There was one period after World War II when every town big enough to have a bank also had a professional baseball team, and the peak of excitement was reached when the bank was robbed or the baseball team won a pennant.
This is an article from the Oct. 17, 2011 issue
—FURMAN BISHER, Last Blow to the Minors (1963)
The way Becky Luffman sees it, maybe the ring wanted to be found. That first occurred some 30 years ago, when a man with a metal detector dug it out of three inches of North Carolina soil. It looked like an athletic award of some sort, with a name engraved inside, but it wasn't a name he knew. So he stashed the ring in a box in his closet, and that's where it stayed for three decades.
The ring had been found, but it remained lost. Maybe what it really needed was for someone to search for it.
Last winter Luffman began researching the career of her father, a minor league pitcher in the late 1940s and the '50s. She pulled out newspaper clippings, rummaged through family letters and left a comment on a baseball website after searching for her father's name. Months later she got a phone call. A man said he'd found an old ring and wanted to know if she was the daughter of Kelly Jack Swift.
Luffman was suspicious. The stranger said he was from California and was passing through North Carolina, and this would be his only opportunity to hand over the ring. She proposed meeting at a Cracker Barrel off I-40 near Hickory, about an hour from her home in Roaring River. She took along her big sister, Linda Steelman.
Of all the Swift kids, it's Linda, the eldest at 61, who remembers their father the best. How he played catch with their mom, Betty, in the backyard in the winter, trying to rein in his tremendous right arm yet sometimes toppling her with the force of his pitches. How he came back from the fields drenched in sweat, his clothes reeking of fresh-cut tobacco, then went out and pitched into the night. How he took Linda to his games when she was as young as five, just the two of them, outfitting her in her best dress and holding her hand as they walked to the box reserved for the players' families, where she stayed under the watchful eye of the wives. And how he clambered into the stands after the final out and picked her up in front of the crowd, making her feel like the luckiest girl in all of North Carolina.
So when Bill Eggleton walked into the Cracker Barrel and he did have the ring—its enamel worn smooth, but the lettering still legible—Linda and Becky broke down in tears and then began thanking him, the words tumbling out of their mouths.
Eggleton, a retired HAZMAT instructor, would accept no reward. It was their father's ring, after all.
It was more than a ring, though. It was a remnant of the golden age of the minor leagues, a time when many a young boy or girl had a father, grandfather or uncle who came home from the war to play professional baseball. Only Kelly Jack Swift was no ordinary man. In fighting for his dream he ended up accomplishing something few of those other fathers and grandfathers and uncles ever did—and no man ever will again.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
By the time of his next start only three games remained in the season. There was other pressure too; while Swift stood on the brink of history, the Marauders' magic number to clinch the pennant stood at one. He needed one more great game from that rubber arm.
The morning of Aug. 25 dawned warm and muggy. Nationally, the conversation centered on the end of the Korean War, the new Kinsey report and Marilyn Monroe, whose film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was going gangbusters at the box office. But in Marion, N.C., the world had narrowed down to one event: Marauders versus the Hickory Rebels.
That afternoon Marie Balentine drove up to the Swifts' house. Marie, the wife of Marion first baseman James Curtis Balentine, often helped Betty get her kids ready before big games. Linda was four. Jack Jr. was 1½ and doing well, though he was developmentally delayed. Rebecca was four months old; she arrived at the ballpark already fast asleep.
Betty and Marie took their customary places behind home plate. The temperature was in the high 70s. More than 1,500 fans had already arrived, paying 65 cents for admission and another 15 for popcorn. Men wore shirts and ties; women their finest hats. By the time of the introductions there was a palpable energy in the small park, and each player's name was echoed by a roar from the crowd.
Betty had worried that Jack might lose his control again, that the moment might get to him. He always looked relaxed when he played, so loose that some writers described him as looking "lazy." But what if he tightened up?
He came out throwing hard, a good sign. One batter after another went down swinging. And then something peculiar happened: All those people in the stands stopped yelling. By the second inning it was eerily still in the ballpark. "It was like there was an aura," Betty recalled. "It was just so quiet. It was like if somebody spoke, you'd break the spell." As the innings went by, Marie kept glancing over at Betty, who never said a word, only smiled. Marie understood. Don't break the spell.
Two hours and 19 minutes after the game began, Swift peered in one final time. He'd given up only five hits and had struck out eight. Marion held an 8--1 lead. This was it. This was what he'd thought about all those years while playing ball with his younger brother on the farm in Zephyr; while on the train rides to Fort Bragg; through the long hours on the air base in Salt Lake City, writing to his mom "not to worry about me, I'm O.K."; and while shuttling between Savannah and Elkin. Swift steadied himself.
This was no time for curveballs. Over the years managers had taught Swift to rein in his arcing leg kick because runners took advantage of it to steal. But who could blame him now if he kicked his left leg high? Kelly Jack Swift reached back into time, past the disappointments and the small towns and the poor tobacco crops, and pulled out a fastball as true and pure as any he'd ever conjured when his arm was young.
The umpire blinked, then turned and drew back his elbow. Steee-rike three!
There was the slightest of pauses, and then, as the Charlotte News described it, "It looked like New Year's Eve had come four months early in Marion." Men, women and children whooped and hollered. The P.A. announcer declared that Marion had won the pennant and that the historic ball would be auctioned off. (The sports section of the McDowell News later bought the ball for $50 and gave it right back to Swift; on it, in red ink, were written the words 30TH WIN.) Now Marion had its own god.
Swift was giddy. When he and Betty stopped by the Balentines' house afterward for beers, the men couldn't stop talking about Jack's feat. "It just seemed like Jack was just as joyous and jubilant as he could be," Betty said.
Usually after the last out the Swifts headed home and went to bed. Jack was a simple man, and he rarely dwelled on a game. It's part of what kept him going all those years. On this night, however, Betty walked out to find him under a large tree whose branches stretched out over their front yard. The night was still warm, the stars were out. Betty sat down next to Jack, and the two stared out into the dark. For what seemed like a lifetime they talked about the game, reliving every moment. Betty could see something different in her husband's eyes. "Mama," he said, "if I haven't never achieved nothing else, I'm happy with tonight."
Word of Swift's deed spread. The Greensboro Daily News named him the North Carolina athlete of the year. There was talk he might rise back up through the minors, which was almost unheard of for a Class D player of his age. His final statistics were staggering. Swift appeared in 52 of Marion's 108 games and was on the mound for the final out for 48. He pitched 287 innings, or one of the Marauders' every three; in 2011, even with a 162-game season, no major leaguer topped 251 innings. Swift finished 30--7 with a 2.54 ERA and 321 strikeouts.
As for the Marauders, many of them figured this was the end of the line. At the end of the season Kluttz wrote a final column that read like an epitaph. One by one he listed the team's stars and what they would do next: Beal would return to Mooresville Mills; catcher Fred Parnell would work at Radio Jayne's Service Station in nearby Morganton; pitcher Bob Thomas would take a job at Shaw Manufacturing Co. in Charlotte; outfielder James Mendenhall would toil for Thomasville Chair Co. As for Swift, he told Kluttz, "I don't know whether I'll pitch again next year or not... . I'll tell my wife in the fall that I'm quitting. Then about February she'll find me out in the yard, tossing a ball against the side of the house.
"'What are you up to?' she'll say.
"'Oh, I thought I'd limber up a little bit,' I'll tell her.
"'Here we go again,' she'll say, and then get ready to pack. She's a great baseball wife, she is. Couldn't be finer."
That winter, during the minor league draft, the announcement of Swift's record created quite a stir. He was drafted by the White Sox's Double A affiliate, the Memphis Chicks. It would be a tremendous jump for a journeyman pitcher in the twilight of his career.
Swift left Marion just in time. In the Marauders' final home game the following year, on June 21, the team raised the 1953 pennant, the one Swift won. Two days later Marion went to Hickory and won 6--0 in the last Tar Heel League game ever.
Across the country similar scenes played out as one franchise after another folded. By 1959 the number of minor leagues nationwide had declined to 21, down from 58 in 1950. Attendance, which had been as high as 42 million in 1949, was barely 12 million. The minors would never be the same. Swift stayed one step ahead of the decline, like the hero in an action movie who sprints along the escarpment as it crumbles behind him.
After going 11--8 with a 3.73 ERA at Memphis, he pitched for Houston and Oklahoma City, both in Double A, before finishing his career back in his home state with Winston-Salem and, at 38, High-Point Thomasville. There were memorable achievements: 16 wins for Winston-Salem, a near no-hitter in Memphis, seeing an up-and-coming musician named Elvis Presley while pitching for the Chicks.
But 1953 endures most. As minor league teams became baseball's finishing school rather than destinations, and pitchers became ever more fragile and coddled, Swift's feat grew in stature until today it stands as unassailable. Consider: Since 1965 no minor league pitcher has won 23 games in a season or come close to matching the 321 K's Swift rang up in 1953; it's been nearly 30 years since anyone reached even 300 in a season. The kid who did it played for Lynchburg in the Carolina League. His name was Dwight Gooden.
But it is that one number that stands out: Nearly 60 years since he took the mound against Hickory on a warm North Carolina evening, Kelly Jack Swift remains, now and likely forever, the last minor league pitcher to win 30 games.
How do you measure a legacy? It is a cool afternoon in February 2011, and five of Swift's six children have gathered at the three-story suburban home of Randy, the second youngest, in High Point, N.C. Randy is the one who most resembles Jack, with the same nose and eyes and the same hair, parted and falling forward, fine and now starting to gray. Next to him is Aaron, tall and powerful and red-headed, born too late to know his father. Over at the coffee table, tall and elegant, is Becky Luffman, who lives on a sprawling property with a book-filled study that looks out on acres of tobacco and corn fields. And beside her, spunky, auburn-haired and telling stories, is Linda Steelman, a retired English and French teacher who picked up Jack's love of sports after all those years at her dad's games. She coached high school basketball and volleyball, once winning a state title.
There's one more Swift here as well, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and jeans. He is a short, quiet man with a graying mustache and Jack's long nose. He doesn't speak much, but he smiles often. The boy who wasn't supposed to live to be a teenager is now 59 years old. He remains his father's biggest fan.
The family has gathered to rediscover Jack's life. Betty passed away in 2003, taking with her much of the oral history. So now her children sift through old photos and mementos. Here is the game ball from his 30th win, browned with age. And here is his birth certificate, showing that he was born not in 1922, as is still recorded on websites and as Swift told managers and owners all those years, but in 1920. And there on Randy's finger, where it has been for the last 35 years, is the championship ring Jack won in 1956 in Houston.
As for the other ring, the one forgotten until that man from California called, the family hasn't decided who will wear it, for it has special resonance. Though it is not from that magical season in Marion—they give no rings for winning 30, after all—it is a direct result of it, a Double A championship ring from two seasons later, when Swift helped the Memphis Chicks win a pennant. It is a small, tarnished symbol of what those 30 wins meant: a chance to keep playing baseball, to move back up the minor league ladder, to continue chasing his dream. For now Becky keeps it in a safe place. To her it is a reminder that some things lost can be found again.
Sitting at lunch, the Swifts take turns telling stories. About Jack playing against Stan Musial, whom he called "the greatest guy I ever met in baseball." About Jack taking his kids to pick blackberries, painting their wrists with turpentine to keep away the chiggers, then reveling in the blackberry sonker pies his mother would make. Randy talks about the time, when he was five, that he sneaked up on his father while he napped shirtless on the couch, then poured a glass of water into that depression in his chest. And Linda tells how after her dad stopped playing ball, he helped with a program for kids like Jack Jr. at his high school.
Linda also talks about how quickly it happened, how one day when Betty was pregnant, Jack complained of a bad headache. How his blood pressure shot up and within a week he was in the hospital. How the doctors tried dialysis, but both of Jack's kidneys were failing. How in February, Betty had given birth to the twins, Aaron and Abbie. And how, less than two months later, at 8:25 p.m. on April 5, 1965, Jack passed away at age 44. The cause of death was listed as "uremia due to malignant hypertension." After all those years of surviving and enduring, Jack just slipped away.
His body is buried on a bluff, near the entrance to a small oval cemetery in Mountain Park. The headstone on his grave is small, flat and reddish-brown. It lists his military service and little else. A church rises across the street, and some old tractors are parked down the road outside a red-topped barn, just up from a sign advertising a catfish pond. From the cemetery you can see the farm where Jack grew up, tilling the rolling lines of tobacco. You can see the old farmhouse where he and Betty raised their children. And there, in the distance, you can just make out the barn where, each spring, Jack returned to throw a baseball, hoping a time might come when someone remembered his name.