By: Jeff LinvilleCivitas Staff Reporter
December 2, 2012
ELKIN - One of the new inductees for the Surry County Sports Hall of Fame is a baseball player whose career easily could have slipped away in the annals of history.
Kelly Jack Swift was a remarkable pitcher who put together a great minor-league career while still tending a tobacco farm in Mountain Park.
Despite his legendary status on Tobacco Road in the early 1950s, Jack Swift’s career might have been forgotten if not for a couple of incidents.
One of them was the nomination of the Chatham Blanketeers for the Ring of Honor for the 2011 class. Research into those teams revealed several great athletes, some of whom could enter the Hall of Fame as individuals.
Chatham Manufacturing sponsored a women’s basketball team and a men’s baseball team. Among the standouts who played for the baseball team was Shorty Brown, the team’s leading hitter, who married his sweetheart Jo Barnette at home plate in 1950.
Brown batted .370 that year to win the Blue Ridge League’s batting title. That feat earned him a photograph in The Sporting News right next to a shot of Mickey Mantle, a youngster who would move up from the minors to the New York Yankees the next year.
When talking about some of his former teammates, Brown would mention Swift as one of the toughest pitchers he ever faced.
“When he stepped in against Swift during batting practice, he could only shake his head,” Brown told Chris Ballard and Elkin’s own Owen Good for Sports Illustrated. “I don’t think I ever got so much as a foul ball off of him,” Brown told them.
Ballard and Good wrote a story about Swift’s life and career for an Oct. 17, 2011, issue.
Good is a 1991 graduate of Elkin High School and worked with Ballard on the story after hearing of the other angle that brought Swift’s career to light.
About 30 years ago, Bill Eggleton was playing with a metal detector and found a ring a few inches down in the ground.
Eggleton kept the ring for three decades until he saw a comment on a baseball website. Swift’s daughter, Becky Luffman, was researching his career and was asking on the website for any information on Kelly Jack Swift.
That was the name engraved on the inside of the ring awarded to the 1955 Southern Association Championship team, the Memphis Chickasaws. Eggleton reached out to the family by phone and gave the ring back to Luffman in 2010.
After hearing that fantastic story, Sports Illustrated dug deep into the history books and newspaper clippings and discovered that Swift held a mark for wins in the minors that hasn’t been equaled since.
Upon hearing that Swift would be inducted into the Hall of Fame, Ballard was pleased to have been able to play a part in the research and agreed to let passages from his article be used here.
When Swift was a student at Mountain Park School, the Swifts leased about 200 acres of farmland in the Mountain Park/Zephyr area.
At an early age Swift was struggling to hold a plow steady in the rows, work that some believed might have helped build up his powerful pitching frame.
The summer before his senior year, a businessman from Mount Airy heard of Swift’s pitching prowess and offered the young man $5 to pitch a game for a semipro team.
First he had to plow three acres, then he went out and threw a 2-0 shutout. It was such a performance that the businessman asked if Swift wanted to pitch the second game of a doubleheader, too.
He did and gave up just one run in nine innings. In all he plowed three acres and pitched 18 innings with a 0.50 ERA.
After high school, Swift started playing with a semipro team, but was drafted to serve in World War II.
After four years of service, he was 26 years old when he returned to baseball, although he told people he was 24.
He pitched well for the Philadelphia A’s and was climbing up through the minors before an arm injury hurt his production.
Without all the modern medical care of today, all Swift could do was rest it. He couldn’t afford to lose the monthly paycheck, however, and kept pitching even as his ERA suffered.
The A’s gave up on him, and he found himself back home and playing for the Blanketeers.
With a sickly baby at home, Swift had to return to working his farm in addition to playing ball.
In 1952 at age 32, he was a starter in the league All-Star Game and posted a 19-12 record with a team-leading 2.31 ERA.
In 1953, he played for a team out of Marion and put together a season for the ages.
In the last game of the season, he helped the Marion Marauders win the league title with his 30th win against just seven losses.
Everyone in the bleachers and standing around the field knew that Swift was closing in on the 30-win mark.
“You’d have to walk a country mile to get to the ballpark on the nights he played,” Luffman said of her father.
He finished the season with a 2.54 ERA and 321 strikeouts in 287 innings, while appearing in an astonishing 52 out of a possible 108 games.
He remains the last minor league pitcher to win 30 games; a feat that is likely never to be reached again as teams have gone with five-man rotations and pitch counts.
Swift’s own manager said he would pitch every night if he would let it happen. Sometimes he had blisters so bad that he would leave blood stains on the baseball.
At the end of the season, Swift told a local news reporter: “I don’t know whether I’ll pitch again next year or not. … I’ll tell my wife in the fall that I’m quitting. Then about February she’ll find me out in the yard, tossing a ball against the side of the house.
“‘What are you up to?’ she’ll say.
“‘Oh, I thought I’d limber up a little bit,’ I’ll tell her.”
He would go on to pitch until he was 38, but that 1953 season will be the one that endures.
Reach Jeff Linville at email@example.com or at 719-1920.