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October 17, 2011
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October 17, 2011

The Invisible Fastball


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When Jack Swift arrived in Elkin, N.C., in late 1951, he was nobody's idea of a prospect. His once-promising career had stalled, and he was preparing to play Class D ball, the lowest rung of the minors, in a rural mill town. Past 29, he was ancient by baseball standards. His thick, dark hair, which he combed back (joking to Betty that he looked just like Clark Gable), had started to thin, and at times he moved his lanky 6'4" frame gingerly. Swift was fond of his hunting beagles, card games and a cold Schlitz. He saw life through a prism of family, farming and, most of all, baseball.

Still, it was becoming harder by the day for him to cling to baseball as a way of life. He'd always said he wanted to make a mark on the game, to do something people remembered, but he and Betty had a young daughter, another child on the way and no money in the bank. Please, Betty would say over dinner, think about giving it up and moving on. But Jack couldn't do it. Maybe he knew something others didn't. Or maybe that's just what Swift men did: endure.

Like his father, Pholia, Jack grew up working the farm. The Swifts leased about 200 acres in Zephyr, about 20 miles north of Elkin, and by age five Jack was trudging up and down the rows of tobacco, wheat and corn, reaching up to grip the handles of an iron plow. As the Swifts' oldest able-bodied child (Jack's older brother was born with a crippled leg), he had to help the family survive the Depression. Money was so tight that the Swifts shared their cow with four other farms. Even when Jack showed an early aptitude for baseball (at 12 he could throw harder and faster than most grown men), the farm always came first. The summer before Jack's senior year at Mountain Park High, when a businessman from nearby Mount Airy offered him $5 to pitch a game for a semipro team, Pholia gave the boy permission—just so long as he plowed his three acres first.

That afternoon, after spending the morning at the plow, Jack won the first half of the doubleheader 2--0. As he began to head home, the coach approached him: "Hey, kid, wanna pitch again?"

So Jack walked back out to the mound and won the second game 2--1. In all he plowed three acres and pitched 18 innings that day. The older men were amazed, but Jack thought little of it, later allowing to a newspaper reporter only that it was "a lot of pitching for a boy of my age."

As a young man Swift stood out in other ways too. Tall, handsome and affable, with a thin face, hangdog eyes and a long nose, he was deemed Most Sophisticated by his high school classmates and was, by all accounts, popular with the ladies. Upon graduating he signed with a semipro team, for which he played briefly before being drafted into the military. After four years in the service, including a stint in New Guinea during World War II, he picked up the game again in 1946. Despite a listed age of 24 he drew interest from scouts. His right arm still made grown men swoon.

Such was Swift's gift that some believed he might have had an unnatural advantage: All those years at the plow as a boy, reaching up and out, kept his breastbone from knitting together, extending his tremendous wingspan and providing even more leverage for his fastball. As proof his relatives point to the wide pit in the middle of his chest, clearly visible in old photos and deep enough to store an apple.

Those who remember Swift's fastball speak of it with a mixture of reverence and fear. Teammates say it hissed, as if searing the air. In the parlance of the day Jack threw an aspirin tablet—that's how small the ball appeared to the hitter. Some batters swore it traveled so fast as to become invisible. Many opponents just stood and watched, while some ducked. Still others swung comically late.

Homer Lee Cox, the veteran Philadelphia Athletics scout who signed Swift in 1947, said he had "the greatest arm of any pitcher I've seen." Jack's younger brother Ray, who pitched semipro ball and could throw in the 80s, swears that on his best days Jack was as fast as Bob Feller, who is widely believed to have thrown 100 mph. What's more, Swift had plenty of movement on his heater—sometimes too much movement. Strategic wildness is a useful weapon for power pitchers: What better way to intimidate a batter than to throw the occasional head-high missile? Unintended wildness is a different matter. Swift could go four innings painting the corners and spend the next two firing balls into the dirt and putting dents in the backstop. His curve wasn't much help: It broke early, moved little and had an unfortunate tendency to plateau near the plate, as if pausing to take in the surroundings. "Best I can remember," said Greg Collins, a catcher for Swift on the Elkin Blanketeers, "Jack threw pretty much only fastballs."

Most of the time, though, that was enough. Within four years of returning from the war, Swift had advanced through the A's system; met and married Betty, a spunky brunette; and, one memorable night in an exhibition game in Savannah, Ga., held his own for three innings against Ted Williams and the mighty Red Sox. (JACK SWIFT LOOKS EFFECTIVE AGAINST BOSTON HITTING, read the headline in the next day's Savannah Morning News.) That same weekend Swift hosted the A's owner and manager, Connie Mack, for lunch. The great man arrived by limousine, and at the end of the afternoon hugged Betty and thanked her for the home-cooked meal. Then he stopped and gestured at her husband. "This is my man right here, my man," Mack said. "This is gonna be my Number 1 man right here."

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