By John J. Duncan Jr.
Even some of the best sports fans in this area do not know that Earl Weaver started his Hall of Fame career as a baseball manager for the Knoxville Smokies.
And the agreement that started it took place on the patio of Holston Hills Club in a meeting between my dad and Harvey Dalton, Farm Director of the Baltimore Orioles, in the early spring of 1957.
In the middle of the 1956 baseball season, Daddy, who was a young lawyer and City Law Director got four other men and the group bought the team in Montgomery and moved it to Knoxville.
The four others were two of our neighbors in Holston Hills, Neal Ridley, owner of C&S Laundry Chain, Mike Gleason, president of Pinnacle Sales Co., a Schlitz beer distributor, and Bill Fitzgerald, a Democrat lawyer who was a close friend of my father in the American Legion.
The Montgomery franchise was an independent team, with castoff players from several major league teams, and was in last place in the South Atlantic League.
My dad became president of the Team. He asked the Montgomery owners if they had any suggestions. They did not like their manager, a former major leaguer named Dick Bartell.
In those days, minor league teams sometimes owned players. The Montgomery team owned only one player: Earl Weaver.
The Montgomery people told Daddy the team could save money by naming Earl Weaver as a playing manager. He was the team’s second baseman and the oldest on the team at 25.
Minor league baseball was such a shoestring operation in those days that Daddy said once when a visiting team player kept fouling off a number of pitches, Bill Fitzgerald hollered out a disgusted, “Oh, hell, go ahead and walk him.”
In the meeting at Holston Hills, my dad told Mr. Dalton that Knoxville would agree to become a farm team of the Orioles if they “would take Earl Weaver off our hands.”
Dalton said they would make Weaver the manager of their Fitzgerald, GA team which played in the rookie Georgia/Florida League. He then worked up through the Oriole system to become manager of the Baltimore teams of the mid-60s and 70s.
That last place 1956 Knoxville team ended with a record of 53 wins and 87 losses.
The Orioles sent in better players for the 1957 and 1958 seasons, and some who played for the Smokies then later played for the major league Orioles such as Ron Hansen, Milt Pappas, Jerry Walker and Willie Tasby.
Mike Cuellar, who was the star pitcher for the Orioles when Earl Weaver was the manager, actually played for the Smokies in 1963 when they were a minor league team for the Detroit tigers.
In an odd baseball twist, Denny McClain of the Tigers and Cuellar of the Orioles tied for the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in baseball in 1969, and both men pitched for the 1963 Knoxville Smokies.
Farm Director Dalton later became general manager for the Orioles, Milwaukee Brewers and California Angels. When he led the Angels, he had their lawyer send me a workman’s compensation case for an Angels minor league player who was injured while on loan to the Smokies.
I still remember meeting Mr. Dalton as a nine-year-old boy for a funny reason. I played golf that afternoon for only the second time in my life.
I can’t remember scores that I made in the last few weeks, but on that day, Dalton was at Holston Hills, I hit an even 100 on nine holes.
When I came in, Mr. Dalton asked me what I had scored. When I told him 100, he said “My, that is a good a score for a boy your age.” I told my dad later, “I bet he thought I played 18 holes.”