Christmas came early and often in 2013, and diamonds were a gift that kept on giving.
A glance back – with visions of wool stockings hung by chimneys with care.
Lengthy interviews last spring with former major-league All-Star pitcher Atlee Hammaker and his coach at East Tennessee State, Charlie Lodes, were a pleasant surprise. Hammaker and Lodes were informative and entertaining, and it turns out that both crossed paths with a man whose name’s seemingly always on the tip of my tongue, former ETSU/ABA basketball player Harley “Skeeter” Swift.
Hammaker initially came to ETSU to play basketball for Sonny Smith from Alexandria, Va., which is Swift’s hometown. Hammaker attended Swift’s camp there, and he chuckled while recalling Swift’s salty-tongued reaction when Hammaker drove by him for a basket after volunteering for a one-on-one drill.
Lodes and Swift addressed each other with colorful language more than once when Swift umpired ETSU baseball games. The high-strung Lodes got wound up remembering when he “peppered that face with Copenhagen” in a nose-to-nose argument with the flamboyant Swift before tripping and throwing his back out in a Buccaneers loss that ended a long winning streak.
Lodes said Swift was actually a good umpire, but needed everyone in the park to know “Skeeter Swift was umpiring.” Swift said Lodes was correct in that assessment, but pointed out that Lodes enjoyed the limelight, too.
Other diamond gems this year included an impromptu lunch with Science Hill Hall of Famer Ernie Ferrell Bowman and his former major-league teammate, Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry. Bowman’s athleticism frequently draws rave reviews from local legends, but it was interesting to hear someone with Perry’s stature talk about what a terrific infielder Bowman was.
More gratifying was watching the old friends exchange warm chuckles enhanced by time. Perry bought Bowman more time a couple of years ago by getting Major League Baseball’s Baseball Assistance Team to foot the bill for the outrageously expensive healthcare needed to help Bowman battle cancer.
Bowman’s 2013 included being inducted into the Parks & Rec Wall of Fame and throwing out the first pitch at a Johnson City Cardinals game. Two other Science Hill Hall of Famers – Bowman’s older brother, Billy Joe, and Joe McClain – were honored in the same fashion at other Cardinals’ games.
McClain pitched 212 innings in the starting rotation for the Washington Senators in 1961 and pitched in 10 games for them in ’62. During a couple of lengthy lunches this year he shared such memories as striking out Mickey Mantle and giving up a tape-measure home run to Mantle.
Billy Joe Bowman pitched Science Hill to a state championship in 1947 and won two games and homered while helping the Tennessee Volunteers to a runner-up finish in the 1951 College World Series. He pitched all the way to Triple-A in the late 1950s and ended up coaching for decades in Houston.
Billy Joe has interesting anecdotes on everyone from NFL Hall of Famer Doug Atkins and MLB Hall of Famer Yogi Berra to former Houston Astros All-Star Cesar Cedeno. He said the large, menacing Atkins would squeeze Vols’ arms tightly while saying, “Get down on your knees and say ‘Daddy.’”
Billy Joe went 11-3 with a 2.10 ERA for the Johnson City Cardinals in 1953. It was a treat to photograph him and Cedeno together on that same field before Billy Joe threw out the first pitch at a Johnson City-Greeneville Astros game.
Cedeno was fun to watch play on those Houston teams in that godforsaken Astrodome with the likes of J.R. Richard and Jose Cruz, and seeing his face beside Bowman instantly evoked images of his Topps baseball cards from an era when Christmas was magical for me as a kid in the late ‘70s.
Of course, meeting former Science Hill-ETSU baseball and basketball player Earl Nidiffer proved to be 2013’s quintessential gift of time. Nidiffer, who turned 103 on Nov. 7, crossed paths with locally produced major-leaguers Tillie Walker (Jonesborough) and Clyde “Hardrock” Shoun (Mountain City).
Nidiffer saw Walker throw a ball what he figured must’ve been 300 feet or more across the long-gone field at Mountain Home, where Nidiffer was once hit with a pitch from Shoun while filling in for the semi-pro Johnson City Soldiers.
The memory of Shoun’s offering still pains Nidiffer, but another beaning had already made its mark on Nidiffer’s baseball career. He saw Elizabethton’s Harmon Lowry hit Science Hill’s Mallie Martin in the head with a pitch that proved to be fatal in 1925, and Nidiffer said he was never the same batter afterward.
More than six weeks after a story on Nidiffer was published last month, a Martin relative read it and responded via email on Sunday. Mrs. John Martin (Honey) wrote that her husband is Mallie’s half brother. John was born when their father, Mallie Martin Sr., was 66 years old.
The Martins were living in Johnson City, she recalled, because Mallie Martin Sr. received care at the Veterans Administration hospital. Mallie Junior’s body was buried in Laurel Hill, Fla.
She was amazed to read about someone talking about seeing the pitch that killed Mallie, as it happened more than 88 years ago.
But just as it literally did for Mallie, baseball keeps aging men forever young – like kids on Christmas morning.
Trey Williams is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org