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October 17, 2011
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October 17, 2011

The Invisible Fastball


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There was one period after World War II when every town big enough to have a bank also had a professional baseball team, and the peak of excitement was reached when the bank was robbed or the baseball team won a pennant.

—FURMAN BISHER, Last Blow to the Minors (1963)

The way Becky Luffman sees it, maybe the ring wanted to be found. That first occurred some 30 years ago, when a man with a metal detector dug it out of three inches of North Carolina soil. It looked like an athletic award of some sort, with a name engraved inside, but it wasn't a name he knew. So he stashed the ring in a box in his closet, and that's where it stayed for three decades.

The ring had been found, but it remained lost. Maybe what it really needed was for someone to search for it.

Last winter Luffman began researching the career of her father, a minor league pitcher in the late 1940s and the '50s. She pulled out newspaper clippings, rummaged through family letters and left a comment on a baseball website after searching for her father's name. Months later she got a phone call. A man said he'd found an old ring and wanted to know if she was the daughter of Kelly Jack Swift.

Luffman was suspicious. The stranger said he was from California and was passing through North Carolina, and this would be his only opportunity to hand over the ring. She proposed meeting at a Cracker Barrel off I-40 near Hickory, about an hour from her home in Roaring River. She took along her big sister, Linda Steelman.

Of all the Swift kids, it's Linda, the eldest at 61, who remembers their father the best. How he played catch with their mom, Betty, in the backyard in the winter, trying to rein in his tremendous right arm yet sometimes toppling her with the force of his pitches. How he came back from the fields drenched in sweat, his clothes reeking of fresh-cut tobacco, then went out and pitched into the night. How he took Linda to his games when she was as young as five, just the two of them, outfitting her in her best dress and holding her hand as they walked to the box reserved for the players' families, where she stayed under the watchful eye of the wives. And how he clambered into the stands after the final out and picked her up in front of the crowd, making her feel like the luckiest girl in all of North Carolina.

So when Bill Eggleton walked into the Cracker Barrel and he did have the ring—its enamel worn smooth, but the lettering still legible—Linda and Becky broke down in tears and then began thanking him, the words tumbling out of their mouths.

Eggleton, a retired HAZMAT instructor, would accept no reward. It was their father's ring, after all.

It was more than a ring, though. It was a remnant of the golden age of the minor leagues, a time when many a young boy or girl had a father, grandfather or uncle who came home from the war to play professional baseball. Only Kelly Jack Swift was no ordinary man. In fighting for his dream he ended up accomplishing something few of those other fathers and grandfathers and uncles ever did—and no man ever will again.

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