KINGSPORT — In the long line of near misses for state championships at Dobyns-Bennett, the 1975 baseball season holds a prominent position.
The Indians stayed in the hunt until the final inning of the title contest against Nashville McGavock, a game played in front of almost 2,000 fans at J. Fred Johnson Stadium.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
Along with four runs to the state semifinals in football, the Indians have finished runner-up eight times in baseball and basketball and haven’t won a playoff state crown in any of those three sports since 1957.
D-B’s list of late-season heartbreak is filled with stories of injuries that hurt the Indians’ chances, and the 1975 baseball team was no different.
Coach John Whited’s team needed one more healthy arm to win the title, and Bobby Dye wasn’t the same after May 2 of that year. With a record of 7-0, Dye suffered an elbow injury while pitching against Elizabethton. He didn’t pitch again until the deciding game against McGavock on June 4, lasting only two innings while allowing two runs and walking four batters.
“I would have to say that what it all boiled down to for us was Bobby Dye’s arm injury,” said Whited at the time. “Not having him healthy made a big difference.”
Dave Arnold, a junior catcher in 1975, said recently, “For about three weeks in the middle of the year, Dye was about as dominant of a pitcher as I had seen.”
THE YEAR BEFORE
There was one injury that probably helped the Indians for the 1975 season.
In 1974, D-B was clipped by Knox Central in the state quarterfinals. But the Indians returned everybody for 1975 with the exception of two seniors. Rodney Burton graduated along with John Burdine, the Indians’ catcher who missed the entire season because of a broken foot.
The loss of Burdine was tough, but Whited made the most of it. A backup became the starter and Arnold went through Whited’s demanding practices. Whited also got a former D-B standout to help Arnold. Mike Roberts, a three-time All-ACC catcher at the University of North Carolina (1970-72), answered Whited’s distress call.
“When I found out I was going to be the catcher, I went through Whited’s boot camp,” Arnold said. “And he also brought Mike Roberts in to spend a weekend with me. Roberts took me to Dobyns-Taylor and made sure I had a good mitt. He talked to me about everything it took to be a good catcher.”
There was pressure being the catcher for the Tribe. Wild pitches and passed balls could quickly turn into disaster at J. Fred Johnson Stadium.
“There was a lot at stake,” said Arnold. “There was a mile and half between you and the wall behind home plate. You just about needed a cutoff man to get it to second base from back there.”
What looked like a potential weakness at the beginning of the 1974 season became a strength, especially for 1975. And Whited’s attention to detail made the transformation.
“He was the most technical person I’ve ever seen in my life,” Arnold said. “I felt prepared. I didn’t feel overwhelmed.”
Whited was a master of the game. His D-B teams came out on top in three out of every four games they played, a percentage that still ranks Whited in the top five all-time in Tennessee history for those who coached at least 300 games (280-84 for 76.9%).
He went on to coach six seasons at the University of Tennessee, compiling a record of 145-109 and leading the Vols to three straight trips to the SEC playoffs.
Of course, Whited had some help at D-B. It was a pipeline that flowed talent into the program from youth leagues.
“We played together and against each other growing up, and we had great Kingsport city league coaches like Roy Harmon, Eddie Durham, Hershel Helton and Curt Lawson. We would play city league games at J. Fred Johnson Stadium and 300 to 400 people would come to watch.”
CONNECTION WITH THE PAST
Many of the Indians’ players were born in 1957, which was the last year D-B had won a state baseball championship.
“The seniors were born in 1957, and they kind of felt a connection to that team,” Arnold said. “Coach Whited played on that team. Coming into the year, we believed it was our year to win the title.”
The Indians pounded Knox Rule 12-3 in the quarterfinal round. Randy Helton, a 6-foot-4 right-hander, got the win on the mound. Arnold had two hits and Helton drove in three runs.
The Indians had to travel to Tullahoma for a semifinal matchup. The Wildcats were the defending state champions and playing in the semifinals for the third straight season.
Helton got the starting nod again and pitched a dandy four-hitter in a 3-1 win. It was the 30th win of Helton’s career, which still stands as a school record. Brad Steele tied the mark in 1996.
Robin Salley had a sacrifice fly and Rick Rogers added an RBI single in a three-run second inning for the Tribe.
The Indians had a little extra motivation to beat Tullahoma, as there were questions about getting the field ready to play for a scheduled Thursday game. The contest was postponed until Friday, forcing D-B’s juniors and seniors to miss the school’s prom.
The next day it was announced by the TSSAA that the best-of-three championship series against Nashville McGavock would be played at J. Fred Johnson Stadium.
The double-fisted line stretched all the way back into the parking lot for the first game of the series.
Arnold said it was something else.
“It was amazing and exciting,” he said. “We would dress in the Dome, and then walk through the crowd to enter the stadium. And when the game started, both banks were full, the stadium was full, and there were people in the football stands. It was electric. It didn’t take long to get fired up.
“We played our whole lives for these games.”
A crowd of 2,019 watched an absolute thriller, the outcome of which slanted the series heavily in McGavock’s favor.
Times-News Sports Editor Bill Lane wrote, “The way it ended couldn’t have been more inspiring for McGavock or more disheartening for Dobyns-Bennett.”
After eight scoreless innings, D-B — batting as the visiting team — pushed across a run in the top of the ninth inning. Salley walked and Rogers beat out a bunt single. After two popouts, Mark Elliott hit a hard grounder that was booted and Salley scored.
In the bottom of the ninth, with one out and a runner on first, a hit-and-run single produced a run when the throw from the outfield was bobbled. With two outs and a runner on third, Robert Wright’s infield single gave McGavock the walk-off win.
Sophomore David Polk improved to 15-1. He allowed just one earned run the entire season.
DAY TWO, PART I
A doubleheader was played the following day, necessitated because the Indians won the first game in dominant fashion.
Rick McClain followed Helton’s two-inning start with five shutout innings of relief to earn the win, a 7-0 decision. Jim Wilhelm, Jerry Adams, McClain and Salley each had two hits while Arnold drove in a pair of runs.
Wilhelm’s dad was Hoyt Wilhelm, who played for 21 years and with nine teams in the major leagues. The knuckleballer won 143 games and had 228 saves, and pitched until he was 49 years old. Hoyt Wilhelm moved with his family to Kingsport to manage the Braves in the 1975 Appalachian League season.
DAY TWO, PART II
All the marbles were on the table and McGavock held a 6-1 lead going to the bottom of the fourth inning.
The Indians twice rallied, cutting deficits to 6-4 and 8-6, but still trailed by that margin in the bottom of the seventh. Helton was at the plate as the potential tying run against Polk, who was brought in for the save despite pitching nine innings the night before. Polk struck Helton out and many of the two-day crowd of 4,000 went home a little sad.
Helton and Arnold each had two hits for the Tribe. Adams drove in three runs.
D-B finished 30-5, a school record for victories that stood for 21 years.
The Indians had a bitter-pill year in 1974-75. It started in football with a heartbreaking 20-17 state quarterfinal loss to Knox Fulton, which went on to finish as Class AAA state runner-up in a 29-28 decision against Nashville Father Ryan.
The Indians were robbed during the game against Fulton — literally. Their locker room was broken into and many valuables were stolen.
And in basketball, the Indians lost to eventual Large Class champion Memphis North Side, 64-61 in the state semifinals.
The only gold for D-B in that school year came from Randy Irvin, who won a state track and field title in the 180-yard low hurdles.
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