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The Blanketeers finished 45--64, but Swift had done so well, going 19--12 with a league-leading 2.31 ERA, that when the team folded after the season, he attracted the attention of a Class D club two hours to the southwest, in Marion. It was offering a significant raise, to $3,200 for the season, enough to cover Jack Jr.'s care. It was still low-level baseball, but Swift had kept his dream alive. He'd have at least one more season to make his mark.
To get noticed by pro scouts in the first half of the 1950s, a low-level minor leaguer had to have one of two things: youth combined with tremendous potential, or a performance so far beyond the norm that it was impossible to ignore. For the most part minor league hitters did not bat .400 and pitchers did not have 0.75 ERAs. There was too much talent drifting up and down the ladder, and too much parity. Even if a player did put up outsized numbers, it didn't guarantee a ticket to the Show. In 1954, Joe Bauman would hit 72 home runs for the Roswell (N.M.) Rockets of the Class C Longhorn League. The next season he would receive neither a pay raise nor a promotion.
This is not to say his feat didn't resonate. For Rockets fans, as Neil Sullivan writes in his excellent book The Minors, "Bauman's record might be the most dramatic event in baseball history." And this, to Sullivan, was the true magic of the minors: "the local player who for a moment rises to join the gods of the sport [and] takes a community with him for that brief ascent."
There were no gods of the sport in Marion when Swift arrived in 1953. A textile mill town of 6,000 about 35 miles from Asheville, at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Marion was the kind of place where an upcoming calf show merited a front-page headline.
Like so many teams at the time, the Marion Marauders led a tenuous existence. The Tar Heel League, in which they played, was one of only two remaining Class D circuits in the state and by no means flush. In 1953 the operating budget of the entire league—players' and umpires' salaries, travel, uniforms—was $24,000. With more big league games being telecast by the month, a way of life was slipping away before the players' eyes.
Marion player-manager Bobby Beal's strategy was simple: Pitch Swift. During the exhibition season Beal brought in Swift in relief in the second inning of a game, which he finished. The next day Beal sent him back out as the starter. Swift threw a five-hitter. By the home opener, on April 27, the town was buzzing about the new pitcher with the atomic fastball. And for three innings in front of 500 fans in near-freezing temperatures, Swift put on a show.
To those who hadn't seen him before, Swift cut quite a figure on the mound. He wore his hat tilted slightly to one side and peered in for signs with a wad of Beech-Nut tobacco bulging in his cheek. He towered over most players, and he was so thin that he looked like a stork. "Lord, he was a giant on that mound," remembers Shorty Brown. "And in those days, some of them home teams would build that mound just a little bit higher. He'd come straight over the top, and wham."
That's exactly what Swift did for three innings against the Lexington Indians on April 27. Wham! Wham! Wham! One strikeout led to the next. Then, after a long Marauders rally, he walked out for the fourth inning and, just like that, his control was gone. He walked one batter, then another. He surrendered six runs in the inning, and the Marauders went on to blow a 13--0 lead and lose 22--17.
The wildness surely troubled Swift; a low ERA was crucial to keeping his job. So, undoubtedly, did the final score. In an attempt to draw fans, Tar Heel League managers had stacked their lineups with sluggers at the expense of pitching and fielding. The league had also switched from the Rawlings ball to the new Goldsmith 97, which, according to Jim Kluttz of the local McDowell News, "when hit solidly, travels almost like a golf ball." On May 4, Swift gave up six runs in 2 1/3 innings. He wasn't the only pitcher getting shelled; behind their own power hitters, the Marauders scored an astounding 245 runs in their first 25 games.
Then, whether because he adjusted to the ball or loosened up with the warmer weather, Swift found his groove. On May 7, he fanned 16 batters in a complete-game victory. By May 29 he was 8--1. Nineteen days later he was 13--2. For most pitchers, 13 wins would be a good year's work. Swift reached the number with 2½ months left in the season.