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October 17, 2011
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October 17, 2011

The Invisible Fastball


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It sure seemed that way. After finishing 10--3 with a 2.47 ERA at Class A Savannah in 1949, Swift was summoned to spring training with the A's in 1950, his first time in a major league camp. A few weeks later, after impressing the brass, he was assigned to the Triple A Buffalo Bisons of the International League. This was it, what Swift had dreamed of all those hours on the farm: He was playing at the highest level of the minors, one phone call away from the bigs. The future seemed limitless.

When Swift boarded a train for Buffalo in 1950, the minor leagues were at the tail end of their boom years. In the era ahead television would ruthlessly shrink the pool of teams and make baseball heroes national rather than local. For the time being, however, the minors were first-rate entertainment, more compelling to fans than the exploits of unseen sluggers in big cities far away.

It helped that the minor leagues were flush with talent. Unlike today, big leaguers back then often returned to the minors at the end of their careers, whether for the money—the difference between minor league and fringe major league salaries was often negligible—or to play close to home. If a fan waited long enough, he might see major league legends come through his small town. Better yet, he might see them bested by his local heroes.

Nowhere was the game more popular than in North Carolina. In 1950, the state had 45 minor league teams and four eight-team leagues: North Carolina State, Tobacco State, Western Carolina and Coastal Plain. That's not counting the industrial semipro teams on which a millhand with a good bat or a live fastball could earn a nice bonus on payday. Though it is hard to fathom now, Tobacco Road was baseball crazed.

Of course, Swift didn't expect to return to the lower minors from Buffalo, at least not soon. But baseball is a fickle game. Only weeks into his Triple A tenure he was shipped down to Savannah. Betty believed the Buffalo manager had it out for Jack, riding him hard until the normally even-keeled Swift lost his temper and the two scuffled. Regardless, Buffalo would be the highest class of baseball at which Swift ever played. He would have to make his mark another way.

Matters only got worse at Savannah. Because Swift was so durable, and because he never complained or turned down work, his manager kept sending him out to the mound, as both a starter and a reliever. One night, while pitching on two days' rest, he felt a sharp twinge in his right arm. The injury would dog him for months, and as his velocity dropped, his ERA rose. Even with a balky arm, he finished 11--8 with a 3.77 ERA. The next season he went 9--10 with a 3.47 ERA, but the A's brass saw little future in an aging righthander with only one good pitch. He was released that fall.

And that's how, in 1952, Swift found himself back in Mountain Park, 10 miles north of Elkin, working his family's land and mulling over giving up baseball. He might have, too, if Elkin hadn't begun fielding a team in his absence. The Blanketeers were one of North Carolina's typical boom-time teams, the kind that thrived in towns as small as 5,000, where the liveliest place was a ballpark on game nights, and not just because of the baseball. At Memorial Park, attractions included touring musicians such as Clyde Moody and his Carolina Woodchoppers, and greased pigs running through the outfield. In 1950 the park had hosted the grandest wedding in Elkin history, in which Blanketeers outfielder Shorty Brown married Jo Barnette at home plate.

While Swift was a star signing, he earned only around $350 a month. Still, that might have been enough to get by if not for Jack Jr.

When the Swifts' first son arrived, in December 1951, it was clear something was wrong with him. Small, pale and eerily silent, he barely ate, had a hard time breathing and slept all the time. Within a week doctors delivered the bad news: Jack Jr.'s umbilical cord had wrapped around his neck in utero, cutting off the oxygen flow to his brain. His circulation was poor, and "his blood is like water," said a doctor. The Swifts were told the boy would need surgery on his stomach, followed by constant care. Jack Jr. would be lucky if he lived to be a teenager. Jack and Betty were devastated.

Facing steep medical bills, Jack now had to provide a larger income for his family. He had a hard choice to make: Play baseball or work the farm. He decided to do both.

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