Harold “Doc” Whitmore came to Johnson City in 1971 to provide guidance – and boys, did he ever.
Whitmore, who died last year at 74 after a battle with Alzheimer’s, coached Little League baseball for Pepsi and Scott Farms teams for 39 years (1971-2009). Warm-hearted and hot-tempered, Whitmore never met a stranger and always smiled at familiar faces.
During Saturday’s Opening Day, the Johnson City National League unveiled the Doc Whitmore Lifetime Service Award. The inaugural winner was president Charlie Campbell, who’s beginning his 30th year with the league.
“I did not see this coming today,” said Campbell, who had already been thinking of Whitmore and the substantial contribution made to the league in lieu of flowers at Whitmore’s memorial service last year. “Honestly, I was pretty choked up even before I knew about the award. I’m honored because it’s got Doc’s name on it.”
Whitmore began coaching Little League shortly after his arrival here to be a counselor at University School and an East Tennessee State professor.
Henry Joy managed in the National League from 1965-94. His father, also Henry, managed in the league from 1954-99. Whitmore was like family the majority of those years, and relations began inauspiciously when Whitmore spotted the long-haired “young Henry” at tryouts on a Saturday morning in 1971.
“I didn’t know him from Adam,” Joy said Thursday, “and one of the first things he said was, ‘My god, I didn’t think they allowed hippies to coach Little League’ or something like that. And I looked over at him and I could kind of tell from the way he was kind of smiling that he didn’t mean anything.”
Whitmore most certainly was blowing smoke.
“At that time Doc was a chain smoker,” Joy said. “And I just said, ‘Well, it’s better to have long hair than to have those cancer sticks around the kids,’ and he just yelled that crazy laugh of his. And after the tryouts he said, ‘Let’s go get some lunch.’ And that started a fabulous friendship.”
They took trips to multiple major-league ballparks, seeing games all over the country and in Toronto and Montreal, while playing cards between stops in a van Joy converted into a rolling poker table. Among their traveling companions were Joe Ferrell, Lowell Greene, Fred Willingham, Henry Joy Sr., Leon Smith, Campbell and the late, great Lyn Jeffers and Dwight Leonard.
Little League produced too many friendships to mention for Whitmore, who crammed kids in his Corvair, mowed the field adjacent to the old Bud Rutherford Field (initially Steve Spurrier Field) so there were more options for practice and often went in his wallet while nurturing boys at a pivotal age.
Robert Lynn White played on the 1976 JC National state-champion All-Star team, which got within a win of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., before coming up short in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“Though I nor any of my brothers played for Doc directly except during the All-Star season, he always showed interest in our well being even into our adult lives,” White said via email “I kept thinking that surely he would forget who we were, or at least our names, but he would always ask by name how each one of us were doing. He is by far one of the most caring individuals I have her known.”
Many thought Whitmore was destroying a chance at a state title in ’76 when he pinch-hit for Darrell Case, a superior batter, in the state tournament. But the pinch-hitter delivered and the Nationals advanced.
“Doc was a man that every kid wanted to play ball for,” said Case, who, like White, played for a different coach until All-Star season. “He took his time with every player and taught them the fundamentals of the game, even players from other teams. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to play ball for Doc. I think every opening Little League day should be Doc Whitmore Day.”
William Young played for Whitmore in the ‘70s, and recalled unhappily getting lifted for a substitute.
“He took me out, I got mad and he chewed me out for not being a team player,” Young said in an email. “I will always remember that incident. I value that 40 years later in work today.”
Granted, Whitmore wanted to win, though that desire could be overstated by his volatility. Joy chuckles thinking of a regrettable reaction Whitmore once had while coaching third base when one of Whitmore’s players hit a two-out ground ball with a runner on third. When Joy’s third baseman fielded it, Whitmore yelled for the player to throw home instead of making the proper throw to first base. Joy’s infielder ignored Whitmore and threw to first base, but Joy was still angry after the game.
“Doc just started yelling, ‘Throw it home. Throw it home. Throw it home,’” Joy said, still chuckling at the absurdity of the scene decades later. “That’s the maddest I ever was at Doc. I was shocked for a minute.”
After the out was recorded Joy went out to have a word with his counterpart.
“I said, ‘I can’t believe you would stoop to deliberately try to mess up a Little Leaguer. To me, that’s just unforgettable,’” Joy said, “And Doc was really mad: ‘Oh, you’ve always thought you were perfect.’”
Joy was watching the ensuing game that night when Whitmore, who had left the ballpark, returned and approached him.
“Doc was very contrite, very apologetic, and … looked me right in the eye and said ‘I promise you I’ll do my best to never let it happen again,’” Joy said.
Whether they were on a diamond or at a poker table – “Doc called poker ‘therapy,’” Campbell said – Joy’s father, commonly referred to as “Mister Joy,” was seemingly always fussing or laughing with Whitmore.
“There would be some short-term temper flare-ups between Doc and some other people – most noticeably my dad,” Joy said. “I mean, they’d shake hands but under their breath they’d be calling each other names. My dad was pretty competitive, too.”
Anyone could see Whitmore’s heart was in the right place.
“One of my family members was in some legal/financial trouble, and this was only about a year after I met Doc, and somehow he found out about it,” Joy said. “And he said, ‘Henry, I don’t have much, but I’ve got about $7,000 or $8,000 in my retirement, and you’re welcome to borrow that if it’ll help you.’ That’s just the way he was – a really good guy.”
Mike Price played as a 12-year-old during Whitmore’s first season.
“Doc had that ole Corvair,” Price said. “I remember him giving me rides home just so mom and dad wouldn’t have to come get me. And I can remember him having the lawnmower in the backseat. He’d get there early and he’d mow that field up there (between the baseball field and Main Street). And then when our practice time was up, if anybody wanted to stay … we’d go up there in that field and he’d hit you more ground balls or throw or whatever.”
Price’s son Dustin, who set several Milligan College baseball batting records, played on the 11-year-old All-Star team in 1994 when Whitmore was helping the 12-year-old team win another state title to get back to Florida.
“Doc would watch our All-Star practice too,” Mike Price said. “He’d come up and say, ‘Hey Michael, how you doing? You all wanna go get something to eat after practice?’ Being involved in that was what he loved to do. That was his life.”
Whitmore is survived by two daughters, Wendy and Kelley, and, essentially hundreds of sons. He wouldn’t claim favorites, but he dearly loved Jackie Cook, a slugger on that ’76 team, and Jamie Hill, a pitcher that Joy says was probably Whitmore’s best, at least from 1971-94.
Whitmore visited with Hill multiple times when he was fatally ill, and fate didn’t let the deed go unreciprocated. When signs of Alzheimer’s appeared in Whitmore, many people made sure Whitmore received steady affection.
Joy, Campbell, JC National fixtures such as Marvin Harris, Gary Tinn, Charlie Powell, Sam Barnett and Whitmore’s dentist, John Langenbrunner, among others, put the assisted in assisted living.
Many noted the love of Langenbrunner, whose son had played for Whitmore. They were friends long before Whitmore’s illness, and it only tightened their bond.
“It was amazing what all he and his wife Tonya did for Doc,” Joy said. “He and his wife took care of all the groceries, took him to play golf and all that.”
Whitmore and Langenbrunner drank coffee and shared stories daily for years. Langenbrunner could tell you that Whitmore grew up on a small dairy farm in Detour, Md. His dad, also nicknamed Doc, was a hard-working farmer that loved country music.
Whitmore’s mother, Langenbrunner learned, often took in mentally ill women and orphaned children. Whitmore’s calling bore a striking resemblance to his mother’s.
“Doc truly cared for those who crossed his paths and people knew it,” Langenbrunner said. “He was a magnet when out. There would always be shouts of ‘Doc, Doc.’ He never complained, and relished the thought of making those around him feel better about themselves.”
Sam Barnett was coaching with Whitmore when 10-year-old pitcher Lance Reed was struck hard by a ball hit by Emmanuel Reid.
“I thought Lance was hurt,” Barnett said in an email. “But Doc gently helps him up, and with Lance limping, Doc puts his arm around him and takes a walk all the way out to the outfield fence. In a few minutes, arm still around him, they walk back to the mound and Lance stays in the game. Not sure what he said to Lance, but I am sure it was encouraging to inspire him to stay in the game. …
“I had the pleasure of watching my son Skyler play for Doc for four years, four years of fun baseball that made a lasting impression on him.”
Skyler played at Unicoi County and East Tennessee State and is a volunteer assistant at Austin Peay.
“The thing I most respected about Doc was his passion for teaching young kids the game of baseball and continuously keeping up with them as they carried on their lives past the Little League field,” Skyler said via email. “A very heartwarming thing to me was to have Doc present as I signed my letter of intent to play college baseball at ETSU. That's something I will never forget.”
Barnett dined with the flaky Whitmore before and during his mental health’s decline. He said Whitmore picked him up for lunch one time when Barnett’s office was in the King Building, and with no nearby place to park, Whitmore had parked on the sidewalk without giving it a second thought.
The companionship was never pedestrian when dining with “Doc.” He and Tinn liked the Cottage. Harris enjoyed Knight’s Pizza, where Whitmore liked to have a “sarsaparilla” – Whitmore’s pet word for beer – and the anchovies pizzas for which Harris never developed a taste.
“It was great just spending time with Doc,” Harris said. “We all enjoyed it. … Gary Tinn probably brought him to the field more than anybody after he got sick.”
Baseball, Joy says, is the last thing Whitmore forgot.
“Before the dementia set in he had a fabulous memory for names,” Joy said. “It was just amazing. He not only knew who his first draft choice was in 1987 or whenever, but he could tell you a lot of times what mine was, what my dad’s was and a lot of other people’s.”
Whitmore initially had help come to his home before being moved to Appalachian Christian Village. Near the end, he was briefly at Sycamore Shoals in Elizabethton before being flown near his homeplace in Frederick, Md., for his remaining few months.
“It was … sad to see him go like that,” Joy said. “But the last thing in his mind that left was baseball. He could still talk baseball.”
A week before Whitmore left East Tennessee, he didn’t recognize Joy. But they got a second chance at good-bye on a Sunday one day prior to Whitmore going back to Maryland to die.
“I was so happy, because they let me in that Sunday and he recognized me and I spent about an hour with him,” Joy said. “His daughter Kelley was there and we talked and reminisced, and it went fine until they brought him this medication in the apple sauce. And as soon as he took the medication he just kind of drifted off. “But I was really glad to have been able to see him one last time and for him to have a relatively good day. … Doc was just a super guy.”