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.

 

 

 

Yount, Ducky

Position: Relief pitcher
Birthplace: Iredell County

First, Middle Names: Herbert Macon    Nicknames: Ducky, Hub
Date of Birth:  Dec. 7, 1885    Date and Place of Death: May 9, 1970, Winston-Salem
Burial: Eastview Cemetery, Newton, NC

High School: Newton High School, Newton, NC
College: Catawba College, Newton, NC

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-2, 178
Debut Year: 1914       Final Year: 1914          Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Baltimore Terrapins, 1914

Career Summary
G         W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
13        1          1          0          4.14     41.1     19        -0.7

Ducky Yount is the only North Carolinian who played exclusively in the renegade Federal League, a short-lived experiment that challenged the stranglehold that baseball owners had on players. Yount lasted about three months and then returned home to become one of the pioneering industrialists of Catawba County.

Herbert Macon Yount was born in 1885 near Lookout Shoals on the Catawba River in western Iredell County, where his father, Jacob, was one of the first doctors in the region. Dr. Yount moved his family to Newton in adjoining Catawba County in the late 1890s so that his four sons could attend his alma mater, Catawba College.[1]

One gets the impression that Yount may have been a handful. His father wrote the Asheville police department in 1898 asking it to look for 13-year-old Herbert and his friend, Coonie Ramsey, who disappeared from Newton and were believed to be in Asheville.[I] Ramsey showed up several days later and told the newspaper that he had “taken a jaunt to several surrounding towns,” getting as far as Spartanburg, S.C. There’s no mention of what may have happened to Yount.[II] He did return to Newton because we know that four years later he and another teenager pleaded guilty to assault and were fined $10.

Yount played baseball at Catawba College and as early as 1906 seems to have played for independent-league teams during the summers. He coached the Catawba team after graduating and continued to play for independent and minor-league teams after the college season, first in the Midwest, then in New England.

The Baltimore Terrapins signed him in 1914 for their first season in the Federal League. The league had started as a minor league but declared war on baseball in 1913 by actively recruiting players from the two established leagues by offering higher salaries and freedom from contracts restrictions that tied players to major-league teams for life.  Many made the switch.[2]

Assigned to a relief role, Yount pitched about 41 innings stretched over 13 games. His 4.14. earned-run average wasn’t terrible, but the Terrapins released him in mid-August.

The team and the league didn’t last much longer. The competition of another, better-paying league caused salaries in the two established leagues to skyrocket, demonstrating the bargaining potential of free agency for the first time. Faced with the threat, the moguls who owned major-league teams flexed their muscle and flashed their cash. After the 1915 season, they bought out half the teams in the Federal League and the owners of two other teams were allowed to buy struggling franchises in the established leagues.[3]

The Terrapins weren’t bought out by the owners. The team’s owners sued the major leagues for violating anti-trust laws. In a landmark case in 1922, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Major League Baseball was primarily entertainment, not conventional interstate commerce, and thus exempt from the Sherman Antitrust Act. The reserve clause, under which players were little more than chattel, survived. That exemption remains, though it was significantly weakened during the 1970s and by the development of a strong players’ union.

As for Ducky, he joined his father in 1917 and founded Newton Glove Inc. with six sewing machines and 10 employees to make canvas working gloves. By the time of his death, the company had three plants in Catawba County and hundreds of employees.

Yount was also a town alderman and a pioneer banker. He was active with the Farmers Merchants Bank in Newton that was founded by his father and played an important role in its merger with Northwestern Bank. He later served on the Northwestern board. His only child, Robert, would retire as president of the board.

Yount died of a heart attack in 1970. The glove company was sold three years later.

Footnotes
[1] The Reformed Church of the United States had started the small college in Newton in 1851. The campus moved to Salisbury in 1925.
[2] Yount was one of the few Terrapin players who didn’t have major-league experience. Fellow North Carolinian George Suggs of Kinston led the pitching staff. He had been a 20-game winner for the Cincinnati Reds and would win 24 that year with the Terrapins. Another North Carolina native, outfielder Vern Duncan of Clayton, had played for the Philadelphia Phillies.
[3] Charles Weeghman, a Chicago restaurant tycoon, owned the city’s Federal franchise, the Whales. He was allowed to buy the city’s National League franchise, the Cubs. The Whales’ Weegham Park became the Cub’s new home. The park was renamed in 1927 after the team’s new owner, chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. Beloved Wrigley Field, then, stands as a monument to the failed Federal League experiment.

References
[I] “Around Town.” Asheville (NC) Citizen-Times. May 6, 1898.

[II] “Runaway Boys.” Statesville (NC) Record and Landmark, May 10, 1898.

 

 

Benson, Vern

Positions: Third base, left field
Birthplace: Granite Quarry

Full Name: Vernon Adair

Date of Birth:  Sept. 19, 1924             Date and Place of Death: Jan. 20, 2014, Granite Quarry
Burial: Rowan Memorial Park, Rowan

High School: Granite Quarry High School
College: Catawba College, Salisbury

Bats: L Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-11, 180
Debut Year: 1943       Final Year: 1953          Years Played: 5
Teams and Years: Philadelphia Athletics, 1943, 1946; St. Louis Cardinals, 1951-53

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
55        104      21        17        12        3          .202     .291     .356     0.1

Vern Benson was a baseball lifer. Though he only appeared in 55 games over a sporadic five-year career in the major leagues, Benson devoted his life to the sport, spending more than half a century as a player, coach, scout, and minor-league manager. He was also perfect during his short but odd tenure as a big-league skipper.

Vernon Adair Benson grew up in Granite Quarry in Rowan County, the younger son of William and Ruth Benson. In a 1946 questionnaire, he credited his parents for turning him into a ballplayer by allowing him to play instead of requiring him to find a job during the Depression.

He played baseball and basketball at the local high school and for the American Legion. He entered Catawba College in nearby Salisbury in 1942. Playing only baseball, Benson set a school record with 16 consecutive games with a run scored. He would be inducted into the school’s sports hall of fame as part of its second class in 1978.

Connie Mack, the owner and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, was looking for wartime replacements when he signed Benson on July 29, 1943. The 18-year-old made his major-league debut two days later at Shibe Park as a pinch hitter.

But Benson was drafted a few days later and spent two years at Fort Bragg playing ball for the army before being shipped to France.

He returned to the Athletics in 1946 but made it into only seven games, four as a pinch runner. At his request, Benson was sent back to the minors in May so that he could play regularly. He wouldn’t resurface in the majors for another five years.

After his best year as a pro in 1951 — .308-18-89 with 111 walks – for the St. Louis Cardinals’ Double a team in Columbus, Benson was a late-season call-up. He appeared in 13 games and hit his first major-league homer. He played sporadically for the Cardinals during the next two seasons before retiring from active play in 1953.

Benson began coaching in the minor and winter leagues the following year and took his first major-league coaching job with the Cardinals in 1961. He was on the coaching staff when the team won the World Series four year s later.For the next two decades,

Benson coached for the four big-league clubs and even took a spin as a manager. That was 1977 for the woeful Atlanta Braves. The team had lost 16 in a row when new owner Ted Turner sent manager Dave Bristol away for a few days and donned a uniform to skipper the team. “Our attitude was, anything goes that’s legal and acceptable,” Bob Hope, the Braves public-relations director at the time told a newspaper reporter in 2015. “We didn’t have a great team and couldn’t compete financially, so we’d always say we have to keep the smoke going after the fire goes out.”

It didn’t help. The Braves lost again.

Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped in, ruling that Turner couldn’t manage again because of rules against a manager having a financial interest in a club.

Coach Benson was quickly pressed into service for a game until Bristol could return to the team. The Braves won, and Benson retired as an undefeated manager.

 He left coaching entirely in 1981 and returned to Granite Quarry where he worked from home for 15 years as the Cardinals’ scouting supervisor for the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee.

Benson had married Rachael Lyerly in 1946. They had two daughters and a son. They had been married for almost 61 years when she died in April 2008. Benson followed her six years later at age 89.

“I was in the game 56 years and I never missed a payday,” he had told an interviewer a few years earlier. “I never made much money, but just about every year was enjoyable.”