked in and he threw the baseball, and it went on a fly over the catcher’s head.”
Not long after graduating at Science Hill, Nidiffer ended up working at Dominion Natural Gas in Canada in 1930. He saw Greeneville’s Dale Alexander play for Detroit.
“He was a slugger for Detroit,” Nidiffer said. “I saw him play in Detroit one time, and Tommy Bridges from Tennessee pitched in that ballgame. … When I was 10 years old Elizabethton was in the Appalachian League then and I’d go down and climb over the fence or stand – get up and look the best way I could. I couldn’t afford to get in.
“And they had a fellow by the name of Ted Wingfield. He was a first baseman there. He was a home run hitter. Well, years later, I saw he was a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. He wound up marrying a girl from Elizabethton.”
Former ETSU player/coach Jim Mooney was another big-leaguer Nidiffer saw up close.
“Jim was pitching for Asheville in the Sally League,” Nidiffer said. “He struck out 23 men and John McGraw came down and signed him and took him back to New York with him.”
The left-handed Mooney might’ve helped influence the rule change for pitcher’s stepping at a 45-degree angle for pickoff attempts.
“He could be looking home and step to home and you’d swear that’s where he’s gonna pitch and the ball went perfect to the first baseman,” Nidiffer said. “He picked off seven runners in the short time he was with New York that fall. And for some reason or other, New York traded him to St. Louis, and Jim played for the Gashouse Gang.”
Nidiffer was four years younger than Mooney, but remembers taking an inadvertent elbow in the ear from him when Science Hill’s junior varsity scrimmaged ETSC in basketball.
“Jim Mooney was awfully bad about slinging his elbows, and he hit me right there on that ear,” Nidiffer said. “Lord, it hurt.”
Although he didn’t play, Nidiffer enjoyed Science Hill football. Coy Trivette, Clyde Campbell and Lew Taylor were the top players when he was at Science Hill. Trivette scored seven TDs in a 60-0 win against Greeneville in 1927.
“It was muddy,” Nidiffer said. “He had mud cleats and nobody else did.”
Joe Jared coached Science Hill in all sports from 1925-27. Hobe Hooser replaced Jared in 1928, and was even less impressive.
“He was a guard on the Tennessee football team,” Nidiffer said. “And they hired him and he was the coach for football, baseball and basketball. He got rid of baseball and started track. And basketball – I guess he knew the difference between a roundball and a football, but that’s about all he knew. And he let some of his football players sort of take over, and we had a disastrous season (1928-29).”
Nidiffer’s brother Ray played football for Hooser’s successor, Plowboy Farmer, from 1930-32.
“Farmer had some awfully good teams. … That’s all he knew was football,” Nidiffer said. “Charlie Fleming was one of the best running backs they’ve ever had at Science Hill.”
Nidiffer began going to Tennessee games in high school when the Vols had Bobby Dodd, Paul Hug, Gene McEver and Shack Allen. He remembers McEver returning a kick 98 yards against Alabama, and the talented Dodd scoring on a cleverly faked bootleg against Vanderbilt.
“He just hid it behind his back and walked across just like he didn’t have it,” Nidiffer said. “And they’s in that pile trying to find that football. … But Sammy Baugh was, by far, the best I’ve ever seen.”
Basketball was Nidiffer’s best sport. He was more of an impact player in college than he'd been at Science Hill.
“I was too light to do much then,” Nidiffer said. “I didn’t weight but about a 138 pounds and about 6-1.”
Lew Taylor was around 6-foot-3, Nidiffer says, and one of the top basketball players for Nidiffer’s Hilltoppers. Joe Jared either recruited Taylor from Happy Valley, or perhaps his father sought Science Hill. Taylor’s father was a passionate supporter. He helped start a fracas when Science Hill lost a basketball game to Dobyns-Bennett in Johnson City, according to Nidiffer.
“Something happened and Lew’s dad, climbed out – the old junior high just had a balcony around there … and he slid down a poll there and started a free-for-all,” Nidiffer said. “And Lester Scott was the manager of our basketball team, and for some reason he had a flashlight and he swung it at Paul Hug, and Hug knocked him cold, I think. Oh, it went on for quite a little while before they calmed down.”
A basketball highlight while at ETSC came playing a traveling independent team.
“There was no professional basketball or football in my day,” Nidiffer said. “But there was a traveling bunch. Joe Lapchick, did you ever hear of him? He was the center. Davey Banks, Dutch Dehnert, Pete Barry. They had six of them and they all traveled in the car.
“We played them out there (at ETSU), and I made 11 points in that game. I was the high scorer for the game. That’s the only thing I remember about the game, except Dean (Bailey) would get up – he had a turnaround jump-shot – and Davey Banks got it and twisted him like that, and he threw the ball out the door. … They were tough.”
Nidiffer saw ETSU basketball games regularly for the better part of 70 years, until he gave up driving around 90 years of age. He rates highly players such as his teammate Bailey, Tommy Woods, Skeeter Swift and Tom Chilton.
“I recall one thing about Woods,” Nidiffer said. “They’s playing one of the Virginia teams … and when somebody shot and the ball bounced off, he got it and shot twice before the other people could get off the ground. From then on, they began to perk up pretty good.”
Nidiffer missed ETSU’s defeat of Dave Cowens-led Florida State to get to the Sweet 16 in 1968.
“They beat Florida State … and Dave Cowens, who became the center for the Boston Celtics for years and years and years,” Nidiffer said. “Dr. (D.C.) Culp drove from down in Alabama all the way to Kent, Ohio to see that. He just had been elected president of the university.”
Nidiffer went to Lexington, Ky., to see the Bucs play Ohio State in the Sweet 16 that season. The Buckeyes beat ETSU 79-72, then defeated Dan Issel and Kentucky on its home floor in the Elite Eight.
“Kentucky was so sure they’s gonna win it,” Nidiffer said. “They had tickets already bought and man, they were going to California. That’s where the next round was gonna be played.
“And some guy from Ohio State hit a basket right at the end and that beat Kentucky. If you had … pulled a rug out from … underneath them, that’s how quick Kentucky fans left that gymnasium that day. You would’ve thought they disappeared down through the floor. Oh lord, that killed ‘em, I tell you.”
Nidiffer remembers the ETSU teams of that era well.
“East Tennessee had Ernie Sims and Skeeter Swift and about a 6-5 forward from New Jersey (Mike Kretzer) and two boys from Kingsport (Leroy Fisher, Richard Arnold),” he said. “They played Duke University one time, and Duke said they’d never play them again. A friend of mine heard – her sister was working in an athletic office somewhere over that way, and one of the coaches from over there said, ‘We’ll never play them again.’ And they haven’t. …
“It came out in the paper, said, ‘Well, now, for us to lose to Virginia or Michigan or somebody else, but to lose to East Tennessee State in the Indoor Stadium ...’ One of the coaches said, ‘Well, they didn’t have anybody but a little ole fat boy. He can’t play.’ But Skeeter scored about 21 points against them, and the game’s over and he hunted that fellow up and said, ‘I’m that little ole fat boy that can’t play.’”
Swift was recruited to ETSU by Jack Maxey, who played on Madison Brooks’ first team at ETSU in 1948-49 with the likes of Charlie Bayless and former Science Hill players Jack Seaton and Jack Vest.
Nidiffer pointed out that Vest was one of three Johnson City products to referee pro football.
“Science Hill High School had three officials in the National Football League at the same time: Jack Vest, Tommy Miller and Hunter Jackson,” Nidiffer said. “Hunter was saying one time – they got into a fight there, a bunch of them, and a big (NFL) player picked him up and said, ‘Sonny, you don’t need to be in here. Get out of the way.’”
Hunter was the nephew of the aforementioned Emory & Henry coach, Pedie, and Hunter’s father, S.D., was an Emory & Henry alum and an official, too.
“When I worked at the Post Office – I was going down to the make a deposit and S.D. Jackson … and Tommy Miller and Lefty Lance, a fellow from Elizabethton, they were all officials, and I stopped there and made a suggestion,” Nidiffer said. “I said, ‘Mr. Jackson, I would like to see them mark off the field’ – sort of like it is today – and oh, he said, ‘You have a hard time getting a field lined off as it is at the very minimum.’
“Well, that Saturday I was lying on the couch when I lived out on Roan, and I rared straight up. Wisconsin was playing Southern Methodist, and there was what I’d made a suggestion to Mr. Jackson. And from then on they started marking it off just like that.”
Seaton shared some memories while visiting Nidiffer on his 103rd birthday. He reminded that Vest was an outstanding athlete before he was an official. Vest and him were all-state basketball players as seniors for Big Five champion Science Hill.
“Before Steve Spurrier came out, Jack Vest was one of the best athletes to come out of Science Hill ever,” Seaton said. “He played basketball, baseball and football. He played tailback when we played a single-wing. Passed, punted and kicked. … And then he went to ETSU and played quarterback four years out there.”
Seaton chuckled recalling Vest nearly kicking off through the goal post in a hard-fought loss at Maryville during Seaton’s lone football season at ETSU.
This reminded Nidiffer of an anecdote, which it should probably be noted, happened in an era when footballs were less pointed and much easier to drop-kick. Nonetheless, Georgia Tech beat Cumberland College 222-0 on Oct. 7, 1916, and future Johnson City commissioner Jim Preas was 18-for-18 on first-half PAT kicks. He also recovered a fumble on a kickoff he’d booted and returned it for a score to help give the Yellow Jackets a 126-0 halftime lead.
“I knew Jim Preas,” Nidiffer said. “He played for Georgia Tech and he holds the national record. Back in those days you didn’t have somebody holding. They’s drop-kicking, and he made 18 in one game. …
“I played some basketball independently with Hugh Preas (Jim’s brother). He was good. He went one year to Virginia Tech and transferred to Atlanta, uh, Emory University. But they didn’t have sports, so he played with the Atlanta Athletic Club. He was a good basketball player.”
Seaton smiles and shakes his head while marveling at Nidiffer’s memory, and said it was tough to remember everything “when you get to be our age.”
Nidiffer, who has some 17 years on Seaton, responded with “What do you mean ‘our age?’” through the sly smile of someone 103 years young.
“They say I’m going to live to 105,” Nidiffer said. “We’ll see. … I’ve been blessed. … Lord have mercy, time flies.”