Looking Back: Durnbaugh Was a Former Vol

By Bill Traughber / Nashville Sounds | May 17, 2017 6:42 PM ET

  Bobby Durnbaugh had such a great appearance in the 1951 Ohio high school state baseball tournament that a scout from the Cincinnati Reds noticed him. A contract was agreed upon and the 18-year-old was sent to Welch (W. Va.) in the Class D Appalachian League to begin his baseball career.

   "Once when I was in West Virginia, I hit a line drive to left field," said Durnbaugh from his Dayton home. "I thought this wasn't too tough playing professional baseball. The next time I came up to bat I wound up on my butt. I found out what baseball was about there. You don't smile at the pitcher when you get a base hit off him."

   In Welch, the shortstop batted .321 with 13 doubles and two triples in 71 games. Durnbaugh played the next season in Ogden, Utah of the Class C Pioneer League. There he hit .295 with 16 doubles and two triples in 98 games.

   "I really felt good about my situation as a ballplayer at the time," Durnbaugh said. "The Reds didn't really say much about my progress, but I was a starting shortstop and was moved up to better competition. That was all I could hope and wanted. I was very competitive and really enjoyed playing baseball."

   Durnbaugh, 84, played the next two seasons (1955-56) for the Nashville Vols in the Double-A Southern Association. He played in the old Sulphur Dell ballpark with its strange dimensions and a short rightfield fence on top a 45-degree embankment that ran across the outfield. Righfield was the shortest portion of the ballpark only 262 feet from home plate. On top of the right field fence was a 30-foot high screen.

   "I really did like Nashville," said Durnbaugh. "Sulphur Dell was a strange ballpark no doubt about that. I played the first two years in Nashville at shortstop so I didn't have to play the outfield with that embankment. I was a right-handed batter and hit the ball off that right field screen a few times.

   "In 1959, when I came back to Nashville I played second base. Sometimes I'd have to run out to right field to help out the right fielder on a ball hit that way. Sometimes that right fielder played on top of the embankment in front of the fence. When he played in, on occasion the right fielder could throw out the batter at first base on a line drive hit to him.

   In Nashville, Joe Schultz (1955) and Ernie White (1956) were the Vols managers. Durnabugh liked both men, but learned more from White.

   "Ernie White was a guy that would call you into his room to watch a game," said Durnbaugh. "We'd sit down and watch some ball game maybe on a Saturday. He'd talk baseball with you. He'd ask, 'would you steal now?' Or 'would you change the pitcher now. Would you do this or that?' I enjoyed that kind of stuff with Ernie. Ernie was great to play for; he cared about his players.

   In Durnbaugh's first two seasons in Nashville he batted .281 and .266. In 1957, Durnbaugh was on the move and had an eventful year.

   "I started in spring training in Tampa," said Durnbaugh. "I finished spring training in San Bernardino Calif., up the coast to Seattle where I played in four games. I was shipped out to Omaha and in the middle of the season to Rochester. Then at the end of that season I spent a week in Cincinnati. Rochester and Omaha were affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals.

   "The Reds had some kind of working agreement with St. Louis. Omaha needed a shortstop so I went there. I just wished 1957 didn't happen, but it did. That's the way things go. I was basically on loan to St. Louis and I didn't like it. I'd rather gone back to Nashville. I was spoiled there."

   At the end of September that season while with Rochester, Durnbaugh was told he was to join the Reds. Cincinnati would finish fourth in the National League with an 80-74 record. Birdie Tebbets managed the Reds

   "We played four games in Cincinnati [Crosley Field] and three games in Milwaukee," said Durnbaugh. "In about the third game I went in the field late for Reds shortstop Roy McMillan. I never got to bat. I wasn't nearly as nervous as I thought I might be. It was a nice feeling to put on a Reds uniform. You are just another person when you are sitting on the bench.

   "When you go out on the field you can tell the difference. I remember mostly about Del Ennis the cleanup hitter with the Cardinals. He was a pull-hitter and I was playing way around in the hole. The thoughts going into my mind were I'd rather he hit the ball to somebody else. They never hit a ground ball to me."

   The Reds lost to the Cardinals, 7-5 on that September 22, 1957 day. Playing at first base for St. Louis was Stan Musial who was in his 16th season well on his way to the Cooperstown. Playing in center field for the Reds was another future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. Robinson was in his second season with Cincinnati.

   Five days later, Durnbaugh and the Reds were playing in Milwaukee's County Stadium. The Braves were National League champions (95-59) with manager Fred Haney. Milwaukee would continue the season defeating Casey Stengel's New York Yankees in the World Series, four games to three.

   "I went into the game again replacing McMillan," said Durnbaugh. "Then I came to bat and faced Lew Burdette. "I had no idea what he threw. He did throw me four pitches. He threw a pitch on the inside; then a pitch on the outside; then a breaking ball off the plate. He threw another pitch inside that I grounded out to the shortstop. Burdette was not an overpowering type pitcher, and nothing close to the center of the plate. That was my only big league at-bat."

   The date of Durnbaugh's only major league at-bat was September 27, 1957. This would be Durnbaugh's last game with Cincinnati. Playing in center field for the Braves was future Hall of Famer Henry Aaron who was in his fourth season in Milwaukee.

   Durnbaugh was back in Nashville for the next two seasons where he batted .265 and .264. Dick Sisler was the Vols' manager both years.

   "I was at second base in 1959 and we didn't win that much," said Durnbaugh. "But I enjoyed everyday going to the ballpark. We had Larry Taylor who I believe was the best second baseman I played with. He was always there to catch the ball on a double-play and make a good throw to first base. The same with Buddy Gilbert in the outfield. Buddy the was one of the best outfielders I ever saw and had a strong throwing arm."

  Durnbaugh said he lived that last year in Nashville with his father-in-law and wife Betty who was a Nashvillian. Many Vols' players and Grand Ole Opry stars would become friends and socialize together.

   "I had more contact with the sidemen," Durnbaugh said. "Donnie Slayman, the fiddle player for Faron Young was a good friend of mine. Tommy Moore was a base player. We got to be around "Lightnin" Chance. I knew a guy in Dayton that I thought was a good country-western singer. Eddie Arnold was a stockholder in the Nashville Vols's club. I asked him if he'd listen to this boy and he said he would. I could never get the boy to come to Nashville. He lost a good chance. I was good friends with Eddie and would visit him at his home."

   Durnbaugh's baseball career was nearing the end while not being on a roster in 1960.

   "I had given up and quit playing baseball, but went back the next year," Durnbaugh said. "Les Peden, who had been in Shreveport, had taken the Portland job and wanted me to go with him. And a guy from Albuquerque, New Mexico sent me a contract. I didn't agree with the contract.

   "I tried to state my case to him. I told him I was older and could help the younger guys. He wrote me a letter and said, 'if you are so damn good why don't you prove it and I can get you some more money. I wasn't going to do that. I stayed at home in Dayton. Then Ernie White called me in 1961 from Mobile and asked to come down there. I ended my career in Mobile and Shreveport."

   Durnbaugh batted .231 for his combined effort in Mobile and Shreveport. He was not a long ball hitter. While making just over 3,000 plate appearances Durnbaugh recorded two home runs.

   "I hit two home runs in Shreveport that last year," said Durnbaugh. "On one of the home runs, my head was down while running towards first base. Then I stopped. I couldn't find the ball. I looked all around and noticed the umpire signaling for me to go all around the bases. I didn't' know it was a home run. When I got back to the dugout everybody was on the floor acting like they passed out. They really ribbed me"

   The Southern Association (1901-1961) folded as a league after the 1961 season. After retiring from baseball, Durnbaugh went home and sold sporting goods equipment for 40 years. Said Durnbaugh, "I had a great life, and everything has been good for me."

   When First Tennessee Park opened in 2015 for the first home game, Durnbaugh was in attendance with a few of his Vols' teammates. First Tennessee Park is located on a small portion of the Sulphur Dell site.

   "I hadn't seen Roy Pardue since I played baseball," said Durnbaugh. "I would see Buddy [Gilbert] and Larry [Taylor] periodically when I visited Nashville. We sat together at the game. We were going fast and furious talking about our baseball times playing for the Vols. I sat with Buddy the whole night. It was a good feeling being in Nashville and a new ballpark talking with old friends about baseball."

Traughber's Tidbit: One year Yankee's manager Casey Stengel used two games in alternating Billy Martin and Phil Rizzuto in the No. 1 and No. 8 positions in the batting order. The first night he had Martin batting first and Rizzuto eighth. The next night, Martin again walked to the plate to leadoff the game in Detroit. Hal Newhouser, the Tigers pitcher, ran the count to 0-2 on Martin.

   Rizzuto was sitting in the dugout when he realized he was in the line-up as the first batter for the Yankees. Rizzuto hurried to home plate to replace Martin. Rizzuto swung and missed on Newhouser's next pitch to strike out.

   The rule states that if any batter bats out of order he is automatically out. But in this situation, Rizzuto the proper batter, is recorded with the strikeout. The proper batter (Rizzuto) may take his place in the batter's box at any time unless the improper batter (Martin) is on base or called out. All balls and strikes are given to the proper batter. Baseball Rule 6.07 (a) (1).

Tidbit Two: An excerpt from the book "Nashville Baseball History: From Sulphur Dell to the Sounds," due out by June 1. This incident is from 1901 concerning a game in Little Rock with Nashville. Before the game, Little Rock protested the game demanding their home team umpire call the game and not the one that Nashville brought with them (Johnstone). The Nashville American wrote:

   "Little Rock took the field in the first inning, with Popp pitching, and Nashville made two runs. When Little Rock went to bat, Bailey walked to the box over Little Rock's protest. Crozier, of Little Rock, was on second when Martin singled and Crozier attempted to score. The ball got to the plate as Crozier did, and [Nashville] Catcher Fisher, swung at him and apparently missed him, but the umpire call Crozier out. [Little Rock] First baseman Wright, who was sitting on the bench, ran onto the diamond and, pushing against Johnstone, knocked him down. When Johnstone got up it is alleged that he attempted to strike Wright. Policemen ran to the diamond and placed Johnstone under arrest. Wright was also arrested, and both were taken to jail. Nashville refused to continue the game unless Johnstone umpired."

   The mayor of Little Rock was in attendance and spoke before the 5,000 fans. He stated it was best to send Wright and Johnstone to city jail. It was reported that Nashville exited the field and later they were ordered to forfeit the game to Little Rock.

If you have any comments or suggestions, contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com.

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

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