Johnson City Press Monday, October 20, 2014

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Getting to call Earl a friend was blessing

August 9th, 2014 10:36 pm by Trey Williams

Getting to call Earl a friend was blessing

Pauletta Pierce introduced herself at God’s Corner thrift store around this time last year, and she made a suggestion that was simply divine.

Her relative, Earl Nidiffer, was the first sports editor of the Johnson City Press in 1934. Better yet, he was still living and mentally sharp.

Some 10-12 hours of conversation followed in the ensuing 11 months with Earl, who died sometime shortly after midnight Monday.

He would’ve been 104 if he’d made it until Nov. 7, and until the past couple of months, he could talk about the beginning of last week or last century with equal aplomb.

He played baseball and basketball at Science Hill and East Tennessee State, and he remembered game situations and coaching changes that were all the more impressive when later reading newspaper and yearbook accounts.

Our friendship materialized at the onset of a most trying year for each of us — “They’re all trying when you’re 103,” he once said with a bemused chuckle — and he seemed to have a psychic-like feel for several things that were to come. 

He worried about my family and asked for updates. He convinced a skeptic that better days lied ahead, and Earl was hardly a Pollyanna. 

He fashioned me as a good luck charm of sorts, too. The first time I met him he said had come on the day his vision had been the best he’d seen in months. Hours prior to another unexpected visit he’d walked for the first time in months.

But the good fortune was all mine in meeting Earl. Three hours went by like 30 minutes that initial afternoon as he talked about ETSU basketball players ranging from his talented teammate Dean Bailey in the 1930s to Tom Chilton, Harley “Skeeter” Swift and Keith “Mister” Jennings.

Nidiffer met Babe Ruth, by chance, at the 1936 Kentucky Derby. He played baseball “at the Soldiers’ Home” against area pros Tillie Walker and Clyde “Hardrock” Shoun. He saw former ETSU player/coach Jim Mooney pick runners off first “with the best pickoff move there ever was.”

He saw the “the great Sammy Baugh” in the Nos. 1-2 clash between SMU and TCU when he worked for the Press in 1934, and he was happy his presence had been documented in a special section published on the game by the Fort Worth Telegram.

Earl saw Science Hill’s Coy Trivette score 49 points in a 60-0 win against Greeneville in 1927 when the Hilltoppers’ top players included Lew Taylor and Clyde Cambpell. Earl was well read, even when it meant having to use a magnifying machine to see the newspaper. Eventually, he relied on the radio, but he was up to date until near the end, as evidenced by a discussion he brought up about football’s problem with concussions.

“They talk about this head injury stuff and there may be something to it, because two of the guys I played baseball with were stars on the football team,” Earl said. “Coy Trivette was the quarterback and Clyde Campbell the fullback. They both died at 51.

“I saw Trivette score 49 points in one ballgame. He scored seven touchdowns and seven extra points. And I’d never heard of anything like that. But it was muddy. He had mud cleats and nobody else did.”

Earl saw Science Hill’s Mallie Martin get hit with a fatal pitch from Elizabethton pitcher Harmon Lowry in 1925, and Earl said he was never the batter he should’ve been after that. Basketball was his best sport.

“My final year at Science Hill I was the captain of the basketball team, but we didn’t have much of a coach,” Earl said. “We had a guard on the football team at Tennessee that was up here coaching everything. And he didn’t like baseball, so he started track.”

Earl didn’t sugarcoat anything, and his time at the Press was less than two years. He said he made his boss, Charlie Harkrader, mad by suggesting that Emory & Henry had dodged ETSU in basketball until Bailey had moved on. 

One memorable moment in the newspaper business was learning about Amelia Earhart via the wire in the office.

“I think I’m the first person in Johnson City to know that Amelia Earhart and Will Rogers were … gonna try to make it around the world,” Earl said. “Never heard from them since. … There’s not much for me to tell you about being at the Press except that I made one acquaintance that I treasure very much, and that was Carl Jones. And he and I were good friends until the day he died.”

Earl’s friend Jack Seaton, who played basketball with the likes of Charlie Bayless, Jack Vest and Jack Maxey at ETSU in the late ’40s, called Monday to say Earl wasn’t long for this world. I was covering a Science Hill football scrimmage — hardly more than a Sammy Baugh spiral from Earl’s home — and soon was standing beside Earl.

He was barely conscious and I couldn’t tell for certain if he was smiling through the oxygen mask when Pauletta and his dear roommate/distant cousin Lizetta Pierce asked him to smile if he recognized my voice. But he turned his head my way and squeezed my hand twice when I was leaving about 20 minutes later.

I could feel Earl headed for some other realm, where quarterback Sammy Baugh was still slinging, TCU and SMU were Nos. 1 and 2, and Earl wasn’t scared to dig in against Hardrock Shoun at the Soldiers’ Home, because now he could see Mallie Martin taking his base at first and forever young.

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