Looking Back: John Edwards Was A Nashville Vol

By Bill Traughber / Baseball Historian / Nashville Sounds | May 6, 2013 5:31 AM

Sometimes a ball player earns a nickname by a certain trait he has exhibited. Some are complementary, and some are not. Former Nashville Vol and major league player John Edwards gained his nickname by a certain trait.

"In St. Louis, Budweiser's mascots are the Clydesdales," Edwards said recently from his Texas home. "When I was with St. Louis, because of my big feet and the slow clodding-along I did, my teammates began calling me 'Clydesdale.' When I went to Houston, they called me 'The Horse.'"

Edwards, 74, was born in Columbus, Ohio and signed his first major league contract with Cincinnati after his sophomore year at Ohio State University. The Reds were one of five big leagues teams interested. Edwards would return to the Buckeyes' campus during the off-season to receive his degree in engineering.

The Reds gave the catcher a $50,000 bonus. Edwards was sent to Class C Visalia of the California League in 1959 where he batted .320 with 16 home runs and 99 RBIs.

"My manager in Visalia was Dave Bristol," said Edwards. "His favorite thing was if someone was doing well against us, we'd knock them down and all that stuff. We got into more fights that year than anytime I ever played baseball. We probably had two dozen fights. He got suspended a few of those times. I was one of the older players because I had gone to college for two years. I ended up the field manager when Bristol got suspended. That was quite an experience."

In Edwards second professional season, he was sent to Double-A Nashville in the Southern Association. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder batted left -handed which would be an advantage hitting in the Vols home ballpark in Sulphur Dell. The Dell had quirky dimensions. Left field was 334 feet from home plate; centerfield 421 feet and right field was a short 262 feet. Nearing the outfield fence was a 45-degree embankment with a 30-foot high screen on top of the right field fence.

"I was a left-handed batter, but with that short right field fence you could hit a long ball," said Edwards. "But if you didn't hit it high enough, you had to run like hell to make a single. The second baseman played near the bottom of the hill. I'd hit it off that screen and he'd have to run. I was never one to hit into left field. I hit my home runs over that right field screen.

"I just loved playing baseball. Sulphur Dell was a different scenario. In centerfield you couldn't hit one out of there with a golf club. It was a long way in centerfield. Jim [Maloney] was my roommate on the road until they called him to the big leagues during that season. We really got along very well.

"Eddie Arnold was one of the owners of the club. When we played in town, and had Saturday nights off, we went down to the Grand Ole Opry back stage to meet the country music stars. Jim had one of those boom boxes [radio] we took on the road and listened to country western music. I had gotten married the winter before I came to Nashville and we lived in a trailer park in Nashville."

During that 1960 season in Nashville, Edwards batted .293 (128-for-437) in 136 games as the starting catcher. He clubbed 14 home runs with 70 RBIs. The Vols manager that season was Nashville-born Jim Turner who had major league experience as a pitcher and pitching coach. Turner became a mentor to Edwards.

"Jim Turner was the manager and once a good pitching coach with Cincinnati," Edwards said. "He got me out there and was throwing tennis balls into the dirt. That really taught me to block the ball. I learned how to block the ball with the spin; to knock it down and keep it in front of me. That was a real advantage for me.

"I wasn't a good offensive player, but I turned out to be a good defensive player. Those were the things that helped me. He taught me how to control pitchers and all that stuff. So when I got to the big leagues I never had a manager try to call a pitch for me. They let me call the game. Then I would work pretty well with the pitchers and I credit Turner for that knowledge."

Edwards said that he experienced racism for the first time when he played in the Southern Association's cities. Blacks were required to stay in separate hotels from the white players. Many times food had to be carried out to the team bus so all the players could eat together on the road.

"I will never forget the road trips," Edwards said. "That trip to Mobile was unbelievable. I tried to sleep up in the top rack in the bus. I could not sleep sitting up. Lots of times you'd take that trip; get off the bus three or four hours later you were playing a ball game."

The following season Edwards was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis of the American Association. He played in 63 games, batting .264 with eight home runs and 39 RBIs. Then Edwards received good news during that year.

"We were playing a game in Houston," said Edwards. "Cot Deal was our manager. I started off real well in Indianapolis then I got into a bad slump. I was hitting about .270 when Deal came up to me and said, 'John, we can't put up with you anymore. You've been struggling.' 'I said, 'damn it, Cot, give me a chance.' He said, 'you are going to the big leagues.' I went from the bottom to the top right away."

As most baseball players never forget that first time they put on a major league jersey for their first big league game. Edwards joined the Reds while on the road in Chicago.

"I got there in the morning and went straight to the ballpark at Wrigley Field," Edwards said. "I ended up playing that day. Bob Purkey [Reds pitcher] sat next to me going over some of the hitters. I got a pretty good lesson in Chicago. I was just given simple signs for our pitcher one, two, three and four. The Cubs had someone in the [manual] scoreboard in centerfield. If it were a fastball they'd blink a light once.

"If it were a breaking ball they'd blink a light twice. They were stealing our signs. One of our coaches caught it about halfway during the game. They had an outfielder named Al Heist that was hitting about .190 and he was hitting breaking balls that day I couldn't believe. How could he be that bad of a hitter all year and now hit that breaking ball down on the knees?

"We went to Milwaukee next. [Lew] Burdette and [Warren] Spahn would sit in the outfield bullpen holding up a newspaper for one pitch and put it down for another pitch. They were stealing signs too. I found out right away that we had to make complicated signs and change them."

Edwards said he walked in his first major league at-bat against Cubs pitcher Barney Schultz. He had faced Schultz in the minors who were a knuckle-baller. Edwards slammed a home run in his next at-bat off the right field foul pole. He would not return to the minor leagues again.

Edwards arrival to the major league was timely. Cincinnati won the 1961 National League pennant by four games over the Dodgers. Fred Hutchinson was the Reds manager at this time. Cincinnati's American League opponent was the mighty New York Yankees with Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. This was Roger Maris' 61 home run season.

The Yankees won that World Series in five games. Edwards started two games recording four hits in 11 at-bats (.364) with a pair of RBIs. The only Reds victory came in Game Two, 6-2. Twice in that game, New York intentionally walked the batter before Edwards to pitch to the rookie catcher.

"It was later on in the game when they had their ace bullpen reliever Luis Arroyo," said Edwards. "I ended up getting a double off him and driving in a run. Before that I got a hit off [Ralph] Terry and drove in a run. Waiting in the on deck circle watching them intentionally walk a batter to get to me got me fired up.

"Baseball players are pretty competitive. We just want to get up there and show them a lot of times it doesn't work [intentional walks]. I was a good defensive catcher and I tried to make sure we won games with our pitchers. I didn't hit very well that year, but I had a pretty good World Series." For the season, Edwards appeared in 52 games batting .186 (27-for-145) with two home runs and 14 RBIs. He played six more seasons in Cincinnati through 1967 as the starting catcher. His best season stat-wise with the Reds was in 1965 where he slammed 17 home runs with a .267 average and 51 RBIs.

"I had won two Gold Gloves by that time and been on the All-Star team three years," Edwards said. "I made a big mistake in 1966. On the last day of spring training we were playing in Indianapolis on our way north and I broke my finger. I didn't want to get out of the lineup.

"That was on a Sunday and we opened the season on Tuesday. I played on Friday with a splint on my finger on my right hand. The splint was shaped to where I could hold a baseball. When I held a bat that finger was off the bat. I never should have done that. If I had it to do over again, I would have had the finger fixed and I would have healed.

"It might have taken me half a season, but even today this dad-gone finger is crooked. Every once in awhile in that season the finger would jump out of its socket. I ended up hitting .191 that year. I just wanted to play. It not only got to me physically, but also mentally."

On December 9, 1965 the Cincinnati Reds made one of baseball's most lopsided and infamous trades in major league history. The Reds traded star slugger 30-year old Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschum and Dick Simpson. Robinson would lead the Orioles to four World Series (1966, 1969-71) in six years. Edwards said he and his teammates could not understand that trade that hurt the Reds.

Edwards was asked about his favorite moments wearing a Cincinnati Reds uniform.

"Of course the 1961 World Series in my first year was a super trill for me playing in New York," said Edwards. "There were more sports writers in New York covering the Series than we had fans in Cincinnati. I enjoyed Jim's [Maloney] no-hitter [against the Cubs in Wrigley Field], which was unbelievable.

"I think he threw 186 pitches in that game and walked 11 batters. Every time I looked up there was somebody on third base. And I kept thinking what if I had a pass ball or a wild pitch in this situation and we end up losing this game. Jim won that game 1-0 in 10 hitless innings. I was so worn out after that game. Jim was wilder than a church mouse that day."

Edwards last season, as a Reds player would be in 1967. He batted .206 in 80 games. Edwards was 29 years old, but sharing time behind the plate that season was a youngster that would eventually become a Hall of Famer-Johnny Bench.

"I saw him the year before in spring training," Edwards said about Bench. "You just knew he was going to be a superstar. He was by far the best catcher I saw that ever played the game. I played against some good ones like Berra in the World Series. Nobody was better than Bench. He not only could hit, but also had a great arm. He had a lot quicker release than I had. I was a good thrower, but I did not have the release that he had."

On February 8, 1968 Edwards was traded by Cincinnati to St. Louis for Pat Corrales and Jimy Williams. The Cardinals already had a solid starting catcher.

"I was mad when I first heard about the trade because Tim McCarver was over there as their catcher," Edwards said. "But it turned out okay for me because when I got there [Red] Schoendienst wanted to keep his catchers strong so I caught nearly every other game and McCarver caught the other games.

"I caught [Bob] Gibson and [Ray] Washburn that year and he caught [Steve] Carlton and [Nelson] Briles. I made Gibson throw his slider a lot when he got into trouble. He had a great fastball, but sometimes that got him in trouble. He had a 1.12 ERA; he was 22-9 and won the Cy Young and MVP awards."

As a Cardinal, Edwards batted .239 (55-for-230) in 85 games with three home runs and 29 RBIs. However, the Cardinals did win the National League pennant and faced the Detroit Tigers in the 1968 World Series. The Tigers edged the Reds in seven games. Schoendienst decided to go with McCarver in the World Series. Edwards made just one appearance as a pinch-hitter against Denny McClain, but didn't reach base.

Gibson would be selected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981.

"Gibson did not mind if anybody got hits and home runs off him," said Edwards. "We'd go over the hitters before the game and he'd say, 'I don't know if we are going to win, but I'm going to get the game over in two hours.' He wanted every batter to get into the box right away. He didn't like batters taking off and on their batting gloves. He'd yell at them to get into the box. And if they didn't, he'd throw at them.

"When I got traded to the Cardinals we were in spring training in St. Petersburg and the Mets were training nearby at the same time. I guess Schoendienst had decided that I was going to catch Gibson all year. That first game in spring training the Mets always played the Cardinals.

"During the winter the Mets had picked up Tommy Agee from the American League Chicago White Sox. In the newspaper, Agee said he was going to lead the Mets to the World Series. In that first game Agee is batting leadoff and Gibson is pitching. Gibson hit him and said, 'welcome to the National League.'"

Just one day after the 1968 World Series concluded, Edwards was traded to the Houston Astros. He, along with minor leaguer catcher Tommy Smith, was traded for Dave Giusti and Dave Adlesh.

"I was a little upset about that trade," said Edwards. "I went from first place to last place in about two minutes. The Cardinals were good to me. When we came down to Houston it was a different attitude. They had a general manager, Spec Richardson, that I didn't think was a baseball man. We had a young ball club and I got to work with some really fine young pitchers in [Larry] Dierker, [Denny] Lemaster, [Ken] Forsch and all those guys.

"I was able to set a major league record for putouts for a catcher because I got those guys who had good arms. They could strikeout a lot of people."

Edwards record for putouts was in 1969 with 1,221 chances. Bench later broke the record. Houston played their home games in the Astrodome deemed the "Eighth Wonder of the World" when it opened in 1965. Playing baseball in the indoor facility was somewhat of a novelty.

"I didn't like it very much'" said Edwards. "There was a big fan base at that time in Houston. They would keep the temperature at 72 degrees. Those 72 degrees went about halfway into the stands. It was 68 degrees on the field. I was getting older and I'd get stiff in that temperature and so would some of the pitchers. I liked playing outside."

Edwards played for the Astros for six years (1969-74). His best year at the plate came in 1972 where he batted .268 in 108 games. He collected five home runs and 40 RBIs.

"I got a big kick out of the Houston pitchers and how well they had come along," said Edwards. "I had some really good friends in Denis Menke, Doug Rader and Roger Metzger. The managers were Harry Walker and Leo Durocher. Harry wanted everyone to glide and pop the ball to the opposite field.

"We had guys like John Mayberry, Jimmy Wynn and Joe Morgan who could pull the ball. He really messed them up. Then Durocher came in. Leo tried to make [Cesar] Cedeno another Willie Mays. That didn't work. Cedeno was lazy at that time. He was one of the best young ball players I'd ever seen. He just forgot to play hard."

When was it time for Edwards to retire?

"I was getting tired," said Edwards. "I was hitting about .220 and every year they were trying Bob Watson and a couple of other guys at catcher. They just never worked out. We weren't making any money at that time. I decided to retire and use my engineering degree."

In his 14-year major league career, Edwards appeared in 1, 470 games; batted .242 (1,106-for-4, 577); totaled 81 home runs and 524 RBIs. As a batter, Edwards faced some of the greatest pitchers in major league history.

"I remember hitting a home run off Gibson to the opposite field in the Astrodome, which was something at that time," said Edwards. "You had to hit the ball up into the stands for a home run there. I hit three grand slams in my career. Juan Marichal was the toughest right-hander that I ever faced. He had about six different pitches. You'd get him in a hole thinking you were going to get a fastball and hit him hard on the next pitch.

"But you'd get a different pitch. I think my best hit off him was a one-hopper back to him. I was a low-ball hitter. I could hit guys like [Jim] Bunning, Gaylord Perry and those guys. I didn't have that much trouble against [Sandy] Koufax because he was straight over the top. There was a pitcher named Bob Veale with Pittsburgh. He was a big, tall kid and that son of a gun seemed like he was throwing behind me when he released the ball. I had to give my bat a pep talk every time I hit against him. He was tough on me."

Edwards caught three no-hitters in the big leagues two by Maloney and one by Washburn.

"When I played in St. Louis with Washburn, we had clinched the pennant in Houston and we went to San Francisco," said Edwards. "Gaylord Perry threw a no-hitter against us the night before. Then Washburn threw one the next night and I caught that one. When I came to Houston, Maloney threw one against us one night. Don Wilson threw one against the Reds the next night in Cincinnati. I didn't catch Wilson's no-hitter. I think I am the only player that was on a team where back-to-back no-hitters were thrown twice."

Edwards played in three All-Star games in 1963, 1964 and 1965. In the 1963 game, Edwards played behind the plate, but did not bat. In the 1964 game, Edwards was walked intentionally in the last of the ninth inning. Johnny Callison followed with a three run pinch-hit homer to give the National League a dramatic 7-4 come from behind victory. Edwards did not play at all in the 1965 Mid-Summer Classic.

While playing for Cincinnati, one of Edwards' teammates was Pete Rose. The all-time hits leader would later become ineligible for the Hall of Fame voting due to his betting on baseball.

"I feel like Pete should be in the Hall of Fame," said Edwards. "Pete was so dumb. He was a heck of a gambler when he was playing. I believe he took bets against other teams. He'd go to the horse races all the time, but I don't believe he bet against his team. He said he didn't do it, and all the time he knew he had. Pete was probably the most dedicated ball player I ever saw. He didn't have a lot of talent. He didn't have speed or a very good arm or movement in the field. But he was a true believer that if he hustled he could do it. His attitude was unbelievable."

One Reds pitcher that Edwards caught was Bob Purkey who threw a knuckleball. Edwards did not like catching that odd pitch.

"Purkey was different because he threw that dad-gone knuckleball," said Edwards. "I hated that pitch. You had to wait and let it break. I never liked to use that big glove because I could never find the ball in the glove. The knuckleball comes in and flutters. It is so light when it hits and when you try to throw somebody out you can't find the ball.

"I used my standard glove when I caught Purkey. I remember one time Fred Hutchinson came walking out to the mound. He had that big glove under his arm. He said, 'John, I'm sorry, but I'm tired of watching you run back to the screen. Why don't you try this?'"

Edwards played for several managers on the major league level. There were some that he liked and others he disliked.

"I loved Fred Hutchinson," said Edwards. "He was by far the best manager I ever saw. He knew how to handle people by their personality. He was just super. We had Dick Sisler and then Dave Bristol came along. Bristol just didn't fit in. He wasn't even a good minor league player. He got to the big leagues and tried to run everything. I never got along when him though I was with him in the minors.

"Schoendienst was in St. Louis and he would just throw his best team out there and let them go. When I came to Houston there was Harry Walker and then Durocher came in. Durocher never flew on the planes with us. He never showed up to the ballpark until about game time. We weren't sure many times who was going to play. Preston Gomez [Astros coach] would make out a line-up card and put it out there and we'd take batting practice. We didn't know until game time what the line-up was going to be. I never understood Leo Durocher."

Being a catcher, Edwards would be close to each opposing batter and of course the umpire was behind him on every pitch. What were some of those conversations like?

"I was not a talker," said Edwards. "I didn't talk trash. I might have said 'hi' when they came up to the plate the first time, but that would be it. I was not that type of a catcher. It was different with the umpires. I had some pretty good conversations with them.

"I could comment on balls and strikes as long as I didn't turn around. If you turned around on them you'd get thrown out of the game. I did not mind as long as they were consistent. If they weren't giving you the outside pitch on the corner and they stayed that way-fine. But what would really make me mad is if they gave you that pitch and late in the game they didn't give it to you. Boy, that would really upset me and I'd give it to them then."

Traughber's Tidbit: On April 1, 1918 the stove used to heat the water for the shower bath sprinklers caused a fire that completely burned down the Nashville Vols clubhouse in Sulpher Dell. All the uniforms, gloves, bats, baseballs and other equipment were destroyed. This was before the season began, but it would take several days to replace the uniforms and equipment "because for such a large number could not be obtained from stock of local agencies of sporting goods companies." A new clubhouse was quickly built.

If you have any comments or suggestions, click here to contact Bill Traughber via email.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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