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Tobacco farming was brutal work in Swift's day. There was not only the planting and plowing and tending of the crop, all done in the hot, humid Carolina summer, but also the constant vigil against plant diseases and hungry insects. Then, once the tobacco matured, it had to be painstakingly dried, hung from the rafters of a barn and watched over through long nights, lest the drying fires below reach up, touch the plants and devour the whole barn. Still, if anyone could pull off farming and pitching at the same time, it was Swift. The way he figured it, if he finished working his three acres by noon, he could get to Memorial Park in time to prepare for an afternoon game. Betty thought he was crazy.
Swift started the 1952 season hot, winning six of his first eight games, but the Blanketeers were woeful otherwise. If there was a reason to sit by Big Elkin Creek on a chilly spring night, it was to watch, and hear, Swift pitch. When his fastball hit the catcher's mitt, it echoed off the wooden bleachers like a gunshot. Opponents and teammates were astounded. Shorty Brown was the team's incumbent star. In 1950 he'd hit .379 and won the Blue Ridge League's batting title, a feat that led to Shorty's picture appearing alongside Mickey Mantle's in The Sporting News. Yet when he stepped in against Swift during batting practice, he could only shake his head. "I don't think I ever got so much as a foul ball off of him," says Brown.
By late June the Blanketeers were more than 15 games out of first, and fan turnout had begun to dip. The demise of the low minors was under way. In the previous two seasons North Carolina had lost 16 franchises, and only 29 cities still had teams. Within two years that number would be cut in half. The opportunities for aging players such as Swift dwindled by the month.
Meanwhile, Betty spent every night at home with Jack Jr., and the bills continued to accumulate. Jack was often reduced to holding off creditors with promises. Wait until the tobacco crop is ready, he told them. Come fall we'll be fine. Only he wasn't so sure. Surry County was in the midst of a heat wave and its second consecutive year of drought. On July 10 the county agent's office estimated that 90% of the crops in the area had been damaged. Some farmers had taken the desperate measure of uprooting and "barning" their immature tobacco crop in hopes of saving at least part of it.
The next week there was more bad news: a severe outbreak of black shank disease. Caused by fungal organisms that live in the soil, black shank can be spread by most anything: cultivating tools, bulldozers, even the paws of a dog. It attacks tobacco though the root system, destroying it from the base up. In newspaper reports county agents estimated that "nearly one fourth of the tobacco farms in the state have fields that are infested."
And still the skies remained frustratingly clear. Jack went to sleep each night dreaming of rain and awoke to another brilliant day. Baseball was the least of his troubles now. By the time he was named a starter in the league All-Star Game he was 14--5, with a 3.42 ERA and 188 strikeouts in 166 innings. Attesting to his durability, the next-best pitcher on the Blanketeers was 9--3 with 76 strikeouts. Betty saw the toll of his two jobs, though. She noticed how Jack ratcheted his belt another notch every few weeks, his uniform sagging off his frame. Some nights he came back from road games, lay down for two hours, then rose with the daylight to work on the farm.
J.B. Treacy, a young sportswriter for the Elkin Tribune, could tell something was amiss. He liked and respected Swift, who was personable and funny and referred to his pitching arm as "the ol' soupbone." Swift finally told him about Jack Jr. and the problems on the farm. In a matter of months, Swift said, he had spent $1,200 (the equivalent of more than $10,000 today) on his son's medical care, and he was "bent double with debt." Treacy was shocked. Swift was Elkin's greatest sports hero, a player so beloved that a line of kids awaited him outside locker rooms. He'd sneak them into the dugout or invent a reason to go to the bullpen so he could flip them a ball. (This at a time when a baseball cost a dollar—more than a movie, popcorn and a drink.) People would call the Tribune sports desk the day of home games and ask, "Is Swift pitching?" If the answer was no, they wouldn't go.
And now Swift needed their help. Over the days that followed, each as dry as the next, Treacy hatched an idea. The following week, on the morning of Aug. 7, Elkin's mill workers and farmers awoke to find, in Treacy's regular "Battin' the Breeze" column, the story of Jack Jr. and the Swifts' struggles. "No person with an average income can bear such expenses on his own for a very long period," Treacy wrote. To raise funds, he proposed an appreciation night for Swift.
It is said you know a small town by the way it comes together for one of its own. Treacy walked into the Tribune offices to find the beginning of what would be a flood of letters supporting Swift. Young and old, from near and far, wanted to help. One woman wrote in from another state, attaching a $10 bill. The club agreed to hold an appreciation night on Aug. 21. Businesses volunteered to help, and donation stations were soon set up at the ballpark, the newspaper, the drugstore, the Bank of Elkin and the Chatham Manufacturing Company, the textile mill.
And the very afternoon that Treacy's story came out, the sky blackened, then roiled. In his bed that night, Jack heard a ping on his roof, followed by another and another. When he woke the next morning, it was to a gloriously gray, wet sky. You can say the two events weren't related—that the skies happened to open on the same day the people of Elkin began to open their hearts—but the Swifts won't believe you. For two wonderful weeks the rain continued, letting up just long enough on the night of Aug. 21 to hold the game, which Swift won, and the celebration. Standing on the mound as the crowd cheered, Swift received gifts from teammates and a check from Treacy for the accumulated donations. By the following week it had rained so much—a tremendous, ongoing downpour, as if the water had been collecting this whole time—that the Tribune was reporting a nearly full recovery of the tobacco crop.