Veteran coach John Broyles could see that Jerry Dempsey was capable of catching on quickly, and who knows what the solidly built backstop would’ve accomplished if he’d worn his glasses.
Dempsey was a strong-armed, power-hitting catcher impressive enough to get selected by the Oakland Athletics in the 10th round of the 1969 draft. Dempsey was drafted higher than any Hilltopper out of high school until Toronto drafted Daniel Norris in the second round of the 2011 draft. Not bad, Dempsey will tell you, for a near-sighted free swinger.
“I had to get glasses to get my learner’s permit when I’s 15 years old, because I’m nearsighted,” Dempsey said. “I didn’t know a curveball had a dot in it until I was a 21-year-old junior in college. … Being a catcher, I knew that’s what the pitcher was gonna throw. But when I batted, every pitch I saw was as slick as a baby’s butt. I swung at a lot of balls in the dirt. I was a guess hitter.”
Dempsey often guessed right, like when he hit a grand slam at Cardinal Park in a district tournament game against Sulphur Springs his senior year. The Hilltoppers trailed 6-0 in the game at one point. Dempsey’s home run over the Marlboro Man in left-center field cut Sulphur Springs’ advantage to a run (7-6) in the fourth – “Dempsey teed off on (David) Campbell’s pitch to make it a 7-6 game,” a Johnson City Press-Chronicle story read – and Science Hill eventually won 8-7.
Dempsey’s home run came after Tommy Cox was walked intentionally to load the bases.
“It was the first pitch he threw me,” Dempsey said. “I think maybe they had an idea I couldn’t hit a curveball and, of course, that’s what I went up there looking for. He hung one.”
The 6-foot, 185-pound Dempsey started for Dennis Greenwell as a junior and senior after starting as a sophomore for Broyles, who was concluding a career that spanned three decades and included three state titles.
“Jerry was the starting catcher as a sophomore when I was a senior, and for a sophomore to start for Coach Broyles, you had to be able to hit the ball,” former Science Hill shortstop Charlie Bailey said. “Not many sophomores started for Coach Broyles. And Jerry not only hit it, he could hit it with power (in the wood-bat era). Jerry was a big, strong kid. ... One thing Coach Broyles noticed right off was if you could hit with power.”
The Oakland A’s, Clemson and East Tennessee State took note, too. Summer league coach Al Rhea, who had played for the Johnson City Yankees, advised Dempsey during the summer of negotiations with Oakland.
“One of the things he advised me to get was for them to pay for my college,” Dempsey said. “And the scout told me he’d give me the money I asked for, but (Oakland owner) Charlie Finley wouldn’t let them sign anybody to the college scholarship plan any more.
“But when he called me back in September he said ‘I’ve talked Charlie into paying your way to college.’ I think the money was $20,000, which in 1969 was a lot of money.”
Dempsey was more worried about his precarious draft number in the Vietnam era than adapting to professional pitching, which was part of the reason he chose college. Even that was difficult – choosing Joe Shipley’s ETSU program over Clemson.
“My cousin, Steve Fair, he went to UH – pitched four years out there (to ETSU) – and then played in the Braves organization for two or three years in their minor-league system,” Dempsey said. “That was one of the big reasons I went to ETSU. I’d played a lot of summer ball with him.”
Dempsey had a key role in an ETSU win against Clemson early in his career.
“We beat them 1-0,” Dempsey said. “I hit a triple in the first inning and knocked in the only run of the game and I think I threw out maybe three people trying to steal second. … “(Clemson coach Bill Wilhelm) was really a nice guy. He come up and told Coach Shipley after the game, ‘You stole this was from me. He needed to come down here and play with me.’”
Dempsey said Jerry Weston, who also played on ETSU’s Grantland Rice Bowl team, pitched a gem for the victory.
“He was a sneaky fast right-hander with a smooth motion,” Dempsey said. “He had the best control of any pitcher I ever caught in my life. He threw two pitches the entire game that didn’t hit my mitt. He couldn’t throw a curveball if he had to, but he had pinpoint control and could move it around and set hitters up.”
Dempsey was in charge behind the plate.
“Defensively, Jerry turned himself into a pretty good catcher,” said Bailey, who also played with Dempsey at ETSU. “And if you were the catcher, you were responsible for calling pitches. He was a good leader. … He’s a great man.”
Dempsey fondly recalls Science Hill teammates such as Jerry “Barrel” Jenkins, Larry and Ken Sherwood, Mike Hyder, Cox and Darrell Cole.
“We had camaraderie,” Dempsey said. “We played as a team. There wasn’t any of that individual-type attitude among any of us. … Science Hill was a great place to grow up and get an education and play sports.”
Even Dempsey could see that, and he didn’t wear his glasses on the diamond until he was a junior in college.
“I can’t help but look back and think, ‘Great Scott, what a difference that would’ve made in my hitting,’” Dempsey said. “But I still did okay. … Being a Hilltopper is something – a lot of esprit de corps with the people and the kids, and I made a lot of lifelong friends.”