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1957 Tribe baseball team reached the pinnacle

Douglas Fritz • Jun 20, 2020 at 2:30 PM

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series of stories about some of the top teams in the history of Dobyns-Bennett baseball history.

As the DC3 began its descent toward Tri-Cities Airport in 1957, Lynn Johnson was a tired young man.

Not only was he on a red-eye return flight from Memphis and a couple of days removed from his first trip on a plane, a marathon seven-hour athletic battle was still working its wonders on his aching muscles.

The landing gear struck the pavement and the plane dutifully slowed to a halt. As the doors opened for Johnson and his teammates to depart the aircraft, they might have expected a crowd of people and joyful fanfare.

Instead, the Dobyns-Bennett baseball team was greeted with silence. There was no parade, no hero’s welcome. And yet this dedicated group had accomplished something that would not happen again for at least 64 years.

But this was 1957. Times were different.

“The last game ended at 11 p.m. Memphis time,” said Johnson, one of the players on D-B’s last state championship baseball team. “We went back to the hotel, changed clothes, packed, and went to the airport. We got back to the Tri-Cities at 6:35 a.m.”

Johnson’s parents had driven to the state tournament and were making the arduous trip back to Kingsport.

“When I got to the house, I had no car and nobody was home,” he said. “I was sleepy and there was no welcome celebration. The games were on the radio, but because it finished so late most people didn’t even know we had won.”

Winning those three games at the state tournament was a big deal then, and it has only been magnified each year the Indians haven’t been able to add another gold ball.

FLYING TO MEMPHIS

Johnson and teammate Buddy Williams both said their first-ever plane ride wasn’t a big deal.

“If it was good enough for the president of Mason & Dixon, it ought to be safe for the players,” Williams noted.

Kingsport entrepreneur E. Ward King, who founded Mason & Dixon trucking, started Southeast Airlines in February 1957. And the Indians used his new business venture.

“Memphis was so far away, it beat the other alternatives,” Williams said.

Johnson said the players were fine with the flight.

“It wasn’t scary,” he said. “It only flew at about 8,000 feet, and it took three hours to get to Memphis. It wasn’t a pressurized plane, so it couldn’t get real high.”

Only 14 players were allowed to make the trip because of seating limitations on the plane. There were two coaches and a manager for a total of 17 people.

CHANGE OF VENUE

The start of the tournament, originally set for June 1, was delayed because of rainy weather in West Tennessee.

“It rained for several days,” Johnson said.

The venue was changed from Bellevue Park to Russwood Park, the site where Elvis Presley had performed less than a year earlier in front of estimated range of 7,000 to 14,000 fans.

The wooden stadium burned to the ground in the spring of 1960.

The ballpark was the home of the Memphis Chicks, the Double-A minor league team of the Chicago Cubs, and it was a showcase.

“None of us had been on a field like that,” Johnson said.

SEEING GRACELAND

The team stayed in south Memphis at a Holiday Inn.

“We weren’t far from Graceland,” Johnson said. “A number of us went out there. We didn’t go to the house because Elvis lived in it. But the musical gate was there.”

Presley purchased the property in March of that year and installed the famous gates in late April. So they had been up for only a little over a month when the D-B players visited.

“It wasn’t a tourist attraction,” Johnson said. “When we were there, it was grass and weeds and a fence. I do recall seeing the Cadillacs he had. One or two of them was parked in front of the house in the circular drive.”

THE GAMES

D-B opened the tournament with a thrilling last-inning win over Chattanooga Central.

After Central rallied for two runs in the top of the seventh to tie, Williams got a hit and Johnson followed with a double in the bottom of the frame. With one out, George Overbay put down a perfect squeeze bunt and Williams scored for the 8-7 walk-off victory.

In Game 2, Eddie Robinette and John Whited combined to shut down Nashville West in a 3-1 win.

Sitting pretty, the Indians needed just one win over pre-tournament favorite Christian Brothers. The Purple Wave came out of the losers’ bracket and needed to beat D-B twice. They got it done in the first game, scoring twice in the top of the 11th inning for a 7-5 victory.

SCARY ENDING

In the championship game, D-B scored four times in the first inning and eventually built a 7-1 lead. Whited, who went on to become one of D-B’s best-ever baseball coaches, was summoned to the mound to protect a 7-3 lead with a man on base and nobody out in the bottom of the sixth.

Whited walked three of the first four batters he faced. Suddenly the score was 7-4 and the bases were loaded.

However, Whited ended the threat with a pair of strikeouts. He totaled five strikeouts in two innings of work.

“He had an unhittable curveball,” Johnson said. “We didn’t have radar, but his fastball had to be in the 90s. He had a great arm. And he was a good hitter, too.”

Whited’s best position may not have been shortstop, where he played professionally.

“He was probably a better pitcher in high school than he was an infielder,” Williams said.

Whited earned the save and Robert Strickler collected the win in relief of starter Tommy Addington.

Jerry Reese and Johnson supplied the big sticks. Reese had a bases-loaded double in the first inning and Johnson knocked in a pair of runs with singles in the first and third innings. Johnson was 5-for-11 with four RBIs in the tournament. Williams totaled six hits.

D-B finished the year 24-2.

THE COACH

Guy B. Crawford was a legendary coach at D-B. He also coached basketball, leading the Indians to two state runner-up finishes, in 1955 and 1957, and three third-place efforts.

Basically Crawford’s teams in both sports were really good at one thing: winning.

“He didn’t know much about baseball because he was primarily a basketball coach,” said Johnson, who grew up in Weber City before moving to Kingsport. “But he won because of organization and discipline. He managed people.

“We played and practiced all the time. We played Babe Ruth, American Legion, and on Saturdays we played in the Boys Club league. I played seven games a week, and we practiced in between. That’s how we won. There wasn’t a lot else to do.

“It was rare when we lost a game. Our players knew a lot about baseball by the time we got into high school. The fundamentals were ingrained.”

Crawford also exuded confidence.

“He had an interesting trait,” Johnson noted. “If we were the home team and ahead after the bottom of the sixth inning, he would tell the manager to rack up the bats. He always expected to win.”

Crawford’s attitude meshed well with a group of kids fighting for each other.

“We had a very unselfish team,” Williams said. “And we never gave up.”

TIM McCARVER

McCarver, who played 21 years in the major leagues as a catcher and first baseman, was one of Christian Brothers’ standout players.

In 1957, he was a 15-year-old sophomore but he was soon in the big leagues. McCarver made his major league debut with the St. Louis Cardinals at the age of 17 in 1959.

“He was pretty much a superstar in high school baseball,” Johnson said. “He had done well in previous games of the tournament, but in the two games against us he went 0-for-8.”

Johnson had a great story to tell through the years. McCarver made the last out of the state tournament with runners on base, grounding meekly to Johnson at second base.

“I remember it clearly,” Johnson said. “It has stuck with me all these years. Whited yelled, ‘Get it, Lynn!’ as the ball rolled to me. It wasn’t a difficult play, a routine grounder. I didn’t worry about making the play. I threw it to Charlie Leonard at first base.”

FUTURE STARS

Guido Grilli, a wild left-handed pitcher who beat the Indians in the opener despite 12 walks that he softened with 13 strikeouts, had a couple of big-league cups of coffee with Boston and Kansas City. Infielder Phil Gagliano spent 12 years in the majors, mostly with the Cardinals.

“They were the favorite,” Johnson said. “They had more superstars, but we had better players overall. We had five who played professionally: Charlie Leonard, Wayne Harrell, John Whited, Tommy Addington and Buddy Williams.”

Within three weeks after the state championship, Harrell (Detroit Tigers), Williams (Cleveland Indians) and Whited (Indians) had signed contracts each worth $4,000.

Williams played for managers Rudy York and Earl Weaver during his two-year minor league career.

“I had a knee injury,” Williams said. “For my last contract, I would have been in Class AAA. I gave it up because making the big leagues in those days was almost nil if you had an injury.”

Addington played five seasons of minor league baseball with the New York Mets’ organization, reaching the Class AAA level. Casey Stengel, who managed the New York Yankees to seven World Series titles in the 1950s before finishing his career with the Mets, said of Addington in 1963: “Young Addington is definitely a big league ballplayer.”

Bill McHorris, another senior standout on the 1957 team, was an all-state selection in baseball and basketball and honorable mention all-state in football. He played college basketball at Carson-Newman for one season before transferring to Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now Louisiana-Lafayette). McHorris led the Rajin’ Cajuns in scoring all three years and finished with 1,355 career points.

The best of the bunch was probably Leonard. A junior in 1957, he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1958. He was given a signing bonus of $25,000, which would amount to $228,000 today. It was the third-largest bonus the Pirates had ever paid and the highest baseball bonus in Tennessee history at the time.

The 6-foot, 185-pound first baseman spent nine seasons in the minors, three at the Class AAA level, and finished with 113 career homers an a .281 batting average.

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