ELIZABETHTON — Bud Whitehead is his name and softball is his game.
Whitehead has had a long and distinguished sports career, starting at the age of 5 or 6 on the playing fields of Watauga Academy in Old Butler and continuing this past year at the age of 74 with the Georgia Nuggets. His accomplishments led to his induction this year into the National Slow Pitch Hall of Fame on Sept. 17 and his recognition by the Carter County Commission on Oct. 17.
While he has excelled at softball, Whitehead has also been very active in his community, as a Mason for 49 years, a Shriner for 47 years. He is a past member of the Elizabethton Lion’s Club and has served on the Carter County Election Commission for eight years.
Over the past 25 years he has traveled thousands of miles playing the game with his teams in 17 states, going as far away as Utah. When he was a young man in the Air Force, he played baseball for a team in Germany and traveled in France, Germany and England.
“I have enjoyed it,” Whitehead said in an interview recently. He has also been successful, with closets full of trophies. He has so many he has started giving them to organizations to present to new up and coming stars. It is sort of Whitehead’s own version of recycling.
It all started back in Old Butler. His dad, Carson Hamilton Whitehead, was the chief of police. He was also the father of 15 children. Bud was the youngest son. They lived in a large, spacious house with six bedrooms. Fortunately, it was close enough to town that Bud found the baseball diamond at a very young age.
When the waters of Watauga Lake covered the town and Bud’s playing field, the family moved to the Central Community, where Carson began farming to support his large family.
It was hard work and everyone in the family had to help. There was one exception. Carson always supported his athletically gifted children’s desire to play sports and allowed them time off from farm work to play games. Naturally, that just encouraged their desire to play sports.
The outstanding accomplishments of the Whitehead children on the playing fields of Happy Valley are still remembered 60 years later and Bud was one of the best. He played a variety of sports: the starting pitcher on the baseball team, and the hard-running football player who scored the only touchdown in a 6-0 victory over Hampton in 1954.
After high school, Bud decided to maintain the tradition of his father, a Spanish American War veteran, and his older brother and serve a stint in the military. Bud joined the Air Force and his athletic ability was quickly put to use.
He played baseball for the Air Force team at Cambley, France. The base team played in France, Germany and England.
After he rotated back to the States, Whitehead switched sports. He played on the post team at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in 1958 and 1959. That career ended when he left the Air Force.
Back home, he quickly found a place for his glove and bat in the semi-professional Twilight League in Johnson City in 1960.
“That was a very hot league,” Whitehead said. It included such standouts as Carmen Dugger.
He also began a career delivering the mail with the Post Office.
He began playing softball when he joined his church team, Sinking Creek Baptist. He served as a player and a manager. That was in 1970, when the league played with a 16-inch “pumpkin” ball.
Whatever the circumference of the ball, Whitehead and his teams were very successful in the highly competitive church leagues of the time and he soon found himself a leader of the league, serving on the board of directors.
He began traveling out of town. “We traveled as far as Miami, Fla.,” Whitehead said. “I played with Cecil Murr, Richard Dugger in Johnson City and with Bill Carter in Elizabethton. I later played for Mr. Tom Williams with the Tri Cities Traveling Team until 1997. Tom is also a hall of famer as a coach.”
That experience led to his playing for the Chattanooga Choo Choos in 1998 and 1999. In 2000 and 2001 he played for the Georgia Peaches and since 2002 he has played for the Georgia Nuggets.
He said these teams play at a highly competitive level.
“It is a fast, hard played game,” Whitehead said. “You have to produce or they will send you back to Johnson City.”
“There are a lot of ex-major leaguers on the teams we play against. There are professional baseball players and football players.”
It is also an opportunity to see things he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see. He and his wife have driven to tournaments as far away as Utah and enjoyed the trips.
During the past 25 years he has played on nine national and world championship teams, played in two world senior games in St. George, Utah, and has garnered six most valuable player awards and many all tournament awards.
Even though he has made the Hall of Fame, Whitehead is not yet ready to hang up his cleats.
“I have an opportunity to play on a team for 75-year-olds out of Montgomery, Ala.,” Whitehead said. “I feel like I can go. Your body tells you when it’s time to quit.”