An old newspaper clipping reminded me this week of another memorable occasion as a minor league umpire…one that had nothing at all to do with baseball.
Rummaging through boxes of stuff in the attic last week I found a veritable treasure troth of life as it once was…reminders of times gone by, good ones, and even better ones.
There were three old high school yearbooks from Piqua High School.
A long-forgotten autographed baseball from Crosley Field, circa 1965, signed by “rookie” Tony Perez, Vada Pinson, and Tommy Helms.
There was a photo of my first game as a member of the Ohio State Marching band.
A rubber band held old clippings from the Columbus Citizen-Journal newspaper detailing games I pitched from 1971 to 1974 for the Buckeyes.
And a little deeper in the box, stuffed inside a well-worn album that my mother had kept for years, a faded photo and clipping from the Nashville, Tennessean newspaper, dated June 22, 1978.
Now, people frequently ask me to share old war stories about minor league umpiring during that period of my life, and I’ve detailed a few of those on Press Pros…the terrible call in Chattanooga earlier that spring of ’78, and the infamous broken arm story that I still blame on Ft. Loramie’s Randy Schafer, who at time was a Double A catcher for the Montreal Expos.
But this particular photo brought a warm moment, one of the most unusual memories of my life, and a chance meeting with four of the best people and personalities ever made.
For on that date I was in Nashville preparing to work home plate that night for a game between the Nashville Sounds and the Montgomery Rebels. Nashville, of course was the home of country music and it was never unusual to see entertainers from the Grand Ol’ Opry around the ballpark. Larry Schmittou was the general manager of the ballclub then, and like the Dayton Dragons do now, Schmittou would stop at nothing to add a little Vaudeville to an otherwise superfluous minor league baseball game.
So it was on June 22 when there was a knock on the umpires’ dressing room door and Schmittou popped into the room.
“Hey guys, just wanted to let you know that we’re starting a few minutes late tonight because we have a special performance of the National Anthem,” he said. And with that he motioned in the four guys standing outside the doorway in the hall. “I’d like to introduce you to the Statler Brothers…Harold Reid, Don Reid, Phil Balsey, and Lew DeWitt.”
I was sitting on a stool rubbing up baseballs and had mud all over my hands, but one by one they stepped up and offered a handshake.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Harold Reid in his familiar deep bass voice. “We just played a cow chip throwing event last week. I’ve had worse on my hands.”
“I’m familiar with your music,” I said respectfully. “You guys are great. You got a good arrangement of the Anthem?”
“No,” said Reid. “People tell us it sounds like Flowers On The Wall,” one of their hits and a Grammy winning recording from years past. “In fact they tell us that everything we do sounds like Flowers On The Wall,” he added with a laugh. “You know any of our songs?”
“I like Do You Know You Are My Sunshine,” I shot back. My A-Ball partner, Matt Fairchild used to play that on 8-track all the time. “It’s cool the way you worked those old lyrics into a Statler’s song. Good four-part harmony in the refrain. Can you do a few bars?”
Phil Balsey rolled his eyes.
“We’ve been asked worse,” said Reid. “At least you didn’t ask to borrow money.”
And damned if they didn’t launch into a few bars of it, perfectly in tune, that pure Statler’s harmony.
Everyone had a good laugh and they left to wait in the first base dugout at brand new Herschel Greer Stadium.
A half hour later my partner and I made our way to the field to exchange the lineup cards at home plate. That baseball custom accomplished the public address announcer introduced the Statlers and invited the crowd to join them in the singing of the National Anthem.
They strode out to home plate, turning to wave at the enthusiastic sellout crowd that nightly packed Greer Stadium. Baseball was new in Nashville, and popular. Conway Twitty came to the games on a regular basis, as did Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins, and other Opry legends. When they stepped up to sing I stepped aside, mask and hat in hand.
“Hey, step in here with us” said Reid. “Right in the middle for some pictures.”
A photographer from the Nashville paper was standing between home plate and the pitcher’s mound, snapping away. When he was done I again backed out to move away.
“Hey, just stand here with us,” said brother Don. “Sing if you want. Just don’t sing very loud.”
It was over in an instant…the Anthem, and it was kind of a thrill. The Statlers were good. Harold Reid, ever the showman, blew some kisses to the crowd and that was that as they walked away.
As I remember now I was not so good that night. The newspaper clipping details that there was an issue in the sixth inning and Nashville manager Ronnie Brand and shortstop Ron Oester were ejected for arguing balls and strikes. I don’t remember.
But looking at that old faded photo I do remember my 2 minutes of fame with the Statlers. Good guys, a good memory…another good baseball story!