Blackburn, Ron

Position: Relief pitcher
Birthplace: Mount Airy

First, Middle Names: Ronald Hamilton
Date of Birth:  April 23, 1935  Date and Place of Death: April 29, 1998, Morganton, NC
Burial: Carolina Memorial Park, Kannapolis, NC

High School: A.L. Brown High School, Kannapolis, NC
Colleges: Catawba College, Salisbury, NC; Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC

Bats: R Throws: R       Height and Weight: 6-0, 160
Debut Year: 1958       Final Year: 1959          Years Played: 2
Teams and Years: Pittsburgh Pirates, 1958-59

 Career Summary
G          W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
64        3          2         4          3.50    108.0  50       0.8

In the era of baseball bonus babies, Ron Blackburn made it to the majors the old-fashioned way. Teams didn’t throw wads of money at him or promise him a spot on the roster when he graduated from high school in 1953, as they had done to his older brother a few years earlier. He was among the 80 kids who showed up for a Pittsburgh Pirates’ tryout in Burlington, North Carolina, that summer. “We got up at 5:30 in the morning and drove 100 miles to get there,” he recalled years later.[I]

He stood out among the horde, and the Pirates’ scout asked him to come back. “When I was called to pitch the next day in a squad game, I faced only six batters but struck out four of them,” he remembered. “That’s when the Pirates offered me a contract and I signed.”[II]

Unlike his brother and other promising youngsters who got bonuses, Blackburn received no additional money for signing and no guarantee that he would be on a major-league roster. Like thousands before him, Blackburn was shipped to the minors where he labored for most of his career. He was different from his brother and most other bonus babies in another regard: He made it to the majors. He spent parts of two seasons in Pittsburgh.

Blackburn was born in Mount Airy in 1935 but grew up in Kannapolis, North Carolina, where his parents, Henry and Virginia, moved with their four children for jobs in the textile mills. He pitched and played basketball at A.L. Brown High School and led his American Legion team to a state championship in 1952.

Henry had pitched semipro ball in Virginia and his oldest son, Gerald, had been a pitching sensation at Brown. A coveted prospect wooed by several teams, he had signed in 1950 with the Cincinnati Reds after agreeing to a $30,000 bonus, or almost $340,000 today.[1] Wild and overweight, he never made it to the majors. The Reds, said Blackburn, released his brother “when he got so fat.” He ended up in Kannapolis working in a mill and pitching on industrial teams.[III]

Blackburn played four years in the Pirates’ farm system before being called up in 1958. The 22-year-old won his debut on April 15 after tossing three-innings of shutout ball against the world champion Milwaukee Braves. Though he pitched well as a rookie reliever – 3.39 earned-run average in more than 63 innings — Blackburn became the forgotten man in a talented bullpen led by Roy Face and Don Gross.[2] Though he had a good start the following season, he was shipped to the minors in July and remained there until his retirement in 1964.

He always returned home in the offseasons and, starting in 1957, he began attending Catawba College in nearby Salisbury, North Carolina, and was even their pitching coach for a season. It took almost eight years, but Blackburn earned a degree in physical education.

He worked a bit faster with Sandra Lower. He met the Catawba student from Pennsylvania, probably during his freshman semester. They were married in June the following year and would have two sons.

After he retired, Blackburn became the head baseball coach at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, in 1964. The teams were competitive during the four seasons he was at the helm, compiling a 78-65 record. When he wasn’t on the ballfield or on the road recruiting, Blackburn was in the classroom working for his master’s degree in physical education, which he received in 1965.

He put the degree to work in 1972 as the recreational director of the Western Correctional Center, a new, 16-story state prison near Morganton, North Carolina. The state soon designated it as a prison for youthful offenders and changed its name to the Western Youth Institution.[3] Blackburn developed a therapeutic recreation program for handicapped inmates that was adopted by all state prisons and was used as a model in other states.

Blackburn died in Morganton in 1998, six days after his 63rd birthday.

Footnotes
[1] Major-League Baseball instituted the Bonus Rule in 1947 to prevent wealthy teams from accumulating talented youngsters and stashing them in their minor leagues. The original rule stipulated that when it signed a player to a contract worth more than $4,000, a major-league team had to keep that player on its 40-man roster for two full-seasons. That was the rule in place when the Cincinnati Reds signed Gerald Blackburn, Ron’s brother, in 1950. Though he was on the Reds’ protected roster for the required two seasons, Gerald was never promoted to the next step, the 25-man roster, and to the majors. The Reds released him after he spent five years in their farm system. The Bonus Rule was rescinded in December 1950 because teams found ways to circumvent it, but a stronger one was re-instituted three years later. It required affected players to remain on the major-league roster for two seasons. The rule was abandoned for good in 1965 when the amateur draft was started. Rookies signed under the rule were derisively called “bonus babies” because they bypassed baseball’s usual training in the minors and took roster spots normally reserved for more-seasoned players. (https://tht.fangraphs.com/cash-in-the-cradle-the-bonus-babies/.)
[2] A six-time All-Star, Elroy Face pitched 16 years in the major leagues and was one of the era’s premier relievers. Though the “save” wasn’t an official statistic until 1969, Face’s last season, he is credited retroactively with 191 of them. Don Gross was a workhorse relief pitcher during much of six-year career. He appeared in 40 games and pitched more than 74 innings during Ron Blackburn’s rookie season in 1958.
[3] The Western Youth Institution could house up to 800 inmates, making it one of the largest prisons in the state. Known for its innovative programs to help young offenders stay out of prison once they were released, the prison closed in 2013 and was imploded in July 2020.

References
[I] Eck, Frank. Associated Press. “Jerry Blackburn Cost Reds $30,000, But Bucs Obtained Ron for Nothing.” Daily-Times (Burlington, NC), April 26, 1958.
[II] United Press International. “Ron Blackburn Had Bright Hopes.” New Castle (PA) News, September 20, 1958.
[III] Eck.