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October 17, 2011
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October 17, 2011

The Invisible Fastball


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By the end of June, Marion had Marauders fever. On July 2 residents awoke to a six-column headline in the McDowell News: MARAUDERS BACK IN 1ST PLACE. Attendance, which had dipped early in the season, was back above 2,000 for some games. There was no question who was the main draw. "You'd have to walk a country mile to get to the ballpark on the nights [Jack] played," Betty said. "There was no designated parking lot, just bleachers, a few lights, and that was it. You parked wherever you could." In Swift, Marion fans saw themselves—the Carolina roots, the tireless effort, the quiet fortitude. But they also got a glimpse of greatness, of faraway places, of a man who threw a baseball so hard that it disappeared.

Bill Jarrett was 12 that summer, and he remembers how life revolved around baseball. On Saturdays and Sundays your dad played in an adult league and on weekdays you ran home at lunch to listen to an inning or two on the radio. You took bottle caps and broom handles and invented games, and most anything could become a ball: plastic lemons, taped-up corks, the bobbins your dad brought home from the mill. But most of all Jarrett remembers Swift and the Marauders, and how people came to Swift's games just "to hear that thing hit the mitt." He remembers sneaking down to the bullpen, where Swift would wink and lob a ball to the kids. "I wanted to be a pitcher because I saw people like Jack Swift," says Jarrett, who went on to play baseball at Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., and coach in high school for three decades. "The Marion Marauders were probably one of the biggest influences on my life."

Baseball's numbers, more than any other sport's, possess a certain magic, and few carry more weight than 30 wins. Granted, it's an arbitrary demarcation. Wins depend on factors outside a pitcher's control, most obviously run support. Still, like hitting .400, winning 30 has always been a statistical summit, for it requires a man to be both tremendously effective and tremendously consistent.

It was around the start of July that Marauders fans began to wonder if Swift had a shot at 30 victories. By July 7 he had 16 after appearing in 31 of Marion's 62 games. By July 16, when he threw a complete game to beat the second-place Rutherford County Owls, he'd won 20. This was an accomplishment in itself, of course, and a handful of reporters gathered around Swift in the makeshift locker room to congratulate him. Kluttz, the McDowell News writer, handed him a 20-game victory cigar, joking that it wasn't "like those cheap ropes you usually smoke."

After a puff, Swift retorted, "If you paid more than two for a nickel for these things, then you got gypped." Then, to more chuckles, Swift pretended to leave, saying, "I'll be seeing you—I got it in my contract as soon as I get 20 wins, I get to go home."

The joviality masked the fact that Swift was wearing down. Just that afternoon he had felt his arm start to give out in the fifth inning and worried he'd be forced to win 20 the cheap way, with a reliever. "Nobody's saved one for me yet," he told Kluttz. "I wanted to make it to 20 on my own." Swift had held on for the complete game, but it wasn't easy. Regardless, 30 was now in sight, as was the pennant.

Across the room Beal, the manager, reveled in the Marauders' seven-game edge over the Owls. "I ain't never had a lead this big this early in the season," Beal said. "They'll never catch us." Then he paused. "That is, if Swift's arm holds out."

If Swift's arm holds out. The pitcher was fond of claiming he'd never been on a training table in his life (an unlikely assertion considering the arm trouble he had in Savannah). Still, he was entering uncharted territory. Before 1952, Swift had never pitched more than 161 innings in a season, and now he was on pace for close to 300.

Today a manager would never consider putting that kind of stress on a pitcher, especially one past 30 who threw nothing but fastballs. This was 1953, though, and Beal was trying to win a pennant in what might be his league's final blaze of glory. Plus, as Swift's manager in Elkin, Tige Harris, had said years before, Swift was a "manager's player." If his team needed him, he took the mound, even when the blisters on his fingers got so bad that they stained the ball with blood. So out Swift went, again and again. "I have never seen a pitcher in any league who is more willing to work than Jack," Beal said. "He would pitch every night—I'm not kidding—if I'd let him."

One by one, the wins piled up. On July 28, Swift pitched a four-hit shutout. On Aug. 1 another four-hit shutout to beat Kirby Higbe, who once won 22 games for the Brooklyn Dodgers. A week later a no-hitter through eight. Win No. 26 came four days after that, in relief; No. 27, two days later on no rest. Swift had pitched six straight games, all of them wins, in seven days. And, astonishingly, the more he threw, the better he seemed to get. It bucked all conventional pitching wisdom. By Aug. 18, despite having appeared almost every day, he'd surrendered one run in his last 46 2/3 innings. On Aug. 22 he pitched a complete game to win his 29th.

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