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Memory Lane - Johnny King Sr.

Bill Lane • Dec 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Born: May 3, 1931

Where: Asheville, N.C.

High School: Sullivan

Residence: Kingsport

Then: For 13 years, Guy B. Crawford was head coach at Dobyns-Bennett in both baseball and basketball. It irritated him to lose and he experienced very little of this in either sport. In fact, his 1952 and 1957 teams won state baseball championshiips. Sullivan’s ballclub in general and its ace pitcher, Johnny King Sr., in particular got under Crawford’s skin in 1951.

King was a master of the Magnus effect — able to make an overhand curve dip as it moved toward left-handed batters.

His sidearm curve deviated sideways and kept batters guessing as to how much it would break. He had enough velocity to make breaking pitches extremely effective.

King threw 84 to 86 mph and usually put the ball wherever catcher Jack Collings held his mitt. His pinpoint control was mind-boggling. King, a 5--foot-10½, 145-pound senior right-hander, had beaten D-B twice during the 1951 season. The Indians were about to play Sullivan again in the district championship game.

When Pirates coach Bill Caton announced King as his starting pitcher, Crawford stated: “If anybody can beat a team of mine three times in the same year, I’ll hang it up.’’ King pitched Sullivan to a 3-1 victory, defeating the Tribe a third time.

When a couple of Sullivan fans confronted Crawford about his promise, he refused to acknowledge it. Sullivan then lost to Science Hill 3-1 in the region championship contest but another pitcher was stuck with the loss.

King hurled the last three innings after all the runs had been scored. Crawford had tried to outfox Caton before their second game that spring. It appeared in the newspaper that King had pitched all seven innings of an Upper Lakes Conference contest played the previous day.

Aware of the rule that limited pitchers to 10 innings on consecutive days, Crawford urged Caton with a morning telephone call to play on that day a game that was scheduled for later in the season. Surprisingly, Caton agreed to it.

It backfired on Crawford. King pitched the entire seven innings and won over D-B again. Clarence Cutshall had been the winning pitcher of the game in question and it was simply reported wrong. King grew up in the Hillcrest section of Kingsport and attended city schools in his early years. He quietly transferred to Sullivan as an e i g h t h - g r a d e r.

“My friends were in county schools,’’ he said. “Without the knowledge of my parents, I started catching the school bus to Sullivan Gardens. It must have been a month before they knew I was attending Sullivan.’’

King established himself early on as a three-sport athlete. He was a slick ball-handling guard on the basketball team and played halfback on the football squad — in addition to appearing on the mound in practically every big baseball game the Pirates had.

King won 90 percent of his decisions. He always batted above .300 as the No. 3 hitter in the lineup, appearing at eight different defensive positions. Early in his junior season, King stopped by the D-B field to watch a practice. Crawford initiated a conversation. “Why didn’t you come to D-B?’’ the coach asked. “If it’s the tuition, I could take care of that.’’ King explained that it was a friendship thing. Bill Lee of D-B batted against King in 1949 and 1950. “He was tough to hit,’’

Lee said. “Johnny was smart, had great control and could change speeds. His curve reminded me of a tater dropping off a kitchen table.’’ King liked basketball more but baseball turned out to be his best sport. As a senior, he suffered a lower-back injury playing football against Knox Young when hit by a blind-side block in the secondary. Hurt at midseason, King didn’t return to the gridiron but recovered in time to play basketball. In a game at Sprankle Gym, King crossed the halfway mark with the ball looking to pass. Nobody was open.

Nine players were scrambling for position underneath the basket. After holding the ball for a while, King released it from near midcourt and stripped the net. The crowd went wild and WKPT sportscaster Martin Karant spent at least two minutes describing the field goal to listeners. “I’ll never forget that,’’ King said. He signed in 1951 with the St. Louis Browns, a major league team. King divided his only professional season between El Dorado, Ark., in the Cotton States League and Dothan, Ala., in the Alabama/Florida League. He won several games. King soon entered a different kind of draft.

He had to serve 39 months in the Army.

King reached the rank of sergeant and worked at the Pentagon in a classified position. While based at Fort Myer, Va., he was selected to the nine-player all-world softball team as a left fielder. “The toughest challenge I ever had in sports was in softball swinging at fast pitches,’’ he said. “There are no 3-for-4 performances in that game.’’

King got to see his two favorite major leaguers play in person — Ted Williams with the Boston Red Sox in Washington, D.C., and Willie Mays in a military game. He rates Sullivan teammate Hal Morrison and D-B’s Cecil Puckett as the two greatest athletes he’s seen locally.

Now: After his playing days were over, King umpired high school and Appalachian League games. He worked at the Kingsport Press and drove for Mason-Dixon Truck Lines and Consolidated Freight Lines. King served a number of years as president of the local Teamsters Union.

Six years ago, he sustained injuries in an automobile accident on Memorial Boulevard. In failing health, he no longer attends athletic events. His son, Johnny Jr., and daughter, Cheryl, live in Kingsport. King has four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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