God needed a centerfielder
To his mother and father he was Thomas Mullen Umphlett.
To those that knew him well, he was simply Tommy…but more than that he was a true Southern gentleman.
The big man upstairs must have had a roster spot open on a heavenly baseball team and called up Mr. Tommy to the ultimate “Major League” on Sept. 21. It was on that Friday where Tommy drew the final breath, but not before living a life that most men dream of….that of playing Major League Baseball.
For those of us that follow sports, at least those of us past the age of 50, we know of the Tommy Umphlett saga. Before he spent three wonderful seasons playing America’s pastime, Tommy was a simple country boy with God-given skills on a baseball diamond. After his career, to include several stints as a Minor League Baseball coach, he came back home and lived the life he had known prior to those days of glory.
Thanks to the wonder of Internet research, we can venture back to Tommy’s playing and coaching days. There, as I knew before pushing the Google Search button, Tommy was a three-sport (football, basketball and baseball) standout at Ahoskie High School from where he graduated in 1950. He was so good that the likes of Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, NC State and Wake Forest University offered him scholarships to play football. However, baseball was Tommy’s passion.
He was being scouted by the Boston Red Sox and chose to sign with them in 1950, right out of high school. After honing his skills in the minors, Tommy became the starting centerfielder for the Red Sox in 1953. He played in 137 games that year, 133 of which saw him in the starting line-up. Tommy, known for his defense (he committed only seven errors during 401 chances in his rookie year), was no slouch at the plate. His keen eye for pitches allowed him to swing the bat for a .283 average during the ’53 season; with 495 at-bats, 140 hits (to include 27 doubles, five triples and three homeruns), 59 RBI and scored 53 runs. That effort led Tommy to collect the second highest number of votes for the American League Rookie of the Year. He was named as Boston’s Rookie of the Year that season.
He was traded to the Washington Senators where he played in a total of 224 more games…his last coming on Sept. 24, 1955.
But Tommy and baseball were far from parting company. Over the next 18 years, Tommy was associated with Minor League Baseball, spending several years as a manager – including stints with Auburn Twins, the Appleton Foxes, the Wisconsin Rapids Twins and the Lynchburg Twins. When he returned to Ahoskie, Tommy shared his vast knowledge of the game by coaching young boys on the diamond. Hopefully, most were aware they were being taught by a living legend of the game.
Although I would see him occasionally, the last time I had the pleasure of speaking face-to-face with Tommy was April 30, 2011. It was then that the Town of Ahoskie officially christened its three new fields at the Ahoskie Creek Recreational Complex during opening day of the youth spring/summer baseball/softball season. In excess of 400 young ballplayers lined the edge of the outfield grass at one of the fields, the brilliant color of their uniforms highlighted by a picture-perfect blue sky.
Tommy was among three local men to have the honor of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch that day. I had the honor of snapping Tommy’s photo and two things still stick out in my mind….one, despite being unable to throw with his natural right arm, he still “popped the mitt” as a southpaw; and two, when he was presented the ball by the young man that served as his catcher, Tommy did what any true baseball man would do in that case, he told the youngster to keep it.
I don’t know who that young man was, but I hope he still has that baseball….a memento from a true legend of America’s greatest sport and from a man we all hopefully will never forget.
Cal Bryant is Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7207.